Last year, about this same time, my podiatrist informed me that I had suffered a compression fracture of my foot. The timing could not have been worse. You see, I had just left my job and was preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail with two of my sons, Alexander and Ryan. My Big Hiking Adventure seemed dangerously in peril before I placed one (fractured) foot on The People’s Trail. I approached the impending trip with an Össur compression boot (with internal pump-up system) strapped ominously to my right foot and a dark cloud of worry hanging over my head.
It was Hurricane Matthew that blew in, as if on cue, as Elisabeth and I were making our final preparations to fly out to Seattle and cycle the Pacific Coast Highway. This monster of a storm seemed bent on defying history. The Weather Channel brought scenes of such destruction that the spirits of all coastal Floridians were chilled. In between watching videos of rising waters on Facebook and YouTube, Alexander and I slung sheets of plywood up ladders and across windows in an attempt to protect our home. As Matthew moved closer towards the Florida coast, I knew there was nothing more to be done, and our family – my mother, Elisabeth, Alexander, and our two dogs – all made our exodus, hearts breaking at the thought of what we would see upon our return.
(By the way, my back felt like it was breaking, too. Slinging plywood is a job for young people – not necessarily for After-Fifty Adventurers. While Matthew brought its howling winds to play upon our beautiful city and a flood tide of salty water to inundate so many of our homes and businesses, I was holed up with my loved ones in an Airbnb in Gainesville, barely able to move. Of course. Because I was on the brink of a big adventure.)
In the end, we returned to find that, at 33 Grove Avenue, we were so very lucky. Yes, the flood did destroy our air conditioners and rip the fluffy bats of insulation from the underside of our home. Yes, the raging current pulled loose a tangled mess of electric wires and PVC water and waste pipes and left it like a giant heap of limp spaghetti beneath us. Yes, our garden beds were saturated with saltwater and my mother’s crotons, her favorite plants, lay withered and dying under the cedar tree. And, yes, my favorite olive tree, the arbequina, lay uprooted in the front yard, and I am unsure whether it will survive, even though we staked and replanted it securely. (We do still have two-and-a-half pints of olives from our recent, tiny harvest, however. One of the first things I did upon returning home was to be sure they were safe in the kitchen cupboard. And there they were, the small, brown-skinned orbs curing in their salty brine, a remnant of our olive dreams.)
But the rising tide ceased before climbing the last few inches and reaching our floorboards. We were so very lucky. Our home was spared.
Not, however, my back. Since our return, I have been unable to tie my own shoes or to pull up my pants without assistance from my wife. I have gimped from one room to the next, wincing if I attempt to either stand up or, alternately, to sit down. I am a man caught in a limbo where no position offers relief. I have taken to sleeping on the floor next to my dog Ila Mae in order to gain support for my ailing back – both from the firmness of the floor and from Ila’s steadfast love. And I am left wondering how long a recovery may take.
Thrown off course first, by the hurricane, and now, by my hurricane-related back injury, I have been forced to ruminate upon my predicament so as to ferret out the healing thread of my commitment to our journey. If ever there was a time to utter the phrase, “Honey, maybe we should postpone this trip,” I believe now is that time.
Yet, as I sit upon the front step of our Grove Avenue home this morning, drinking my mug of coffee and watching my neighbors sweep and rake up after the storm, I realize I must consider the parallels between the events of last year and of this one – a broken foot and a twisted back. I wonder, are these injuries expressions of the guilt I feel for passing on my life’s responsibilities (home, work, my mom, our pets, the needs of friends and neighbors) to others so I can take an adventure? Does this turbulent inner conflict simply manifest itself physically? Or is it just the opposite? Are the forces of nature bent on testing my mettle? Do the fates just wish to see if I have what it takes to pedal all the way to San Diego?
I sip my coffee and rock slowly from one butt cheek to the other, negotiating with the pain shooting up my spine. The pain jogs my mind like a sharp knife, uncovering an even deeper truth: At sixty years of age, I understand that I am being driven by a different engine. It is as if everything that takes place from this point forward is processed differently. Events, all of them, have a heavier weight. There are no easy decisions anymore. Everything is critical, including riding my bicycle from Seattle to San Diego.
I cannot stop feeling that this adventure is like oxygen to me – as if I must make the journey or risk losing something precious. It is a viewpoint I have never experienced before. While I can see it is a desperate grab at life, I am not willing to relinquish my hold. My better adjusted friends may have come to terms with these kinds of feelings, but I seem not to have made that turn. For me, at sixty, these thoughts, and the urgency they bring with them, are inescapable.
Of course, if I were to step back with my cup of coffee and watch myself with detachment, I would see that the whole damn adventure thing is an attempt to recapture a youth that has quietly slipped away. It’s my fault really. I was busy doing other things and failed to see Young Hugh waltz out the back door. I want to kick myself for not realizing all of this earlier. I also I wish, more than anything, that my father had sat me down and explained the forlorn look in his eyes – and not have left me to discover its meaning for myself. If any of my sons are reading this, I want say, “Leave no stone unturned. If you have a desire, fulfill it.” At sixty, that’s the best advice your old man can give you.
* * *
This afternoon, I am a bit better, I can finally stand and tie my shoes and zip up my pants. I can’t begin to tell you how happy this makes me. In large measure, my friend and chiropractor Jon Barnewolt (Thrive Chirpopractic, St. Augustine, Florida) is responsible for this miracle. Jon stopped his world for me last Sunday, met me at his office, and applied his healing magic. His hands went to work on my twisted vertebrae, shoulders, and neck. He has since worked upon these same ailing parts each day this week. I visited Jon at eight a.m. this morning, and I am standing a bit taller for his efforts. Thank you Jon. If there is an award for World’s Greatest Chiropractor, I vote that you should have it.
But I also believe that some of my progress is the result of this morning’s thought process. I had forgotten all about last year’s pre-hiking-adventure foot fracture – until this morning. I had not connected the dots, had not recognized that I am just an old guy trying to recapture some of the sweetness of his youth. But now I have. And I can give myself a break (not literally, I hope), get off my own back, so to speak.
Yes, today is brighter. Elisabeth and I have rescheduled our Alaska Air tickets, as we were supposed to have departed last Sunday but were delayed by Matthew. Alexander will drive us to Orlando on Tuesday. From there, we depart on a non-stop flight to Seattle. Chris Ohlweiler, his gracious self, will pick us up upon arrival. We have a few days in Seattle to rest up and arrange our gear. I promised Elisabeth lunch at Ivar’s Salmon House on Wednesday, where we can sit outside and see the Space Needle .
As I peer into the future, I can see only as far as next Friday morning. The scene before me is a sunny, autumn, Seattle day, with temperatures in the low-sixties. Elisabeth and I have just eaten breakfast with Chris Ohlweiler and his wife BJ. Our bikes are loaded for the two-thousand-mile trip. We mount them and wave goodbye to Chris and BJ. The morning rolls by as we make our way out of the city along the Burke-Gilman bike trail (one of Seattle’s longest and most popular). We move at a steady pace past Lake Washington until we connect with the Sammamish River Trail , which takes us south through Redmond and onto Issaquah to the Motel Six, where we will spend our first night sleeping comfortably, indoors, on a firm bed. But I do know that I plan to pay less attention to the pain in my back and focus more on the miles ahead. I also plan to write many stories along the way
Back to the present: Currently, my trusted Surly Long Haul Trucker waits patiently for me alongside Elisabeth’s Novara Safari at the REI bike shop in Seattle, Washington. The bikes arrived two weeks ago and were uncrated and reassembled by REI bicycle techs in anticipation of our arrival. It would be a shame to disappoint them.