Last week, with the upcoming AT journey ever present in my mind, I thought it might be wise to see a foot doctor regarding the ache I have in my right foot—a lingering pain I have been experiencing for the past six months or so. Earlier, I had done some research on the web and came to the conclusion that the pain and numbness between the toes of my right foot must be what physicians call a Morton’s Neuroma, an inflammation in the nerve which runs between the third and fourth toes. At that point in time, and until just recently, I had adjusted to the pain and minor numbness. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I could live with it.
Then, just last week, the whole thing simply got worse. The pain spread across the top of my foot and the intensity of the pain dramatically increased. At my Monday appointment with the podiatrist, it was his diagnosis that the source of the foot-pain is a stress fracture. How it happened is unclear. I cannot retrace any occurrence which might have resulted in a fractured bone in my foot. Specifically, the metatarsal bone at the base of my big toe. The only way for this to heal, I am told is to immobilize the foot by way of a compression boot, and to use crutches as much as possible. In six to eight weeks, “It is possible that you might [heavy emphasis on “might”] still be able to make your hike,” said the good foot doctor.
In all fairness, looks can be deceiving. What is that inscription we see etched on the driver’s side mirror of our automobile? Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Of course, we all know this is just a nice way of saying, Beware of the menace that lurks behind you. In this case, it is not necessary for me to look in the rear view mirror—the object (my right foot) is clearly in focus. Or, as my 94-year old French mother in-law says, in her heavily accented voice, “clearly in phuckus.”
The real questions I keep asking myself, however, are these: Is the foot thing a menace? Or is it a message? Are unseen forces in my life attempting to ground me? If so, for what purpose? Or, is this a test to determine my commitment level for this journey?
Are spiritual forces asking me, “How strong is your desire to scramble up one mountain and then down the other side? Is a 465-mile trek in the wilderness really that important to you? It’s going to be hot, then cold and wet,” they remind me. Yes, wet. “You are going to trudge through days of rain,” they intone. “Does that really sound like fun to you?”
What strikes me most about my predicament is the complete irony of this situation. For the past two years, I have been attempting to come to terms with stress levels in my life and slowly inching my way towards a decision that would restructure my career and possibly change it altogether—in order to once again acquire a life that leaves time for myself, my family, and those things that mean so much to me. My plan is to take time from work and my responsibilities at home, which include the care of my eighty-eight year old mother, to strike out on the AT in order to renew myself through physical exercise and contact with nature. This approach worked extremely well for me in the spring of 2010, when I pedaled my bicycle from St. Augustine, Florida, to Taos, New Mexico. Once again, I am ready to invoke this same prescription—when a fractured foot places everything in limbo.
Have you ever noticed that when you plan something big in your life, or make a decision to steer your boat into uncharted waters, there is often some unseen force that intervenes and challenges that choice? It’s what I like to call “the paradox of a firm decision.”
I believe spiritual voices constantly test us and our resolve to make choices that hold the power to change our lives. And yet, there are those other voices too, the nay-saying, finger-wagging, negative voices that we call our inner demons. I have heard those voices as well, for most of my 58-and-7/8th years. They tend to be louder, more obnoxious than their spiritual counterparts, and they like to scream, or rant—a lot. Demeaning is a popular pastime amongst their ilk.
They have even been known to cajole in an attempt to sideline any idea one might have that tests the bounds of quote “normal life.” “Your foot hurts Hugh,” they squeal. “Stay home. Be responsible. Go to work. Do your job. Take care of your mom, your wife, and your pets, and let go of this whimsical adventure crap,” they rattle off like an auctioneer selling pigs at the county fair. “You are 58-and-7/8ths years old for God’s sake. Who in the Hell do you think you are? Ha, ha. You won’t make it to the end of the approach trail at Amicalola State Park, much less out of Georgia. Grow up!” And with that, I hear their chorus of laughter fade into silence, leaving me breathing heavily in an atmospheric effluent of all the doubting Thomases I have ever known.
I am unsure of the source of these petty demons, but I know for sure their efforts are relentless. The little buggers followed me each and every day of my two-thousand mile bicycle journey across America. They especially loved to chime in on the really steep climb-outs in Texas, or earlier, in the sweltering heat and humidity, as I pedaled my way from Florida to Louisiana. Their high-pitched squealing voices reminded me of the chorus of piglets that sung the Frosty Morn sausage commercial from the 1960s. It was this humorous childhood memory that saved me. It gave me power over them. As far as I was concerned, they were mere piglets on the way to the sausage factory. I admit that at first their attempts were unsettling and almost upended my trip before it was able to gather a momentum of its own. Eventually, as I put more miles behind me, their chiding became a background chatter that I learned to tune out. In the end, as I rode my victory lap around the Taos plaza (my final destination) they became spiteful and jeered at me, shouting, “Wait until next time. This was a fluke! A lucky farce!”
Such little turds they are, these whimpering voices of doom.
And so today, as I look down at my left foot in its Keen Arroyo II Trekking sandal and my right foot in its dark anchor of the Össur compression boot (with internal pump-up system), I sincerely want to cry, as I think of the danger it poses to my upcoming journey. But as I continue to gaze, sadness quickly turns into laughter as I recall another television memory. I am reminded of the 1970s TV series All in the Family and the episode in which Archie Bunker sadly tells his son-in-law, Meathead, about a time when he was a young boy and his family was so poor that he did not have a normal pair of shoes to wear. He only had one shoe and one boot. With tears in his eyes, Archie tells Meathead that he wore that miss-matched pair to school each and every day. The kids made fun of him and nicknamed him “Shoe Bootie.” It was one of the rare times that the bigoted and small-minded Archie Bunker shed a tear on broadcast television.
Today, as I look down from my perch high above these two opposing feet of mine, I realize I have become, in my own way, a kind of “Shoe Bootie.” I may not suffer the trauma young Archie Bunker felt as his heartless peers made fun of his shoes, but I sense that I am a man torn asunder—literally: the left foot from the right. The rest of me, the above-ankle part of my being is held captive by the tensions which stress my body. If I approach my condition in terms of opposing feet and the shoes they wear, the shoe and the boot speak of a truth that is difficult to deny.
The left foot is adorned by the sleek and intrepid Keen Arroyo II trekking sandal. With its active tread pattern, it was made to go forward, eager to chart new territory on the undiscovered trail. The Keen exists to hike the AT and go the creative distance regardless of what may lay ahead. The right foot, however, is encumbered by the massive assemblage of the Össur compression boot with its internal pump-up system. The boot seeks to go where the right always finds itself—mired down by convention, tradition, and the ways of the known world. It is no wonder my right foot hurts. The right foot wants to dominate a path that is ultimately made rocky by the nature of its inherent predictability.
But it is good to remember that our physical aches are traceable to a single source, much like one follows a stream uphill to locate its beginning. There may or may not be a fracture in my right foot. The truth is that it hurts. The real question is why? What was the cause of such a break, if in fact one exists at all?
I believe our physical problems are the outward manifestations of our inner selves. At 58-and-7/8ths years of age, I am at a critical point in my life. Gone is the luxury of time. I am a man staring at the latter third of my life—if I am lucky. I believe my feet are calling for a resolution. They want to know which path I will take. Which one of me is in charge? Do I go forward into the mountains of North Georgia with a possible fracture? Or do I make the predictable call, the smart decision, and remain safely at home? Either way, I believe my foot will heal. Yet the decision I make will determine far more than the mere weeks I have set aside for a brief existence on the Appalachian Trail.
When I stop to analyze my motives, I think that my desire to hike the AT is, in reality, a vision that many men hold somewhere deep inside themselves. Women may feel the same thing, too, but that is a question I cannot answer. I do believe that all men wish to rise above their own lives so they can gain a new perspective on themselves. By literally making our way to the top of a mountain, we somehow transcend the hold that our daily lives have on us. I believe this is a journey that is hard-coded into all men. Secretly, a man says to himself, “If I can make it to the top of the trail that crests high in the mountains above, then, maybe, just maybe, I can look down and see the arc of my own life.”
In my opinion, all men want that. We each desire to know if we are on the right road, doing the right thing, and following our own destiny. That is knowledge that no one else in our lives can tell us. It doesn’t help if a loving wife, friend, sibling, or parent reassures us. Sadly, the truth of who we are in relation to the life we have chosen does not wait for us at home, at work, or even in the eyes of our children. Those things can placate us, but they do not bring the clarity we seek. That can only be found alone at the top of a metaphorical mountain. It is the journey we must experience. And we must choose to make that happen. One shoe—or boot—at a time.