A Post-Christmas Gift

A Post-Christmas Gift

Yesterday I was given a gift – a beautiful sunny January day with temps above 40dF – a rare find in New England this time of year. Hiking for me usually ends in November; December offers weather that is suitable to hike, but between birthdays and Christmas (parties, preparations, decorating, etc.) there is precious little time to hike. But January? Never; never have I hiked in January. Of course the greatest obstacle was that I was working. And having my grandchildren over for the weekend was far more important than hiking. But even before I had them in my life, hiking in January was just not something I did. The biggest reason is temperature – it is a frigidly cold month here in RI. But as you know dear reader, with cold comes snow and ice. And many of these trails are challenging enough without adding ice and snow to them. The fall hazard is just too great – I’ve slipped and I’ve fallen on wet leaves and on mud – ice is definitely far beyond the line for me!

But yesterday the planets aligned: Teri had a day planned with her sister and the forecast was sunny and maybe up to ten degrees above freezing. And that meant a hiking opportunity. For a number of reasons including this cold I haven’t shaken yet, I had trouble sleeping that night, but leading the list was me going through my list of hiking locations trying to figure out which I would choose in the morning. There are a lot of factors that go into picking the ideal hike; most days it doesn’t matter a whole lot as there is always tomorrow or the next day. But in January? Oh what a precious gift and the pressure to pick just the right trail weighed heavily upon me. Distance is a consideration – I like to get in at least six or seven miles if possible, but this time of year you lose daylight quickly so you have to plan to be sure oyu off trial before sunset. Location is another consideration – given the rarity of hiking in January I wanted to pick someplace I had never seen this deep (or early???) into the hiking season. You wouldn’t think so, but the woods change significantly season to season and I was excited to find the right location to explore the January woods.

I would say though, that the top of my list of determining factors was anticipated trail conditions. We’ve had a lot of rain the last several weeks – months actually. So I needed to expect water and mud, and even some ice – all great contributors to slip and fall potential, not to mention wet (and uncomfortable) feet. Yes, I did say temps were forecast to be above 40dF and that we’ve had rain. But we’ve had cold nights deep into the low 20’s, so ice forms every night. And while the canopy in the forest is vastly stripped bare in winter, the depth of some of the ravines, coupled with the shade of the ledges and the great number of evergreens such as cedar and white pine which are still full of their green vegetation, cloak the ground and greatly slow the daytime melting of ice. So Ice is always a threat in the winter months.

Ultimately, I decided on Beach Pond for the hike. The roughly 8-mile hike begins in RI, but right on the line with CT, on a large (430 acre) pond. The trail follows the pond, intermittently, for the first half and then abruptly leaves it far behind for the second half until arriving back to the water at the very end. There are long stretches that run through the deep woods filled with craggy ledges and deep ravines, with a lot of water features interspersed throughout, mostly streams and pothole ponds. It is, without exception, the closest one can come to primeval and primordial earth. It is seemingly ageless and untouched and truthfully, I would not blink an eye to see a dinosaur ramble out of a ravine there; it is that removed from civilization. It is the quietest, most peaceful and serene hike in my book, due to both being far from roads and people as well as the fact that there is no cell signal for most of the hike, meaning no calls, texts, or news notifications – just total silence. It is a hike in which I don’t think I have ever seen another person, except at the trailhead or the halfway point. At around the 4-mile mark there is a boat ramp / parking area and you will always see people there, although there were none yesterday. This is where the trail turns deep into the forest and away from the pond.

One of the immediate differences I noticed was the brilliance of the green moss. This hike is always laden with every shade and hue of green ever imaginable, but due to the wet conditions and decreased canopy, and perhaps due to the lack of competition from other, now dormant, vegetation the moss was spectacularly green and actually almost glowing. Most all of the pothole ponds had a layer of ice on them varying from merely skinned over to almost ¼” thick. Many of the ledges featured icicles hanging off and dripping. One in particular was dripping and where the drops were landing, a small ice tower had formed – an ice stalagmite you could say.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, it is roughly an 8-mile hike, 8.2 recorded yesterday consisting of over 21,000 steps. And it is a fairly energetic hike with 58 floors of climbing recorded on my phone. It was wet, it was muddy, it was intermittently icy, and it was slippery, so my normal goal of trying to maintain a decent pace was supplanted with the desire to avoid landing on my butt. I ended up at just over 4 hours, although I admit to more than a but of wandering and roaming through the hike as I went to look at one thing or another that was hidden by the forest during past hikes.

And through it all, given the serenity and silence of this reverent hike, there was a steady stream of thoughts flowing through my mind, many of which I hoped to share here. And now, a day later and sitting at the keyboard, I remember none of them. How disappointing!! I still hope that some of them will find their way back to my conscious memory over the next day or too. But there are two thoughts I do have and will share. The first is still a bit undeveloped and while I will touch on it here, I expect I will want to go back to it in future writings, while the second is a theme I have touched upon often in the past.

So as I wandered through the woods I was a little surprised at my initial lack of physical comfort; my legs grew tired and my feet hurt. Not a huge surprise in that hiking can be strenuous (and this is a strenuous hike) and a strenuous hike is never a stroll in the park (pardon the pun); it is a workout and will result in discomfort. Additionally, I really have not hiked since October (maybe once or twice in November) and my conditioning now is far less than it was back this summer. So I had to push myself a bit: as an example while climbing up a steep hill that seemed to have no end I would find my pace slowing to barely moving and I would have to urge myself – push myself – to pick up the pace and drive my legs up the incline. And that was a conscious effort, which made me reflect on the relationship between the mind and body.

Like so much else in nature, the mind works on multiple levels, the most obvious being the conscious and the subconscious. And of course, there is the autonomous level which controls things such as respiration and heart-rate. And they all work together seemingly effortlessly, invisibly even. It is rare when we humans attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the levels in our minds. One example that immediately springs to mind is consciously trying to control your breathing, to slow it down and regulate it after extreme exertion. (Which is probably how I ended up thinking about this.)

I have had several knee surgeries, all on the right knee, with the most severe being the first. All were due to meniscus damage, the first because of damage incurred at work in a fall. And once disturbed, cartilage continues to be a high risk for additional tears or shredding, which helps explain the subsequent surgeries (although the last turned out to be due to Lyme disease). The first surgery was before arthroscopic techniques and was the “old fashioned” style of knee surgery which was fully opening the knee and exposing the whole joint by sliding the kneecap out of the way – an extremely invasive and intrusive surgery. I was told I would never regain full mobility of the joint and should expect to develop arthritis by my fifties, neither of which turned out to be true. I consider myself extremely blessed in that despite four operations and now almost no cartilage remaining, I have a 100% completely functional knee joint with basically no pain in it on a regular basis.

But I digress.

When I awoke from that first surgery I was in pain; a lot of pain. On day two post-op the surgeon came in to check on me and I asked him when I could go home. He chuckled and went over to my leg and slid his hand under my heel, lifting my leg approx. 10” off the bed. He then suddenly pulled his hand away and my leg dropped back to the bed (painfully I might add). He smiled and said, when you can do this and you can keep you leg in the air and not let it fall to the bed, you can go home. Of course, I begged him to do it again now that I knew the rules and he did it again and my leg again fell back to the bed. I was completely blown away that I had failed; I had absolutely zero control of a single muscle in my leg, aside from wriggling my toes a little. Scared, I asked him why.

I will never forget his answer. He said that since the surgery was so deeply painful my subconscious mind would not give up control of the leg muscles to my conscious mind; my subconscious knew that allowing me to move my leg would cause me (us) great pain and refused to yield control to me. Mind: blown. I was astounded that my subconscious could overrule a conscious command to move a muscle! Try as I might, I could not make a muscle in that leg to move. By day three or four, I was finally able to hold my leg elevated and was discharged, but I have never forgotten how complex our minds truly are and how powerful they can be in protecting us.

And that made me think of how sad it is that this doesn’t extend beyond just protecting us from physical pain. Imagine if our subconscious was able to keep us out of harmful relationships by taking control out conscious mind? Like freezing the vocal cords when we go to speak, or worse by making us talk gibberish when we speak!! Or making us pee on ourselves!! The subconscious intervening like: “Oh no you don’t! You aren’t getting into this hot mess and ending up all sad and heartbroken. Not on my watch!”

Too funny! But of course, that is not how it works. The subconscious can protect us from causing ourselves physical pain but allows us free reign in engaging in poor behaviors. Although having said that  (written that) it does occur to me that while there is freewill, there is still always a voice warning us and advising us not to do whatever it is we are about to do. We mostly ignore it, but that voice is our subconscious mind doing its best to protect is. Think about that the next time you hear that voice in your mind!

The other thing I pondered yesterday (although more after than during the hike) was how insidious the aging process actually is. I am a healthy male who has always been in shape, at least in some semblance of shape ranging from marginal to pretty good. I have no debilitating medical conditions. I look in the mirror and am shocked at the accumulation of years staring back at me – I don’t feel nearly 64 years old – I feel great. But during a hike I have done many ties in the past, I was surprised at my legs tiring, at my breath gasping for more air. And after a hike that would normally leave me just a but tired that night and fine the next day, I was quite tired last night and find my leg muscles sore in the aftermath. And due to nothing other than the aging process.

Twenty years ago were all this scenario repeated, I can absolutely guarantee you that my legs would no have been sore. Nothing different from the 44-year old me and the 64-year old me than just a additional 20 years accumulated time. That is the aging process. Some say it begins at birth, which I disagree with; in my opinion we grow stronger through our 20’s. But by our 30’s effort and direct intervention is required to sustain fitness levels, to maintain weight, and to “hold your own”. And each decade that takes an increasing level of effort. And depending upon the level of effort one can not only sustain but can actually improve and gain in fitness or strength. But I find that by your 60’s, despite the level of effort expended, there are no real gains to be realized. In fact a concerted effort merely serves to slow the loss and barely qualifies as “holding your own”. It is like bailing out a boat that has a hole in the hill with a coffee cup: you can’t ever remove more water then is coming in.

That is the sad reality of the aging process. Oh, it can be staved off still – I know that. But the level of effort required increases logarithmically with age. I could have not hiked for two or three months and then gone for a somewhat effort-free hike had I been doing yoga and riding an exercise bike every day. But instead I spent time in a soft chair working on my computer, watching movies, shopping for Christmas. And what would not have had such a deleterious effect twenty years ago, is now waging war on the twenty year older me.

The line is not linear dear reader, it is not described with a simple and flat equation; the older you get, the more accelerated the effects of age become and the more difficult it is to stem the tide. I guess knowing is half the battle and forewarned is forearmed. All the more reason to look for more above freezing days this month and next to get out there and go explore more of the winter woods!! Go for a walk dear reader, go out and enjoy some fresh winter air and maybe your personal bucket will hold a little more water as you bail.

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