Sep 18, 2013

From Idlehour to idle month and maybe more

It seems normal as it happens. The bored receptionist. The mass produced wall hangings. The window that looks out onto the terrarium. The banal, mid-morning news show with captions. The brightly colored chairs with the imprint of a thousand butts. The whispered conversations. The general calm as the others are called, one-by-one, to the inner sanctum. Why worry? It's all routine.

Your name is called. You follow a highly-trained person of non-european lineage in a flowered smock to a bright, little room with clean sheets. You are handed a snow-patterned exam gown and instructed to leave on your underwear. She closes the door and you are alone with your thoughts. The moment of truth is now a few ticks away. You are on automatic. You undress. You slip it on like a straight jacket. Ordinarily, you would never wear a snowflake pattern or any outfit without a backside. That would not be normal here. Hope depends on doing as you are told. The coins are about to be thrown again, but you are perfectly prepared to calmly accept whatever comes next. It is only later, back in the normal-normal, when their meaning can be understood.

"Sit here," says Angel pointing to the exam table with one hand in her lab coat. She's younger, taller and sterner than I recall.

I sit with a futile attempt at modestly and grip the table. I am very conscious of the ridiculous snowflakes and exposed rear. If I was my normal self, I'd try a redemptive wise crack. But my leg is weak, numb and tingly. I am broken again—afraid this time nothing can be done.

She whacks me on the left patellar reflex with a rubber tomahawk. Nothing happens. She whacks again. "mmmm..." she says. She whacks the right patellar reflex and my foot shoots up in an arc. "mmm-hah."

"Not good?" I ask?

"Lie down on your stomach," she says.

I lie down. She presses hard on the piriformis. I flinch. Needles shoot down my leg. "Tender huh? What about this?" she jabs the plantar nerves.

"Pretty numb."

"And this?" prodding along the medial hamstring.


She goes to the her computer and starts typing. She types for several minutes. Her foot taps when she gathers her thoughts. I notice her athletic femininity, pretty black hair and the knot of concentration on her forehead.

"You can sit up now," she says as she continues to type. What is she thinking? Just another old guy wanting a miracle? How many will she see like me today? A dozen a day on average then home to the kids, husband, homework, and TV in bed?

She swivels my way and straightens her lab coat. "Tell me again. How did this happened?"

I have relived this progression dozens times. "I was carrying 24 pounds on a training hike up to the Idlehour campground. It's above Eaton Canyon. You know it?"

"Go on."

"It's about 6 miles each way. It's twenty-four hundred foot up and a thousand-foot down. I got there fine. I was going to rest but the flies were eating me up, so I turned right around climbed out."


"I was tired and my foot started to feel numb. By the time I started the down slope it got floppy. Then the whole leg got tingly. For the last couple miles, I couldn't really put weight on it. I was leaning really hard on my sticks."

"And now?"

"If I stand for too long, it starts all over."

She types another paragraph or two. Then she slaps her thighs and says, "Here's the deal. It's all that pounding on the downhill. Your lats are giving out and something is pushing on the sciatica. Probably some sort of stenosis. We are going to strengthen your core. Ever hear of the plank?"

"You mean like Captain Hook?" She chuckled, but I didn't really mean to be funny.

"Get dressed. We're going to the gym. I'll show you."

In the gym, she hands me a diagram of a male figure propped up on an elbow. "Let's see you do it." I prop up on my elbows. She pushes my butt down and my stomach up. "Think straight as a board." After 10 seconds, I shake with fatigue. "Good. Just like that." She writes instructions and rips the sheet from her institutional pad. "Here. Three planks on the left. Three planks on the right. Three planks of your stomach. Hold each one for a minute. Twice a day."

"And, if that doesn't work?"

"It gets more complicated: MRI, epidural, possible surgery. Don't worry. We'll get that leg fixed." Then she slaps her knee again signalling my time is up. "See you in six weeks." As an after thought she adds, "And no hiking. Stay off your feet. You need time to heal."

"No hiking?" The words made no sense.

"Don't worry," she says reassuringly. "It might take a year, but we'll get you back on the trail. Besides, you're going to be buff."

I pull the door closed with a thud and stare out the windshield. There is complete silence. No hiking. I start driving. I don't call home, I just drive.

As I gain elevation, grains of doubt crystalize into frustrations. Is this how the body is going to dismantle, one cursed part at a time? Is fate that perverse? Those words: 'don't worry.' They seem mendacious and hollow. But, 'no hiking;' that is real enough. No trip across the San Gabriels. No hiking the John Muir Trail. That's easy to believe. I can get all the proof I need by just walking a block or two.

My frustration rises. I start to attack the curves and tail slower traffic like a complete shithead. What have I been thinking? Did I imagine I was going to join some merry band of true-thrus with trail names and a flock of friends? What a dreamy adolescent indulgence! The very thought makes me wince. Then there's the hubris of adventure braggarts and the arrogant materialism of the gear know-it-alls. And that's not to mention the insufferable self-righteousness piety of those who dismiss Strayed because she only hiked a thousand miles. Let them feel the force of a twangy leg and see how grand it all seems.

I turn off on the Observatory road. The road narrows. The curves are tight. I slow up. My thoughts turn to people with truely comprised bodies. I recall that story of the double-amputee vet who climbed El Capitan. Who am I to bitch? Is this how it's going to be? Am I to be defeated so easily? Perhaps this twist of fate is actually a calling. Maybe it's not a setback, maybe it's a mission.

I pull off and park at Eaton Saddle. I hobble a few hundred feet down the fire road. To the left: Mt. Markham and Mt. Lowe. To the right: the massive diorite wall if San Gabriel Peak. The view is transfixing. The air is calming.

Then again, may it's a sign. Perhaps it's time for a whole new plan. Stop behaving like an old fool. Perhaps I should get serious about my still-nameless Key to all Mythologies. But, maybe I should drop that too? Perhaps I should do something for the common good.  Or perhaps I should just head off to someplace with a turquoise sea? Or maybe I'll just go home and start on Angel's new regime. Or maybe I won't.

Sep 12, 2013


The training is paying off. The pack is getting lighter. I say bah-humbug to Ecdelus and his Law of Infirmity. In a mere week of focused effort, I'm beginning to feel a bit like my old self. My old, whole-disc self. I would never admit it to anyone, but Angel's Sadistic Physical Therapy regimen has probably made the difference.

It's been hot. I've been heading out at night. Altadena goes to bed after 9, but I have plenty of company as I clomp along with my backpack on the dark streets.

Drawing by Alicia Papanek
Monday and Wednesday are coyote night. They scamper merrily through the streets in gregarious groups sniffing for a tasty house pet. They couldn't be bothered with me. On Saturday and Sunday, the Raccoons skulk in and out of the hedges looking for a prize-winning yards to dismantle or maybe nice new turf to roll up. But don't dally to take in the action. Raccoons are very private and will hiss at you mean as rattlesnakes. Not so with the bobcats who are on parade every Tuesday. They are sleek and narcissistic and loved to be watched. Then, of course, those libertines, the skunks and opossums are out nearly every night looking for a good time. The opossums prefer recreational stimulants and tend toward paranoia. The skunks go for the laid back ingestibles. They are as unhurried as vacationers on balmy tropical beach. Now Thursday is special. It's the bears night out. Who can blame them. Friday is trash day and the pickings are the finest. Why just an hour ago I saw a mama and her cubs enjoying a sit-down at a 96-gallon trash container over on Pine Crest, and just around the corner on Mendocino, a big 400 pounder was licking a forepaw after an especially rancid repast. It's all very friendly. Share and share alike I say.

Tomorrow's forecast is cloudy. A good day to put more elevation in program. Humping 24-four pounds up to Idlehour Campground seems reasonable. If something gets funny, I can always moderate. I have air in my legs.

Sep 2, 2013

The equipment list

I've pulled my gear together.  No point in wasting more time. Training starts tomorrow.

After several minutes of careful planning, I've assembled the following equipment for my training hikes:

Weight (oz)
10-lb Cat litter bag wrapped in Gorilla tape
Terry towel wrap for Cat litter
Ripstop cord
2 liter Platypus
Terry cloth bath rug #1
2 1-pound ankle weight
2 2.5-pound ankle weight
Terry cloth bath rug #2
Bearvault 450
Osprey Aether (not pictured)
1.5 liter water (not pictured)
Driver’s license

Packing instructions:
The terry-cloth towel (2) is tied around around the Jonny Cat litter bag (1) with the ripstop cord (3) to provide added volume and shock absorption.  The terry-cloth bath rug #1 (5) is rolled up and stuffed firmly into the Aether 70's sleeping bag compartment.  This provides lift for the overall load.  Terry-cloth bath rug #2 (8) is folded in a square pattern and placed at the bottom of the pack's main compartment.  This will elevate the wrapped litter bag and place the weight in a more comfortable carrying position.  The Bearvault (9) is then placed on top of the cat litter.  This is roughly the position the cannister it would have on an actual hike.  The ankle weights (5 & 6) can added to Bearvault to simulate a  food load or to simply increase the overall pack weight and general discomfort. Lastly the Platypus bladder (4) is be filled with water (11) and placed in the Aether 70's bladder sleeve. This provides a waterbed like cushion so that the hard shell of the Bearvault does not dislocate any of the discs that cushion the thoracic vertebra. Lastly, a few essentials like a first aid kit or lunch can be added for survival or simply extra weight.

Starting tomorrow I'll begin stomping around the neighborhood raising suspicion among the neighbors. Nothing says burglar like a old, bald-headed, white guy carrying an oversize pack with cat litter. It is only prudent to plan on a visit from a squad car, which is why the Driver's license (12) is essential.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be marching a 27-pound pack up to Idlehour camp by then end of September and a 34-pound pack up to the Mount Wilson pavilion by mid October. Then it's off to my trip across the San Gabriels.