Six years ago I went camping on the North Shore with two friends. We took off for an out-and-back hike, steep and rocky. My friends were in decent shape, but I was struggling with a couple of ailments. I was a bit unsteady: I have an inner ear disorder that sometimes messes with my balance. It’s not enough to make me fall, but enough for me to be aware that I’d be less likely to recover my footing if I did stumble. I picked my way along the path more cautiously than usual. My hip was aching, too, more and more the farther we hiked.
My friends made an effort to slow down for me, but they kept falling into the natural rhythm of their own hiking pace. I did my best to keep up but finally decided it would be less frustrating and exhausting if I waited for them as they headed to the end point, especially because we only had a limited time before it got dark.
I always enjoy being alone in nature and knew that there would be time for visiting around the fire, but I hit a low point on that path. I gave in to the idea that it was downhill from there, certain that my body would continue to keep me from enjoying the company of my more-fit friends and, at some point, from enjoying the outdoors as I had been used to.
I didn’t know it in that moment, but I would have to help this aging body get on board.
I’ve belonged to a couple of outdoors groups off and on over the years. I have watched as members dropped in and out with joint injuries, heart problems, cancer treatments. We might see them at social gatherings, if at all, and when we do, the talk often becomes more about health, less about hiking and biking.
This happens in other areas of our lives, of course — at work, with family — but with people whose common bond is physical activity, the losses can be particularly difficult. A dear friend whose social life was based on hiking, camping and canoeing trips had a minor stroke, and in the months that followed he stubbornly, and sometimes dangerously, tried to do the activities he had done.
His stamina wasn’t enough to complete canoe trips; cross-country skiing was downright dangerous as his balance had suffered; he could hike, but more slowly than the slowest-paced member of any of our groups. He often overestimated how far he could go, and more than once on urban hikes I had to leave him waiting on a bench while I fetched the car.
The worst part was that his mental health deteriorated as both his activity level declined and the ready social connections of trips and outings were no longer available to him. He struggled with depression.
Sitting on that North Shore slope, I thought a lot about that friend. Despite witnessing what he went through, it was the first time I really faced the fact that my own body was eventually going let me down. By the time my friends returned, I had started consoling myself by taking inventory of the more sedentary activities I enjoy and thinking about new ones I might pursue.
It was a bumpy couple years, but there was good news: I learned that the hip pain was not my hip at all and was easily solved with exercises. But then it seemed like I was plagued by one injury after another, confirming my North Shore fears. My back went out. I wrenched my shoulder carrying too many grocery bags, and found myself in physical therapy and hiring someone to shovel snow. For most of one summer I had to give up hiking and walks after straining my Achilles’ tendon on a dash up a steep hill in the park behind my house. I was a good patient, doing all the therapies and resting, but by fall, when that tendon was healed, the bottom of my feet started to hurt. I contemplated selling my cross-country skis that winter. I read a lot.
Then I was inspired to take a different approach. Freelance assignments with a local newspaper put a camera in my hands, and I discovered that I had an inclination for photography. I found myself running with heavy gear to get ahead of marching protesters, crouching to get good angles at community events. I started capturing nature, too. I spent hours bent over in my garden watching insects. I hiked to good wildlife viewing areas with heavy lenses on my back. All this came with new aches and pains, but I was driven to deal with them in a new way. I realized that if I were to continue this late-life passion, to travel into retirement with my camera the way I wanted to, I was going to have to be strategic.
I started working with a personal trainer. At first I balked when I learned how much it would cost. But my then 81-year-old mother, who keeps active through long hours of gardening, convinced me with these words: “Consider it a medical expense.”
At 59, under the guidance of a woman who’s about half my age, I’ve discovered muscles in my back and abdomen that I had no idea were there. A stronger core means I have better stability, which helps compensate for my inner ear balance issues. My shoulder is fine now; my lower back seldom bothers me. I’m planning on doing my own shoveling this year.
Is this a happy ending? Maybe. My trainer has done a wonderful job of helping me build my strength without injury, but I know that there might be pulled muscles or sore joints. At any time I could be blindsided by a health catastrophe, as has happened lately to too many of my friends. I’m cautiously looking forward to many active years ahead and will continue to be proactive with my training routine.
I’m also sharpening my knitting skills and adding to my reading list — just in case.
Karen Kraco is a freelance writer and high school science teacher. She lives in Minneapolis.