I love the outdoors. Despite that affection I am bad at the outdoors, really bad. A long time ago at a newspaper far far away I was encouraged to pen a quarterly column on my trials with nature. The “Absentminded Outdoorsman” appeared only a few times before that newspaper and I parted ways, but it was both a fun and educational piece of my past.
Since completing cardiac rehab I have been left up to my own devices with regards to exercise. Having survived emergency open heart surgery and living with heart disease is a heavy load. So when I mapped out the road the recovery hiking was going to be essential. Hiking, for me, has proven to be the most effective exercise for my overall health. But as you all know, hiking takes place outdoors.
Over the last five months I’ve been traipsing up and down the Berkshires and have become intimately familiar with the Appalachian Trail. A ton of people hike, close to 50 million a year in the United States, and I am glad to say I am one of them. But sometimes I should have stayed home.
There are two things I can directly point to that have fostered my recovery and they are my vegan diet and hiking the trails. But just as there have been a few missteps becoming a vegan (that Field Roast “meat” still makes me gag) there have been several false starts and bumps on the road during my hiking time.
I grew up in the suburbs. We never went hiking. Our outdoor activities included playing baseball and basketball with neighborhood kids or just riding our bikes around our relatively safe from predators village. I’ve take many walks in the woods during my adult life but never really embraced hiking.
Let’s start with the biggest issue. I get lost. All. The. Time. It is truly amazing in this day and age with GPS and all the gadgets on the market that I get lost hiking on a marked trail in the middle of New England. Marked yes, but it’s not like driving down I-95 outside of Rowland, North Carolina with countless billboards keeping you focused on the rapidly approaching South of the Border ridiculousness. These are little markings on trees. Sometimes they are blue, sometimes they are yellow, the Appalachian Trail markings are white. They are usually faded, not at eye level, and often times painted on rocks or branches that have withered away and died.
Not a week goes by where I don’t find myself standing amongst the trees wondering where the trail went. Followed by five minutes of turning around before looking at the sun for guidance it never gives which leads into a slow attempt at retracing my steps, which, after spinning around a half a dozen times isn’t easy. Usually by dumb luck or some astonishing resurgence of my damaged frontal lobe I find my way back to the trail where more fun things happen.
Take one of my more recent trips on the Appalachian Trail near Beartown State Forest. After cruising through my first three miles I happened upon a little sign made by a fellow hiker alerting us to a wasp nest up ahead. I have seen these signs before and I remember thinking to myself what a nice gesture, the sign read, “WASP Nest, 30 yards on your left,” so I continued at a measured pace looking up at the trees for the invaders.
What the sign did not say was that the nest was, you guessed it, on the ground. I found out the painful way while stepping next to the hive and unleashing an army of angry bees that chased me a quarter mile down the trail. Ripping off my shirt, losing my hat as I protected my face and grunting through stings I managed to eventually go beyond where the pests were willing to travel.
“Son of a bitch,” I said out loud before wandering off the trail and making my way back to the car, defeated, but only temporarily. It took me two days before I got back on the trails, and when I did I saw my first bear while hiking. A freaking bear. Needless to say I took some more time off after that. But I eventually went back and have loved every minute of it.
There is so much to love about getting outside and hiking. The sheer high you get from breathing the clean air, breaking a sweat and feeling your thighs scream as you head up an incline have broken up a bad mood and kept me going for hours upon hours in delirious happiness. But there is something even better than the landscapes or the mountain views and that is the people. The hikers you meet on the trail are the nicest people on the planet. I’m serious, I have lived and worked in a ton of places, I have volunteered, I have traveled the country, and hands down the people I have met on the trails are the best.
It could be the kind of person that is drawn to the pure beauty of the mountains or it could be the mountains that turn people into the living presence of Mr. Rodgers but whatever it is the reality can not be denied.
As for me, it certainly has changed me. An admittedly grumpy personality that has been a little on edge this year, heart failure can do that, I have turned a corner and I am so glad I did. A month or so ago, halfway into a 10-mile hike I decided to pick up the pace. For some reason I felt a few months of hiking qualified me as a trail runner, it didn’t. As I careened through a swampy area equipped with old wooden boards masquerading as the trail I looked up and lost my way, crashing forward and landing on my left arm and chest. Yes, the chest still recovering from open heart surgery. Don’t try that, one of the reasons I am going through all of this is so you all don’t have to. And yes, it felt awesome.
After shaking my head and slowly rising to continue my trek I noticed the blood on my knee. It wasn’t a gunshot wound or anything but it was a good one and when taking blood thinners I knew it wasn’t going to clot while out here in the wilderness. About a mile or so after the crash I felt something odd on my wrist so I pulled back my sleeve and saw what looked like a golf ball lodged in my forearm. Nice. I slowly pulled my sleeve back over the grotesque lump on my arm and pretended I didn’t see it.
Between the blood, the sweat and the golf ball I was pretty spent, but I kept going and with about a mile left in my hike I stumbled upon a fellow hiker lounging under a giant old tree that is probably famous being so old and in New England and all, but its shade was enough to be cool in my book.
Now in my old life, after hurting myself to the extent that I had I would have given this hippy hiking character a dirty look if I even acknowledged him at all. But instead of the dark Kevin showing his face I grabbed a spot next to him and offered him some of my orange, which I expertly peeled with one hand.
He declined and offered me some granola. I said thanks but I was super excited about my orange. He grinned.
“Nice day, eh?” he said.
“Damn right.” I replied.
These trails can turn a smartass into Santa Claus. The mountains, I find, always win. Getting outside has given me time to think while at the same time keeping my heart happy and my belly shrinking. Racking up small victories, in many ways, is better, and more fulfilling than one large one.
Just because you aren’t the best at something doesn't mean you shouldn’t try. Doubt creeps into my mind while looking to get back into the working world after this time away to recover from my heart issues. You get a lot of advice and encouragement but when it comes down to it you have to be the one to take the leap.
There is a sense of overwhelming fear when you consider trying a completely new industry or discipline but if you look at it as a challenge and embrace the excitement of trying something new that can help.
In many ways I feel like I have two lives, one before January 13th, and one after, and most of us don’t get to have that so there are not too many templates to follow. You have to do your research and find something you are passionate about because you have the rare experience of being on the cusp of the abyss, only to return to the light, and it’s what you do in the light that matters, darkness is for another place, another time.