Learning From Injuries

An injury is always a learning experience. Most straightforwardly, if you are an active type, you acquire the dreadful knowledge of the precipitous drop in mood that follows one. There is also the terrible castigation, the self-flagellation that is the inevitable accompaniment to such disasters: there is always, in retrospect, some decision that was fatal, some fork that should not have been taken, there is always some moment you wish you could have back to dispose of all over again, that fatal instant before you hurt yourself. And even if you aren’t an active type, you very quickly encounter the most basic, and of course, valuable, lesson of all:  privation makes more precious the ordinary, the mundane, the weekday. Experience pain, and pain-free existence appears miraculous, salubrious, the most pleasurable state of being of all; you look back upon your pain-free times as halcyon days, hopefully to be revisited in the near future. You realize how terrible the suffering of those must be who live in a state of chronic pain; as you sense your mental fabric unravel, you wonder how they keep theirs together.

You learn about the essential automaticity of the body; on the occasion of an injury, there is little for ‘us,’ for ‘me’ to do, but sit back, and let the body do what it does best i.e., figuring out, how, given the resources available to it, it can get back to locomotion and physical activity as soon as possible. I pulled my calf this past Sunday; a limp appeared out of nowhere, unbidden and unprompted, and attached itself to my gait; my body had calculated the precise amount of pressure my left leg could bear and had made the appropriate adjustments elsewhere in my biomechanical frame; mess with that boundary even fractionally, and a sharp, agonizing pain in my calf muscle applied an immediate correction; there was no messing with my own personal taskmaster, the one that knew best how to accommodate any undisciplined silliness on my part. The body has a pace all its own, a method to its madness; there is accumulated wisdom here, acquired slowly and painfully through an evolutionary history. We now have occasion again to pay witness to it in action.

Lastly, you acquire knowledge about a new kind of euphoria, one that appears as hints of recovery make an appearance. As a spasmed muscle first begins to release, as pain provides the first indicators of a slow recession, we sense deliverance; we grasp at straws; we are grateful. We know we are merely destined to return to a state which we had been willing to scorn previously as merely ‘normal,’ but that destination now appears as the most desired of all. Sobbing with relief, we reassure ourselves we will be appropriately grateful for our daily blessings from now on; we will not take for granted what has been revealed to be a rare and precious treasure. We do this even as we know that we will not; that we will all too quickly return to the blasé acceptance of our fortunes. Till the next misfortune.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

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There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.

Hiking The Devil’s Path In One Day: Because It’s There

The Catskills’ Devil’s Path is considered one of the Northeast’s toughest hiking trails–thanks to its 24.2 mile end-to-end length, elevation gain of nine thousand feet, its steep sections which require scrambling up rocks and tree trunks, and in the summer, its devilish lack of water.  Hiking it it one-day remains a serious challenge; yesterday my friends, Erik German and Steven Weinberg (the artist, not the Nobel Prize-winning physicist), and I hiked it in 17 hours and 30 minutes. Needless to say, I’m sore and tired. (So are they.)

We began on the hike on Wednesday morning after spending the night at Weinberg’s Spruceton Inn, which is conveniently located a short drive from the terminus point of the trail. Erik and I drove up the night before from Brooklyn, crashed at the Inn, and then awoke at 3:30AM to get organized. (We carried headlamps for the start and end of the hike, lots of snacks to keep ourselves fueled and to avoid the dreaded ‘bonk,’ some extra layers in case it got chilly, three liters of water each; I packed a pair of hiking poles as well.) We parked Steve’s truck at the Spruceton Road terminus, then drove in Erik’s car to the Prediger Road trailhead, which marks the starting point of the traverse. We began hiking at 4:45AM.

The Eastern section of the path (which runs into Route 214) is steeper, craggier, longer, and harder than the Western section. But the Western section is more hearbreaking because when you get to it, you have already done thirteen miles of hiking, which is a good day’s work by itself.  The long, steep, ascents have burst your lungs and loaded your quads; the breakneck descents into the notches have banged up your knees. (My hiking poles were of great help in the second half of the trail, by which time my left knee had started to complain.) And you’ve sweated several gallons of sweat.

Hiking the Devil’s Path in the summer means you get long hours of daylight; you also get warm afternoons and drenched shirts. We finished the hike at 10:15 PM, back at Steve’s truck, which we then drove in back to the Inn. (I can highly recommend using the Spruceton Inn in this fashion to facilitate your hiking of the Devil’s Path; the multi-talented Steven and Casey are wonderful hosts.)

Hiking the Devil’s Path in one day requires explanation. This is a trail that is most often done in two or three days. Hiking it in one day turns it into a test of endurance and patience; the body hurts, the mind grows a little numb. But when it’s over, what sweet joy. That sounds perverse, but it’s the same sentiment that underwrites most activities like this: you do them to see if you can, and then you bask in the glow of having done so. Food and drink tastes incomparably better; the world’s intractable tasks seem a little easier.

It does help, that in hiking the Devil’s Path with friends, you enjoy:  climbing five of the Catskill’s highest peaks, long walks on ridgelines and pine forest, many epic views from rocky overlooks, and best of all, their company and camaraderie on a strenuous task. I wouldn’t do the hike again–once is more than enough–but I’ll happily hang with this crew again.

Note: Steven Weinberg made a little ‘story’ about our hike. Check it out.

The Undignified Business Of ‘Exercise’

In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon reassures himself that he is “not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” Upon hearing that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” Algernon is dismayed: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Algernon was right. The popularity of exercise in our times–or, as it is now called, ‘the pursuit of fitness’–speaks to the fact that there are fewer gentlefolk among us now; very few gentlemen and very few ladies. (We can well imagine some dignified female counterpart of Algernon’s exclaiming “Exercise! Dear Lord! No lady ever takes exercise.)

Exercise is an undignified business.  Most descriptions of the indignities of exercise restrict themselves to wallowing in descriptions of the engendered sweat,  and sometimes the blood and tears, the body odor, the rumpled and stained clothes, the ungainly bodily contortions, the falls, the slips, the many losses of grace that engaging in exercise inevitably entails. These descriptions all too often elide the profoundly misanthropic nature of exercise, its ungraceful response to human adversity.There is nothing dignified about making explicit your painful anxiety about increasing infirmity, your insecurity and vanity about your personal appearance, your abiding fear of your inevitable fate; there is nothing dignified about a desperate, overt rejection of a fate shared by all humans, nothing dignified about this disavowal of community and commonality in the face of an advancing misery of body and mind.  To be exercising when others around you are not is a profoundly elitist and vain notion, an indulgence in a deadly sin. It is a pathetic grasping at the sublime when resting content with the sordid speaks so much more clearly and distinctly to our essential natures: being sedentary, resting in repose and grace.

Small wonder then that the reaction to exercise and all the frenetic rushing about it entails is already manifest: the injunction to do precisely nothing. Mindfulness bids us be calm and stationary; it urges us to count breaths rather than gulping down more of them in a minute than was ever thought to be a good idea; it bids us slow down and sit down; it tell us that the flat stomach is to be disdained in favor a flat surface on which we may lie down and make like a corpse (the popularity of the shavasnana, the yogic ‘corpse pose’ bears adequate testimony to this fact.) More than anything, the modern acolyte of mindfulness hears the message: stop rushing around (or pulling or pushing yourself up); take that weight off your shoulders and stop trying to stand up with it. Exercise puts a weight on our backs (and other parts of our body); it makes us run around in circles, hypnotized by ersatz indicators of ‘progress’; mindfulness bids us put our feet up (and to close our eyes.)

We should be surprised it took us so long to figure this simple preference out.

Diet And The Graduate Student

In my recent post on my vexed relationship with food I made brief note of my changed dietary habits after migration from India to the US. My brief response does not do justice to the full complexity of that change over the past twenty-eight years. One important component was the change induced by my altered financial situation upon arrival in the US (and my work and study schedule as a graduate student.)

There’s no getting around it: my financial circumstances, as an international graduate student, were dire, and I was busy with a full schedule of classes and working in the cafeteria as a dishwasher. No glamorous graduate student research or teaching assistantship for me, not even a library gig.  So I buckled down and cut back on expenses. (I made a little over $300 a month, and $157.50 of that went to rent.) Unfortunately, good food–come to think of it, just food, period–was one area where I chose to economize.  I drank coffee–terrible crap, brown water most of it–and smoked cigarettes all day; those two classic appetite suppressants obviated the need to spend precious dollars in the school cafeteria. On the days I worked there, I was given a free meal at night. Once I went home at night I ate a big meal; more often than not, this amounted to a heaping plate of rice and beans (or lentils.) Once in a while I would make myself a white-bread sandwich or two with mayonnaise, American cheese slices, and bologna. On the weekends, because I worked again at the cafeteria deli and pizzeria, making sandwiches and baking pizza, I would indulge in those two food items. Alcohol, obviously, ameliorated some of the misery of this state of affairs, and I would gulp down bad beer and cheap wine by the liter whenever I had the opportunity.

This dietary regime was, to say the least, an unmitigated disaster.  There wasn’t one culinary catastrophe that I had forsworn. I snacked on candy, soda, and orange juice at the cafeteria; a deluge of sugar. I ate refined carbohydrates by the boatload; I ate processed meats; I smoked; I drank acidity-inducing coffee; I starved myself and then feasted; I drank calorie-rich alcohol excessively.

My weight ballooned. My face grew puffy. My belly initiated a policy of rapid, aggressive expansion. I began a rather pathetic exercise routine after my first year in the US–by which time I had secured a graduate fellowship–but could not keep it up. And despite my financial circumstances improving, thus rendering unnecessary my coffee-n-cigarette diet during the day, I did not eat any better.

Bizarrely enough, when I was able to make my first visit back to India–two and a half years after my arrival in the US–my changed appearance was greeted rather cheerfully: “Well, look at you; you look rather healthy. A rather nice change from your former skinny self, don’t you think?” (Or something like that; the translation isn’t precise, but it captures the spirit of what was often said to me.)

It took a very long time for me to become educated about the right way to eat; I haven’t mastered that art yet. (More on that transformation anon.) Meanwhile, I remain convinced those early years in the US did incalculable damage to my long-term health.