A Walk in the Woods

Hike

Quick program note: Shodan has become Nidan (pronounced knee-don, with the accent on the first syllable).

You have probably guessed that is not my son’s real first name. I originally christened him Shodan because he is an exceptional martial artist, having learned the Cordone-Ryu system, which is similar to Shorin-Ryu for those of you in the know, under the tutelage of Grandmaster Nicholas Cordone for over ten years. In March of 2017, he achieved his first degree black belt, known as Shodan, and two weeks ago he was promoted to second degree, known as Nidan. Therefore his pseudonym has changed as well, and will continue to evolve as he climbs the martial artist ranks.

Nidan loves nature, and is a rock-hound.  He’s become quite adept at searching for and finding interesting rocks of all kinds, but is currently on the hunt for quartz and flint. Hurd State Park is within twenty minutes of our house, and has been his go-to place for rock exploration. He’s waxed poetic about the peaceful wEM1oods and trails he navigates in his pursuit, and it sounded like an interesting place, so I asked if he’d mind if I tagged along during an excursion last weekend. Nidan loved the idea, and away we went.

Truthfully, I didn’t expect to do much. I was familiar with the area and knew the trails were definitely not flat. I figured I’d tag along for a little while, then retreat to the comfort of our vehicle while Nidan continued his exploration. As we were leaving the vehicle, I realized that I left Zorro at home, and thought my plans were about to go up in smoke before I took one step. After all, without my trusty cane, there was no way I was going to attempt to navigatge those trails.

Nidan saw my dilemma, and wasn’t about to let me back out at this stage of the game. So he searched for less than a minute and discovered tree branch that had fallen to the ground that would serve as a walking stick. It was sturdy and straight, so with stick in hand, I followed Nidan to a point in the road that was about a quarter mile from where we parked, and followed him onto a downhill path at the entrance to one of the park’s trails. The first two hundred yards was partially paved, as if it was an overgrown, decaying,  long forgotten driveway. Once we hit the bottom of the hill the blacktop disappeared, and Nidan veered left onto a rustic trail that took us over a small brook. Fortunately, there were large, flat rocks that I could use as a stepping stone, otherwise my journey would have ended less than ten minutes into our trek.

Hurd State Park covers over 1,000 acres and has over six miles of trails through densely populated woods. The trails are marked by colors painted onto the trees, and were completely natural and rustic. What I assumed would be a brief foray into nature EM2turned into a three hour adventure over trails that frequently had prodigious protruding roots, had a number of brooks that needed crossing, and were mostly heading in an uphill or downhill direction.

To make a long story short, I had a blast and surprised myself. We obviously were not burning up the trails as far as speed was concerned because my pace was slow and deliberate, but the fact that none of the trails slanted sideways made the route easier to navigate than my back yard.

I would take breaks from time to time, particularly when he came upon a parcel of ground that was densely populated with rocks. Nidan would carefully pluck or excavate them from the ground, and take them to the nearest brook so he could wash away the dirt, study them more closely, and decide whether they were keepers. When there were more items than he could carry, he’d find a place along the trail and lay them there, knowing that on the return trip he’d have a mental inventory of everything he unearthed, and could decide which ones to take home or leave at that time.

EM 3I obviously could not keep up with him, but Nidan always made sure never to stray so far we could not hear one another, his dismembered voice frequently drifting through trees saying “you doing okay Dad?”

After we were at it for while, and the afternoon shadows started making an appearance, I suggested it was time to leave, and he readily agreed.

The trek out of the woods was more taxing than the trip in, primarily because it was more downhill, which is harder for me, and because my leg was feeling fatigued by then. It was harder to negotiate those protruding roots, as the toe of my sneaker frequently got trapped in their clutches. I was in inchworm mode by then, so I never lost my balance. By the time we emerged, it felt wonderful to ease back into the comfy passenger seat.

RockI learned a lot about myself that afternoon, First and foremost, it was wonderful to explore nature with my son and experience the outdoors in a manner I hadn’t in years. It was enlightening walking through the woods as peers rather than as father-son, and his attentiveness and concern to how I was doing was touching.

Secondly, I learned that I am not as physically inept as I assumed. We were on our feet for over three hours, traversed at least three miles of territory, and other than the weakness I ordinarily feel when I push myself, there wasn’t a single moment where I feared for my safety, nor was there a single time where I came close to falling or twisting my ankle. Maybe it was because I was paying very close attention to each step I took, but I was no worse for wear than I am after a rigorous workout on my recumbent bike. I certainly felt better compared this past winter during some of my snow removal experiences. Besides feeling good about myself, I emerged from the experience optimistic that maybe what I have been doing all these years to address the MS is actually working.

I also discovered that I’m not in bad shape physically. I wasn’t huffing or puffing during any point of the adventure. I couldn’t feel the drum of a pounding heart in my ears, and rigor mortis did not set in later than night once I settled down into the rocker-recliner. The only souvenir I had from the experience was a sore left triceps muscle, compliments of the walking stick I kept in that hand. I had leaned on that stick numerous times, and used different muscles than the ones I normally use leaning on a cane, but that discomfort was gone within twenty four hours.

Woods

Yes, I had moved and slowly and carefully during my walk in the woods, but the odd thing was I never felt disabled. I can’t remember the last time that happened. It gave me a different perspective on my abilities, and reinforced what I had long suspected, which is that while I have a disability and have physical limitations, I am better off than most, and am not anywhere close to becoming a couch potato unless I allow that to happen.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Taking Up Space

crowd

I am five feet ten inches tall with a frame that, while it can’t be termed slender, certainly isn’t large or rotund. Average would probably the best way to describe it, given my age and weight. So for a guy of my stature, why do I feel like Fat Albert?

In fact, I often feel like I take up the space of a person three to four times larger, but never when I am sitting down or sleeping. I only feel this way when I am mobile, particularly when I am unleashed on the public, or if I am in close quarters. And it does not matter if I am home, at work, or outside.

You see, even with a cane, I wobble from side to side when I walk, courtesy of the bad leg and lousy balance. Walking in a straight line is almost impossible, so much so that I have wondered what would happen if I ever got pulled over at a sobriety checkpoint. If a breathalyzer wasn’t administered,  the cops would probably slap on the cuffs in a heartbeat watching me stagger around.

Not only do I wobble, but will careen to my right or left whenever my foot doesn’t clear the walking surface and I stub my toe, which is a daily occurrence. Whenever possible, I use a handrail. If those aren’t available, I try to have part of my hand on a wall, or make sure a wall is within arm’s reach.

Anyone who sees me coming will often veer off to the opposite side of the road/hall/sidewalk/room. Perhaps they are being polite and don’t want to obstruct my path, but I think it’s because they see someone unsteady on their feet approaching whom they don’t want to get entangled with. These are the smart ones.

I can no longer stop on a dime either, having lost that talent years ago. So if someone is turning a corner and I’m right in front of them, I have to place my hand on their shoulder to keep them from running me over. If they, or anyone for that matter who is coming at me and hasn’t been paying attention until the last moment, tries to get out of my way the same time I am trying to avoid them, I can tumble to the ground even if we don’t collide. I can zig, you see, but not zig-zag. That sudden shift causes a loss of balance, triggering the laws of gravity.  This is a fate I try to avoid at all costs, and have managed to circumvent so far.

Narrow office hallways, which seem like the norm from my perspective, are always fun. It can be snug for able bodied people to pass one another in these conditions. Me? If the oncoming person doesn’t see me coming and step aside, which happens about half of the time,  I stop, place my back to the wall, and let them pass.

At home, and particularly in the kitchen and laundry areas, I feel enormous. That’s because as K is darting about in her typical multi-taking mode, I try to lend a hand, but often wind up getting in her way, which can be annoying for the both of us. Annoying to her since she can’t operate at the speed she wants to because I seem to be in the way at every turn, and annoying for me because I’m trying to help, to feel like a productive member of the household, and feel like I am anything but, which only magnifies my physical shortcomings.

To feel perfectly secure, I need a safety zone around me that is about three feet in circumference. With those three feet, I am not a danger to anyone else or myself. I have enough space to ensure I won’t be bumping into anyone, or be in danger of being bumped into and falling. I won’t be a nuisance to anyone either because I won’t be in their way.

That is what I want and need, but it isn’t something that can be demanded or communicated. Folks who have known me for a while know to give me a wide berth and do so willingly and without judgement. Sometimes they go a little overboard by offering to do stuff I am capable of doing, which can be annoying, but their heart is in the right place.

In public places though, like an airport, like Fenway Park, the mall, or the grocery store, not so much. It certainly isn’t as easy to negotiate these kind of environments as it used to be, but I have learned to become hyper-vigilant in these situations in terms of who is entering and leaving my orbit. My one blind spot is, obviously, what is behind me. If I suddenly stop, and somone walking behind me is looking at their phone instead of what is in front of them, the resulting collision could be nasty. This has happened only once, in an airport, but I was fortunate enough to have my cane planted in front of me, which allowed me to push back and remain upright as my knee crumpled and I was on the verge of going down in a heap

Here is the irony: on one hand I can become agitated about how oblivious and rude people can be in these situations, and bemoan the fact they are so self-absorbed they can’t or won’t pay attention when someone like me is around. On the other hand, I get agitated at myself when I become aware of these feelings. Why? Because I have never wanted nor expected special privileges or accommodations, other than parking, for my condition because that would be conceding that I am damaged, or somehow less of a person. It is therefore my responsibility to be acutely aware of my surroundings, not their’s.

So yeah, I need room to operate, but understand it isn’t something I should feel bad or  self-conscious about. This inconvenient truth isn’t something that is going to prevent me from going where I want to go either, as seven trips to Fenway this season prove.

Besides, it could be worse. I could be in a wheelchair, which would not only consume more space than I currently require, but restrict what I can do and where I can go. So I’ll happily keep the status quo, as frustrating as it can sometimes be.