The AT Series: Gravity Wins…Sometimes

After both knee replacement surgeries, I returned to consciousness with a yellow tag on my wrist labeled “Fall Risk.” Fair enough. I was wobbly and anesthetized. But to this day, friends and family joke that I need to wear that tag before any activity, including getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, and teaching, to name three.

I get it: I have a history of falling down many times in life, completely sober.

Often, I fall without incident; however, sometimes I fall hard. For example, I fell off a mountain bike on the first day of a family vacation in Alaska, from which I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, spent several hours in the ER, and didn’t get to go sea kayaking amongst the whales. (Pity me, please.) Whether skiing, playing soccer with my sons, or even body surfing, I’ve torn most ligaments in right knee, dislocated both shoulders, shredded my left Achilles tendon, been concussed several times over. (Feel free to write for a complete run-down. I have a perverse pride in my seven orthopedic surgeries and weekend-warrior scars.)

I cannot explain my battle with gravity other than, perhaps, a innate mixture of stubborn bravado, poor coordination, and an unwillingness to accept the passage of time.

But these days, I cannot afford a big fall. My right wrist needs surgery, I never had my last shoulder injury fixed — the bone sticking up against the skin looks cool — and aging has made me less nimble. So, before my seven days on the AT, when people asked what my biggest fear was, I didn’t name bears, snakes, or other hikers. “Injury,” I said.

The trouble with most hiking trails is that rain turns roots, rocks, and mud into tricky terrain. As the body tires, my feet do not lift as high, and obstacles snag my lumbering boots. Given all this, I considered wearing a helmet for the week; however, vanity won, and I went with a simple ball cap to wick sweat and to protect my precious remaining nine hairs. (There were eleven, but I combed this morning.)

As expected, I fell. Unexpected: I fell only once. That’s two fewer times than my last backpacking trip that lasted only two days. Even better, my fall was injury-free, save for a slight cut.

So how did I beat gravity?

I watched every step, placed my boots in the best position I could to bear my weight and the backpack’s, and used poles for balance. Plus, I learned not to multi-task while moving. In my younger days, I could hike and simultaneously check my watch, take in a view, or look to the side to find what creature scurried off at my passing.

No more.

If I want to drink water, I have to stop. If I want to check the altitude, I have to stop. And if I want to appreciate a boulder or a flower or a red salamander, I have to stop. Sure, this slows me down, yet herein lies a valuable lesson: I can fly through life — moving, moving, moving — and reach destinations sooner, or I can move more deliberately, stopping now and then to savor a moment. It’s cliché to say, “Focus less on the destination and instead enjoy the journey.” Nonetheless, I agree.

The benefit during my trek was that I noticed more sights and sounds, worried less about miles covered, and I beat gravity. While this fundamental force ultimately wins the war — everyone goes ten toes up, six feet under — I’m grateful that I’ve found a battle plan that keeps me upright for now, more often than not.

Take a moment to stop and watch

What about tomorrow? I’m not going to fall for that trap. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

About Malcolm W Campbell

Father. Husband. Writer. Teacher. Outdoorsperson. And something else... Forgetful?
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