February 8, 2017 I love trees. “Together we will walk beneath the great trees” is tattooed on my left arm. It is from our wedding vows. The marriage is great. The arm is failing. The bad arm is also part of this story. But back to trees. It is February 2017 and I am in Big Basin Redwood Park to see some giants. I am new to the park and discover that some groves are deep within. They are found on an 11-mile circuit. This is a fair hike for someone who has a dysfunctional left leg.
Bad arm, bad leg, bad hand, bad balance. The neurologists are still reserved in their assessment. Until symptoms emerge more clearly they are calling this mess Motor Neuron Disease. ALS is “possible”. Other neuro-muscular ailments are also considered. It is likely a condition that is untreatable and incurable. One Neurologist kindly suggested that I avoid the web pages. No finite answers but good counsel.
The decline is as steady as my old Timex. I don’t see change through days, weeks, or even months. But when I roll back a year the decline is clear as day. A year ago, I would be down that trail. But today, I have a decision. Do I take the eleven-mile trek? The disquieting sense of constraint is fed by physical fallibility. The liberating freedom to plunge forward, burning the fuel of strength, resolve, and skill is fading into a gray apprehension. Now I am on the slippery slope. Optimism always overshadowed fear. But now, optimism has to be tempered with judgement. Where is the sweet spot?
I take the hike. I feel great and it should have been easy. Instead, the weather created an epic, unforeseen maze of challenges. It was the winter of drought-breaking rain. The trail, hugging steep hillsides, was washed away in places. Many a naked traverse crossed a 60-degree slope of loose stone and soil. Small plants and tufts of grass provide tenuous handholds. It’s a long way down. The saturated ground caused a number of trees to fall. (A fallen redwood is no small obstacle.) A bridge was askew. Each obstacle was a test. I was mud-covered and afraid. After seven miles I turned back, opting to deal with known problems. Ultimately, it was a challenging fourteen-mile hike. Taking stock, I feel strong but recognize a growing set of limitations. And fear lingered as though atomized behind my eyes.
For the first time, it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon. A simple walk might be a blessing in a year. A transition plan is needed. This plan could be a collection of journeys. Taken together, they will enable a great letting go, a sense that I’ve done what can be done. It is the journey to a realm of no regrets.
The context to this journey is deeply personal. It is a new consciousness nurtured by physical reduction. Mindfulness takes center stage. Guiding values are clarified: independence, compassion, doggedness, optimism, reverence. These values will sustain me. But they also have to grow for the journey beyond this journey.
I have a comfort in ignoring advice, refuting medicine, and testing limits. I am pretty adept at assessing risk, predicting problems, devising workarounds and enduring some hardship. But I do this through my own filters, experiences and values. I anticipate the reservations of others. Ultimately, I form a response, “Why the hell not?”
My last “good year” beckons. I consider my physical loves: mountain-biking, hiking, paddling, and camping. These interests interweave into mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, lakes. There will be a series of trips. Each will be an exploration, a contemplation, and a physical stretch. Most of all, these journeys will feed the medicine of memories.