Wham! Oof! Splat! Waah! That is the sound of my Presidential Traverse dreams hitting middle age dodgy back reality.
My back went out while my family and I were staying at our favorite AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge up in Maine, three days before we were scheduled to drive to New Hampshire to start the Presidential Traverse. We had hiked Third Mountain carrying full traverse pack weight (two liters of water, food, clothes, sleep sacks), and I had felt ok.
(By the way, Third Mountain is a fairly short but glorious hike featuring abundant wild blueberries and Appalachian Trail through hikers closing in on Mt Katahdin. It also boasts a rocky ledge with beautiful views of Long Lake and layers of surrounding mountains. The trail junction shown below featured prominently in previous misadventures.)
We sat around playing bridge and hearts for a long time that evening, and when I stood up my back decided it was finally fed up with everything I had recently put it through. The next couple of days involved a lot of naproxen, me trying to sit and stand as little as possible, playing cards while lying on my side in bed, lying on my back in the wood sauna, and me being upset that I wasn’t better already. It also involved a lot of rain.
Dorian and the girls were wonderful throughout, the lake and lodge were still beautiful, the loons still sang, and Elanor and Kira did a fair bit of canoeing, kayaking and paddle-boarding during the gaps in the rain. I managed to get into a canoe with Kira on our last morning and enjoy a gentle paddle on the still, echoey lake.
As we departed Gorman Chairback Lodge for the 5-ish hour drive to the AMC Highland Center near Mt Washington, we discovered that our minivan had been leaking power steering fluid and was increasingly difficult to steer. We hadn’t checked fluids before we left home, and hadn’t thought much of some of the mild odd sounds the car made on the drive up. It was a Sunday, most auto mechanics and auto parts stores were closed, and it turns out that Hondas are very particular about what kind of steering fluid they can use. Hijinks ensued!
What actually ensued was a 40 minute drive on the rutted dirt road out of the lodge with very heavy steering, a stop at a gas station by Moosehead Lake that only sold steering fluid that said “DO NOT USE IN HONDAS!”, another stop at an outfitter a few miles uphill that sold some steering fluid that did not come with that warning (but was still not Honda approved) at which we foolishly only bought one bottle, and then a long drive during which we happened to find an open auto parts store about two hours in and stocked up on several more bottles because we had already gone through that one bottle. We arrived at the Highland Center a few hours later with steering fluid to spare.
I identified very strongly with our poor leaky minivan. At 14 years old and over 120,000 miles, it has seen better days. It has been steady and reliable throughout most of our married life, and now has some dings and rust patches and various broken bits that would be difficult and/or expensive to fix. Gone are the days when we can just take it working for granted. It needs TLC. It needs us to do things like check on it before big trips, and take minor odd noises seriously.
My body is much the same way. It used to be strong and reliable and easily taken for granted. Nowadays, it seems like whenever I push it hard, or even not-very-hard, it breaks. It needs more than the sporadic attention and maintenance it is getting. My neck and shoulder felt a bit wonky after my Allagash canoe trip, my back complained after pickleball with my family. These were all easy enough to push through, but ignoring them didn’t make them go away.
I was really upset about not being able to join my family for the Presidential Traverse, and mad at myself for not having been much more consistent with back exercises in the months leading up to it. I had to remind myself that I actually was really lucky with the timing. Far better for my back to go out before starting the hike than during it (particularly the first two long hard days), and thank goodness it held up during my canoe trip with Elanor (particularly with the bog-hopping and portaging involved). Still, that was only so much comfort when looking out at the beautiful Long Lake that I couldn’t paddle on, and when sending Dorian and the girls off on a four day epic and challenging hike I had talked them into without me. I hoped Dorian would be ok.
So it was with a heavy heart that I drove Dorian and the girls to the Mt Madison trailhead, stopping to refill steering fluid along the way. (We were originally going to take a shuttle to the trailhead, but I drove them so they could get an earlier start given the forecast for thunderstorms later in the day). I told them I’d book a train to the top of Mt Washington and would be there from 2:30-3:30 the next day if my back was up for it.
I then drove to a nearby auto shop that redirected me to a large Honda dealership with a service department miles away that could service our poor minivan immediately (thank goodness again!). It was pretty much hemorrhaging steering fluid at this point. I perused new cars while waiting for the minivan to be ready. We could replace our minivan with a hybrid all-wheel-drive crossover SUV with a panoramic sunroof and fancy safety features!
But after a few hours the minivan was fixed, it was driving fine, and the two of us made our way back to the Highland center together (where I had managed to book an extra night for myself). The two of us still have some more miles in us, aches and leaks and all.
[Continued in Week 33: Faith]