The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Seven

The Long Sigh

Oooooooooooh, when you are halfway to wherever you are going, your feet will speak. Oooooooooooh, your knees will know. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHhhhhhh.

Let's take it from the top. You are going to climb a mile into the depths of the Grand Canyon, a downhill jaunt. If you read ahead to our journals, you'll notice that even going down--maybe especially going down--is beastly tough. Naturally, when you're just starting your hike, your legs don't understand what's happening to them--and they don't want to. But the real truth is (a) they're getting your gravity-assisted body bashed relentlessly against them, (b) your body has 50 extra pounds of absurd pack on it, and (c) you're seven thousand bloody feet above sea level, no pun intended. We're from Vermont, which is called the Green Mountain State. Our "mountains" would barely poke through the surface of the Colorado River, which is already more than 2,000 feet above sea level; heck, we live 1/4 mile under the Colorado! (That is thick air, but more on air elsewhere).

So on the way down, your boots had better be comfy for your toes. Take it from those who, six months later, still have loose, black toenails--you need comfy boots! The boot rules:

1. Buy a good hiking boot. This is not a running shoe, not a Birkenstock nor any sort of earth sandal, not a sneaker nor a sports shoe, not a work boot ... and especially not high heels and, yes, we have seen folks 'way down on the Bright Angel Trail in high heels. A good hiking boot has treads that grip slippery rocks (cross-examine your sporting goods sales clerk on this point, and indignantly threaten lawsuits), but uses tread materials that are known for their environmental friendliness. The boots should have reasonably high, supported ankles (something a nice designer logo does not necessarily assist), and fit comfortably but not at all snugly. Remember to try some on while wearing hiking socks--two layers of them if that's what you think will be comfortable.

2. Never hike in new boots. Wear the boots long before your leave for your hike. Should you dare to hike in spiffy new dog-covers, not only will you be uncomfortable, you will hurt very badly, and you may injure yourself in lots of unpleasant-looking and long-lasting ways (Stevie's still got a peculiar, knotty, bumpy thing that refuses to go away). Wear the boots everywhere every day, splash through water and walk them dry, work and shop in them, do long walks or short hikes, and generally get them well broken-in--without wearing them out.

3. If the new boots aren't working out comfortably, don't live with them! Boots are expensive, but you won't regret getting a different pair and unlacing your current ones for slippers. I've worn out three pairs of Nikes and I like them well, but I stumbled all over the trail when I wore Merrills; David wears Fabianos. They're all great books, but it's all personal in boot-monde. Choose a shoe that won't catapult you off the Tonto Platform.

4. Up is pulling, down is bashing. Make sure there's no pressure on your toes as you work your way down hills, and that your heels and ankles don't rub when climbing up. Wet & walk dry some more, to be certain.

Long Way Down It's a long way if the boots ain't good

Once you've begun hiking into the Canyon, don't take those boots off until you're done for the day. Comfy or not, your feet are getting fatter--bashed, squooshed and swelling--and they're forming themselves to that boot. Pull off the boot and poof!, instant blowfish-foot.

Your boots won't save you in every situation, especially on that second or third day, so take a small array of bandages: The usual plastic strips are great where there's no rubbing (such as the sides of your calves that got ripped up by the myriad forms of attack-brush, cactus and razor rocks). Toes can be wrapped in silk surgical tape so the tape does the rubbing, not your skin. But by far the most wonderful hiker's blister-buster (sorry, bad choice of words) is Moleskin, a Dr. Scholl's one-of-a-kind product whose backing adheres to your toes; Moleskin feels wonderful as it helps a toe slide suedely past its neighbors. It has a soft, cottony surface that doesn't rub off into hard, nasty, little lint balls, and the adhesive conforms to your skin without peeling or rolling up (even in occasional splashes through water).

Feet are everybody's problem; but the following are special warnings for the middle-aged. We've all got middle-age medical problems now (see our lovely talk with one David from Cambridge in I'm Not Entirely Sure It's That Nice), and they're not happy subjects: bum knees, bad backs, incipient arthritis, hemorrhoids, and all the other delights that will end up dominating our conversations in another twenty years.

If you've got a bad back, make sure your pack fits! And don't be swinging the pack up off the ground. The twisting motion of a shifting pack (especially the internal-frame types) can snap that back into star-shooting pain. Have your friend (you are hiking with someone, aren't you?) lift the pack to your back. Know how your back most often goes out, and see if you can get your chiropractor or osteopath to instruct your hiking partner on how to safely return you to normal. Nothing's so embarrassing as a middle-aged hiker (you shouldn't be there anyway, the kids'll snicker) being expensively ferried out with a stupid bad back.

Bring knee wraps, supports or braces. I know you've had great knees all your life (or at least you've never considered the idea), but the combination of the pack and the downhill bashing is going to be a surprise for those well-used joints. The sharp, stabbing, incessant pain of a knee unexpectedly gone bad happened to both Stevie and me (Hermit and Tanner trail descents, respectively), causing the starbursts of virtual blindness, blotting out the beauty and grandeur around us. Our minds repeated endlessly, "stop, oooh, stop, oooh, stop!" The knee wraps gave us the extra support we needed to arrive at a comfortable resting spot for the night, where the abused joints recovered and strengthened for the rest of the hike; Ibuprofen and prescription Naprosyn also helped us through the worst moments, but these drugs make you inattentive! Use them as a last resort, or just stop!

At the end of the first day of a long descent, you may experience an interesting and psychologically maddening condition called sewing-machine leg. This is the rapidly escalating loss of control over which direction your legs actually go when your brain requests their action. They hippity-hop, shake and tremble, wiggle and swing like John Cleese's mad silly walk. Sewing-machine leg is your body saying once again, "hey, I don't wanna," so take a break--more and more breaks, as the day goes on--and if you can, just set up camp and relax for the night. You don't want to tremble your way off some precipice or wiggle yourself into an agave cactus.

Speaking of agave cactus, there are a variety of nuisances your untrained body will encounter on its descent. Loose rocks and pebbles will make you fall, wrench your ankle, and stub your toe ... so take your time; that is what you're there for. The stubbed-toe syndrome is a psychological science in itself; in carpentry literature, it is known as the hammered-thumb syndrome. Nine out of ten professional hikers (carpenters) will point out that once stubbed (hammered), the toe (thumb) will guide itself ever more frequently into the stubbing (hammering) zone, unless a conscious effort is made to re-train the stub-(hammer-)ee by slowing down and repacing your efforts.

Come Up Come Up From Down

Among the other nuisances are attack-brush, which is our generic reference to all the low-growing desert brush--really known as blackbrush scrub--that crowds the trail, including rabbitbrush, catclaw acacia, creosote bush, etc., as well as The Tammies, affectionately described in our journals. Your trail walk through blackbrush scrub needs to be a ballet of avoidance, for these plants are better adapted to the environment than you are; this is their desert, not yours, and they will reach out regularly to remind you. Cactus has a similar function that may seem obvious to the eye, but do not be deceived by cactus without apparent spines. One form of low-growing cactus called beavertail seems to present only cute little nubbins. Wrong. Touch them and you might as well rub powdered glass into open sores; these nasty micro-spikes are called glochids, if you care, which you won't if you touch them. Furthermore, don't brush against the agaves, the pineapple-shaped foliage sometimes seen with a large, flowering stalk coming out the center. While dancing around another plant, I backed into an agave and, as in some silent-film slapstick, a spring of fine, spurting blood geysers erupted surprisingly from my calf.

Finally, there are the razor rocks. Some varieties of volcanic detritus have what first appears to be a friendly, grey, pebbly surface--that is, if your depth perception is just a little distorted by the heat. Those "pebbles" are inverted, so to speak, into pockets with razor-sharp edges. Don't sit on one, flat though it may appear, or the bandages and sewing kit may soon follow.

Speaking of rocks, the need to sit on or under a rock comes from exhaustion or heat, and it's wise to pay attention. Desert hikers cannot emphasize enough the need for water. Hydrate (nice formal word) yourself thoroughly before going in--lots of water with nutrients. Contrary to many accounts, don't flush your system with clear water; pre-hike hydration is not an ascetic purification, it's to keep you alive. Nor should you load up on salt. In other words, keep your regular balance of liquids (other than diuretics like coffee and tea), just get plenty more than usual. Carry both clear water and water that's been mixed with one of the electrolyte replacers like Gookinade.

Once you're in, drink small amounts of Gooked water regularly, don't wait for thirst to call on you, and budget your water based on the length of your hike. Take more than you think you'll need--for example, four quarts should see you through the nine miles from the rim to Hermit Rapids during the spring or fall. Pay attention. It's easy to be overwhelmed by scenery, or to put off a sip until you're just over the next ridge, or to be beguiled by a long, shady stretch. Drink. Wear a hat. Sit under a big rock. Drink. If you feel lightheaded or nauseous or--absurd though it seems--if you want to fly, get into shade, cool off, don't try to fly, and drink; that's dehydration and heat exhaustion speaking. If you stop sweating, get flushed and your pulse quickens and shallows, you're in bad trouble; get shade, get cool, get water, get help. Use your emergency mirror, because now you've got one on your hands.

Don't take these few words of advice as your only guide. One good stretch without water--should you survive it--is the kind of practical lesson you need not be taught. So read about water and diet from a real hiking primer before you set out, and believe it.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.

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