Traveling With My Father While Living With Chronic Pain
This conversation takes place in the mountains, because I cannot picture us anywhere else. One day you are leading me to the tip of the Appalachian Trail, through the Smoky Mountains all the way to Katahdin. Another day you are walking by my side through a valley in Peru, a tiny Quechua village where we will eat a tiny dinner and sleep in tiny beds side-by-side. This conversation changes but never really changes: where will we go next, which peak will we summit. Even at night in the pouring rain, when water seeps through our tent and our teeth clatter like bones, we talk about the places we want to go.
We can talk about anything when there’s no one else around, and our peaks don’t need to be real. They can crumble like the red rocks of Zion or melt like the glaciers in Montana. Some days you are guiding me through snow, deep into the Colorado backcountry where the nights are frigid and sleep is fleeting. You walk in front, creating tracks for my feet to follow until I’m big enough to carve my own. The avalanches, the mending muscles, and the frostbite are real, but these are not reasons to be still, no matter where we are. I suppose I lead you sometimes through the New York City subway, where the cliffs in Patagonia call to us while we grip the bars like rope, our fingers smelling of dirt and metal. The view in Dumbo is great, we agree, but we do not like it here; we wish to be somewhere else.
The mountains love people like you, people who skim their feet over the world as if it’s water. You’ve raised us this way, to never stand too long in one spot and to move our feet until our eyes have seen it all. My toes are aching now, blistered after days on ice and rock and river. The Haute Route runs from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland, and you’ve wanted to hike the distance since you were 10 years old. I bet you never thought you’d do it with your daughters, but here we are, walking along an alpine trail that takes us up and down, up and down, and up and down. Some days we climb over bouldering passes five-thousand meters high, hoping the wind will push us in the right direction. The walks aren’t technical, but our bodies burn all the way to the top, where almost-frozen snow scrapes our knees and breaks our skin. The blood doesn’t bother us until night, when we’ve descended into the valleys, quiet and colorful villages surrounded by the Swiss Alps.
We wash dirt and sunscreen from our skin wherever we can find a stream, the water harsh on our purple-red legs. On our scariest days, we hustle through pastures with the meanest looking cows you’ve ever seen. They snort at us and stomp their feet. As they inch closer I can see their nostrils, ringed and dripping. Other days, when walking feels tedious, we buckle up. Your harness ropes to ours and together we climb mountain faces and cross glaciers. We listen to the water run beneath our bodies, our conversation swallowed by the river.
Our French is poor, but you can speak to anyone, and we always find our way. Some nights, when the sun has slipped too soon, we rest in alpine huts, simple lodges knitted into the mountains. The peaks lie jagged around us, relentless blades that seem to have erupted from the ground to pierce the sky. Sleep is never comfortable here, not in the valleys and not in the mountains. The forest floor looks soft until roots knot in our shoulders, creating intricate patterns of swollen muscles that creak under heavy packs. The alpine huts’ communal wooden planks seem fine until snoring strangers fall asleep, the only ones to wake up rested. Yet for some reason, the sleepless nights go unremembered. They are simple bridges from one day to the next, and all it takes to cross them is time. When we wake in the early morning, our thighs stiff with lactic acid, it doesn’t matter that we tossed and turned all night. We feel as we expect: as though our legs will never move again and we should curl up like babies and call a helicopter to fetch us and bring us back to civilization. We have an unspoken rule, though, to never say these things out loud. Adrenaline will pulse and keep us moving as soon as we step outside.
My writing is a lie to some extent. A photograph from our trip tells the truth: we stand together, your arms resting at your sides as my left arm presses against my stomach in a sling. Around us, the Swiss Alps mean more than any mountains have ever meant, but a photograph can’t show everything. There is pain coursing through my body; my fingers are tingling and the nerves in my neck burn. With every step, there are shocks running down my shoulders and chest. In the photograph, we stand without backpacks. You have taken yours off to stretch and ease your shoulders, and it looks almost as though I have done the same. I haven’t. I hiked the Haute Route without a backpack. Your body must have ached from carrying all my gear, yet you never complained. You knew I needed you.
You see, this conversation is complicated and happens in places I never wanted to be: in an airplane flying to another hospital. We visited doctor after doctor searching for a diagnosis, your briefcase full with medical files and a list of things we could do after each appointment. “In case there’s extra time,” you would say, trying to distract me from the pain that wells up like a bloody blister in my chest after I have sat for too long. This conversation takes place in a hospital bed, where my body is tense in a flimsy gown that feels like paper against my skin. You attempt to tie the strings in the back, but the fabric won’t fit together, and I am never truly covered. When we hear the knock on the door, you rise to stand beside me. The famous neurologist tells us he has no answer. Your eyes run red as sick defeat coils in my throat.
This conversation takes place in generic waiting rooms. We pretend to read “National Geographic,” thumbing through the greasy pages and nodding at photographs of stoic animals or beautiful places. We wait for MRIs and CAT scans, for experimental injections, and for test results that mean nothing. Sometimes we wait a long time. The waiting rooms all look the same, and they blend together in our minds. This conversation is the question that keeps me awake at night, the one I ask after every futile appointment. It is the question that cannot be answered, at least not in the way I want. My question haunts you, I know. I do my best not to voice it aloud, but sometimes it spills out of me. What are we supposed to do now?
The Haute Route was our first trip after my illness. We knew hiking would be different; my breathing patterns had changed and my nerve impulses were shattered. The muscles that had once decorated my calves, biceps, and forearms — souvenirs of an athletic childhood — were gone after months of futile rest. My normal had atrophied; it had withered away in gradual and then sudden bursts until I didn’t know if I’d ever heave my body over a mountain again. The longing remained, though, even when everything changed. You figured out a way for us to hike the Haute Route, but it was more than that. You also figured out a way to bring a little of my normal back.
I imagine this conversation in the mountains because it’s the only place we want to be — shivering in a tent along the rugged coastline of Washington State, listening to sea lions talk to each other in the Pacific while the mountains tower behind our bodies. This conversation is right now, tomorrow, yesterday, as we sit on the edge of a cliff somewhere between Chamonix and Zermatt. We have stopped for lunch and chosen a spot both daring and breathtaking. I have nothing to hold, and you watch me with close eyes, breaking apart a sandwich for us to eat. Our feet dangle in the air as we throw ideas into the wind. Nepal. Alaska. New Zealand. “We’ll figure out a way,” you tell us. “Just look at where we are.”
Our conversation is tinged sometimes. We don’t have forever, and your knees are wearing down. One day I will be well enough, I hope. One day there will be a cure. Let me carry your load then, when you need it most. We will go longer and farther. This conversation is the three of us walking in silence, our heads bowed under the pressure of our lives, our gear and my illness no longer mine to shoulder alone. Always one foot in front of the other, as slow as our bodies need to go, until Zermatt appears in front of us, the Matterhorn growing from behind the clouds.
Getty image by Scanrail.