If all has gone according to plan, while you are reading this Saturday morning I will be having breakfast with my friend Vinny. Vinny sprained his ankle on a trail run some weeks ago and has been nursing it back to health. As many of you surely know, a sprain can be a tricky thing, more severe and with a longer healing time than a broken bone, so it is taking some time.
I’m hoping that by this morning I will find Vinny has recovered sufficiently to be able to join us for a hike into Lost Brook Tract. But this is no certain thing, for there have been setbacks. Vinny wrote me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that he had “pushed too hard” with some sort of activity and was paying the price. Those of you who have met Vinny through my previous Dispatch should not be surprised to hear this. Vinny doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy to sit around and knit afghans with his ankle elevated, peacefully waiting for it to heal up.
My friends and family tell me that they know a guy who is impatient like that, who can be accused of pushing too hard every one in a while. As ever, there is a corresponding story.
About ten years ago, Amy and I planned an extended Adirondack vacation that was to introduce her more traditional car-camping family to the flavor of wilderness. For a few days we would canoe camp at Blue Mountain Lake with her parents, then go backpack for a few days and climb some peaks with her brother Dan, who is an athlete and thus able to keep up with our usual pace. Since Dan was so fit we discussed finishing the trip with something challenging, though we did not decide what. Because of the effort needed for everyone to travel a thousand miles east to do the trip and with all the attendant logistics, the expedition was a long time in preparation and was a significant commitment. We were excited.
The year of this trip was also my second year as a professional stilt walker. I was already pretty good at it, though not as much a master of it as I am now. We had a busy summer calendar of parades and festivals and Amy and I had already done several of them when I got a new pair of stilts. Fashioned of aircraft aluminum, they were taller and lighter than the ones I had been using.
One afternoon I decided to practice on the new stilts by walking to the shopping center near our home and picking up a pizza for the kids. Amy and I went together. We had ordered the pizza and were waiting outside, sitting on a fence when I noticed that one of the rivets holding the upper part of my right stilt together looked a little odd. Boy oh boy I should have gotten down right then. Instead I resolved to look into it when I got back to the house.
We picked up the pizza and turned for home, me holding it over my head, pizzeria-style. I hadn’t gone ten feet, still on the asphalt of the parking lot, when my right stilt dissolved under me.
Now people will ask one of us from time to time what happens when we fall. I tell them that we are trained to roll out of it. In three falls over twelve years I have sustained only minor scrapes and bruises because stilts act as giant levers, making a straight downward fall impossible. Instead they force a large arc (and slow arc, giving plenty of time to prepare) that translates downward motion to sideways motion and allows a tuck and roll out such as one would learn in a beginning gymnastics or martial arts class.
However the situation is disastrously different if one stilt breaks. Unable to stay upright on only one stilt, you fall. The remaining stilt, keeping your leg locked in, acts a lever in a destructive way instead of a helpful way. It forces you to pivot at the hip and you are actually pitched straight down faster, head first.
All of this was unknown to me at the moment. All I knew was that I was plummeting face-first to the ground as though I’d been thrown down. I got my hands up to save my head. The actual impact is a hazy, blurry, moment. I remember the force of the impact and a searing, deep pain that made me want to vomit. I saw my right hand, limp and hanging wrong, my wrist shattered, the bones pushing oddly against the skin. I felt wave after wave of nausea as I crawled, stilts still on, to the grass. I sat, slumped against a wall, in exquisite pain.
Amy got me to the hospital where I was x-rayed. The ER doctor came in an hour later with the news: my right wrist had multiple breaks and a detached chunk of bone. I was going to need reconstructive surgery, six weeks in an immobilizing cast, six more weeks in a smaller cast followed by physical therapy. In perhaps six months I’d have full use of the wrist again.
They splinted my arm and I was sent home to return for surgery two days later. In three-and-a-half weeks we were supposed to leave for our Adirondack vacation. Obviously it was off now.
That night I lay in bed trying to sleep despite the pain. I was not having much luck, but what was disturbing was that it was my left wrist, not my right one, that was throbbing the most. After a couple of hours of worsening pain we returned to the ER where my left wrist was found to also be broken. At least this one was merely a fracture: they cast it and back home I went, proud owner of two broken wrists.
The next day, determined to prove to myself – and the world, apparently – that I could function normally with two arms in casts, I resolved to cook dinner for Amy. I am not one to sit around feeling sorry for myself (except when playing cards with my mother-in-law) so dinner was as much an act of defiance as anything else. Twenty minutes in Amy came and rescued me, interrupting her piano lesson. I was in a teary rage, having tried every way I could think of to slice an onion, feet included, and having failed, the effort and pain too much. I realized that I was going to need time and a lot of help, which I got in spades from Amy. You know that the love of your mate is true when, with two arms largely reduced to awkward clubs you call out to her with “Honey, could you come in the bathroom for a minute?” and she is there no matter the task. I calmed down a little and resolved to accept a summer of no Adirondacks, no stilting, no volleyball and lots of other curtailed activities.
At least this more measured disposition on my part lasted one day.
The next morning I went to the hospital for my surgery. They x-rayed my splinted arm and I sat down to wait. After a few minutes the doctor came in. “Well now, this is pretty unlikely,” he said. “You may be a very lucky man.” He proceeded to tell me that by sheer good fortune – I think he said a one-in-a-thousand shot, something like that – when they splinted the arm every bone inadvertently lined up right where it was supposed to be, even the broken chunk.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t even want to go in there,” he said. “I think we ought to just leave the splint on and hope everything stays lined up. If it does, you might be out of this thing in six weeks instead of six months.”
He told me that it was a risk, that if the bones shifted all would be for naught and they would have to go in and pin things and my recovery would be set back all the more. “I’ll take that risk,” I replied. “So what is the timetable?”
“Well, the critical danger zone is about three weeks. In three weeks the bones will be starting to knit and the likelihood that they’ll shift then will start to shrink. But until then the likelihood that they will shift will be very great. If we’re going to try this and it is to have any chance to work, you must absolutely do nothing with that arm for the next three weeks. I mean you have to watch everything you do, even how you sleep. Am I clear?”
“You’re clear. Three weeks.” I started to do some internal mental calculations. You know where this is going.
“Doctor, in just over three weeks from now we were supposed to take a trip. Do you think I could go?”
“What is the nature of your trip?”
“Camping and backpacking.”
“No! Absolutely not, are you crazy? In three weeks you’ll be just starting to knit. All it would take would be one slip on a rock or a root. If you jar your arm or strain it you’ll re-break it and move bones around and then the surgery will be a lot harder. You will not be sufficiently healed for six weeks to get that splint off. You can’t do anything that involves exertion until then. ”
“What if I just camp, no backpacking, no using my arms for anything hard?”
Well… camping isn’t going to be materially different than being at home… IF you take it easy. Just keep the splint and cast dry and clean, and no cheating.”
“Okay, I promise. Thanks. This is a real relief.”
“Just see to it you are more careful than you have ever been in your life these three weeks,” he warned. “This plan is a gamble. And after that, camping only.” His face registered significant distrust, but off I went, splint in place for the duration.
For the next three weeks I was true to my word. I treated my right arm with great care; meanwhile as the pain in my left arm subsided it became my workhorse limb, cast and all (unlike my right arm it was not immobilized at the elbow). In a week’s time the use of my fingers in my left hand returned to a semblance of normality for light duty, though obviously they were constricted by the cast. I was able to function with relative regularity. Once in a while I would have a little accident or go too far and experience a wincing pain in my right arm; at such a moment I would feel panic that I had blown it, that my bones were out of whack. But overall the curve felt upward and I was hopeful.
At about the three week mark I went in for a check-up. The doctor reviewed the x-rays and told me that the right arm still looked good. The detached piece had shifted a little upward but he felt that it was not enough to warrant surgery, that it might look a little funny but would not impede my motion. He reminded me that I was not out of the woods, (so to speak, given my imminent plans) that I needed to take it easy on the upcoming trip. I went home and began packing.
The first part of the trip was canoe camping. Whenever I go to the Adirondacks I get energized and revitalized; I usually jump in to life in the woods at full throttle. The casts did nothing to dissuade me, so naturally I overdid it, hauling gear in and out of the canoe and helping make camp on the island. All of that work caused me to hurt pretty steadily.
At Blue Mountain Lake certain canoe routes through the islands are canonical in our family. I was excited to take my Mother-in-Law Jo on the most sacred route, around Osprey Island. In defiance of any common sense I invited her into the canoe that evening and attempted to paddle. My left arm had enough fingers to grip the shaft – though it did hurt a little – but my right arm could grab nothing. I figured a way to wedge the handle of the paddle between my fingers and the rim of the splint and use the splint as a lever, pulling and drawing the paddle with the left hand. This proved workable but of course put pressure on my fingers and torque on the splint, so naturally it was quite painful. I consciously calculated the days: three weeks, three days from splint to departure, one day to drive out, afternoon of the next day… hell I’m over three-and-a-half weeks in, no sweat, they have to be knitting by now.
Jo and I shared a beautiful paddle, saw all the required Blue Mountain Lake sights and I enjoyed a quiet evening at the camp site with my intensely throbbing right arm elevated.
The next two days were uneventful except for a little unplanned dip for the splint (that cold water did feel good, though!). The pain faded and I felt pretty good. It was time to backpack. Amy had insisted we play it by ear, doubting the wisdom of me trying it. I assured her that I felt great and the bones were knitting by now. “I’ll be careful,” I promised her. “Mmmm Hmmm” was her skeptical reply, but off we went.
The backpacking part of the festivities went pretty well. There were a few slips and bumps that caused momentary shots of pain but overall my splinted arm had a decent time of it, feeling more numb at the end of the day than anything else.
On the other hand (literally), things were not so rosy for the casted arm. I was exerting plenty in the hot weather and my arm would tingle and itch and generally feel clammy the entire time. Meanwhile the scent that started to rise from beneath the layers of the cast was, to put it mildly, robust. It got to the point that any shift of the arm that opened even a tiny amount of daylight between skin and cast would release a waft of odor that was nothing less than stomach-churning. For a while, like maybe the first hour of hiking, I made an effort to keep the cast clean and “dry” (sweat is not dry); after that I gave up due to the usual futility of such things in the Adirondacks. The exterior went from dirty green to green-brown, to yellow-green-brown and on to the color of rot, whatever that color is. All of this was worth it just for the fun looks I got from other hikers as they contemplated my appearance.
At the end of a week in the back country I never smell good, but this was a new record. Yet other than that and the itching, I felt just great. There was no pain any more to speak of, just a little discomfort here and there from swelling. Having the casts was now second nature; I could even use my splinted fingers a little bit. I was starting to feel downright invincible. Therefore when the subject of a final Adirondack event with Amy’s brother Dan came up, I assured them that I was up to something we had discussed before, namely a thirteen mile trail hike/run from Upper Works to Adirondack Loj via Avalanche pass.
The morning of our run I felt just great. We left the trailhead at an easy jog toward Calamity Pond. I was swinging my arms and hopping from boulder to boulder like any other time, without a care in the world. We hit Flowed Lands in about forty-five minutes. Our paced slowed as we navigated the trail past Colden and through Avalanche Pass, but on the way down from the pass Dan kicked it up a notch and we were off and running. I felt fabulous, even taking a tumble at one point without a problem.
As we got about halfway to Marcy Dam from Avalanche pass I started to have an issue. All along the run I had felt my arms swelling up more than usual. My fingertips were puffy and red and I felt a bit of aching discomfort in both arms. Coming off of Avalanche Pass my arm muscles had started to complain too, no doubt from swinging around that much with extra weight on them. But as we approached Marcy Dam the ache started to become painful, especially in the bad arm. My fingers were evolving from red into a purple shade that was quite disconcerting.
By the time we ran across Marcy Dam at around an eight minute mile pace, I was in a world of hurt. As we came on to the wide path to Adirondack Loj Dan upped the pace again. I tried to keep up but the pain in my splinted arm had reached shrieking proportions, nearly as bad as the first day or two after the accident. I had to stop running.
I walked – or rather, hobbled – out of the woods with both arms over my head, desperate to relieve the pressure from the swelling, lightheaded with the pain. Let’s just say those last two miles were as hard as I’ve done in the Adirondacks. I can acutely recall the feeling in my arms as I write this.
By the time we got to the cars the pain was somewhat less and by the next day it was reduced to a nagging soreness. The ongoing ache in my right arm had me worried for a while but as we drove home to Madison both arms returned to relative itchy normality. My focus changed to experimenting with all sorts of substances to mitigate the leaking stench. Some things made it worse: deodorant spray produced an effect I cannot describe. But baby powder did pretty well and baking soda was fabulous, though short-lived.
A few days after returning to Madison I went to my appointment to have both splint and cast removed for a thorough evaluation. Having realized that I would catch holy hell from the doctor when he saw the condition of the cast, I scrubbed the outside and had Amy doctor it up with all sorts of colorful drawings. By the time we were done the outside of cast betrayed little of the ridiculous trial through which it had been put. Confident in that and in how well my arms felt I sashayed into the clinic, ready to be freed of my burdens.
The doctor walked in with a smile. “How was your trip?” I told him it was wonderful. “Did you take it easy?” he asked. “Not always,” I replied, attempting to be at least a little bit honest. “Well, let’s see how they look,” he said.
The left arm was first. He pulled out the saw and started cutting the cast away, commenting on the artwork. Internally I beamed with pride at my clean-up effort. Sadly, I had not thought it through.
The doctor cut the length of the cast and pried it open.
A shower of debris came cascading out of broken cast, forming an impromptu Adirondack diorama on his previously sterile table. There were pine needles, bits of fern, dirt, small rocks, bugs, twigs, dried mud and leaves. It was an impressive display. I will remember the doctor’s face for the rest of my life. He just looked daggers at me, not a word emanating from his clenched lips. I’ve never seen someone appear more furious.
The splint was removed, the arms x-rayed and I was given (disappointedly, I think) a good report on the knitting of the bones. My left arm was given its freedom and my right was put in a Velcro cast used for sprains, to be maintained for three weeks. About a month later I tried my first pair of stilts, experiencing an unquestionable gut check as I stood up in them for the first time since the accident. Amy and I managed to get a full fall and Christmas holiday parade season in, albeit with wrist guards and some discomfort on my part here and there.
In time my wrists healed perfectly. They don’t bother me at all a decade later.
I still trail run from time to time, most recently the McIntyre range. I’ve broken a finger and a couple of toes in the intervening decade, but nothing serious.
I have learned to calm down over the years, not push too hard. My dream project, only put on hold because my mother, in complete seriousness, threatened to write me out of the will if I did it, is to stilt walk up Mount Marcy, perhaps as some sort of charity fundraiser.
I haven’t mentioned that idea to my doctor yet.
Photo: The family on Castle Rock, Blue Mountain Lake. Note the green!