Taking the grief journey on the John Muir Trail – surviving a broken leg

2AB93A29-108C-4D28-BDE3-2A8BB1059D49It’s September 17, 2019 and I am in physical therapy. Have you ever picked up individual marbles with your toes and transfer each one ever so carefully into a small Tupperware box six inches away? That’s my big physical and mental challenge for the week, other than getting around minus my left leg.

A few weeks after I completed my backpacking venture on the John Muir Trail in California’s high Sierra mountains, I find myself sitting on the edge of a table with my physical therapist coaching me to will my left toes to pick up the biggest marble.  The task is impossible. It takes all my brain cells and foot agility, applying mind over matter, with the matter being this mini golf-ball sized thing.  Can I do this?  Focus. Toes swollen, they grab onto the marble and drop it into the box. Mission accomplished.

I laugh to myself, thinking less than a month ago, I got tangled with a rock after descending Forester Pass, the highest point along the Pacific Crest trail at 13,200 feet.  I handled the hard part with no issues, taking extreme care and caution, watching every step to make sure I would not trip or slip. Once I was down the pass and hiking the easy part in the high basin, I was more interested in filling my eyes with the indescribable beauty of the trail than watching where I was going.  My lack of attention and some exhaustion caused me to trip and fall hard.  I thought I twisted my ankle, without realizing, until several days later, I also broke my left fibula (lower left leg bone).  Probably a good thing I didn’t know or I would have gone into immediate panic demanding to be airlifted to civilization.

Since I could get up and put some limited weight on my left foot, I proceeded to backpack the rest of the trip, another 32 miles to the finish line.   Pains of blisters, upset stomach and other ailments that can occur in the wilderness completely dissipated.   Getting up and putting one foot in front of other was the challenge for the rest of the adventure.

Fortunately, I was backpacking with a great group of people and they all pitched in to help me.  As I was getting up to test my leg, a flurry of activity followed, involving tossing items out of my pack and into the packs of others.  I joked with my friends that I planned the fall to get out of carrying a weighted pack.  I limped the last two miles of the day to our camp spot.

Once I got to camp, I immediately hobbled to the creek and submerged myself waist down in the cool Sierra water.  Basked in the afternoon sun and taking in the view, I thought this is much better than waiting in an emergency room for crutches.   Nature’s pain pill.

I nearly fell asleep…thinking, “How did I get here?”  Thinking, “Logan I love you.  What are you trying to tell me?”

Early 2017 – starting a new life

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My Subaru is packed and ready to go.  My four bedroom, two-car garage house is downsized to what fits in the back of my car. I am left with clothes I actually wear, documents, and a memories captured in hundreds of photos.  Everything else had to go, including my once coveted awards I won over the years for my work in broadcasting and communications. None of that matters anymore.

Logan use to sit in the passenger seat on many of our trips together.  This is a different kind of trip.  Next to me is a multi-color beaded basket.  It contains Logan’s ashes.  I wrap the basket in his baby blanket and place a cross made of twigs on top.  I couldn’t bury him.

Logan is my son.  Even though he died in a truck crash when he was 19-years-old on July 22, 2016, I think of him in the present tense.  His misplaced energy flows through me, although it’s not clear what I should be doing to carry on his memory and love.  Nothing is clear other than I am leaving Virginia where Logan grew up and driving 1,668 miles across the county to my other home state of Colorado.

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Shortly after Logan died, my grief therapist told me I had to strengthen my grief muscles.  I had difficulty processing that.  It was too painful.  So I thought going on some sort of wilderness expedition in Logan’s memory would help.  I wasn’t ready for that mentally, emotionally or physically, but the idea was born.

While still in Virginia, I transferred my pain into physical fitness, with a loose goal of being able to backpack the John Muir Trail.   Logan was the most determined and goal-oriented person I knew, particularly with his athletics and running.  I could feel his energy when thinking about the trail.

Stark reality hits. Could this broken down, grief stricken, woefully out of shape, middle aged woman be able to survive any kind of expedition without breaking something?

Thanks to my friend Sandy Snead with an intoxicating can-do attitude, she encouraged me to sign up for a boot camp.  I was absolutely pathetic to start off with.  Slowly, I gained strength and very gradually transformed physically.  Those cold nights when the team was doing sit ups on a steep hill in the frozen grass, I looked to the stars and smiled, thinking of those clear star-filled nights Logan and I gazed upon as we traveled Canyonlands in Utah. Maybe I am not building my grief muscles, but strength has to start somewhere, beginning with these ridiculous sit ups in the dark, freezing cold.

Months of training got me ready to take the mountains seriously.  If I am to continue this new found Logan-energy, I had to return west.

The mindset to John Muir was evolving.

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” John Muir

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