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On the occasion of getting sick while camping in the Guadalupe Mountains, May 13, 2003
by Christopher Dow
I wrote long ago that life was limitation. Certainly it is expansion as well, but the expansion is away from the material world. Within the material world, life is a constant process of limitation that science terms entropy. Nowhere is that more evident than in growing older and experiencing the onset of creeping decrepitude.
I’m out here in the Guadalupe Mountains with my friend Ditto. We’d planned to do a couple of overnight hikes through the mountains, but he needed to go home earlier than planned, so we drove separately. We also changed our itinerary to take in three one-day hikes: the first up McKittrick Canyon, the second into the lower reaches of the mountains, and the third up Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.
Let me say that I have done some hiking and backpacking in my life, but not much in the last few years. And right now, I’m fifty-two. But I’m in relatively good shape—I normally exercise four hours a week, and in anticipation of these hikes, I’ve been walking four days a week for the last seven weeks. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing three miles a stint at a pretty good clip—one hour. The last three stints, I carried a thirty-pound pack. Everything seemed okay, and I felt prepared.
McKittrick Canyon, the location of our first hike, is a lovely canyon that meanders into the northeastern Guadalupes. There is a streambed that is alive with water for parts of its stretch; a couple of miles into the canyon, there is a fine old stone lodge; and a little further along, a small but picturesque grotto is carved into the face of a small cliff. The grotto is as far as most day hikers go—about three miles into the canyon, but Ditto and I wanted to go a little farther. We thought we might go all the way to the upper point of the canyon, but but we hadn’t reached that at about four and a half miles into the canyon. With four and a half miles to return, we decided it was time to go back.
The trip back went well enough until the last couple of miles, when my left knee and hip started giving me a wrenching pain with every step. I might have expected my right—and weaker—leg to give out since I’d suffered from a degenerative bone disease in that hip as a child. But it was my left knee that was the culprit—maybe because I was favoring my right leg. By the time we got back to the camp and sat around for a couple of hours, my left leg had stiffened so much that it was excruciatingly painful to walk down even the slightest slope. It was still painful the next morning, so I encouraged Ditto to go ahead and do the second hike while I attempted to recuperate enough to hike to Guadalupe Peak the following day. I thought I’d go down to the ranger station and buy a staff to take along just in case.
So here I am, sitting out the hike into the lower reaches of the mountains, hoping my leg heals enough to hike up to Guadalupe Peak tomorrow. Actually, it’s not the up that bothers my leg but the down. But damn—I want to go up there.
However, there is another problem. This morning after Ditto left, I went down to the outhouse to take a crap, and the passing was prolonged and accompanied by sharp abdominal pains and nausea. Since then, the nausea has vanished, but for the last couple of hours, the abdominal pains have become cramps that have been getting sharper and more frequent, settling in my lower left abdomen. It is a somewhat steady ache punctuated by sharper twinges that grow more knifelike as time progresses. Enough to make me flinch and groan. Moving doesn’t seem to make them increase, but sitting still doesn’t seem to make them abate, either.
Last week, I had an intestinal virus that started in my stomach and sent waves of cramps and gas through my intestines. Over the course of a couple of days, it worked its way down to my bowels and, I thought, out of my system entirely as I had not experienced any intestinal discomfort for several days after.
But since beginning our camping trip, Ditto and I have been eating a lot of trail food—a hard and harsh diet my system is not used to. The first night in the mountains, I had excessive and very smelly gas, and I passed more gas on the hike yesterday. And some more this morning following the sharp intestinal pains. Is this a reoccurrence of the intestinal virus?
So, even if my knee wasn’t messed up, I couldn’t have hiked today, anyway. The cramping has grown so intense that I could barely make it the half mile down to the ranger station to buy the staff. But I’d rather have a good knee and be on the trail with Ditto and most of the other people in camp. I’m left here virtually alone, and I feel like an invalid—a feeling I absolutely detest and a condition I don’t do well with. It’s not the being alone—I tolerate that pretty well. The bad things are the pain and the understanding that I have come all this way for a much-needed and anticipated vacation with my friend, and I’m going to have to cut it short. And I hate prolonged illness because it helps destroy my over-all health and vitality—conditions in short supply for folks who are growing older.
And that’s the crux of the matter—growing older and having to give up things and activities and be forced to sit things out and watch from the sidelines. Being forced to give up more and more in an ever-increasing progression of loss. Lost flexibility, libido, strength, stamina, mental clarity. Memory.
If I sound like I’m whining, make no mistake—I know that each and every person who lives long enough must face the same decline, the same losses. For some, such as those who experience problems like injury or obesity in early or mid life, those losses are built into the psyche and are usual and normal and come as no shock. Those who remain active, however, must face a more precipitous decline—an avalanche, if you will, where one stone loosened eventually causes a cascade to come crashing down in a heap of rubble.
I’m not ready for the rubble heap, though is anyone? I admit I’m tired of many aspects of life, and most of what passes for culture and entertainment utterly bores me. Maybe that’s why I like to go driving alone around the countryside—it’s new territory and I don’t have to deal with the people who inhabit it. But even the road wears thin and must, as with all things, eventually come to an end.
I recently called my dad on the phone to wish him happy birthday, though he’s seventy-five, and at that age, birthdays are perhaps ugly reminders of how little time remains and how much more there is to give up before the final divesting of the body itself. I asked him about growing old, and he said that during the last few years, he has seen a definite physical change in himself. “I look in the mirror,” he said, “and I’ve got old-man arms and old-man legs, and my flesh sags.” Though he tries to take a Buddhist attitude of detachment, I thought I detected a wistful tone in his voice.
I’m more than twenty years younger, yet even without a mirror, I feel the changes creeping here, insinuating there. Stamina, sexuality, strength, all fading. Liver spots appearing like subtle hints of greater ugliness to come. And worst of all is a growing intellectual and emotional ennui, an increasing lack of giving a shit.
Both my parents say they don’t mind aging—and I’m with them to a certain extent. I like having the wisdom of experience, but why must wisdom be purchased at the price of lost ability and drive to apply that wisdom to the world and one’s own life? It’s just one more of those eternal questions that do not seem to have answers. But surely the answer is not more life—or even eternal life—because I suspect there’s too much life to live it all, even if one were to live an eternity.
We are who we are, we do what we do, and everything we are and do seems equally meaningless and meaningful. I suppose aging is really no different. Perhaps it is the opportunity—necessity!—to divest oneself of some of the meaningless dross. Maybe that’s why we become wiser as we grow older—we’ve simply let go of some of the stupider characteristics within us. I hope so since I have plenty of stupid to spare. But I know that eventually I also must confront the loss of things that have been meaningful—or at least that seem to have some purpose no matter how transient. And I must accept those losses without regret or anger or frustration or longing, or they will simply drag me into bitterness as I vegetate toward whatever it is that death promises.
Perhaps I can begin with the pains in my leg and abdomen. Surely I can lose those and never look back with regret at their passing because here I am, looking with regret at the backside of Guadalupe Peak, knowing that attaining its summit on this journey is unlikely. I had hoped to return with a precious memory of that attainment, though I suppose, in the end, I will have to give up that non-memory along with everything else.
So, with my time growing shorter, I can only console myself that there is too much life for one life, and that for each of us there will be summits unattained. I can only attempt to continue divesting myself of the dross so that I can proceed, for as long as is given me, with pursuing the meaningful.