I am always amazed by stories of people who are told they cannot do something anymore after an injury and then come back to prove everyone wrong. Welcome contributor Nikki Carson to the blog today as she discusses how a fall threatened to end her hiking career, but she refused to let it.
On January 9, 2014, I dislocated and fractured my ankle in nine places while stepping off a bottom porch stair. My foot landed in a divot and my body fell the opposite direction. As I lay on the ground I waited for a moment for the pain to subside, feeling embarrassed, hoping I could get up before anyone saw me, and assuming I had only twisted it. When I looked down my foot was pointing in the wrong direction. My co-worker was nearby and took me to the hospital. I had to have surgery and a metal plate put in with 12 screws, nine on one side and three on the other.
That was the beginning the longest, hardest year of my life.
I began physical therapy about a month after the accident. Two years before the injury I had gotten into backpacking. When I met with my physical therapist the first time, he asked about my lifestyle. I told him I was a backpacker and asked him how long I was looking at until I could return to the trail. I will never forget his answer.
“With an injury like this you will never backpack again. Take up fishing.”
His words just hung there in the air between us. I was too shocked to even react. I looked down and mumbled “ok”, and tried to hold back my tears. I remember going home and being PISSED. It wasn’t fair. I had finally found a hobby I loved at 36 years old and now, what? It was being taken away?!? How could this be?! I remember laying on the couch and feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I was in a dark place.
A couple days later my mom called to see how I was doing. I shared with her what my physical therapist had said, trying to spit the words out in between sobs. Her response, “Give me a break, Nicole. You do whatever you want to do. You are going to let some stranger tell you what you are capable of? I raised you better than that. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start working on healing.”
So, I did. In addition to my three days a week of physical therapy, I constantly did my exercises at home. It hurt. It sucked. I can’t even explain how bad it all sucked. I slowly healed and moved from wheelchair, to crutches, to a cane, to a slow, hitching limp.
I started going on easy walks through the park. A 1/8 mile was a reason to celebrate. I got stronger. The limp subsided. My walks got longer and longer. The first time my husband took me to attempt a trail was about a year after the accident. It was an easy trail. Well, it should have been. The uneven ground was difficult. My ankle would randomly give out. Going downhill was the worst. I fell down five times. I called my dad after that hike and told him I didn’t think I could do it. A week later a pair of hiking poles showed up in the mail with a message from my dad. “Use these and try again.”
The poles helped immensely. When my ankle gave out I was able to stay upright. I went on more day hikes. Longer day hikes. Harder day hikes. I had some of my confidence back after a year and a half, but still had not attempted to put on my loaded backpack and attempt any of the longer trips I craved.
Last summer I decided I was ready.
Boy, did I have a chip on my shoulder and something to prove to myself.
My husband and I packed up our packs and my dad and his wife dropped us off at the trail head at White Pass in Washington. Our car was waiting at Chinook Pass. It was a 28-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. My friends told me I was crazy. My husband was incredibly supportive of what I was trying to do, but I imagine he was secretly skeptical as well.
That trip was the most incredible trip of my life. It was not easy for me. The first day I think I only made it four miles with the extra 50 lb. weight of the back pack. The next day five miles. Then six. It took me five days to complete something most could finish in two or three. My husband snail paced along with me, never once complaining. I am not going to lie. The trip was not without adversity. There were some CRAZY things that happened. Being on an exposed ridgeline during a lightning storm (I’m terrified of lightning). Losing my husband for a couple hours (that is a whole different story for a separate blog post). But being back out in the mountains I felt free. I remember climbing up what seemed like an endless set of switchbacks and getting to the top and looking down at the lake we had eaten lunch at. I just climbed that mountain!! My ankle hurt and was swollen, but here I was, at what felt like the top of the world, looking down into the valley below. If I could climb that mountain I KNEW I could make it to Chinook Pass!
The day we arrived at Chinook Pass was like no other day I had ever experienced in my life. I felt invincible. I felt like I could do anything. Absolutely anything. Nothing was out of the realm of possibility. I had conquered the trail. I had conquered my body. But most importantly I had conquered my fears, in the most breathtaking, awe inspiring scenery the beautiful state of Washington has to offer.
And I am not done. Not by a long shot.
This summer we are going back and backpacking from Chinook Pass to Snoqualmie Pass. It is 70 miles. I have no doubt in my mind I can do it. In fact, I’m working out as hard as I can and hoping to do 10 miles a day. We are giving ourselves two weeks just in case, and if things go well and I can do the 10 miles a day we will continue to Stevens Pass, which is an additional 70 miles.
It continues to amaze and humble me that what at first seemed like the worst possible thing that could happen, turned out to be the best. If I had not gotten injured and had something to prove to myself I most likely would have stuck with overnight backpacking trips. I never would have felt the feeling of power and freedom that comes with really pushing myself out of my comfort zone and far from the trailhead, and truly experiencing something remote and wild and scary and huge.
Anything is possible now.