Trails and Staircases: relearning to walk

Esker-Lakes-hiking-trail (2)

I always loved the outdoors. As a child, I lived where I could roam on my bike over dirt roads or wander in the woods behind my house. We camped as a family, and then later I camped and hiked with my husband and our children. I took my daughter and one of my sons backpacking, just the two of us. We, as a family, went to Yellowstone for week-long camping trips that sometimes included canoeing as well as hiking.

But things change. We get older and fatter and in less good shape. In the last year and half, I have had both of my knees replaced, and in looking back, I see that knee pain prevented me from doing much physical activity (except water exercise) for many years. My surgeon told me when I finally decided to replace the knees that I had needed to have them replaced for at least three years before I actually did it.

Knee replacement surgery requires a lot of rehab, not just the formal period of at least six weeks, but also careful use for months after the event. However, what I find interesting is not just the physical rehab work, but the conscious mental work that has to happen as well.

I have never been a particularly daring person. I have never, for example, rock climbed because I am sure that in the contest between flesh and rock, rock always wins in the end. When I learned to downhill ski, in my forties, I never skied anything harder than an intermediate trail, and never so fast that I would fall. But a solid hiking trail, where my feet were firmly on the ground was always a joy. However, what I am finding as I am becoming more mobile again, is that both the pain of unreplaced knees and the rehabbing of new ones has tested my physical self confidence in unexpected ways. For years, I would happily go on a day hike to a local fire lookout tower or walk to the local park. But now that I have new knees, I can see how I became increasingly less confident of what my body could do. I was made particularly aware of this when I visited my daughter last week. The stairway in her house is a little steeper than the one in my own house, and as I was descending it two days ago, I realized that in the eight years she has lived there, I had never walked down that staircase with normal alternating steps, but had always led with which ever leg was more painful. Two days ago, I stopped at the top of the stairs, and thought about it. I chose not to rely on the old habit but to descend “like a normal person.” It sounds so simple. Just walking downstairs. We learn it when we are two or three years old, but I have had to relearn it. In relearning, I have realized that there is a moment in the action of descending when we are putting all our weight on one leg and balancing for that instant. We totally take that action for granted until we cannot do it. Relearning it is hard. Our bodies, when they are in pain, do not trust that instant of on-legged balance.

What I see is that the confidence that goes with walking effortlessly, which is what most able-bodied people do, can be relearned, but it is a learning process. It does not come back without struggle, but in the end, I finally know that I can walk up and down stairs without thinking about each step, and I can walk an uneven trail without undue caution again as well.



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