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from Tombstone to River City to the Black Lagoon
For most of the past twenty-five years, my husband and I have taken brisk walks almost every day.
When we lived in Pittsburgh, we walked weeknight evenings on neighborhood streets past refurbished row houses. On weekends, we headed toward a nearby cemetery. Once inside the gates, hundreds of large trees blocked the din of city traffic and created a park-like atmosphere. As we walked, I enjoyed imagining fictional characters from names and dates on the tombstones.
After moving to a small town, we developed a new walking routine. My husband walked faster than I, so after we hiked a third of the way up a steep street, he forged ahead of me. At the top, he headed around a circular road which curved back to meet the main street where I caught up with him. Then we walked together down the hill, often holding each other up on slippery winter asphalt.
We didn’t walk in extreme weather, or if one of us were ill, or if we had a commitment elsewhere, but we walked, on average, six days each week. During vacations, even though we may have traipsed miles through museums or historical mansions, we trudged off our restaurant dinners with laps around motel parking lots.
But things changed eight years ago when I cracked a bone in my left ankle. It was a stupid move. I was in Missouri for a college graduation. So enthralled with snapping photos of gorgeous blooms at the Shelter Insurance Company gardens, I stepped on the edge of a sidewalk, turned my ankle and bruised my knee in the resulting fall.
Two months later, my right foot slipped off the heel of a backless sandal and I cracked my other ankle. That one healed quickly, but for over a year, my left ankle throbbed unless I wore a brace. Before long, I twisted my right knee by stepping into a depressed area on our lawn. The knee bothered me for a few weeks, then the pain subsided, but I kept reinjurring it with seemingly normal movements. Once while walking from my car to work, a strong whiff of asphalt from a repaving operation in the parking lot brought on a sneeze so severe that I twisted my knee again. When signing out at the security desk at the end of my shift one night, my rubber-soled shoe stuck to the floor when the rest of my body turned to leave. With each reinjury, no matter how minor, the pain lasted longer and eventually did not go away at all. By that time, I was almost resigned to being a disabled couch potato.
X-rays showed nothing, but because my knee pain increased, my doctor ordered an MRI which revealed a torn meniscus and sprained ligaments. On a scale from one to ten, the pain was rarely below a three, usually five to seven, occasionally as high as nine. After several rounds of cortisone shots which worked for a while, followed by ever-increasing pain, at age sixty-one, I opted for surgery.
After my operation, I hobbled on crutches for 5 days, then moved to a cane for several weeks. My surgeon advised me that he had found more arthritis than he had suspected, so that knee-replacement surgery may be in my future. Meanwhile, six weeks after surgery he suggested I try walking for exercise again.
I purchased two sets of Nordic walking poles on eBay. About a year earlier, I had read an article about the poles, which were developed for cross country skiers to work out in the off season. However, they have several other advantages. They take some pressure off the knees, ankles and hips, thus providing relief for those problem areas. They work the upper body as well as the lower body, supposedly without feeling that one is putting forth more energy than simple walking and use up to forty percent more calories than regular walking. They are recommended for those with balance problems or stiffness in the neck and shoulders such as those who work at computers all day. Generally the poles are designed in sizes meant for certain ranges of the user’s height or they are adjustable.
With our Nordic poles, my husband and I started by circling the block around our house, just once. Although I had little pain, the knee was tight and a bit uncomfortable, but we persisted. In our small town, the streets are arranged in a grid, with alleys halfway on each block both vertically and horizontally, so we easily added or subtracted a quarter or half block depending on how my knee felt.
The claim of not feeling like one is putting forth any more effort than walking without the poles, wasn’t true ---at least not at first. The first night I felt my flabby upper-arm muscles straining after about fifty steps, but as weeks passed that feeling went away. One can walk in two-wheel drive, using mostly one's legs. But in four-wheel drive, making good use of the arms, one gets a better work out.
Our aim is to walk every night, but after a day of shoveling snow or yard work, we may be too exhausted. My knee isn’t one hundred percent better, but it is almost pain free. As a bonus, my husband, who had a recurring shoulder problem that kept him awake, is sleeping well.
Recently, we have been driving 15 miles either north or south to walk in a county or a state park several times each week. I usually take my camera with me. When we don’t have time for that, we walk in our neighborhood.
But when we first started Nordic walking, we stayed in our small community. Our town is quiet and very safe, nearly boring, but we like it that way. We enjoy walking late at night. In any season, there is nearly no traffic after dark. In the summer, it is much cooler than earlier in the evening, but if it is still hot and humid, I find I am sluggish and tire easily. On a cool, crisp night, I walk with more speed and stamina.
Because I still have difficulty walking down grades (up is okay) we plotted a walk that keeps us on flat areas. My standard walk is 2500 to 5000 paces, depending on how my knee is feeling. My husband usually takes an extra swing out to Main Street once I return home. He walks faster than I do, but we manage to remain close together by my walking the middle of the street in a straight line, while he slaloms diagonally from curb to curb.
We don’t talk much while we walk, but I often write stories in my head. When we smell burning wood, I imagine young adults drinking too much at a summer party. When I see a cat in a window, I develop a tale about his witnessing a late-night crime from his high perch. I make up a story about the man watching the flickering TV behind the sheer drapes. As snowflakes melt on my cheeks, I concentrate on deep breathing while I write another story in my head about an obsessive widower with a million holiday lights.
On one corner, we pass a yellow frame house with white trim, a white picket fence, and a porch furnished in white wicker with railings draped in red, white and blue bunting in the summer. I mention to my husband that it looks like it should be part of a movie set, like in.... In unison we both say, “The Music Man.”
Toward the edge of town, we pass a large open field with knee-high grass. A dense fog hovers over the vegetation. We know that a quarter mile away, roughly parallel to the street, is a creek. The fog rolls from it, sometimes carrying an ominous swampy odor our way. Creepy black forms are trees, but they could be swamp monsters. I mentally create a story about Marion the Librarian meeting the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
We enjoy our nightly walks with our Nordic walking poles, glad that all the trouble in River City is completely in my imagination.
Well, except for the night when my husband found a man passed out in front of a bar on Main Street. But that is his story.
(text & photos ©2009, C.J. Peiffer)
Note: the photos were made by combining several photos of my husband (who didn't want to show his face) using Photoshop.