Take A Hike

Whenever I go on a trip, my rheumatoid arthritis looms large in my travel plans. There are so many extra things I have to pack, such as medications, over-the-counter aides, and splints; there are the comfort issues I have to take into account when renting a car or choosing an airplane seat (aisle seats allow for more frequent stretching); and then there are the plans for the actual activities of the trip. Often, I have to leave the plans ambiguous, making sure my travel partners understand that I may or may not be up for a long day of sightseeing, and that I won’t know until the day itself how I’m going to feel. Now that it’s been 15 years since my diagnosis, I’ve become practiced in addressing these issues. As I have had plenty of trips where I was laid up in a hotel room taking a painkiller and listening to a guided imagery cd while my friends were off seeing what a foreign city had to offer, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that my traveling experience will be unpredictable. I no longer take an itinerary for granted. While this can all be extremely frustrating, when I am feeling well enough to sightsee, it is absolutely exhilarating.

I recently went on a trip that proved to be incredibly rewarding. A dear friend got married across the country in the Mojave Desert. As it was a very busy time at work, I had to make the trip in only four days, and getting to the remote location in Joshua Tree, California required many hours spent on planes and in cars. I worried about how I would fare with so much traveling in such a short time. However, with plenty of preparation and all of my travel tricks, I made it there in no greater pain than I typically experience. The day of the wedding I had the morning to spend as I liked, and I wanted to see as much of the strange, sometimes majestic and sometimes haunting landscape as I could. I was happy to see that there is a 25-mile road that cuts through Joshua Tree National Park, enabling me to see a lot of scenery without leaving the road. I packed my sunscreen, water bottles, and trail mix and headed for the park.

Once there, I was amazed at how much scenery could indeed be viewed from this route. There were frequent spots where one could park alongside the road, and I took full advantage of these opportunities to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies, amateur photography. When I got to a spot that was simply breathtaking, I parked the car and set out for a little hike. I had no set plans, as planning can be a tricky business when contending with RA. So instead of choosing a trail on the map, I decided I would just walk where the mood took me, and as soon as my joints told me to turn around, I would listen. There were quite a few other hikers out, and I saw a tiny figure high atop a rock formation. I marveled at his ability to climb so high, as I had witnessed him ascend a rock face to attain his current perch. I continued on, stopping frequently to take photos and to rest. As I made my way, I saw that there was an alternate route to the top of the rock formation, one that involved a climb far less steep than the one I had watched the tiny figure make. Again, I told myself I would start out on the path, and as soon as I felt the need to turn around I would.

Slowly but surely, with frequent breaks, I made my way to the top. In the end, I didn’t make it quite as high as the mountain climber had, as the last bit did involve a steeper ascent than I wanted to attempt. I in no way felt the loss of those final feet. Rather, I felt exalted in the height I had achieved and at the view I had obtained. There are days when climbing a flight of stairs is a challenge, so having a good day in which I was able to climb quite high on a rock formation in the middle of the desert felt nothing less than a gift. In these moments, the vivid memory of frequent pain serves as a reminder that movement is never to be taken for granted, and that a climb of any height should be measured by the distance traveled, rather than the distance remaining toward an end goal.

The next day, my muscles were sore but my joints were no worse for the wear. Muscle soreness from exercise is a pain I adore, as it is a souvenir of exertion rather than a signal my body is sending my brain that something is wrong. Indeed, this type of muscle soreness is a sign that something has gone right.

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