Thank you, Sciatica

I really mean it. No sarcasm here.

If it weren’t for my painful, incessant, sometimes debilitating, treatment resistant, Sciatica condition, I would have completely missed out on one of the most beautiful and poignant moments of the season.

It didn’t come to me while confined to the backyard, perched on an ice pack in the only bearable chair I own, glaring at the garden trying to discover “beauty” in the intertwined dance of towering invasive weeds. Okay yes, that there is sarcasm.

Ironically, this experience bubbled it’s way out through a morning of exertion and sweat, a racing heart, grinding teeth, burning thighs, raging thirst and a sudden switch of gears – figuratively and literally.

We often try to set aside a weekend to carry out a self-imposed “Mountain Bike Personal Challenge”, heading for some of the grueling trails offered in Allegheny State Park, NY.

Actually, the hardcore enthusiasts in the area pooh-pooh these trails because they’re not single-track and apparently lack ample bone splintering threats. So this year, out of either curiosity or insecurity, we made an initial stop at their favoured WNYMBA rated trails near Holiday Valley.

Right off the mark these trails feature great technicals enshrouded in dense forest, but we weren’t a mile in before realizing we were a bit out of our league. Our bikes are pretty good, but would be in grim shape at the end of the ride. One of us might be sporting a cast for the rest of the summer. When you’re self-employed you process such visions before taking on any physically questionable feat.

Speculation hits me on the Allegheny trails too but there, I feel more in control. I will maybe see that bear ahead of time, and I can shred a gear without flying over a boulder into a rocky creek. Stuff like that gives me comfort. We loaded back up, satisfied to merely kiss the track and headed towards Salamanca and the State Park.

Allegheny inclines can be super-tough and painful in their own right, depending on the trail level selected. As for the descents, I feel there are more than enough rocks and tree roots to negotiate while barreling down at 30-mph chanting my mantra of “oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap….” I’m good with that level of challenge, thanks.

Lately, my pain has really flared up. On this day, it took very little for one trigger to suddenly tweak master control in my brain sending off an alarm to the ego shouting, “don’t be an idiot, you have an injury! And you’re self-employed.” I crumbled and humbled myself, chose a lower gear and resigned to peddling very slowly. I’d never done that before.

Yet, something began to happen.

I was very familiar with this hill.  We’d tackled it many times and well knew its trademark ruts and roots. Usually, we’d commit to “own this damn trail” and earn that beer at the end. I’d be facing off with the incline like a real enemy, grunting and straining every muscle to fight back, push myself up. Sometimes I’d even consider vomiting all over its face. Not a pretty scene.

But suddenly, my sense of self, time and place felt entirely different. Creeping up the hill, in my lowest gear, I now had time to look up and around with eyes that opened just a little wider than usual. The self-shame of slowing right down gave way to absolute awe of the acres and acres of untouched forest stuffed all around us.

Now here’s something I would never ever have done before. I heard something that forced me off my bike. I came to a dead stop and bounced off. Not only that, I waited patiently until I heard it again and then I actually prowled around the trail trying to find its source.

I’m a novice birder and this bird song was so melodic and beautiful, it made something rise up inside me. I was as intrigued to find the bird, as I was to drink in that song, so in the course of the morning ride, I was off my bike more than once.

I never did spy it. But the song captivated Pete too, who pulled out his iPhone and recorded it. It may have well been the most common bird of these parts but it had the spellbinding power to pull me off my seat and forget any agenda I’d arrived with.

Pete is such a good guy and although he didn’t have to, he decided to dial it back on this ride too. I think we both finally became so intensely aware of how truly alone we were with the forest life. Before long we heard what must have been one very large tree end it’s life as it crashed to the forest floor. More than once, we noticed deer spying on us from the fringes of the trail. Sad to think how oblivious we had been on all those earlier rides.

None of this means we’re planning to leave the bikes on the rack. We still had an incredible workout and the sweat to prove it. But I came away from that ride more satisfied than ever before. Both spirit and soul were pierced and I believe gone forever is that gut-renching “gotta prove I can still do this” attitude that used to validate a successful ride. What the heck is the point in seeking out more stress on a supposed getaway from stress?

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sciatica condition.

Oh, and my deepest gratitude for not showing up the next morning.

The closest my bird sounds app reveals is this may have been a Hermit Thrush. Have a listen. If you’re a birder let me know what you think it is.  Also, have you had a significant “what have I been missing” experience like this one? Share so we can all begin to live more in the moment.



8 thoughts on “Thank you, Sciatica

  1. Hey Kathy – congratulations on your blog. First of all, it’s beautiful to look at. Nice job! love your theme. I look forward to reading more about your adventures in staying curious. You’re an inspiration!
    Call me a fan : )

  2. It’s funny how the “quiet” noises expand to fill the spaces that we leave them…I love the idea of your blog as a place to share these inspirations! This one is not so much about curiosity as it is about adversity and wonder…

    My younger sister and I both spent our teen years at a canoe tripping camp in Algonquin Park. This was no place for slouches…we “Northway Girls” bathed in the lake, and lived without power or running water while enjoying our beautiful peninsula at the oldest girls’ camp in Canada. But mainly we waited to be “asked” out on a canoe trip. My personal fave was 10 days paddling the Petawawa River. It was super challenging with many rapids and gruelling portages and also incredibly humbling to paddle between 300′ cliffs on either side. But we were teenagers…we scaled rocks and fears no problem!

    In our thirties, Sarah and I were craving that raw sense of accomplishment we remembered feeling as we stepped out of our canoe after a long trip as teenagers: sore, strong and buff. We decided to plan our own “Northway” trip together, just us sisters so we’d have an opportunity to reconnect a little. Each day we were on the water by 8am and didn’t stop to set camp until 6pm, when we’d pitch the tent, make dinner and wrestle with hanging our heavy packs in the trees (away from bears) before crashing into our sleeping bags. Naturally we were exhausted. By the end of day four, we were sitting dazedly around the fire after dinner, both of us staring at the minuscule second serving of food left. “…you want that?” I grunted. “…na, you can have it…” my sister replied.

    I suddenly realized that was about the most we’d really talked the whole trip. We’d been pushing hard, heads down and doing nothing more than falling into step to cover the extensive route we’d planned for ourselves.

    I summoned up my courage (I was about to break the cardinal rule of camp after all…Northway girls never complain!) and said to Sarah “…we know we can do this, right?”. There was a pause. Nothing but crickets. “..ya…” she offered. Another pause. “So do we need to?”

    We decided then and there to go rogue…woke the next morning and tripped back to an amazing campsite we’d passed a few lakes back. We stripped off our clothes, dug the paperback books out of our packs and spent the next week on the same site on an isolated island in the middle of the Park. When it was hot, we would swim or sleep on a rock. When it was cooler we’d settle down for a good talk, a game of cards or wander off for a read. When we were bored, we’d gather beautiful river stones. And in between we marvelled at all the wildlife that came to us. Beavers, moose, loons, racoons (curses), turtles. No human beings, and thankfully no bears. It was an amazing trip.

    A few years ago, we decided to take my 13 year old son on a short 3 day canoe trip before meeting up with some other camp alumni. It poured rain the whole time and we were portaging through knee-deep mud, huddling in the woods under our ponchos to dodge the relentless lightning and trying to get our borrowed camp-stove started for a little warmth and sustenance (to no avail). He was a total trooper and rose to the occasion with grace. Not a single complaint.

    So we decided to share a little of our middle-aged wisdom with him as well. At the end of our last day rather than setting up our tent in another miserably drenched campsite, we pulled out a cellphone (didn’t have those when we were teens lol) and called a taxi to come from town an hour away and meet us at the landing on the next lake. We locked our canoe in the parking lot and taxied back to a hotel where we secretly spent our last night warming up with deep hot baths and pigging out on fresh pizza! The next day we returned and “paddled” in to meet our friends, who were none the wiser.

    Shhhh, the secret’s finally out!

    Love your blog! You go girl!

  3. Ah yes…50 is a milestone year. And usually by then, our perspectives have changed. Not so much changed in direction, but in scope. We tend to see more from the same scene. Like watching a widescreen movie.

    Sure, we are aware of the roots and ruts grabbing for a wheel rim or pedal. Yet we also have become aware of a chirp, a warble. Or a deer with budding spring antlers watching from shaded leaves.

    Focused is good. Indeed excellent! Yet over time, many of us naturally develop a wider, seasoned awareness, not only of what we are expected to see, but what we leave ourselves open to see…and hopefully the confidence to explore it.

  4. Cathy….. It was so great to come across your blog today. I was driving through this area yesterday with my family. Your picture is wonderful. As I approach 46 next month I find myself stopping to listen to the birds as well. Like you I feel the need to seek them out and then I search them up. Some of them I have never seen before or perhaps I have been to busy to notice. Love the focus of this blog and have enjoyed reading. I feel the need these days to do more for myself but somehow life and kids and family fill my days. I feel inspired
    to try harder. Thanks for a great read.

    • Sherri, great to have you visit. Kids and family sure do fill the days. But when I look back, little did I know I was actually planting seeds of curiosity then that are growing into a grove of interest and activity now. You’ve inspired me to write more about my birding – I’ve got to do that. Empty nesting is great but can’t promise it gets any easier to focus!

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