Jen Climbs a 14er, a Tragicomedy

Of the many ways in which my body has started falling apart as I enter middle age, the knee pain I recently acquired has been the most unexpected. I’m not a runner, nor am I terribly athletic or active in any way, so it’s not as if my knees have taken a pounding over the last 37 years. But I have had a lifelong habit of sitting on my feet, so maybe I shouldn’t have been all that surprised when last November it started taking me several minutes to fully stretch my legs out again after I had been curled up. Or when in December I found I was no longer able to fully tuck my right leg under me without piercing pain. Or when in January, some parts of the bones started sticking out awkwardly from my knee cap.

Luckily, a simple knee brace from the drugstore and intense vigilance to my posture while seated made these problems a thing of the past by spring. And so two weeks ago I thought that climbing a 14er, something I haven’t done in over five years, would be a good idea. You may think the hard part is going uphill for three hours gulping at the oxygen-deprived air, certain you can’t possibly force yourself to engage your thigh muscle to bring your foot up one more time, but you’d be mistaken. Downhill is the real torture, especially on your knees. Gravity pulls you down, faster and faster, forcing you to keep going, making your feet move so quickly that you don’t even know if your next step will be on a loose pile of rocks that will go flying out from under you or on a solid chunk of unyielding granite that slams all your body weight into your already wasted knees. Most often it’s the latter, over and over and over. As many times as I had to stop to fill my lungs on the way up, I had to stop to massage and stretch out my knees on the way down.

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But I made it. Almost. A mere 10 minutes from reaching the car where I would be able to free my swollen feet from hiking boots, which is my favorite part of any hike, on the most elementary part of the trail, I slipped on some gravel and twisted my left knee horrifically beneath me. My friend was hiking in front of me and didn’t see what happened, and what I did next didn’t enlighten her at all. As I sat on the ground howling in pain, I looked to my left and saw…mountain goats. A herd of them, 15 to 20. And babies!! Baby mountain goats, bleating and kicking up their heels just like in a storybook. The cuteness was nearly as unbearable as my pain. I pointed and squealed, then gripped my knee and howled, then squealed, then howled, then squealed again as the two wildly different sensations did battle in my brain and my face alternated between imitating Thalia and Melpomene.

My poor friend, whose first language is not English, finally managed to decipher my squawking and saw the goats as well. She helped me up and we inched closer to the magnificent creatures. We stood and watched them for five minutes or so, unable to speak and inwardly dying to run headlong into them and throw ourselves at them for the world’s most foolhardy bear hug. Probably a good thing I had the gimp knee as a deterrent. Eventually they all bounded up the rocks (much more nimbly than I had!) and out of sight, but the wonder of seeing them kept my pain away as we finished walking toward the car and drove back to the hotel. However, I annihilated a bottle of ibuprofen the next day.

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