by John Dalton
You’re only as old as you think.
My son Chris thinks I should stop roaring down fire trails on my mountain bike. He hasn’t told me this directly—he uses his mother, my wife Marilyn, as an intermediary, knowing full well I’ll get the word. I have, and I’m unconvinced—even though I’m 67 years old.
Through the years I’ve broken many things on my bike but never a body part. I’ve smashed pedals, bent forks and handlebars, and flattened many tires, not to mention getting my share of bruises and a torn ligament. But that’s been it.
After each impact with the ground, I always got up, dusted myself off and pressed on, though inevitably feeling a bit self-conscious.
“Maybe my son’s right; I guess I could slow down. But I was just 45 years old when I tore that rotator cuff biking in Australia.” Stuff-happened to me long before I became geriatric.
Then things changed.
Two months ago adventuring in my own backyard, I sustained that first serious body blow. It was late in the afternoon, and I was on a trek I’d often done. The trail roamed the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains under an oak and bay canopy until it emerged on a 1600-foot ridgeline. There on a golden savannah, after a 50-minute climb, I’d pause for a Gatorade while appreciating the range’s wildness.
Refreshed I’d give back that elevation-gain on a blissful, breezy descent. What took almost an hour to climb, took ten minutes to descend. I was banking on that timeline, as I had dinner plans with a friend that evening. Or so I thought.
On the way down my mind was elsewhere, lazily preoccupied with whatever it desired. There were few other bikers, and I knew the trail well. Suddenly I heard that distinctive low rumble of a deflated tire. There was no warning, no slow leak, it was “bam” – metal rim rolling on limp rubber. The sound is frightening, as a sudden loss of inflation on those big tires, even on level pavement, can put you on your ass.
I was rounding a right curve at the time, and when the front tire lost its purchase, the bike went down in the direction I was leaning. I stayed on the bike during the fall, not even having time to stick my foot out. I slid along the ground for ten yards, enough to scrape “layers” of skin off my right knee. I had a premonition that this was going to be no ordinary boo-boo, and when I finally stopped, I hurt.
Getting up, I had trouble standing; my right leg kept wanting to buckle at the knee. I staggered around drunkenly for several minutes until I discovered that if I locked the knee-joint, it would hold me. Blood dripped down the leg, and my right elbow seeped as well.
“Oh shit,” I whispered to no one in particular. I was alone.
Maybe so, but I love the out-of-doors—hiking, biking, snowshoeing. Two years ago, the year I went on Medicare, I pulled a 200-pound rickshaw the 500-mile length of Nevada in ten weeks. In fact, from my home in the San Francisco Bay area, I am in the nearby mountains at every opportunity. This is my life, the very air I breathe.
I had a cell phone but knew no one to call. Marilyn and another friend were out at the movies for the evening; Bruce, my dinner companion, wouldn’t be home yet; and I was pretty sure I didn’t need 911. Besides, down deep I wanted to get out of this by myself.
On my way I passed one guy going up who was too busy panting to say much. He didn’t even notice my condition, nor did I want him to. As long as no help was needed, I badly wanted anonymity. Thankfully no one else was on the trail and the parking lot was empty as well.
My mind was in survival mode, thinking only in the present. Now that I had the bike at the trailhead, what was I going to do with it? I didn’t think I could lift it into the truck. But I had no lock, and didn’t want to leave it. Eventually, I devised a way to brace myself against the truck bed with the one good leg, and then eased the back wheel up and onto the tailgate, and finally slid the rest in. Later I wondered what a video of that would’ve looked like.
The drive home was surprisingly easy, once I stopped worrying about blood on the upholstery of my 12-year old truck. I called Bruce and canceled our dinner and left a message for Marilyn. Getting in the house was another story, however. Our driveway slopes up and there are two steep stairs to the front door. I hadn’t yet mastered the injured-leg-axiom “bad goes down, good goes up.” (Injured leg goes down a step first, strong leg goes up first.)
Even the most straightforward movements required me to stop and think, in effect to devise alternatives from what a lifetime of activity had accustomed me to.
Removing my dirty, bloody clothes took perhaps fifteen minutes. Get near a chair, drop the shorts and then sit down. Lift the good leg out of one side, and using both hands, lift the bad leg out of the other. Rest, get my breath and then repeat with the underpants.
Naked I hobbled into the bathroom. A shower in our sunken tub/shower was totally out of the question, but I badly needed to clean the wound. Where the hell was the Betadyne? Oh yeah, with all the bandages and tape in the other bathroom, a lengthy five-minute shuffle away. God, I needed Marilyn.
I took a sponge bath in the sink as I sat on the closed toilet. The Betadyne came next—I slopped it on my leg and followed that with four layers of gauze and some tape. Once finished, the bathroom resembled the latrine in a field hospital. Then back to my bedroom to find clean clothes and figure out how to get into them.
No sooner had I collapsed on the sofa with a pile of ice on my leg, than the doorbell rang. Jesus, what’s next?
“Come in,” I yelled.
“I’m here to help you,” Bruce said, as he came in with an opened bottle of wine. “We’re ordering pizza tonight.” (He lived just across the street.)
“I think I love you.”
I’d had considered going to the emergency room, but it was a Friday night and I’d seen that circus before. I knew the leg wasn’t going to deteriorate overnight, and, besides, with ice, rest and elevation, it just might get better.
Meanwhile, the pizza came, and the wine bottle was evaporating nicely by the time Marilyn walked in. She hadn’t gotten my cell phone message, and the first thing she saw was the ice on my leg and crutches (Bruce had brought them) leaning against the wall behind me.
“You look great,” she said, “how’s the bike?”
Forty-odd years of marriage to me had given her a good sense of humor and the ability to handle almost anything.
With Marilyn’s help I got into our stall shower and rinsed off the dirt that I had missed in my sponge bath. My leg was now impossible to walk on, and I was quite clumsy with the crutches. It was the first time in my life I’d ever had to use them, and my right rib cage ached as well. Apparently I had injured more than just my leg. The time for the emergency room had finally come.
“I don’t have any confidence using those crutches with my ribs hurting like they do,” I said, “Why don’t we call 911 for a non-emergency ride to the hospital?”
An ambulance arrival at the ER eliminated any triage routine, and I was rolled right in to the action center. X-rays indicated no rib problems, but a leg break below the knee. As for a prognosis, I was told to consult an orthopedic surgeon. Oh, leg surgery – that really fits my activity pattern!
A little luck finally entered the picture when I saw the surgeon on Monday. My leg was indeed broken, but it had stayed more or less in place so I didn’t need an operation. I would be in a plastic “walking cast” for six weeks, but things could have been so much worse.
Writing this now, well into my recovery, I’m still weighing the pros and cons of my active lifestyle, but the issue’s getting clearer. After all, I was injured doing something I really love. Many people break bones walking down a flight of stairs, and the old cliché is true: there is peril in getting out of bed in the morning. I live for the outdoors, and without it I’d be lost. I’ll be out there in a wheel chair if necessary.
As for my son’s suggestion that I take up more sedate activities, that’s out of the question. All elements in life involve a risk and reward balance. The satisfaction I get from assuming what I consider to be a manageable amount of risk in my hiking and biking is integral to my well-being. I firmly believe that “the one who dies with the fewest regrets wins,” and I’m living that philosophy. As a result, I’m going right back on that trail just as soon as possible, but I plan to be monitoring the condition of my tires much more closely. While my bike is easy, quick and (relatively) inexpensive to repair, I have found out that I am not.
John Dalton is a writer who lives in San Jose, California. This story won the Bronze Award for Elder Travel in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
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