Because I’ve been dealing with some head and neck issues since the New York City marathon last November, I haven’t been running as much as I’d like. While I work my way back into a regular routine, I’ve been looking for other avenues of fitness, and I’ve found one that I really enjoy: hiking. I can surround myself with nature for several hours at a time and enjoy the tranquility that comes with a long walk. Plus, I love that even if you only hike for a couple of miles, it’s still a workout; you’re constantly being challenged by uneven terrain and obstacles like boulders or fallen trees.
This past weekend Todd and I visited Philadelphia, and we spent part of the trip hiking in Wissahickon Valley Park just outside the city. Situated on the Schuykill River, it extends about seven miles to the north, with an abundance of hiking, biking, and horseback-riding trails. The trails are color-coded, and signposts indicate whether it’s going to be an easy trek or a tougher one. We ended up on the orange trail, a narrow dirt pathway that wound along the river, and more than once turned into a mud pit we then had to slog through. About half a mile into the trail from our starting point, we reached a landmark called Devil’s Pool (below). The river cut across the trail, and the only way across was to leapfrog over slippery rocks to the other side. At first we considered turning back, but then decided to attempt the crossing—and somehow we made it without tumbling into the river!
We passed several other hikers on our trek, and with each we exchanged a friendly greeting or a nod. When we came to a bridge, we crossed the river and hiked back along the other side, first on a wide gravel road and then on a path that cut through the forest. We got to see different kinds of birds (unfortunately I couldn’t identify any except the geese), butterflies, and so much greenery. In total we hiked about three miles, but it took us quite a long time and felt a lot harder than one might expect. It felt so rewarding to get back to our starting point and take a good long rest on a bench overlooking the river.
This summer I’d like to hike in as many different parks and preserves as I can, and find a spot to stop and do tai chi (my other new obsession, but more about that in another post) along the way. If you know of any good hiking spots along the East Coast, please share in the comments! I’d love to check them out and report on our hike there!
In the past six months, I’ve tried probably just as many strategies to relieve the pain in my head and neck. One of them is acupuncture, recommended by many people who haven’t actually tried it themselves. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with it: I do feel like it helps uncoil some of my muscles, but I’m extremely uncomfortable having needles poking into the base of my skull and back of my neck. Whoever says it’s painless or relaxing must be pretty free of tension to begin with, because my muscles are tight, and I definitely feel it. I wrote this poem after one of my sessions to try to capture my feelings about it.
SESSION THREE The lights are dim. The filmy white curtains blow in the breeze from the open window. I wouldn’t mind some soft music, but there’s only the honk of cars on the street below and the whine of construction tools—the sound calls to mind an ancient torture device, all sharp spikes and grinding metal plates. I’m laying still on my stomach, arms splayed, a pillow under my shins, holding myself r i g i d like a domino waiting to topple. His hands go first to my neck, kneading the skin, finding all the tender spaces where I stash both my hope and my fear—at the base of my skull, in the bony ridge of my shoulder blade. I trust him, but it’s hard to let myself go limp in his arms. At the point of entry, my body v i b r a t e s. My muscles tense and spasm beneath my skin. I cry out involuntarily. But then it’s over, and he leaves. I focus on breathing through my belly to bring my nervous system back into some semblance of operating order. I lose track of time. I slip into not-thinking, where pain is just a construct and the universe gleams in color and good intentions can save us. After minutes (hours? eons?) he finally returns. I pull myself back to myself. He extracts the needles, one by one; for a moment I still feel a phantom pressure, a whisper of a thought half-formed then lost as I stand, stretch out, put on my clothes, and walk outside to skyscrapers and traffic and real life.
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I string together lists of things I’m grateful for— a kind deed and sunshine and support a moment of stillness or peace or love. Each is a pinprick of light; I am a city slowly regaining power after a blackout.
I stack letters into words into stories into prayers— give me strength, help me accept, show me how to heal and grow. Each is a voice in a choir; I am a hymn erupting with melody after silence.
I breathe into the empty spaces and I fill them with hope.