Many years ago, my husband Barry and I went parachuting outside Seattle with a group of friends on a clear, beautiful afternoon. As I floated dreamily through the air, gazing at Mt. Rainier in the distance, I had no idea I was about to permanently alter an essential part of my body. In my state of euphoria, I forgot the most important instruction I’d heard that morning: to keep my knees together when I landed to avoid injuring myself.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground hearing a hard crunching noise, one which I hope I’ll never hear again: the sound of bone-crushing.
Forty years later, my right ankle has numerous screws, a metal plate, and almost no cartilage left. Orthopedic specialists tell me I’ve been extremely fortunate because my ankle functions normally most of the time. Other than running, I haven’t had to give up any physical activities. I’m especially grateful for hiking because I love exploring natural beauty in California and Mexico, where Barry and I live.
A Birthday Ritual Every Decade
We have a long-standing tradition: Every 10 years on my “milestone” birthday, we undertake a long-distance walk somewhere in the world. Since turning 30, I’ve trekked the three-week Muktinath Trail in the Himalayas, the Inca Trail ending at Machu Picchu, the 540-mile Camino de Santiago across Spain, and England’s Coast-to-Coast (from the Irish Sea to the North Sea).
For My 70th, The Historic Hadrian’s Wall
Last September, in honor of my 70th birthday, I decided to walk along Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO world heritage site that was once the northwestern frontier of the Roman Empire, built between the northern English towns of Carlisle and Newcastle and started in AD 122.
I wasn’t worried about my ankle, since I had read in our guidebook, Hadrian’s Wall Path, that “The Wall,” as locals call it, is considered one of Britain’s least challenging National Trails. Rather than invest in new equipment, I decided to just take my one hiking pole and the comfortable, sturdy lightweight hiking shoes I’d worn for four years.
Indeed, the walk is not especially challenging. While there are a few steep hills, in most cases you can opt for a gentler alternative trail if you prefer. We saw people of all sizes, shapes, and ages walking there.
The Romans may have built “The Wall” as a fortification, but it’s also a place of astonishing beauty. “How can a few green fields, a hill, and some stones be so spectacular?” I asked Barry as we perched on a rock one afternoon at Milecastle 39, a small fortified gateway along the Wall, marveling at the simple yet breathtaking landscape surrounding us.
Rather Than Drive, We Took The Bus
Although only about 12 miles of the original wall are still standing (with reduced height), the official walk is 73 miles long. Much of which follows busy narrow roads. This didn’t sound appealing to us, so we decided to trace and retrace the most historic and beautiful sections. All are accessible from the dedicated AD 122 Hadrian’s Wall Country bus, named for the year the wall was constructed. From Hexham, the traditional English market town where we booked an Airbnb, the bus takes about 45 minutes to reach the east end of what remains of the wall today. Rather than the stress of renting a car, we relaxed during our transition time.
We bought the three-day “Rover Pass,” which at the senior rate cost us £20 each, or about $27, allowing us to go anywhere on the route and to all our starting points. When the three-day pass was used up, we just bought another. Each morning we’d walk 10 minutes to the bus station and ride wherever we’d embark that day.
About 10 Miles A Day
Compared to our earlier long-distance walks, we didn’t walk as far. Toward the end of the Camino, for instance, we were hiking more than 20 miles a day, whereas, along “The Wall,” we walked only about half that. This was partly because we started later in the day. Partly because we’re less ambitious (and compulsive!) than we once were and partly because occasionally we’d stop at one of the pubs dotted along “The Wall,” like Twice Brewed or the Milecastle Inn.
We also didn’t walk as far because, unfortunately, my ankle was giving me trouble. At times I was limping on the trail, and even when I was relatively stable, I felt unsteady. To not trust your footing is a terrible feeling. I was constantly taking breaks to tighten and retighten my shoelaces, try to figure out how to reduce the stress, and feel “right.” I worried that this was the start of the downhill slope and my luck had run out at 70 years old. That osteoarthritis, crutches, and a wheelchair were my future.
I Walk, Therefore I Am
“My ankle, myself,” I kept thinking. “I’m a walker. That’s who I am. I walk everywhere. Who am I, without my feet?”
When my ankle acted up, Barry’s dark British humor would help. “Come on, Gimp,” he’d joke, making me laugh as he offered me his hand.
He also urged me to visit a shoe store in Hexham and invest in a new pair of shoes. Although I’ve since bought new hiking shoes that seem to help stabilize my ankle, at the time I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the ones I had. Besides, I’m a nervous shopper when it comes to shoes, worried about making a poor choice, and easily overwhelmed by options. I suffer from buyer’s remorse before I even walk into a shop.
I found Barry’s stiff upper lip annoying at times. He thought I was overreacting. “You’re doing fine,” he’d say. “A lot of people at 70 couldn’t walk this trail at all.”
Besides The Wall
Fortunately, we had plenty to do besides walk. Our close friend, her dog, and a dear cousin visited us. The town of Hexham turned out to be an excellent base with coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, and the ancient Hexham Abbey, set in the middle of a huge green park. One rainy day, we took a 90-minute train ride to the cathedral city of Durham, which the travel writer Bill Bryson in his bestselling book Notes From A Small Island called “a perfect little city.”
Back To Normal
A few weeks after finishing the walk, Barry and I returned to our home in Guanajuato, Mexico, which at almost 7,000 feet elevation, is sunny, warm, and dry. Seemingly overnight, my ankle improved. Now, almost a year later, although occasionally I feel a twinge, my ankle is 99 percent back to normal.
When I think back on our walk, I remember worrying about my ankle, but also the beauty of those mossy green fields and stone walls. Visiting Hadrian’s Wall was a wonderful way to celebrate turning 70, and it was the first time in my life when I came face-to-face with the limitations of my ankle. I can’t separate the two.
Will I carry on the walking tradition when I turn 80? I hope so. 10 years is a long time, and a lot can happen before then. Next time, I’ll choose a walk in a warm climate and make sure I have new hiking shoes.
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