October 21st is the eighteenth anniversary of the car wreck that changed my life. That day was the single-most defining day in my entire life. Not because I almost died, but because I was forever altered. Let me explain:
The morning of the twenty-first was like every other. I awoke a bright-eyed teenager, full of big dreams and immortal in my own mind. That afternoon, the injuries I suffered redefined me. When all the x-rays were taken, all the specialists were visited, and a week had passed, the injury toll stood at a concussion, several broken ribs, a broken ankle, and a sprained ankle. Doesn't sound too bad though, does it?
Seven years later I had my first reconstructive surgery to completely rebuild one ankle. Nine years following that one I had my second reconstructive surgery, completely rebuilding the other ankle. In the sixteen years between the accident and the second surgery, every single step I took was bone grinding on bone. Somehow, that detail had been missed or overlooked by numerous doctors and surgeons. I had a rap sheet pages long on countless sprains on both ankles, but who takes an ordinary young kid seriously when they assume she's crying wolf? Well, not many, it would seem. Oh, and I need a third surgery to reconstruct the first ankle... only this time I need cadaver parts, because there's nothing left in my own ankle to use to strengthen it.
But the details of the injuries don't really enlighten the reader to the scope of how my life changed. To begin with, I quit dancing. Dancers need strong ankles; that's one big dream dashed overnight. Secondly, my weak ankles wouldn't hold me up, so I quite literally sprained them from simply walking on a flat floor, nevermind stairs or hillsides or rocks or other uneven terrain. My love for the outdoors, hiking and jumping on my trampoline was benched in favor of my new parent-drilled mantra - “protecting my ankles” - which was synonymous with “sitting down and doing nothing”. My trampoline was sold.
The years became riddled with physical therapy and a parade of doctors and specialists that reviewed my case every time I moved, which was several times in those sixteen years, from family moves to going off to college and coming home and moving out on my own. I had several different versions of ankle braces, depending on the doctor's beliefs regarding my injuries and various prosthetics.
My stamina went down while my pain tolerance went up. I cannot stand for more than ten minutes, and cannot walk for more than twenty without resting. This is after two surgeries, and I am vastly improved from where I was. I can predict the weather with amazing accuracy, as barometric pressure affects each ankle differently, as do cold fronts. The arthritis in my ankles worsens every year. But my last surgeon really put a point to my injuries when she looked at the x-rays and MRI's and said “I don't know how you walked in here. These indicate you shouldn't be able to walk at all, let alone with the amount of pain you must be in.”
So here we are, two years after my second surgery, but before my third. I cannot run ever again. My ankles will not endure it. I walk with braces on both ankles to assist them. My activities are severely limited, and I have said goodbye to many dreams in the last 16 years.
The one I thought I lost forever was hiking. Not mountain climbing, with carabiners and ropes, just simple hiking with good boots and a bottle of water. This week, however, I tackled a 2.2 mile trail at the Pinnacles State Park in California. It is the trail they recommend as “good for children” with it's moderate difficulty and 400 ft. elevation. But for me, 2.2 miles was the equivalent of a marathon. It was a mental challenge as well, knowing that I'd not walked more than a mile and a half in over seventeen years, and that mile and a half was a year ago on a quarter-mile track. This was rocks and a cave and up a mountain. And then back down the mountain.
It took almost four hours. I walked with a walking stick and afterwards I walked on a cane for two days. But I did it. I walked through that cave and up that mountain, challenging my mind and body in a way it hadn't been challenged since I was a teenager. At the top was a small lake and beyond that was a rim trail that overlooked some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen – Grand Canyon and Niagra Falls included. Because this scene was hard-fought to visit. This was at the top of a mountain I'm not “supposed” to be able to walk up. I stood there, leaning heavy on my walking stick, breathless from the experience, not exhaustion. Looking upon the jagged, toothy rock formations of The Pinnacles and the rolling mountains beyond, I saw red rocks fade to brown hillsides that faded to blue land off in the distance. At that moment I was more alive than I've been since I was fifteen years old.
And I'm going back. Finally I have a new dream. There are over thirty miles of trails at Pinnacles. I'm going to walk every single one.