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An Unexpected Celebration

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Today I celebrate, if I may use that word, the tenth anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with macular degeneration. I use the word “celebrate” because, while my eyesight is horrible, my life is not. In fact, in every way, I feel far more fulfilled and at ease with who I am than ever before. The loss of my central vision has forced me to see life differently, more clearly. I won’t lie, it has also created challenges that can be, at times, extremely frustrating. Simple tasks like cleaning the burrs on the coffee grinder used to take fifteen or twenty minutes. The last time, it took four hours and nearly ended with me beating it into trash with a hammer.

I have worked hard to pay attention to the emotions I feel and to stay tuned to how that energy affects the way I see and interact with the world around me, and all I can say is that it is a work in progress.

It was with that backdrop that I decided to undertake a backpacking trip along the Colorado Trail. The last time I strapped a pack to my back and slept in the woods I was a young 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. I am, at best, a novice backwoods guy, but What the hell I thought. I didn’t realize the significance of the timing of my adventure until I was well into the hike, but in hindsight, the adventure was a perfect way to mark the anniversary.

Over the last few months, I have been feeling particularly vulnerable and incapable because of my ever-growing disability. I keep saying I must be near the end of the downward slide and then I turn a corner and realize how much farther I have just fallen.

I returned yesterday, after more than 110 miles on the Colorado Trail, hiking from Copper Mountain to Mt Princeton Hot Springs where my hiking partner and I parted company. When I first started planning the hike, I honestly wasn’t sure if I could do it and felt the only way, I would feel safe was if I had someone to do it with me. Now, after more than 100 miles, I wish I had believed in myself and taken on the challenge by myself. That is less a reflection of my hiking partner and more a reflection of the differences in what the two of us were looking to get from our time on the trail.

People take on adventures such as this for reasons that are as diverse as we are as individuals. It is hard enough to understand our own motivations for lacing up our boots for what is far more than a simple “Walk in the Woods,” so understanding what drives others to do so is nearly impossible. I imagine some are motivated by the love of nature, others are intrigued by the challenge, and some just add another notch to their list of accomplishments. My reasons were more than a little mirky when I began, but as I walked my motivations became clearer. There is no doubt I was motivated by a desire to experience the backcountry and hopefully lose a few pounds along the way, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my real journey would be an internal one.

The trail meanders nearly five hundred miles from Denver to Durango, bouncing between 9,000 feet above sea level and 13,000 feet, sometimes more than once in a single day’s hike. The trail traverses so of the most amazing scenery in this incredible state. I would have loved to hike the entire trail, but for the reasons previously mentioned, I chose to start with a more modest goal. I have never undertaken anything such as this before and I wasn’t sure if I was physically, mentally, and emotionally up to the challenge. I am happy to say that after more than 100 miles and several nights on the trail I ended my experience with the confidence that I am more than up to the challenge, and I am anxious to do more.

The one decision I made from the very beginning was that I would not stick earbuds in and get lost in music or an Audible. I wanted the entire experience of hiking the trail, and at times that meant my mind would drag me down horrible rat holes while hiking up some soul-killing mountainside where I was stopping to catch my breath every 100 feet it seemed. With time, it took a day or two before I was able to find a more of reflective mindset while I hiked. I think it might have been on the second full day on the trail when a thought popped into my—I may not be able to drive a car, read a book, or even recognize faces, but I can do this! At first the thought just made me smile, and as I let it sink in more suddenly tears began to stream down my face. I was doing something completely new and foreign to me and not only succeeding but thriving! It was such an empowering feeling. It was such a silly thought, but it reminded me to focus on all that I can do, not the few things I can’t.

One night I was lying in my tent just feet from a mountain stream. I found myself lost in the sound of the rushing water. As I settled into a meditative state, I began to open my mind to the rest of the world around me at that moment. The trees rustled quietly in the calm breeze, I heard a bird chirping in the distance, and I could feel a tightness in my legs from the day's hike. It wasn’t painful, just another sensation no different than the flowing water nearby. Of course, the mind doesn’t like moments of serenity such as this and it was constantly trying to fill my head with thoughts such as, You should stretch that quad, Chris or you won’t be able to walk tomorrow. I just let it go and returned to the soothing sound of the flowing water and the breeze. I have been very committed to my meditation practice for some time now, so I am used to the constant battle to quiet my mind, but that night I was more successful than most. It was such a strong feeling of being truly present. It lasted no more than 30 minutes, but it left me with such a powerful feeling of peaceful presence. From that point forward, my goal for the rest of my time on the trail was to be as present as possible. On the trail, there is always something to fight to pull you away from the present moment. A steep climb that lasts for hours begs you to think about what’s behind you or what you will do when you reach the top. Or another hiker venting about their experience. It became clear that my hiking partner and I were in vastly different head spaces, and I began to hike ahead of him in search of a more peaceful space. In the end, we had to go our separate ways because of our differences.

When you live with a disability such as mine, the list of things you can no longer do seems, at times to be endless, but to quote Helen Keller, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” If there is anything I can take away from my adventure it is that I am far more capable than I allow myself to feel. It was suggested to me that I should keep track of and write about all the funny things I did on this trip because of my poor eyesight. There is certainly lots of material to draw from and I always enjoy a good laugh, even at my own expense, but I am not sure that serves me. It is time for me to focus on all that I can do. And even if that is little more than lying by the side of a mountain stream and feeling the serenity of the moment fill my heart and soul, what more could a person ask for? There is so much in this world to be grateful for. All it takes is a desire and a willingness to be truly present whether you are sleeping next to a flowing stream somewhere in the backcountry or sitting on your couch at home.

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Patricia Wheelus
Patricia Wheelus
Jul 31, 2023

I’m glad that you shared this with us and the feeling of sleeping near a meandering Stream is indeed so soothing at night, and it does bring such a peace that many may never have the opportunity to experience . I am glad that you are empowered to continue concentrating on all YOU CAN do. The mind set is so much of a part of life. keep well


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