In a previous blog, I described a 40-year battle with osteoarthritis. Arthritis had won the latest match.
A cranky left knee abruptly cratered on Day 3 of long backpacking trip in the High Uinta Wilderness.
I finished the trip but my knee was also finished. Any time I tried to jog or even hike, it swelled up. I scheduled my first knee replacement surgery for November 1, 2021.
The week before my surgery I posted the “end of an era” blog chronicling my lifelong attempts at active living in spite of my body. My hiking partner David had turned to solo hiking, I reported.
The dismally titled blog concluded:
“Whether I rejoin David in the wilderness in summer of 2022 or become an “arm-chair commentator” will depend on how my new “bionic body” operates. Stay tuned.
Then I did not blog for almost two years.
Did I stop hiking?
Since October 2021 in past 2 years, David and I have backpacked in 15 wilderness (or proposed wilderness) areas covering about 1,000 miles.
These hikes occurred around several surgeries—each a setback with recovery period.
- Total left knee replacement, November 2021.
- Total right knee replacement, March 2022.
- Reverse total right shoulder replacement, March 2023.
I even had “trigger finger” surgery September 6. Just one digit (middle finger) on my left hand, but kept me from swimming, cycling, and weight-lifting for 3 weeks. I had good surgeons, good surgical outcomes and after each one was back on my bicycle within a month and back on the trail in 6-8 weeks.
I had one recovery scare in April 2022, six weeks out from second knee replacement. We were hiking in foothills above Tucson, ascending steep and rocky Finger Rock Trail about three miles. Right knee did ok although I used the better-healed left knee to push off climbing.
On way back down, on last steep switchback before we dropped into flatter canyon, I slipped on pebble-like rocks and went down, giving the weak right knee a big jerk. It swelled. Uh oh.
The surgeon’s office thought I would be okay. A couple days later, I was.
In 2023, I have to conclude that my “bionic” parts work better than the old ones. I can squat for the first time in years. I don’t avoid the leg lifts at the gym. My knees don’t hurt going downhill. I even do some trail jogging—my pace is probably a tad faster than walking.
David says I hike as fast as he does on level and uphill; I am more cautious and slower on downhill but he thinks I am faster than my gimpy knee days. We track our mileage and time with GPS and conclude that yes, we are slower in our 60s than in our 20s (moving from a 15 to 20-mile day norm to ten to 12-mile days and longer rests) but most trails in the West, victim of post-2000 wildfires, are much rougher, eroded, and slower going. When we hike a good trail—such as the gentle routes in Joshua Tree or the piney flats of Gila Wilderness—we are back up to over 2 miles per hour pace. Not thru-hiker speed (most go over 3 mph) but not too bad.
David is my best incentive. Every time I am sidelined by injury or surgery, he does another solo hike. We purchased an inReach satellite communicator a few years ago, a good safety precaution and also a good excuse for solo hiking and arranging trailhead pickups. So, when I have been derailed by surgeries, I end up as David’s inReach contact and trail shuttle service.
In 2023, our first long backpack trip was a cold but gentle trek in Joshua Tree Wilderness in February, then several day hikes and backpack trip in steep rugged Pusch Ridge Wilderness; to report on trail improvement after fires for Tucson newspaper.
Also did 20-mile backpacking loop in Saguaro Wilderness to profile a Park Service wilderness ranger who spends summers in a historic facility (Manning Camp) near top of Mica Mountain east of Tucson for another outdoors article.
My knees did fine for 203 miles in four Nevada wilderness areas summer 2023, a short backpacking trip with some rugged cross-country in the White Cloud mountains of Idaho, and several day hikes. We did a late fall 122-mile loop in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness—to pioneer the Centennial Trail loop route designed to promote 2024 centennial of the Gila, the nation’s oldest wilderness. It was designated wilderness by the Forest Service in 1924 on request of Aldo Leopold, a forest supervisor at the time—40 years before the Wilderness Act of 1964!
Just before Christmas, we did an 87-mile “below the rim” trip in the Grand Canyon, visiting Phantom Ranch, Clear Creek, and part of the East Tonto Trail, exiting by the notoriously slippery New Hance Trail. I was cautious on unmaintained eroded sections but had no knee pain.
Besides funky scars, the only effect of “new knees” is a slight popping when I kick out or pedal in low gear on the bike. My physical therapist said this is normal.
If I quit hiking, David will just go solo. Keeping up with him? I gave up years ago, long before my joints did.
I held off joint replacement surgery as long as possible. But the new joints so far are a vast improvement. With our GPS tracks, I can even estimate their mileage limit if they wear out.