Hiking poles? Check. Maps? Check. Water? Check. Ice? Spray bottle with water? Check. Wait, am I going to carry all that for a simple hike or bike ride? Well, when a person is unable to sweat, as I am, yes, indeed, it’s all pretty important.
Having just returned from a glorious trip to Acadia National Park, I have been reflecting on what it takes to help some of us get out to enjoy these wonderful outdoor places. “Handicapped” is such a misunderstood term, conjuring up images of wheelchairs, crutches and more. But physical limitations come in all shapes and sizes. Some handicaps are visible—like the aforementioned wheelchairs or crutches. But many of us have limitations that are less visible.
My limitations manifest in several ways. Paralysis in my right leg affects my ability to balance easily. I get easily fatigued, so my tired muscles limit how far I can travel on foot, while other neurological limitations are less obvious. The most challenging concern when going outdoors is my lack of ability to sweat, a particular issue in warmer weather.
My husband was my first “trail buddy,” the one who encouraged me to adopt hiking poles and taught me how to use them to best advantage. He knows well my abilities and limits, and he stays nearby when we hike together, ready to offer a hand when stone steps on the trail are steeper than I can easily manage, or when water bars have been eroded and offer precarious footing.
I am able to walk, but paths that are filled with roots and rocks, trails that were created with narrow boards, and tracks near steep drop-offs all have the risk of serious injury for me. It is important for me to search out easier places to spend time outdoors, and to locate trails that allow me to relax and enjoy my surroundings. In the last several years, this quest became a search for Easy Walks, the name of my hiking book series. The books focus on trails near my home in Massachusetts, but when my husband and I travel farther afield, we also seek out these same types of trails.
In the last number of years, I became frustrated when I heard about trails I could not really enjoy because they were too long. This is especially true of some of the rail trails that have been and are being developed, both locally and farther from home. I knew there were beautiful places I wanted to enjoy, but my feet were simply not capable to traveling the distances required to see these special spots.
My husband wondered if we might locate a tandem bike so I could ride along behind him. After obtaining a tandem with slightly “foot forward” pedals, we have enjoyed countless rides on local and less local rail trails. We have made several adaptations to the bike to make it more workable for me and for him. Pedaling along on my now-beloved bike, I feel as though I’m flying along the trail, and can enjoy so much more of an area’s beauty than was accessible to me on foot.
Since I am unable to sweat, my husband suggested we bring along a spray water bottle to provide “false sweat” for me when we travel. In the cosmetics department I discovered very small plastic spray bottles that offer the perfect mist to help cool me down when we hike or bike. Yes, this is one more thing to carry, but in addition to the cooling neck scarves, we routinely carry and use, the spray mist extends the range of time and weather when I can venture out safely.
Recently we set out for a ride along the carriage trails of Acadia on a morning that was getting quite warm. We had lots of cooling gear with us. We stopped in shady spots. My husband monitored that I was not getting flushed, and stopped frequently to spray me down once I started getting too warm. We went up and down the hilly carriage trails, hauling about 300+ pounds of ourselves and gear. I am able to provide some assistance in the pedaling, but a lot of the burden is on him to propel us forward.
And thus one of the most important aspects of receiving assistance: checking to be sure our support staff is not burned out, and being clear that those who offer support have the freedom to take breaks and renew their own energies. After our difficult pedal along the Acadia carriage trails on such a warm day, the next day we made sure he got out for a hike alone, taking care of himself, with no worries about how I was doing.
Lucky for me, we were able to stay in a place where I was safe, and able to watch the tides flow in and out. He set out on a challenging trail that promised views of the ocean and lower Hadlock Pond. He then visited Otter Cliffs and did some rock hopping along the shore. None of those places were inviting for me, but they were just what he needed.
Another important lesson in providing or receiving support is to spread the net wide when asking for help. My husband has walked many of the trails that are included in my Easy Walks books with me, but I have also explored many areas accompanied by a host of other willing walkers. While these friends and family members may not be as familiar with my limitations, they have consistently been great listeners, compassionate, kind, and ready to offer a hand when I let them know it’s needed. My ongoing challenge has been learning to express clearly what I need; it has been a life lesson, for sure, and one that has stood me in good stead in many aspects of my life.
I’ve learned that Easy Walks are not just about enjoying spending time in the outdoors. The book series project has become a wonderful way for me to share my love of the outdoors with others. It has offered a way to make new friends, and it has been a path of healing. Exploring the boundaries of my limits, which continue to change, I am granted moments of joy. Sharing that joy with others who are willing to travel these paths with me is a real gift. Learning that I am not alone in this journey has been life-giving in itself.
Marjorie Turner Hollman
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.