We leave from the trailhead on the Eel River side of the parking lot. It’s early spring and the streams are flowing fast and heavy. The trail is lined with giant redwood trees, the kind that only grow in Humboldt County. They tower above, forming a rooftop that protects us and the river from the scorching sun.
For the first time in over ten years I am on vacation and nothing hurts. Even after several four- hour stretches in the car on twisty, bumpy roads my body is relaxed and pain free. At the last minute Jason runs back to the car to get my walking stick. I protest. I hate using that thing. But he’s right. With my two artificial hips and several herniated disks, my stick frequently comes in handy.
The park is deserted. We can hear the river flowing even when we can’t see it. The sound of trickling water is hypnotic. The trail goes up and down the riverbank. After forty minutes I’m still not tired. Usually my knees or hips ache when I walk up hill. Today, though, my boots and walking stick are keeping me steady my feet. I only have to reach for Jason a few times, when the ground is uneven or slippery. The air is clear and crisp and the sun glistens through the trees. Birds chirp in the distance. It’s a perfect day.
We arrive at one of the park’s campgrounds in about an hour. It looks like a construction site. We were hoping to be able to check it out for a subsequent trip but it’s all boarded up. We sit on a boulder and cool off under the shadow of a scrub oak before heading back.
Jason stares at the trail map, looking for ways to get back to the car. I’m accustomed to watching him pour over maps. Whether we’re in Chicago, Cuzco, London or Paris, he always tries to find alternate ways to get us from one destination to another. You see more that way.
I hesitate. “Kind of …”
Jason shows me the map. “We can cross to this other trail here and then cross back over there.”
He points out the parking lot.
“How do we cross?”
“It says there’s a footbridge.”
“Sounds good. Lead the way.”
We pack up our water bottles and head across the river. The path is a raised sand bed, wide, flat and easy to navigate. On the other side the trail. This trail is narrower than the first trail, with more twists and uneven ground. It reminds me of Muir Woods, where one side of the valley is at water level while the other side is up near the tree tops. It’s an adjustment at first, getting used to the more rugged terrain, but I hardly have to reach for Jason to help me with balance.
“Glad I have my stick.” We both laugh. I always say that.
After about an hour we arrive at our destination. The river is much wider here than where we crossed earlier. And it looks deep enough for swimming. I see the parking lot just across the way. It looks so close. We search for the footbridge but all we see is a big log, connecting the two riverbanks. That can’t be it.
Jason goes to the water, to check out the log.
I walk around the bend. No bridge there, either. It’s just a beautiful, majestic, northern California river, meandering along its path. I walk back to tell Jason.
“Looks like we’re trapped!” I hear my words, but for some reason I’m not worried or scared.
“Didn’t you do the balance beam in high school?”
“Yes, but that was a long time ago – and I had real hips.”
“Want to see if you can walk on the log?”
“Just check it out. If you don’t feel safe we’ll figure something else out.”
I slide down the damp, slippery hillside, using my stick like a ski pole. In the ten years since my two hip replacements I’ve been avoiding doing things like sliding down hillsides. One slip and my hips could pop out. But I arrive safely on the sandy bank with a plop. Jason looks at me with wide eyes.
“You did that very well.”
“Thanks – now where’s that log?”
I try to balance myself, but the fear of falling over and cracking my hips – not to mention my skull – keeps throwing me off. I wobble and shake. I tighten my abs and my butt but I just can’t balance myself.
“Maybe I can crawl.”
I try getting down on all fours, but the lumpy bark hurts my knees.
Jason comes over to help me up and gives me a hug. “We’ll figure something out.”
We have two choices. We can walk back to where the two trails split and return to the car on the original trail, or we can somehow wade across. Neither choice appeals to me. Walking back will add two hours to our hike and I am already so tired and hungry. All I can think about is the leftover turkey sandwich from the café in Garberville that’s waiting in the car. Boy do I want that sandwich.
“I guess we’re going to have to wade across.”
“Are you sure?”
I’m not at all sure I can make it across but I won’t tell him that – not until I try. I have my stick, my Gore-tex hiking boots, and an improved set of hip and leg muscles thanks to Mike, my new trainer. How hard can it be? I can hold onto Jason if I have to.
I stand up, roll up my pants, and plant my stick in the sand. “Let’s go.”
Jason follows me. “Don’t forget you can grab me.”
“Don’t worry, I will.”
Jason finds a shallow spot for us to cross. The water comes up to the middle of my leg, just below my knee. The textured bottoms of my boots hold me in place. Jason leads the way.
The water isn’t too cold. I was expecting it to be like ice water. My boots fill up like balloons. I hear and feel a slosh with every step. It’s like walking on a water bed, and like a wet foot massage. Slosh, step, slosh, step. One foot at a time, one step at a time.
“I’m doing it!”
The current is strong. I grip my stick and Jason’s hand. I think of Mike and how proud he will be when I tell him what I’ve accomplished. I take it slow, letting myself feel the full force of the river.