“Are you okay?” I opened my eyes and blinked against a helmet-clad vision, silhouetted against the sun. I shielded my eyes with a gloved hand and raised my head a few inches off the ground. I could totally understand why this person was asking about my well-being, seeing as how I was sprawled out alongside a trail on Antelope Island with my mountain bike unceremoniously tossed off into the weeds. I tried to sit up but instead flinched in pain. Chronic was killing me.
Chronic is not a term I use to describe particularly high-quality weed, but the name I give my chronically bad back. Chronic has been my nemesis for years – an injury I fear has stolen my days of youth (which I’m currently searching for in tap rooms and breweries after hearing about the ancient legend of the Keg of Youth.)
What’s most frustrating about Chronic, is that I am not accident prone. Of course, over the last thirty years or so I’ve been slamming myself against mountains (which are pretty damn hard by the way) so I’ve had my mishaps. Every outdoorsy soul worth the chalk in their climbing bag has mucho scars and the stories to go with them, and I certainly have suffered my fair share of “oops” moments. I cracked ribs via intimate contact with The Spine while mountain biking the Wasatch Crest. I suffered a concussion thanks a severely misguided attempt to learn snowboarding without a helmet on icy, Colorado slopes. I even bruised my heel pads after hitting the rocky deck while lead-climbing in American Fork Canyon (that last one came courtesy of slippery foot holds covered in guano, and the injury left me hobbled for months.) But thankfully, I’ve never needed stiches, taken an ambulance ride, or crossed the threshold of an ER on a stretcher.
Despite my overall good fortune, I wouldn’t exactly call myself graceful. One winter, I fell off a chairlift immediately after sitting down. This in front of a crowd of ski-school kids. They wouldn’t stop laughing at me, which brought up deeply repressed, bad memories of childhood teasing. To be fair, I was wearing a cow suit and milking my udders at the lift operator when it happened. Then there was the time I took an endo off the side of a particularly steep and loose trail. Problem was, I didn’t go over the handlebars, but off the side of my bike… when it was stopped… because I was trying to get on it. So really, my lack of serious injury is downright amazing. You might say I’m lucky that I’ve never missed an entire ski or bike season to rehab a torn ACL or have to get my entire face stitched back together (which might actually improve my looks.) But I don’t feel lucky. All I feel is my goddamn back, and it makes me feel older than I am.
I can’t remember a time when my spine and all adjacent muscle tissue felt normal. Screwed up discs are like little jihadists – I never know when they will flare up and attack. I can go years without a round of pain, but then my back would seize up when I do something stupidly normal, like picking a sock up off the floor. And when my bad back does come around to say howdy, I’m suddenly useless as an infant and incapacitated as an old man – drool included. The only consolation is that my back injury came courtesy of skiing off a rad cliff jump. The landing was hard and flat, so my spine compressed like an accordion upon impact. Does it count that I stuck it, even if nobody was there to see it?
A few weeks of chiropractor visits, followed by laying on a couch watching ski movies through tear-blurred eyes (not from the pain, but from sadness conjured up by watching ski movies on powder days) and I returned to snow before season’s end. But my back was never the same. Without warning, it would lock up, usually mid-ride/climb/hike, stranding me in the woods with no way to move and miles from the car.
The last time my back turned dictator and locked me up in a torturous vice was years ago. The trigger was so benign, that I don’t even remember how it happened. What I do remember, was having to drive the very next day to Bend, Oregon. The 700-mile, 10-hour drive was an agony that I endured only for the hope that I may find the Keg of Youth in the holiest of holy beer lands. Thankfully my pain did subside after quaffing dozens of IPAs upon arrival, but, sadly, the Keg of Youth was nowhere to be found in Bend.
Even though it’s been a long time since the last back attack, I know not to be complacent. Like the big earthquake that we have been warned will someday destroy Salt Lake City, I am long overdue. To alleviate any back trouble, I’ve adopted rituals of stretching exercises before and after any outdoor activity. Although more often than not, I have to pretzel myself during outdoor activity as well. My back tends to give me warning shots before launching the big missile of spams and locked-up discs. So on this day of mountain biking on Antelope Island, I found myself flat on my back, explaining to a stranger why I was bedded down on gravel and burrs.
“I’m fine,” I responded. “Just stretching my back.” As I untangled my legs and slowly sat up, I saw the man was grey-haired and wiry. Wrinkled hands gripped handlebars, and rheumy eyes peered at me over carbon, bladed sunglasses. The mountain biker looked least 80-years-old, yet there he was, miles from the trailhead, clad entirely in spandex, standing astride an expensive-looking 29er. We talked for a bit and he confirmed his old age (though it wasn’t quite 80) and, satisfied that I didn’t need to be airlifted to a hospital, said goodbye before peeling off so fast he must have chugged a dozen growlers from the Keg of Youth.
It was frustrating to see. Here I was, wishing for a wheelchair, and a geezer more than twice my age just bounded up a rocky, steep switchback like it was an escalator. I simply had to catch up to him. So I carefully stood up, brushed the dust off my shorts, and tried to swing a leg over my saddle. Of course my back convulsed with spasms again, so I instead pushed my bike up the hill like an invalid. Ignoring the pain shooting down my legs with every step, I vowed that when I’m as old as my trailside inquirer, I too will be hammering the steeps like I’m 25. I think it’s a worthy, and even possible goal, as long as I can locate that damn elusive Keg of Youth. But even if that ancient legend isn’t true, then, if anything, Chronic gives me a good excuse to drink.