A lucky man: Reaping the benefits of a forced slowdown

Peaks

Sinopah Mountain, right, and Painted Teepee Peak, in Glacier National Park’s Two Medicine drainage.

I had total hip replacement surgery in the middle of May, and I figured that if I was anything like my coworker, I’d be back to normal in three weeks, four weeks max.

My coworker, who had the same surgery, is 20 years younger and a Special Forces vet. He returned to work a week after his hip replacement, but he later told me that he had made a mistake in coming back so soon and almost passed out numerous times his first week back.

So I figured I’d need twice the rehab he required, given my age but general good health. That meant four weeks of rehab, which would leave me two weeks of my sick leave to enjoy hiking, fishing and other pastimes.

As it turns out, I will be returning to work eight weeks after surgery.

This isn’t a story of my recuperation and pain, although there was some of that. They prescribe painkillers for a reason, and my painkillers were good. You want to get off those things as soon as possible.

So no, this is a story about lowered expectations and life in the slow lane and the unexpected benefits of both.

Since I live a mere eight miles from the Two Medicine entrance on the east side of Glacier National Park, I have easy access to the park. I was back home several days after the surgery and since then I have been going up to the Two Medicine campground and walking.

I have graduated from a walker to crutches, and now to a cane, which I shouldn’t need much longer. The reason for walking the campground was simple: it’s paved. A private duty nurse—that would be my wife, Teresa—accompanied me for the first month.

Another thing a person could get addicted to is excellent nursing care. Meals brought to you in an easy chair with a view of the mountains, someone to put your socks on for you, someone to give you your pills, someone to wait on you hand and foot—and I know what you’re thinking. NO, I could wipe my own ass.

But the well of caring isn’t bottomless. I knew this, being a nurse myself, and I had to start making lame attempts at self-care. “Honey, I’ve got this extra-long shoe horn, so let me put my shoes on myself.” “It looks worse than it is.” “I need to rest.”

For the first three weeks, the campground was closed, so we could park at the gate and stroll at our leisure. There were still a few snowdrifts in the campsites, and some days it was gray and spitting a bit of snow. As the days went on I would show off for my wife. I’d take a few of steps without the crutches, and it looked normal for a couple of steps. After she would congratulate me, I would start gimping.

Besides having the campground to ourselves, we also had our own herd of bighorn sheep. They weren’t aggressive, but they are wild. We kept our distance. And when we realized several of them were pregnant, and that one day a couple of lambs were added to the herd, we kept a further distance. Often they gathered around a fire pit in a campsite and appeared to be feeding on something. It turns out that the charcoal has a health benefit for the sheep and removes monotoxins from their system.

And today, end of June. Campground open. Cars exceeding the 10 mph speed limit. Bastards. Bighorn sheep gone up the rocky slopes, I presume. With my trusty cane I start walking the picnic area loop.

Local Blackfeet occupy the prime picnic sites by the lake. Why not, it used to be theirs. I was about to say they used to own it, but I think they would say nobody owns the land and that they were stewards of this land given to them by the creator. A blue sky with wispy cirrus clouds, glittering wavelets, a warm wind that curls down the bowl of mountains and along the lake. Smoke from the fire pits. I imagine the Blackfeet are grilling red weenies, not buffalo.

I am walking by myself. My private-duty nurse has abandoned me for a nursing job that pays. I exit the picnic loop and the tarmac parallels the short stream that joins Two Medicine and the smaller Pray Lake. Last fall I saw the herd of bighorn sheep wade across the stream, but today it’s a handful of Indian boys splashing and wading to where the stream drops off into the blue depths of the lake. They dare each other to take the plunge.

In the woods along the lake and in between the campsites, bear grass blooms. A lot of it. More than I have ever seen. I was under the impression that the bear grass was cyclical and produced a massive bloom every seven years (shameless promotion: go to YouTube and my song, “When the Bear Grass Blooms”). The last great bloom was four years ago and here it is again, even more impressive.

Bear grass

National Park Service

After a snowy winter and a wet spring, it’s been a bountiful year for bear grass in the Two Medicine area.

What’s the deal? Moisture, it turns out. A winter of heavy snow and buckets of rain this spring. When not in bloom it’s a grass that grows in dense clumps. I can attest to the accuracy of its Latin name, xerophyllum tenax which means “tenacious grass.” Years ago I worked on a crew in the Pintlar Wilderness Area digging a new hiking trail. The ranger had flagged out the proposed trail with blue ribbons and the proposed route often went through patches of bear grass.

We regularly moved the ribbons to reroute the trail around the grass because it was not only tenacious, it was indestructible. I wondered if later hikers would question the reason for the seemingly random zigzags in the trail. Picks, hoedags, shovels, dynamite—nothing could budge the stuff. But when it blooms, glorious! Now it’s blooming thick on the forest floor. Packed clusters of tiny flowers that create a fist-sized white bloom on an 18-inch stalk. White balloons tethered to the earth awaiting release.

There’s a bench at the end of Pray Lake where I have positioned myself after my half-mile therapeutic stroll. Initially I thought it was a mile each way, but my wife disabused me of that exaggeration. I have a commanding view of the Two Medicine drainage. Dead ahead Sinopah Mountain and to the left Painted Teepee Peak. On my immediate right there is Rising Wolf. Let’s just say these peaks are imposing. Let’s say they have a presence, and it’s not necessarily welcoming. I hesitate to put a name or a word on it. Let’s say some force pins me to the bench, and whether it comes from within or without I cannot say.

Then an osprey glides into the frame, circling, riding the air currents above the lake. It must have spotted something. It hovers for a moment, dives, its talons come forward just above the water, and splash! A clean miss, then back in the sky circling.

I rise from the bench and start to make my way back to the car. In a normal summer I would come here almost daily and I would park my car in the lot and I would head directly to one of the trails and march my way to Aster Falls, or Scenic Point, or Dawson Pass, all beautiful and worthy destinations.

Given my current condition, I’m reduced to this short walk and the bench at the end of Pray Lake. Unlike the osprey, my walks are like a slow dive, and because of the very slowness of them I catch so many things I would have missed otherwise. I am a lucky man.

Postscript:

Six days left of leave, then back to work. Friends have asked, “Really, aren’t you kind of anxious to get back to work?” I reply, “Uh, no.”

I have increased my walk past the bench and now it includes a couple of hundred yards on the North Shore Trail. It has been very hot for the last week and today I come prepared. I wear my swimming trunks and my Teva sandals. After my walk I remove my shirt and wade into the stream that connects the two lakes, leave my cane on an exposed rock bar in the middle of the stream, and wade the last 20 feet in six inches of water with no assistive device.

Where the stream meets the lake the depth of the water drops dramatically. I stand there for a moment working up the courage to face the cold water. Then I dive in.

Mike McCormick lives and works in Great Falls and East Glacier. He is a poet, a songwriter and a nurse practitioner.

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