Walking it out

The accident happened on a warm, sunny day on Lake Crescent in the Olympic Peninsula. The early morning sun cast a blinding, shimmering light on the water as the canoe silently floated across the lake. The only sound was the intermittent dip followed by the drip, drip, drip of water off the side of the paddle resting across my lap.

Lake Crescent enchanted me from the first moment I saw it and became more treasured when I got married there. The water is so clear you can see a dizzying 10 feet to the bottom. A far cry from canoeing the Mississippi river where we put off swimming until it was so damn hot that the brown, murky abyss actually looked inviting. Once in the water, we’d slowly lower our hands under the surface to see how long until we couldn’t see them anymore. It happened immediately.

“You have a completely torn ACL and MCL.
It’s a twofer!”

The doctor held up his hand for a high-five. I fived him, thinking – is this guy for real?

If you look up a torn ACL in Wikipedia, it says “Torn ACLs are most often related to high impact sports or when the knee is forced to stop on a dime at high-speed and when the tibia moves forward in relation to the femur. These types of injuries are prevalent in alpine skiing, Soccer, American football, Australian rules football, basketball, rugby, professional wrestling, martial arts, and artistic gymnastics.”

Surprisingly, canoeing does not make the list.

Scene of the crime. Lake Crescent, Washington.

Scene of the crime. Lake Crescent, Washington.

On the day of the accident, I had already fallen in the water once. To get us over some rocks near the shore, I was sitting with one leg out of the canoe pushing forward as my husband pulled from the front when the canoe tipped ever so slightly, popped me out and instantly righted itself. As if it was telling me in the Amityville Horror way –

“Get.Out.”

An avid canoer all my life (and in this very canoe, transported across country from Minnesota to Washington), I can count on one hand the number of times I have fallen out of a canoe in 40 years – three. On this day the number jumped to five.

Wet but otherwise unscathed, I climbed back in and we paddled around, the sun warming my legs and drying my shorts. We canoed to the far side of the lake, circled around so we could drift slowly past the wedding site, then headed to shore.

My husband got out first and was holding the front of the canoe. I grabbed the bar in front of me tightly, keenly aware that the canoe (literally and figuratively) had already turned on me once.

I stood and carefully stepped one foot out into the water when the canoe (now with no weight in it) caught a current and started drifting away. I tried in vain to pull it back using the leg and arms that were still in it. As I started to do the splits I simultaneously realized,

“Oh my god, I’m going to fall.  AGAIN.”

And I did. Almost the same fall, only this time I sat there not only stunned, but hurt. I had injured my knee.

The full implications of what happened that day continue to unfold, more than three months later. I am still quite immobile. I am slow. I can’t work out, I can’t take stairs, I grab handrails and I limp. I watch in envy as someone runs for the bus. I have no desire to take public transit, but I sure wish I could move like that. I feel and act OLD.

But one result I could not foresee isn’t physical. I have realized that when I go for walks, I re-energize. I get inspired. My feet move forward automatically but my thoughts zigzag all over the place – creating, contemplating, deciding – I do not notice what is around me or listen to music. I zone out.

After, I’m moved to write something new, or have come up with a different direction to take a story. Maybe I have worked through an issue, or found a solution to a problem I didn’t even know I had. Sometimes I’ve devised a life-changing plan. The process is what I call “walking it out.”

Not being able to walk means more to me than just not walking. And that is the worst part about the accident. So when I got my “twofer” diagnosis and was told my options are surgery or live with an “ACL-deficient knee;” I already knew my answer.

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Crime scene two

I studied criminal justice at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in Minnesota. In one of my classes we watched a reenactment video of various crime scenarios. The excitable host would critique the actions of the victims, and explain what they should have done differently. Then he would yell,

“Let’s give them another chance!”

The actors would reenact the same scene, behave correctly, and not wind up victims. It was entertaining, and surprisingly effective. I have thought about many of the lessons from that video over the years but the one on “crime scene two” stands out in particular.

Crime scene two is where your dead body is dumped, or the site of your murder. The killer first abducts you (from a public area) and then takes you to a secluded, usually wooded area, aka crime scene two. Alive, you should never allow this to happen (jump out of a moving vehicle, run from a loaded gun to your head) as there is virtually no chance of survival at crime scene two.

Cracked Heel Relief
SCSU hosts an annual trivia weekend that boasts 50 hours of non-stop trivia. The first year we played our team name was “Cracked Heel Relief.” The following year (my personal favorite) we called ourselves “Smell my Jif.” We came in last place each year, but won the prize for best name. The Cracked Heel Relief year was 1991 – before the World Wide Web – so we had stacks of books strewn about the apartment. To answer a question correctly, we had to either 1) know things (not likely), 2) look them up in reference books and almanacs (limited success) or 3) call people and ask them. It was an early version of “phone a friend” – the version where you wake people up in the middle of the night and annoy the shit out of them with questions like, “What new color puff was added to Trix cereal this year?” (Lime green).

One year a trivia question was about a city in Italy found at the “heel of the boot.” The answer was Brindisi.

My friend Patti and I knew this city well. Too well.

The heel of the boot
On a map, Italy looks like a boot, and Brindisi is located at the heel. Our trip to Brindisi was in 1989 and came on the heels of a whirlwind month-long tour of Europe on a coach with 44 people, followed by a semester in the heart of London, as part of a study abroad program. Patti and I stayed for a month after the program ended to backpack around Europe and visit some places we didn’t see with the group.

In our infinite wisdom (probably clouded by our stay in Amsterdam), we decided to head straight from Amsterdam to Corfu, Greece. And to get to Corfu we needed to take a ferry from Brindisi.

When our train arrived in Brindisi, as is true with most air and train terminals, locals surrounded us offering cheap taxis, hotels, food, etc. We eschewed all “deals” and went to find the ferry terminal. Unfortunately it was the off-season, we had missed the one ferry that left for Corfu per day, and had to spend the night. Due to limited funds our first choice was the youth hostel.

While we were at a bus stop trying to figure out the public transit system, an older gentleman pulled over to ask us if we were going to the hostel (I’m sure it was our backpacks rather than our spiral perms, Girbaud jeans and over-sized exaggerated v-neck tops that tipped him off that we were not from around there.) He kindly offered to drive us there. He said he knew right where it was (out-of-town, in the middle of nowhere) and that no public transit routes went there. I should have recognized these as red flags, but, blinded by a free ride by someone who was old, like a dad, and therefore harmless; I ignored them.

Patti firmly declined. She had a bad feeling. He argued with her. He seemed taken aback and miffed that we would not take him up on this very generous offer. He tried to persuade us, playing on our fear that dangerous people were lurking, waiting to take advantage of young American students, but Patti held her ground. He finally sped off in anger, and I called the youth hostel to get directions. I heard a recorded message saying that it had closed for the season. Patti and I looked at each other in horror. He was going to take us to crime scene two.

Shaken by our near abduction and subsequent grisly murder, we hightailed it back to the train station and approached the pushiest and most annoying of all the locals.

“Please, here is all our money, take us to your hotel.”

Once in the room, we finally exhaled and relaxed a little. The room looked clean, was reasonably priced, and we started to feel safe. And that is when we decided to unfold the comforter at the end of the bed. Our eyes widened along with the stain.

“Oh my god.

Is that blood??

YES.”

We stared at it in shocked silence for a full minute or more. This was not from a mere flesh wound; it was massive – multiple gunshot wound sized – and took up more than half of the fabric.

It didn’t appear fresh, but it was there.

WHY?

Was a body wrapped in it, taken to crime scene two and disposed of; the comforter returned, neatly folded and placed back on the bed? More likely the killers moved the body some other way, but why leave the bloody evidence behind? And the hotel staff must have known because they folded it.

As in trivia, we had no answers.

Many adventures and close calls followed Brindisi; wild dogs chased us on our rented mopeds in Corfu and I had my passport stolen in Paris, but they all paled in comparison. Brindisi is forever stained on our brains, like that bloody comforter.

Brindisi, Italy is a heel. Geographically and metaphorically.

And no amount of Cracked Heel Relief can save it.