Things Your Back Can Teach You
©2007 by Pat Wray
I was in as comfortable a position as one could ask, lying on my back, grass tickling my neck and ears, contemplating the sky, a soft breeze ruffling the trees above me. There was only one thing wrong; I couldn’t move—at least not without lower back pain so excruciating that it brought all movement to a stop. This pain suddenly changed the wonderful aspects of my situation into potentially dangerous problems.
I was in elk camp, high in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, almost a half-mile from my nearest neighbor. I was totally alone with no cell phone service. Damn near perfection, right? But add incapacitating back pain and everything that had been good was now very, very bad.
It had started out so well. I’d scheduled two full weeks for my annual elk hunt. The first week I was to be alone; my son and two hunting partners would join me on the second week. My wife was not pleased about the solo segment of my hunt but my time alone in the woods is important to me, so important I am willing to accept the added risk, not to mention nagging, er, advice.
I was very well prepared. My endurance was excellent; I was deadly with my bow out to 45 yards and dangerous out to 70. I had all the gear I needed and then some. I was ready with a capital R.
But my back wasn’t. The very first morning in camp the muscles in the small of my back began doing things that should probably be illegal. In short order I was flat on the ground.
I lay there for half an hour, trying to relax, desperately afraid of movement. I did not want to face that kind of pain again. Finally, I was able to roll over on my stomach but when I tried to stand up the pain left me in a soggy pile of whimpers and whines. I tried three times to stand and afterwards I didn’t care if I ever stood again. I took what I could get, which was a very careful hands and knees crawl. Any bend in my back set the muscles screaming. I harmonized. After an hour or so I made it back to tent, 40 feet away. Two more agonizing muscle spasms and I was in my cot, accompanied by a headlamp, books, canteen and medicine bag.
Luckily, I had kept leftover painkillers from previous surgeries, dislocated fingers and sprained ankles, and I was very thankful for them. Viva Vicodin! I didn’t leave the cot for 24 hours. It was simply not possible to overwhelm the pain with pills, though I tried valiantly. This was one of the few times I truly appreciated the gastrointestinal clogging properties of Vicodin. As for other bodily requirements, you don’t want to know.
The pain did not affect my hunger, but not until the next morning was I hungry enough to go after food. Another attempt to stand up left me collapsed on the ground, so I settled for crawling on my hands and knees out of the tent and over to the cooler. The easy eating menu consisted of three cooked chicken breasts, a few slices of ham, jello jigglers and a full recipe of chocolate chip cookies. There was bread in one of the totes but it was too far to crawl. So for two days I ate strictly out of the cooler. The cooler top was just the right height to support my chest; I could lean over and rest on it as I ate.
Even two days later, after I was able to get to my feet and hobble around, I could neither stand nor sit for more than a minute or two—so the cooler and I became very good friends. Leaning on the cooler relieved all the stress from my back and let me eat in comfort. On the third day I made it to the tote and my diet expanded to include bread and canned goods.
On the fifth day it was obvious I was not going be hunting elk this season. I was in no particular danger, but the knees of my sweatpants were wearing out, I had read all my books and most importantly, I was running out of Vicodin. My son and partners would not show up for two more days. I managed to drive to the closest town and called my daughter, who lives with her husband and children in Boise, a mere four hours away.
“Heather,” I said, “Remember when I picked you up from that party after you got sick?”
“Yes, Dad. I was 13 at the time.”
“Want to return the favor?”
So she and her family showed up the evening of the sixth day, spent two days bringing food and drinks to me, then packed up my camp and sent me on my way. By stopping to stretch every hour I made the six hour trip in just 10 hours. The good news was that it was near bedtime so my wife had to wait until the next day to yell at me about hunting alone.
Hunting trips like this don’t yield many elk, but they do have educational value. This one helped me learn that:
You can’t have too many chocolate chip cookies or precooked chicken breasts.
Always keep your cooler close and your Vicodin closer
No matter how convenient it is when you are hurt, sooner or later you will pay a heavy price for being gastrointestinally clogged.
You can limit the nagging by promising to rent a satellite phone for next year’s hunt.