Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Next Step

Should you ever find yourself at the T Stop[FN 1] in Cambridge's Porter Square you will likely notice two things. The first is a giant kinetic sculpture at the entrance, one that looks remarkably like a praying mantis in the act of, well, preying. Having walked past this giant metal doorman and through the station's outer doors you will almost immediately notice Porter's second feature of note: there is an unnerving number of steps leading from the street to the platform. A number like 198. I know because this past Monday I managed to drag myself up each and every one of them. I was going to Porter to pick up my car after four long weeks in the shop, the last of which I spent traversing the continental United States in an effort to walk a mile in all 48 lower states in 9 days. After disembarking from the subway car I approached the escalator and its neighboring stairway. But which to take? Normally this would be an easy choice. Option one is, while insanely steep and a bit dizzying, basically an un-glorified amusement park ride (and really, what amusement park ride is not a bit dizzying?). The other brings to mind not the stairway to heaven so much as some sort of cruel Kafka-esque joke. Ten days prior I would have simply stepped onto the escalator and thought nothing more of my ascent, perhaps aside from whether anybody had ever successfully rode the handrail the whole way up (or, if they're truly brave, down). Everybody else who got off the subway with me made that decision, but I'd give them something else to think about. Specifically, why is that crazy guy with the limp walking up the stairs right next to the escalator?

After taking the trip that has come to be known as 48 Country Miles, the decision was easy. One state at a time I had been trained to eschew any and all kinds of people movers. The pedometer does not tick away on an escalator, after all. While on our walks we would always take the longest way, the steepest way, and the most inconvenient way from point A to point B. Clearly this mindset had overflowed from the trip and into my daily life. The thing I don't know is if this new-found desire to get there on foot is due to a fundamental change in the way I view locomotion or simply an inability to let the 48 Country Mile effort go.
Since as far as I can remember plotting this trip I have had a secret hope that it would change my life. I know that sounds like something at the intersection of amateur, immature, and trite, but it's true. This was a big trip for me. There's a reason I tried to do something that arguably nobody has ever done before, regardless of physical ability. I know that's a bit deceiving--I could just as easily have walked exactly 11.61 miles while blindfolded on a Tuesday in Presque Isle, Maine and said that "arguably nobody has ever done [that] before." But this trip was more than that--it was more than just an accomplishment for accomplishment's sake.

In addition to the challenge, the 48 Country Miles trip was at least partially inspired by fear and intellectual curiosity. The two were strongly intertwined: I feared that my Multiple Sclerosis would prevent me from ever seeing the parts of America I've somehow missed over my first 29 years. I wanted to see the mountains in Idaho. I wanted to feel the breeze off the gulf coast, ramble through the tall grasses of the prairie, and back slowly away from a very large bug in the Nevada desert. But most of all I wanted to see how it all connects, how the deep south transitions to the midwest and how the midwest drifts into the great northwest. On paper our route was necessarily jagged-I never fully considered how many times we would have to cross time zones or the Missouri River--I just wanted to go from everywhere to everywhere within our time limitations.

And although it required a photo finish, we were able to do just that. We made it to each of our goal towns every night, even if it meant just a couple of hours of sleep at a motel and then back on the road. Making it to each stop in time to make it to the next stop became an obsession within the confines of our rented Toyota Sienna. Remarkably, though, we were able to shed that obsession when actually walking in each state and trade it for a new one: an obsession to figure out what the place we were in was all about (with a couple of exceptions--there was no need to linger and absorb the midnight culture in Needles, California).
Even more remarkable, though, is how these obsession almost completely blocked out any thoughts I would normally have about my MS. It didn't just become a secondary concern...it was not a concern at all. The most telling symptom of this is that I stopped bringing my cane on the state walks after 8 or 9 had passed. It's not that I couldn't benefit from using the cane--it's just that I could not easily keep my watch-pedometer going and also hold the camera if one arm was constantly occupied. And so by the end of the first weekend my cane found a semi-permanent place on the floor of the minivan, not to be moved until we returned the car in Denver. And it wasn't just the cane--I cared less about taking the drugs I had so carefully packed. Frankly it's amazing that I remembered to do my nightly Copaxone injections. I certainly felt the limitations that accompany my MS...it's just that I was too focused on other things to care. Aside from needing an occasional hand out of the back seat of the car or with my bags, I was just another one of the guys.

Upon our return, my girlfriend asked Philip whether the trip had changed his life. He said it hadn't (although in the same sentence reported that it was not a "little adventure" but a "big adventure)." When she asked me, I had a different answer. While each member of our travelling party could appreciate the thrill of the challenge and the wonder of discovering new places, I alone was given the gift of temporarily forgetting that I am afflicted by a terrible and progressive illness. I know that it may have been a bit of a smokescreen--there's a difference between simply being distracted and having a new outlook. But the moment I hit that first step in the Porter Square T stop opened up the distinct possibility that it was the latter.

This post will serve as my official wrap-up for the 48 Country Miles adventure. I will make occasional follow-up posts here, including a forthcoming link to a high-resolution photoset with all of the good pictures from the this trip (many of which I have not posted here to date), but for the most part this trip is becoming part of the past. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that I am already conceptualizing a new challenge, one that will probably be logistically more difficult than the 48 states. It's pretty obscure, so I doubt you'll be able to guess it. Just in case it never comes to fruition, however, I'm going to play things fairly close to the vest for the time being. You can be sure, however, that Dave, Dan, Philip, Brian, Nishant, and Walter (the Fifth--make that 7th--Beatle) will be hearing all about it in the coming months. Their loved ones are probably already worried. Thanks so much for reading this blog, sending me all your support, and donating to the Accelerated Cure Project. Until next time,


[FN 1] That's "subway stop," to non-Bostonians.

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