Five days before my heart attack, on the day that I turned 66, I had planned to take a thirteen mile walk just celebrate the fact that I could still walk that far. It rained that day so I said “I’ll do it later.” “Later” turned out to be after a heart attack and bypass surgery and several months of regaining my former vigor. I am still regaining my old form and taking walks of four, five and six miles, so when my wife said that she wanted to go to a store twelve miles away on a bright and sunny day I sensed that this would be a great opportunity to see how far I have come on my journey back to health. After church we gassed up and nosed the car into freeway traffic and drove south to the store which my wife wished to visit. After checking for the item that we sought at the store I used the restroom, buttoned up, and stepped out of the store to begin my walk home.
Within a block I realized that my walk was going to be a cold one. The temperature was somewhere around 36 or 37 degrees but the wind was blowing at over twenty miles per hour, and the weather app on my iPhone said that it “feels like 24”. I think that it felt colder than that. I’ve walked in cold before but this was more than just cold. This was blue ice, bone chilling, face burning, digit numbing, freezing ass cold. This was the kind of cold that just snatches the breath right out of your lungs. The first three blocks of my walk were straight into the teeth of that wind and by the time that I had made it to the bicycle path which I intended to follow nearly all of the way home I had tears streaming laterally from my eyes and headed towards my ears and more snot running out of my nose than Aqualung.
Upon reaching the path I turned north and began to churn at a good clip north towards my home twelve miles distant. The path was very nearly empty, which did not surprise me at all. Who in their right mind would be out there in conditions like this? Present company excluded, of course. I walked along and tried to let my mind wander like I usually do when I take such walks, but on this day my wandering mind constantly came back to “damn, it’s cold”, so I finally gave up on that and instead simply tried to pay attention to what was around me and think as little as I could.
What was around me was evidence of the wind storm that we endured a week or two earlier. Fence sections were lying flat where they had been blown, while holes gaped in the ground where trees had been blown over, sawn up and carried away. Piles of trash had collected between the chain link fence and a guardrail on a light rail overpass which paralleled the bike path, and the wind was trying to pick that trash up and spread it out across the rest of Portland to the west of where I walked.
After about a mile I began to run into pedestrians, mostly homeless people and bicyclists. I was puzzled by the bicyclists. I was walking at about three miles per hour and the wind chill was making my life miserable. The bicyclists were whizzing by at several times greater speed than I was walking and I know that the wind chill must have increased for them exponentially. Portland Oregon is a place where common sense is viewed askance if not with outright hostility. Even so at some point simple survival should kick in when common sense has failed you. Still, by ones and by twos the bicyclists came in increasing numbers, peddling past me with their bright red faces as I continued to plod north towards home.
At length I passed over Foster Road and it occurred to me that I really don’t know the streets of Portland. In Vancouver where I frequently walk I know all of the streets and can gauge how far I have come and how far I have yet to go by what street I pass at any given moment. Along this day’s path I would intersect the dead ends of one street after another and their names meant nothing to me, apart from the big ones that are familiar to me for one reason or another. Holgate, Powell, Division and Burnside were familiar names but separated by great distances; great if you are walking into a mind-numbingly cold wind many miles from home. At one point I passed a street named St. Francis, and I thought of the Catholic Saint by the same name. I couldn’t remember what St. Francis was supposed to be the patron saint of but my mind wandered back to the 1960’s when many of us wore St Christopher medals around our necks. St. Christopher was said to be the patron saint of lost causes (I have no idea if that is true or not) and as I shivered and continued to stump forward on rapidly numbing feet I thought that Christopher might indeed be my guy. I also wondered if there was a guy who was the patron saint of old dudes of 66 years who try to walk twelve miles in freezing temperatures just for the fun of it. St. Doofus would be the guy, I think.
By the time I had walked a mile and a half I was cold in every part of my body. I was properly layered with sweat shirt and jacket, wool watch cap and gloves, and a scarf which I had borrowed from my lovely wife, yet the wind found every crease and crevasse in my attire, or had just blown through inadequate fabric. Even my upper lip provided inadequate insulation for my teeth, which began to ache early into my journey.
As I wrote earlier, the cold had found the switch which turned on the mucous machine in my head. I had a package of tissue paper in my jacket pocket but fishing them out and using them would have required that I remove one of my gloves to get the job done, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Instead I would swivel my head to see if anyone was riding up behind me, and if the coast was clear I’d launch a couple of snot rockets and keep on moving. By three miles I did not care who was behind me. Fully gloved I would fire a couple of blasts that would freeze soon after making contact with the icy pavement.
At one point the path rose up a small hill and the shattered peak of Mount St. Helens came into view. I wondered if it was any colder up on that peak. Maybe so, maybe not. Once you get to “cold”, “colder” seems to lose meaning. Right after seeing the mountain I reached Burnside and crossed over the freeway to continue my journey on the east side of that road. At this point I had walked nearly four miles and my legs and joints were feeling it. Also, this part of the trip was more exposed than most had been and the wind was hammering at me unimpaired by buildings, trees, or retaining walls. I knew by this time that I wouldn’t be walking the whole way home. The sun was now hanging low in the western sky and shadows were beginning to creep across the city. But so far I had not tackled any kind of a hill, and this walk would not be complete if I did not conquer one good rise in elevation. Past Gateway Transit Center I knew that there was a good drop and rise on the way to the next light rail stop in Park Rose, and I decided to walk the last two miles to that stop. I purchased my train ticket at Gateway however, because I had no confidence that my frozen digits would be able to extract a couple of dollar bills out of my wallet and feed them into a slot in the ticket dispenser after two more miles of walking in that cold. I could barely get it done at Gateway.
Train ticket tucked safely into my wallet, I struck out for Park Rose. I wanted this hill very badly to complete my accomplishment this day. In the Army one of my nicknames was “Weasel” because if I didn’t want to be found by our first sergeant who was looking for people to complete a list for some nasty work detail, I would not be found. The man hated me for this. I was proud of that name. Weenie sounds a lot like Weasel on the surface. Both start with a ‘W’ and have the long ‘ee’ sound, and both are composed of two syllables. But there’s a world of difference betweenThe Weasel and a weenie. I won’t be a weenie, so with numb and aching face, fingers and feet and muscles and joints protesting because of the effort that they had already expended, I walked past two homeless guys standing and smoking at the point where the bike path resumed at the north end of the Transit Center and resumed my trek north.
As I passed those two gentlemen I reflected that I didn’t look so very much different than them. My old blue jeans and blue jacket show the signs of the years upon years that I have worn them. My shoes are pretty good but the old woolen watch cap pulled low over my ears and neck and the gloves with holes here and there make me look like a member of the brotherhood of the road. To complete the picture, I found that I had lost one of the earplugs which I intended to use to keep the deafening road noise from the freeway out of my ears. In order to address that shortcoming I dug one of the tissues out of my pocket and stuffed it as best as I could into my right ear and tried, with limited success, to tuck the tissue under my watch cap. A corner of the white tissue paper insisted however in peeking out from under my cap. Therefore, with my somewhat shabby clothes, snot trails and tissue paper hanging out from under my cap I looked appropriately demented and people left me completely alone, which worked for me under the circumstances.
That final leg was just miserable. The first half of that segment of my trip took me through an isolated patch of grass and trees between two stretches of freeway. This is a place where a guy could get mugged and nobody would be anywhere close to provide aid or call a cop. As I walked through this half mile of my journey I reflected that nobody in their right mind would be hanging out in that lonely and Siberian piece of real estate, but that did not give me much comfort. Under that formula, the only people whom I might meet there would by definition not be in their right mind. There was nothing that I could do about that however, and I was way too done in to run if I was accosted, so I just put my head down and trudged on.
Finally I crossed that last two miles and felt a surge of anticipation as the Park Rose Transit Center came into view. Now all I had to do was to wait for the train that would take me to the next station, where my wife would be waiting to take me the rest of the way home. Now that the walk was over another problem took first place in my consciousness; my bladder had been sending ‘full’ signals for the last three miles. There were several points along the trip that I thought I would like to find a bush or tree to get behind and relieve the pressure but modesty, the legalities of the thing, and ultimately the thought of the frigid wind on tender and exposed flesh put a damper on any such thoughts. I elected to pace around the platform for the thirteen minutes that it took for the train to arrive and carry me to the waiting car and my wife who whisked me home to the restroom, a hot bowl of soup, and a glass of good red wine that combined to relax the weary wanderer who is now providing you with the story that you have just read.