Sunday, June 25, 2017

Why Shouldn't You Go Hiking with a Strained Oblique?

I'll give you one reason.

I’d been itching to get out and climb Mt. Hachibuse for weeks. Then suddenly the day came. The sun was rising bright in the sparkling sky; immediate responsibilities, both parental and professional, were nil; the car keys were just sitting there.

My wife yelled in my general direction as I was pulling out of the driveway; something about one of the kids and a piano lesson. “One of my kids takes piano lessons?” I mused as I sped along Route 63, winding along the foot of the mountain range that culminates in this curious, non-descript peak I was rushing toward.

Honestly, I don’t know why I wanted to climb Hachibuse-yama. Of all the countless mountains around here it is nowhere near the highest. It is nothing you could call dramatic. There’s a road that takes you within a half mile of the top. Hachibuse means ‘prostrating bowl’ for Pete’s sake.

If I'm careful what could possibly go wrong?
If you decide to hike the short trail (built for those of us with a wife who needs the car later) you'll find it meanders through the woods until, halfway up the mountain, it spits you out onto the road. As if suddenly aware that it wasn’t supposed to be playing in the street, the trail quickly dips back into the woods. Then as if it were one of my kids it forgets it isn’t supposed to be playing in the street and runs out onto the pavement once again. At this point the trail turns into a squirrel in a panic, running into and out of and into and out of traffic’s way until it finally dies like road kill at the blacktop’s edge.

From there it’s a twenty-minute walk along the rocky shoulder, up to the parking lot where the smart people start walking.

Despite the fact the rainy season had officially begun (according to whoever decides these things) we hadn’t had any rain since before the rainy season. This meant the trail would be dry and…whatever the opposite of slippery is. My knees felt great. My body felt light. In an unusual moment of clarity I would remember to take some water with me. The day’s hike was shaping up perfectly. I only had one concern.

I was still recovering from a strained oblique muscle in my right side. Don’t ask me how it happened.

Every time I get hurt – not that it happens every week – I have the same problem: I am entirely unable to just hang out and let my body heal. Getting better takes too long, and I have to get out and do something before my mid-life crisis worsens. I can’t let a beautiful day in the midst of the Northern Japanese Alps go to waste because of a strained muscle, or a sore knee, or a broken collarbone.

I promise myself I’ll take it easy as I bend over to tie my shoes, grimacing against the pain.

Speeding along Route 63 I tell myself again and again to be extra careful not to aggravate my stupid injury. We had a softball game coming up. But before the hike would be over I’d find there’s one good reason not to climb a mountain with a strained oblique, no matter how careful you promise yourself you will be.

Precautions to the Wind

The trail leading up into the trees was marked by a sign so broken and weather-beaten I might have made it myself. Hachibuse 5.7km it read. Whether this meant the top of the prostrating bowl, the ridge forming the bottom of the bowl, or the parking lot below the bottom of the bowl I didn't know. I did know that my trail map, courtesy of the City of Matsumoto Something-Something Department, put the distance from the parking lot to the top of Hachibuse at 7.2 km. The reason for the discrepancy may have been that this trail map was giving the distance if one followed the road, not the trail, all the way up the mountain. Why a trail map would do this I had no idea. This was a question for someone at the Something-Something Department.

Either way, back home someone-someone had a piano lesson sometime in the near future, and for that reason my time on Hachibuse was limited. My progress up this mountain, to a point 995 meters higher than that broken sign, had to be on the quicker side of moderate.

This was my first cause for concern. After ten minutes of climbing a trail steeper than any ski slope I’d ever encountered I felt nothing resembling pain in my side. Ten more minutes of flat-ish walking and still I felt great. But that didn't mean I’d feel nothing in another hour. Or two. Or right about the moment I reached the top of what I now called The ‘Buse (which, perhaps appropriately, rhymes with obtuse).

Wherever the pain started, if it did, I’d have the entire rest of the walk to feel it get progressively worse. And my pace would get progressively slower. And my wife would get progressively stressed as the clock ticked toward piano o’clock.

I took another picture of the sun-dotted trail and kept walking.

Presently I came upon another steep incline, thirty meters of loose dirt and looser rocks and a hundred roots, ostensibly perilous enough to require a rope. Thick and dirty and lying limp as a dead snake, this rope was, I assumed, tied to something at the top of the slope.

Then I remembered the sorry state of the sign at the trailhead.

"Watch out for trips and slips!"
(That's what I say to my boys all the time.)
I wouldn't normally consider using such a rope. Must be the guy in me. But today, slipping and
falling was a real concern, if only because the sudden movement, and my sudden reaction, could set my oblique on fire. To prevent this I could of course hold onto that rope. But grabbing and pulling with my right arm could also strain my side. Hanging on to that rope with my left hand wouldn't be much better if I suddenly found myself in the middle of my own personal landslide. I stepped gingerly upslope. I held onto that rope and shuffled a few meters back downhill, to see what I might be facing on the way down. In my side I felt nothing.

And my concerns disappeared. For a while.

I felt great, surrounded by nothing but the forest, the sky and a million speckles of dancing sunlight. All I heard were the birds above, the cicadas all around, the crunch of my footsteps and my own steady breathing. Thoughts wandered in and out. Most involved beautiful things: Nature; the great gift of life; self-employment; and a wife who has zero interest in going clothes shopping.

The trail held that magical balance of rugged and unmistakable. In some places, rocks and roots dominated. In others, the path rolled smooth as a bobsled run. Out here, where the forest and the mountain seem to possess an energy that can seep through your boots and your skin and right into your soul, I get that familiar feeling. A feeling of love, and of bliss. A sense that heaven is not a place but an event, a confluence of circumstance and understanding that elevates one to a level of abstract existence that cannot be explained, only felt.

Out here, I feel that heaven. And with it comes the urge to throw myself further and deeper into it, in the only way I know how: by running.

My right oblique didn't like that one bit. I told him I was sorry, I forgot.

As the path climbed higher the trees began to thin. Flowers floated on a sea of low-lying leafy things that I’ve seen four thousand times and still can’t name. The view of the sky widened. The rounded peak of The Buse made its appearance up ahead. And through the burgeoning spaces between the trees I could see miles and miles of mountain ranges, miles and miles off to the west and south.

The path came to an unceremonious end at a switchback in the road. It turned back into the trees a few meters up, past a metal sign with a smiling rodent of some sort reminding me that fire is bad, for the mountain and for his home and for my criminal record.

The path played hit and run with the road for a while until it disappeared completely. Walking along a road isn’t my idea of the perfect hike, but this road, built into the side of the mountain up above tree line, offered an unmitigated view of what seemed like the majority of central Japan. The Northern Alps, from Norikura past the Hotaka Range and all the way to Hakuba; Ontake-san, the volcano that erupted three years ago, claiming fifty lives; Lake Suwa and the plains to her south; the venerable Kiso Valley; the eight peaks of Yatsu-ga-dake; they were all on display for me as I walked without worry of slipping on rocks or tripping over roots or otherwise setting my oblique on fire.

On Top of Things

I never wear a watch. Mainly because I don't have one. So to keep track of the time I kept taking pictures so I could then check the time on the display screen. Each time I redid the math in my head the answer was the same: piano o’clock was still way off. Up to the parking lot for lazy people and on to the top of The Buse, this last stretch looked like it was going to be a cakewalk. I could maintain an easy pace, eat my lunch, enjoy the view from the top and make it back to the car with plenty of time to spare. There was nothing I could see that could ruin the tenuous agreement I had with my oblique.

In the tall grass, however, there was something I couldn't see that almost ruined my clean shorts – some kind of overgrown pigeon, squatting in its hiding place until I got close enough for it to scare the bejeezus out of me. That's when it exploded in a burst of leaves and feathers and flapped off like he was late for his piano lesson. Yeah, I jumped. You would too, from the sudden ruckus and the blurry sight of something that, before you realize what it is, could bite your head off for all you know.

My oblique told me to calm the duck fown.

But neither overgrown pigeon nor anything else the mountain was throwing at me could slow me down. Even better, there was nothing to speed me up. I took another picture and checked the time. Quarter to one. Beautiful. The walk down would be leisurely and non-threatening.

I climbed the short tower to enjoy the view from 1,928 meters (1,931 including the tower). I took a 360-degree video of the world, my spontaneous narration largely (and thankfully) drowned out by the sound of the wind drifting over the microphone. Sitting on a rock I savored my lunch (if that’s what you can call a slice of sweet bread and some watered-down vegetable juice). I hiked over the top of the prostrating bowl to get a look to the east and Asama-yama, a mountain I climbed six years ago.

No matter what I do, I get the feeling I haven’t gotten very far.


The only other person up there on the p-bowl greeted me in typical Japanese fashion. To the north, over the valley to the high plains of Utsukushi-ga-hara, I looked for the place I had lunch with my daughter just one week before. I stopped at the hut next to the parking lot for lazy people, to listen to the man who was up there when Ontake-san erupted in white smoke and black ash three years ago.

And I began the walk back down the road, to the path and the trees and the slopes and the ropes and my car, by now broiling in the sun.

I hadn’t seen a single soul the entire climb up The Buse – not on the trail anyway. Once I reached the road I saw a few cars go by, in one direction or the other. And there was a group of five or six men in the parking lot for lazy people, talking and laughing and wearing some serious trekking gear. This too was typically Japanese. Meanwhile I was pulling on the Puma warm-up jacket I’d recently bought at a second hand shop.

This is the top? Seriously?
The way down came with scant few people as well; two old men sitting on small sheets of plastic in the grass by the side of the road, facing the wide southwestern view. They held thermoses between their knees and binoculars to their eyes and mumbled intermittently to each other. Back on the trail a man and a woman stepped to the side to let me by. They looked too young to be retired. What were they doing here on a Monday, hiking and not working? This was decidedly un-Japanese.

And that was it for my human encounters. Soon the path ran away from the road for good and I was back in the dense mountain woods. Once again it was just me and Mother Nature. The trail, the forest, the pale blue patches of sky in my eyes; the birds, the cicadas, my footsteps and my breath drifting through my ears; the absence of pain in my side as I slowly, steadily descended; the day, it seemed, was working out perfectly.

Which might have been exactly what was going through that bear’s head right up until the moment he saw me.

I didn’t see him, not at first. If he hadn’t moved I would have passed right by him, me and my oblique both blissfully unaware. After that pigeon episode you might rightfully guess that Little Smokey scared the crap out of me when he exploded out of nowhere and began running away through the trees. Still, I was intrigued. Fascinated. I took a couple of steps and ducked under a branch to try to get a better look at him. Yes, or her. He or she appeared less than full-grown. Who knows if the thing had ever seen a human before. If it had, he or she was evidently unaware that he could easily bite my head off.

I don’t think running away from a bear is the key to not getting your head bitten off. But I’d still prefer to have the option. And today, I didn't. Okay sure, I did, but with my oblique it wasn't going to work out too well. Even as Ursa Minor disappeared into the forest I couldn't be sure Ursa Major wasn’t close by. As the minutes passed and I began testing the limits of the pain in my side, I wondered whether bears could communicate things like “Hey Mom, can you come this way and take a look and tell me if I could bite this thing’s head off?”

The Difference Between Tough and Stupid

I don't see anything, do you?
I’ve cycled over the Continental Divide with a separated shoulder. I’ve driven twenty-five hours non-stop on more than one occasion. I’ve gone food shopping with a freshly-broken collarbone – on my bike, buying then carrying twenty-five pounds of groceries home on my back. I’ve cycled a hundred miles under the summer sun without a single sip of water (and almost died but that’s beside the point).

None of this makes me special. It may make me stupid. But the point is, if it’s up to me, I can handle quite a bit.

If there’s a bear involved, however, the game changes. And not in my favor.

The rest of the way down that mountain I made all sorts of animal noises, in case there were any that would scare off a bear. I sang out loud. (My singing can scare off a zombie.) I carried big rocks in my hands. And I kept praying the parking lot for stupid people would finally appear through the trees.

My wife was visibly relieved I’d made it back before piano time. I didn't tell her about the bear.


--> If I did she might try to keep me home the next time I got hurt.