“I needed a reality check. I was lost on the first day of the most challenging trek of my life.”
Trippin’ Through My 60s
Leaving the working world behind, Reg closed his office door for the last time. Rejecting a life of golf and relaxation, he soon discovers his new passion where he least expects it. In Trippin’ Through My 60s, Reg and his wife Sue continue their adventures on four famed European long-distance trails:
Scotland’s West Highland Way
The Alps’ Tour du Mont Blanc
Italy’s Way of St. Francis
England’s South West Coast Path
Unexpected turns, humor and memories of life in the Sixties create the backdrop in this gripping story as Reg tackles backpacking escapades the push him to the edge.
As we begin the countdown to our fifth European trekking adventure, I felt it was time to share my story of just why I’ve become so obsessed with walking. I feel extremely fortunate to have recognized the proper trail that would lead me through troubled times.
The door opened and he extended his hand, introducing himself. “Hello, I’m Dr. J. I can’t believe you are still walking!”I shook his hand and glanced over at Reg in stunned silence.
As Reg shook the hand of the neurosurgeon who would ultimately save my life, I tried to prepare myself for what was to come. Six months earlier, I had noticed numbness in the ends of two fingers on my left hand, and I soon found myself shuffled between a series of appointments and doctors. Days earlier I’d had an MRI of my cervical spine and had been told it revealed a tumor. I was about to learn just exactly what that meant. I suspected the news would not be good.
It was November of 2011. Reg and I studied my MRI on Dr. J.’s computer while he explained that my tumor, a fairly rare intramedullary ependymoma we would eventually learn, was located within my spinal cord and had grown large enough to begin restricting the flow of spinal fluid. That was causing the numbness and tingling, along with a host of other symptoms that I would eventually piece together.
“You will need surgery, he said. “It is not without risk. We will take every precaution, but there is a chance you will be left quadriplegic. It is also possible that you will not survive the surgery…but if we do nothing, the tumor will kill you.”
Three and a half weeks later, two weeks before Christmas, I was prepped for surgery. There was really no other choice. Ratcheting up my powers of positive thinking, I put my life in Dr. J.’s hands. I did tell him, in all honesty, that if I couldn’t walk out of the hospital, not to bother waking me up. The next thing I remember, I was in a hospital room bed with Reg by my side.
As I slowly became aware of my surroundings, Dr. J. hurried in and began touching my fingers. “Move this one, now this one.” When I wiggled each finger, as ordered, he turned to Reg and announced, “She will be fine.” And off he went.
While the diagnosis was devastating, the recovery was absolutely traumatizing. Surgery had been pretty much a complete success, but I hurt every time I moved. Two days later, I was sent home. I could walk but I couldn’t feel my feet. Sheets and pants felt like sandpaper dragged across my bare legs. My rib cage felt as though it had been wrapped with an elastic band, and both hands were numb and tingling. I felt as though a spike had been pounded down alongside my neck, a neck that sported an angry, red six-inch scar. All part of the recovery process I was told. My nerves had been traumatized and needed time to recover…and so did I!
A year and a half later, in 2013, Reg and I trekked Spain’s Camino de Santiago together. It was a walk of discovery and gratitude for us both. We had our individual reasons for tackling such a challenging feat. For me, walking is something I will never again take for granted. Reg and I have continued to trek the trails of Europe where we find both a sense of adventure and contentment.
While I’m left with a few lingering side effects from the surgery, I’ve learned not to complain. Some (most) days are better than others. When so much could have gone wrong, I will forever be in debt to, and in awe of Dr. J.’s skills. To keep trekking is the best way I know of acknowledging how incredibly thankful I am that he was able to save my life.
What a treat it was to enjoy a leisurely breakfast this morning, knowing that we had only a short walk back to Chamonix, the starting and finishing point of our Tour du Mont Blanc. Plenty of time for a second cup of coffee!
We chose the path along the River L'Arve for our final 5 1/2 mile walk.
This looked like a tiny strawberry growing alongside the trail.
Clouds prevented us from seeing Mont Blanc in Chamonix when we began our trek. Clear skies today allowed the mountain to dominate. We have yet to tire of this view.
We arrived in Chamonix just in time for lunch, where we enjoyed a Mozza Salad at a little sidewalk cafe.
We peeked out our curtain this morning with fingers crossed. The sky was gray, but dry. Perfect! We dashed down to breakfast at 7:00 am, eager to get an early start. We walked through a mostly deserted Champex, guidebook in hand, searching for our trail.
We anticipated a bit of a climb today, as we've had every day, and wanted to beat any change of weather over the col. Our day began easily, meandering through meadows and along a wide track through the forest. That soon came to an end and we found ourselves steeply climbing up and sloshing across roaring streams of snowmelt.
We were contemplating whether to climb over or shimmy under the gate when Reg gave it a push...and we easily walked through.
The trail narrowed and began a steady climb up into the clouds.
We spent 6.00€ on two small cups of instant coffee for the privilege of picnicking at the tables at this Refugio. It was perfect!
Trekkers need to pay attention to signposts or risk wandering far off course.
We passed fields of cows today. This one was happy to pose for me.
Wild flowers were just beginning to bloom at the top of today's trail.
Our starting point this morning was in the valley far below.
Today, our seventh day of walking and our eighth day on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the trail led us 8,300 feet up and over the Grand Col Ferret and down into Switzerland. It was quite a climb!
Our first two hours of walking delivered us to Refugio Elena, strategically nestled into the hillside and sporting a spectacular view of the Glacier de Pré de Bar. Coffee on the deck and then it was time to push ahead.
The original Refugio Elena was lost in an avalanche in the 1950s. The Refugios are only open for the short summer season.
We made it to the top in time to enjoy the view during lunch.
We pose for a quick photo at the top of the col.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is taking us to dizzying heights, testing us every step of the way. It hasn't been easy, but it continues to reward us.
We wish our new friends a safe journey as they continue their trek.
We've met some wonderful people on our journeys. It's one of the things we like most about trekking.
We met Dutch teachers Micah and Anna last night in La Vachey. This afternoon we walked to our destination of La Fouly together, the (mostly) gentle downhill allowing for easy conversation.
Look to the left for a slice of Courmayeur on the left after our climb.
The TMB is clearly marked in Italy. It was not so well marked in France.
It was “ciao” to Courmayeur, Italy today after a day of rest in the Alps resort city. The Tour du Mont Blanc has been more than challenging for us, so we needed the break.
Walking into a new country was a new experience on Saturday. We heard “buon giorno” more often than “bonjour” almost immediately and by the time we walked into Courmayeur, it was clear we were no longer in France. We will leave the specific cultural differences for another time, but we noticed them in the city and most definitely along the trail.
Of course, today started with a steep, 2,500-foot climb, but after that it was the easiest hiking day of the Tour so far. We walked about ten miles at 6,500 feet overlooking a steep glacial valley. The Mont Blanc range on the other side seemed close enough to touch. It was stunningly beautiful.
After a steep descent, we found our hotel in another resort town, Levechy, next to a roaring river at the foot of the Alps. A shower and a beer on the deck made for a perfect cap to the day. Dinner tonight in the hotel, part of the package deal.
The warm weather is supposed to hold for at least another day and the guide book says we will have another amazing look at the Tour's namesake as we cross into Switzerland at 8,000 feet tomorrow. That means another steep climb and “ciao” to Italy for now. We will return!
At the bottom of the Italian side of the Alps, if you look closely, is the tunnel entrance. The road goes under Mont Blanc and comes out in Chamonix, France.
This is a closer look at the tunnel entrance.
Sue sits in our shady picnic spot next to the trail. The Mont Blanc range was in the perfect spot.
This was the TMB for much of the day. Few rocks, relatively flat. The first day we have seen such a path on this trek.
Is it the view or the beer that makes the trek worthwhile?
Thank you, Silvia, at Follow the Camino tour company, for finding us lodging here.
Refugios have been so welcoming, allowing us to have our picnic even though we only bought a coffee at their bar. Today, we found one with a most unwelcoming message in each table. We found a warmer place for lunch.
Muddy hiking boots are removed and left in the entryway of Refugios, and Crocs are provided for inside wear.
We awoke Sunday morning (day 5) to more clear blue skies, and after a 6:30 am breakfast packed our things and started our trek.
The hike down from Refugio Elisabetta eventually leveled out onto a wide pathway of relatively easy walking…a welcome relief to the relentless ups and downs of the last few days.
We were pretty sure the easy walking would not last, and of course it didn't. We soon found ourselves headed up and out of the area known as Vallée des Glaciers. Anticipating two nights and a day of rest in the village of Courmayeur, we figured it wouldn't be too tough.
We soon found ourselves high above the valley floor with no end in sight. Our path took us by several piles of rubble, described in our guidebook as abandoned buildings.
The hillsides are covered with the most amazing display of wild flowers I have ever seen. The camera doesn't do them justice.
From across the valley we can see Glacier du Miage, which must have once reached the valley floor.
Onward we trekked, hoping to catch our first glimpse of Courmayeur around the next bend.
The village of Courmayeur is a charming place to kick back for a much needed rest.
Our itinerary called for an eleven mile day. After what seemed like at least that, if not more, we arrived at another Refugio situated on a ridge above our destination.
Trail markers pointed us steeply downhill for what was estimated to be another two hours of walking.
Ski lifts to the rescue. We purchased our tickets and hopped on the lift down. Best purchase of the trip!
We discovered this cute little lunch spot that served delicious crepes.
About a third of the way down, a view of the valley peeks through.
We will be walking the 110 miles of the Tour du Mont Blanc over the next two weeks, with a couple of breaks. The trek circles Europe's highest peak, which is really a mountain range of Alpine peaks, above 15,000 feet.
We are starting in France and will go counter clockwise through Italy and Switzerland, finishing where we started in Chamonix, France. There will be about 68,000 feet of elevation change. It is Europe's most popular long-distance trek.
The clouds have parted a couple times to give us a look at the spectacular mountains that rise above the charming towns below. We are looking forward to the views as the weather brightens over the next few days!