There goes my heart

Could the pump that propels me up mountains really be my Achilles heel?

| 30 Sep 2020 | 10:49

This has been a time of questioning assumptions. A person who seems healthy might be shedding a deadly virus. A strong economy might topple at the first sign of turbulence. A sturdy house might be blown down by a wind whipping off the ocean.

Here’s another assumption to add to the pile: a hiker who climbs a mountain every week for 30 years might still get heart disease. Apparently, age and genetics play a bigger role than exercise, no matter how vigorous, or diet, no matter how fibrous.

The pandemic gave me the push I needed to catch up with my screenings. I showed up for them with the confidence of a grind who had spent the whole semester studying for the big exam.

My cardiologist delivers the not-great news on Zoom. But, but, but... I shout at the little square she occupies on my phone. When I get to the top of a mountain, I feel amazing! No chest pain, no shortness of breath, just tremendous energy and joy!

She looks down at her clipboard. Surely, she’s got somebody else’s results there. I wait. After a pause, she hints, gently, that I might be much worse off – dead, did she mean to say dead? – if not for all that hiking. So there’s that.

My dad died of heart disease at 55, six years younger than I am now. But, I reasoned, he smoked two packs a day and considered pepperoni an essential food group. He was, furthermore, a man. He was not, ever in his life, a hiker or a kayaker or a cyclist or a cross-country skier. I love all these activities because they’re fun, not because they’re good for my health. Still, I’d always thought they’d relieve me of the threat of heart disease so that I could be free to worry about cancer, which I’d always considered much more of a wildcard. You never know what is going to get your cells dividing too exuberantly. The BPA lining my canned tomatoes? The phthalates in my shampoo? UV rays, secondhand smoke, benzenes, radon, bad luck?

But the heart? No mystery there. It’s like plumbing. Keep the pump strong, the pipes clear, the fluid running through them well oxygenated, and you’re good to go, or so I thought. It all works, if you choose your parents well.

I have now crossed the great divide to join those who “take medications.” These are the people we worry about when there’s a flood, a power outage, a coronavirus shutdown, a USPS slowdown. OMG, how will they get their medications? What if Martin Shkreli wrests control of the pharmaceutical company that produces my medications? Will I have to mortgage my house? Board a bus to Canada?

My former belief that I could stave off disaster “naturally” through diet and exercise alone now seems pretty naïve. I gobble my pills gratefully and eat my boring low-carb, salt-free food with gusto.

I still have my mountains and ridges and rivers. To calm myself, I babble about them to the technician conducting my EKG. As she moves the wand around my chest, she says approvingly, “Your heart obviously likes them.” My heart likes them! Who knew you could find poetry in a radiology lab?

Since the pandemic, Tom and I have been camping on a few acres of woods we own up in Schoharie County. Nearby is the Long Path North, which is what trails in the tristate area were 20 years ago, places of quiet and solitude. Bordering the trail are the stone walls and foundations of communities that have long ago surrendered to the woods. One section passes the 19th century homestead of Henry Conklin, who wrote the memoir Through Poverty’s Vale, a beautiful book filled with longing for lost youth.

We pause at ancient cemeteries where too many stones mark the graves of little children. I kneel in front of a small obelisk and recite a prayer I learned as a child. I tell Tom, who already knows: “We are living days of grace.”


Here are two Long Path sections where you’ll find solitude, one north of the Catskills in Schoharie County, one in Wurtsboro.

TRAILHEAD 1: Looking Glass Pond, Burnt-Rossman Hills State Forest, Rossman Hill Road, West Fulton, NY

LENGTH: 6-7 mi. roundtrip to the Henry Conklin homestead

TRAILHEAD 2: Behind the public parking area just past the Wurtsboro VFW on VFW Road in Wurtsboro, NY

LENGTH: 8-9 mi. round trip to the fire tower at Roosa Gap