The old woman came to a dead stop. I’d been watching her careful descent, the way she leaned into the rail, putting most of her weight on her arms as she hesitantly edged one foot down to the next step and brought the other foot to the same level before proceeding.
It had taken five minutes for her to reach the landing where the stairs changed direction, a landing she shuffled across, one hand balancing her against the wall, the other gripping her over-laden grocery bag, before taking the next step downward. Then she froze and frowned. The knuckles of her right hand blanched with their tightened grip, as her eyes narrowed and her lips curled downward. The young man lounging and smoking on the stairs just a few feet below her obviously didn’t feel the heat of her gaze boring into his back, as he took another deep drag on his cigarette. She didn’t have a cane with which to prod him, and I could see her debating whether she should just poke at him with her shoe; she clearly could not go around.
Without hesitation, I approached the relaxing form from below and asked if he would kindly move, while pointing upward and behind him to the deadlocked old woman. He glanced behind, jumped up, and instantly went on his way, as did I, without glancing back to her.
Why had I been watching her so intently in the first place? Because I have frequently descended stairs in the exact same manner. Because, after multiple surgeries, casts, crutches, wheelchairs, walkers, and a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, I now pay close attention to the walking impaired. I’ve been personally alerted to the mobilizing future that awaits many of us.
According to the website verywell.com (verywell.com/arthritis-prevalence-and-statistics-189356), by 2030, the number of people with arthritis (adults 18 and older) is expected to rise to 67 million. Nearly 27 million Americans reportedly had osteoarthritis in 2005.
The website RheumatoidArthritis.net states that among chronic diseases in the United States, arthritis causes more disability than any other condition, including heart disease, diabetes and back or spine problems. The same website states that more than 22 percent of American adults (over 52.2 million people) have arthritis or another rheumatic condition diagnosed by a doctor. That’s a lot of walking wounded.
I no longer take walking for granted. The ability to reliably and consistently place one foot in front of the other, and successfully traverse the distance of one mile or one block, brings me such delight that I am known to ask friends to witness the miracle. Sometimes I dance a few steps to background music in a grocery store. Any source of rhythm can trigger a quick two-step.
I didn’t always appreciate this most basic form of human motion with as much reverence. I used not to see cracks in sidewalks as insurmountable obstacles, until I tried to negotiate one in a wheelchair. I used to regard a person struggling over a curb with a pair of crutches as someone enduring a temporary injury, until I had blisters on my hands and raw bruised underarm flesh from six weeks exposure to chafing crutch handles. Two months of a walking boot was a breeze compared to a non-weight-bearing cast applied shortly after a shoulder surgery, which precluded even the use of crutches. One-armed use of a wheelchair causes one to go in circles; I was essentially chair-bound, at the mercy of friends.
At the moment I am happily recovered and injury free, but I step with care. I look before I leap. One injury might not have turned me into such a cautious being, but 10 mishap-laden years, and careful observation of those around me, has. I am just now investigating a trail map of the Ashland surrounds, in eager anticipation of my first lengthy hike in over a year. I’ve been training for this hike by walking everywhere in my newly adopted home of Ashland.
A walking path meanders through town, past parks and creeks, and most hiking trails are accessible on foot from downtown, obviating the bizarre need to drive to a place to walk. Benches in town encourage lingering (they are not all filled with transients), which encourages window shopping, which leads to purchasing. Downtown sidewalks are wide enough for leashed dogs and baby carriages, as well as walkers, wheelchairs and canes, of which there are many.
This town has figured out the financial advantage of people strolling and stopping, instead of speeding and driving. This is a large part of what makes my sojourn here in Ashland so fun; I can step out my front door and walk to all my errands and entertainment.
I witnessed the old woman’s difficulty descending a stairwell recently in Portugal; I’ve not seen such a sight strolling through downtown here.
Yesterday I watched three women approach me, as I sat on a bench adjusting a shoe. One was using a walker, one a cane, the third patiently walking at the pace of the other two. When they arrived, we all chatted for a few minutes. As they walked away, I was reminded again of how lucky I am to be able to plan and execute a hike. I got up and continued on with renewed energy.
Jacqueline Parker is a writer who has lived in the State of Jefferson since 1979.
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