Making peace with road less traveled

"The best laid plans of mice and men

often go awry."

- Robert Burns

Ever since I started backpacking, I have wanted to hike the John Muir Trail, a 213-mile long distance trail in the Sierra Mountains in California. The trail starts in Yosemite National Park and ends at Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet. The JMT is known as one of the most beautiful hikes in the world, and permits are hard to obtain with a lottery process occurring exactly 168 days before your desired start date. It's a tedious process, but I was determined to land a permit for July. Well, my persistence paid off and we got a permit! This was going to be an epic adventure for me and my two teenage sons.

I spent months planning for the trek; researching and buying gear that was needed for our 19-day hike, including a 3-pound bear can, and a larger, lighter pack to accommodate said bear can. I watched YouTube on how to safely ford rivers and found locations to send our resupply buckets filled with dehydrated food. I booked our flights and made an appointment to get Diamox, a medication for altitude sickness. Most importantly, we were on a training schedule to be in the best shape to hike the Sierras.

But in early May, I started having excruciating, shooting pain down my leg. After weeks of PT with no improvement, I got an MRI and learned that I had a large herniated disk. An injection helped with the pain but I was experiencing increased numbness and weakness in my leg and foot that was concerning. After consulting with a neurosurgeon, we decided to schedule surgery.

You can imagine the sadness that followed my diagnosis. I had thought of nothing else since that cold winter day when we got our permits. I came home from the appointment in tears, hesitant to tell my sons that our hike was off.

The surgery went smoothly and I was pain free when I woke up. After laying low for a couple weeks, a new plan was made to travel to Colorado for two weeks. Although I wouldn't be able to backpack, I could still day hike and enjoy the mountains.

My 17-year-old wanted to do a 70-mile section of the Colorado Trail, so I eagerly threw myself into helping him prepare. My oldest son joined us from Utah, so we were happy to have our full family together again. We had dinner, played cards and watched movies in the evenings. Without school or work to worry about, we could hike during the day and relax in the evenings. Although it wasn't the trip originally planned, it turned out to be the perfect vacation.

I learned that despite our best efforts and planning, sometimes plans fall through. Flexibility is key and I found that our Plan B offered something that we wouldn't have had otherwise. I still dream of hiking the JMT and will try again for next summer. It will be a much easier process the second time around. I pray that we are lucky to win the golden ticket again.

- Stephanie Seppanen of Hinsdale is a guest columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].