Irony walks arm in arm with fibromyalgia. I find myself amazed at what I can accomplish, tasks and adventures that sound impossible in the face of fibro pain and fatigue, and shaking my head at the simple activities that flummox me completely, such as twisting open a jar. This riddle colors all my travels and my recent trip through Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands was no exception.
Every time I mentioned I would be hiking between sheep farms in Greenland for a week, I encountered shock, awe, and dubious expressions. “Will you be okay hiking solo? In Greenland?!” Maybe it was the far-flung, exotic nature of my destination. After all, most people only have a vague notion of where Greenland is and what the climate is like. They picture ice, snow, polar bears, mountains. Not Southwest Greenland in the frenzied season of summer, when the days stretch endlessly before you and wildflowers invade the mountain passes.
But even I faced self-doubt. The largest dose of self-doubt I’ve faced since I began this Chronic Traveler odyssey. I would hear myself telling others, “First I’m going to Greenland, where I’ll be hiking between sheep farms..” and the silent panic would grip my gut. What if I really was pushing my limits too far this time?
Greenland proved to be a challenge, but one I relished. My first hike decimated all my fears as I found myself ascending a steep mountain side trail in pursuit of a glacier, cheered on by my new Spanish friends who adopted me into the fold of their hiking expedition. My knees sharply criticized at every piercing step up; my shoulders ached and groaned when we relied on ropes anchored into rock to continue. Until I found myself standing at the top, gazing out over the Flower Valley and Erik’s Fjord beyond, across glacier-stripped mountains and ribbons of rivers. Pure euphoria. My knees finally decided to shut up and join the silent moment of complete satisfaction.
After that first hike, I knew my body’s limits. I paced myself, rested when I needed to rest, often with lunch or my journal. These moments of self-imposed rest, alone in the mountains, brought moments of magic. At one of the countless mountain lakes, as I sketched, a playful family of birds suddenly engulfed me as I sat completely still in fears of scaring them away. For half an hour I was a statue of awe, the birds flitting and swooping and singing all around me. Pure serendipity.
Was I exhausted? Did I feel pain? Absolutely. But I managed it. I was learning to hear my body. Learning how much pain I can endure and when. Figuring out how to hike up a steep mountainside in pursuit of an amazing vista of fjords, mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and the ever-present, looming Greenland Ice Cap that quelled my distress at the throb in my joints.
I am realistic. I wake up some days and know I cannot possibly walk out to the grocery store, let along climb a mountain. I have ugly flares. Sometimes I grow overconfident and ignore the signals of my body, pushing myself too far. Sheer exhaustion is why I neglected to hike while in the Faroe Islands, a bit of unfinished business I hope to rectify someday. I also know that someday, without warning, I will no longer be able to undertake these adventures. Fibromyalgia will assert its dominance and force me to approach travel differently. My travel paradigm will shift.
But not yet.
After all my solo hikes in Greenland, I bounded into Iceland confident and eager to take on more. My head spun with the possibilities – sea kayaking in the remote West Fjords! Mountain summit in Skaftafell National Park! Hikes in the simmering, heaving, volcanically active Myvatn region! Whale-watching! Horseback riding! Oh, the endless possibilities!
But Irony always has a way of sneaking up on me. In Reykjavik I signed up for an afternoon of horseback riding in the lava fields outside the city. Icelandic horses are a special breed – smaller, gentle, hardy, and even their own special gait called the tölt. It never crossed my mind, after all my challenging hiking in Greenland, that horseback riding would be so painful.
My knees ached for days. My joints whined and screamed. My lower back begged for daily soaks in the nearest hot pot. If it weren’t for the Icelandic culture of the sundlaug – public geothermally-heated pools – I may not have adequately recovered from a mere two hours of horseback riding.
Lesson learned. Horseback riding and my fibromyalgia equals painful.
Sea kayaking in the West Fjords taught me a similar lesson. I could barely walk afterwards as my legs protested being confined in the narrow kayak for so long. Add biking to this list of impossible activities.
And yet I can hike to the top of a mountain summit, perched far above the glaciers and flood plains below, as the clouds whisper around me.
Of course, there are days even the very act of walking can be painful. Fibromyalgia is not a constant, but a condition of flux. When I am travelling, this can throw my plans out the window. Much of my time in the Faroe Islands I was exhausted, pushing myself to walk through the pain and restructuring my plans. Instead of numerous planned hikes, I sought adventure that still thrilled and threw me into Faroese life, but without compromising my health. I soaked in the foot-pounding din of locals dancing to an Irish band while I sipped the fantastically smooth, dark local brew. Enjoyed the shadow play of the endlessly fickle Faroese fog from the deck of a ferry at sunset. Embarked on a gritty, working mail ferry to the northernmost islands and soared in a helicopter. Met fascinating people, both Faorese and fellow travellers. Tiring days, but not nearly as physically demanding as a hike, and truly some of my favorite moments of the entire trip.
So Irony, I invite you in to my fibromyalgia life. I may not always be able to open jars or bike to the store, but I can climb mountains.