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Blissful (Bionic) Hiker

Surgeons must be very careful when they take the knife! Underneath their fine incisions stirs the Culprit – Life!   

Emily Dickinson
These hips (at the moment anyway) are not made for walking.
These hips (at the moment anyway) are not made for walking.

Arthritis runs in my genes

By the time you read this, my surgeon Dr. S, will have made an incision in my left hip, pulled the muscles aside, sawed of all the damaged bits at the top of my femur before popping out the ball of my hip joint and its surrounding deteriorated cartilage, and finally installing brand new parts made of titanium and ceramic. This late in the day, he might even be well on his way to closing the incision and wheeling me out to recovery.

I knew this moment was coming. Arthritis runs in my genes and it’s been causing swelling and disfigurement in my fingers and toes over the past decade. Time was running out for me as a full-time pedestrian, and that was the very reason I secured permission for a leave of absence from my job to walk my first long distance trail. My thought was that if I waited until retirement, the window of opportunity would pass me by.

You can revisit the whole story surrounding my decision to walk a long distance thru-hike on Episode 1 of the Blissful Hiker podcast.

Four years ago, I developed disabling pain in my left hip. An MRI showed significant wear, but I was terrified of having the hip replaced so soon. I opted for a cortisone shot, signed up for three months of daily hot yoga and rehabilitated myself right back on the trail, walking in Peru, England, Utah, New Hampshire and all over the Upper Midwest, as well as the entire length of the Te Araroa, five New Zealand Great Walks and the Pacific Crest Trail.

But this summer, I developed some weird pain in the other hip. I didn’t even know what hit me, thinking it must be my overzealousness on kettle bell gitups injuring a muscle. But when heat/ice, stretching and Richard’s magic fingers didn’t help the pain and I watched my gait go from smooth to gimpy, I knew something was very wrong.

I should point out here that I come from the school of “unless you’re bleeding in the middle of the road, you don’t need a doctor,” and I didn’t bother checking things out until after I walked nine days on Isle Royale. My leg hurt all the way down to my toes and only massive quantities of Ibuprofen got me through, what to be completely honest about, was easy hiking.

I walked around 6,000 miles on just one cortisone shot in my left hip.
I walked around 6,000 miles on just one cortisone shot in my left hip.

You gotta have ’em both replaced.

I may not have been bleeding in the middle of the road, but I was definitely getting worse, not able to cross my legs or even pull them together to walk since massive swelling has left the leg lengths uneven. So I bit the bullet and visited an orthopedist.

Dr. S. is about ten years younger than me and has a direct manner I find refreshing. He walked in all masked up holding my Xray and said, “You’re not gonna wanna see this!” pointing to the spots where bone was grinding directly on bone. FUCK! “Yup, you gotta have ’em both replaced.”

Your bedside manner sucks. To which he laughed, amused that this small, smiley woman possesses such a potty mouth. Of course, I liked him right away,

At the risk of making this an “organ recital” I’ll cut to the chase. He gave me another shot which allowed me to walk one more mini thru-hike assuring me I couldn’t possibly hurt myself any more than I already was. Then we set up two surgeries for this fall, one right after the other, along with double the number of pre-ops, post-ops, blood work, PT – and my personal favorite – “Joint Camp” – where I’m pretty sure they don’t pass around actual joints.

Am I scared? Yup.
Am I excited? Sure.
Am I planning another thru-hike? Of course!
When? As soon as I can walk like a thru-hiker.

It actually turns out in a weird way that this is the best time to get this thing done. Nothing is happening, my fledgling career is just getting starting, we can’t travel (much), winter is setting in and we both work from home, a home we’ve set up to be walker-ready including my extendo-toilet seat which Richard has dubbed “the long drop.”

FUN FACT: I’ll get my first bionic hip two years to the day I started walking the Te Araroa.

I know it’s going to be a long haul before I’m back, but I know all about long hauls, walking month after month on big trails. How the heck did I do that? One step at a time.

Today is surgery number one. Let’s hope it all goes smoothly and my body says, “yes, please!” to surgery number two right around my birthday in December.

All I ask of you guys? Make me laugh, send me movie/book/streaming-concert suggestions and hold me to my word to hike next season!

And here’s to what one of my surgeon friends Lynn told me…

Happy patients have happy outcomes!

My gait is wobbly right now, but I'm glad I took two short backpack trips this summer anyway.
My gait is wobbly right now, but I’m glad I took two short backpack trips this summer anyway.

25 Responses

  1. Hi there Alison! I have hip dysplasia and gearing up for a replacement on my left hip. This is the first time I’m hearing about cortisone shots. Is that something you did to delay surgery for a while? Or in addition to surgery? I’m 38, so both trying to delay and wanting the pain to go away asap!

    Thanks – really appreciate your content. You’re an inspiration!

    1. hello Alice and thanks so much for reaching out! Cortisone shots are administered directly into the joint as one alternative to surgery, bringing down swelling and pain. They must be approached with care, though, as there are risks and you can only sustain so many shots in a given amount of time. If you opt for surgery after getting a shot, you will also need to wait a few months. Definitely begin with the least invasive treatments first like PT, hot yoga, etc. Keep me posted!

  2. Glad I found your blog, sent by a friend. I’m about to get some cortisone into my left hip which is showing some wear and tear. Never had a clue of any issue with my hips until I pushed hard on a run one day to finish on a PB, and have had weeks of pain and discomfort since. I’m 52, and have a lot of hiking to go before I’m done!

    1. thanks, Peter! I am exactly one year out from the second hip and am stronger than ever. My first cortisone shot lasted four YEARS! You’ve totally got this. Kia kaha, blissful

  3. Hi Alison,

    Very inspiring blog. I have hip dysplasia and learned that I will likely need or THR in 5-10 years. Im only 35 and have always been a fit an active hiker, backpacker and mountaineer in the PNW. Guess I just didn’t land the best genetics when it comes to my hips. Worried just a bit after hearing this news about a hip replacement, however I stumbled across your blog and it’s providing encouragement. How has recovery been after a year since the surgery? Are you back to doing long distance hikes and elevation gain on your new hips?

    Thanks so much for reading this and all the best!


    1. Hi Mike and thanks so much for your note!

      I’m so sorry to hear you’ll be facing a hip replacement. I had a similar issue – genetics likely dysplasia, and pretty much no cartilage left by age 55. I have had a remarkably wonderful recovery, tho. I am hiking on extremely hard trail (Scottish Highlands) and at altitude (Grand Tetons) I move better than ever and feel strong. My surgery was anterior, so a much faster recovery though those first two weeks are pretty awful! I was religious about working up to walking on uneven ground slowly but managed 20+ mile days after about seven months. The one thing my doc suggested was to stop running regularly, which I’ve never really been that interested in anyway. Mainly it’s to make the devices last longer, which can be up to 30 years. I did develop a small bit of bursitis and neuropathy from the surgery, but am managing with a cortisone shot and hot yoga as therapy.

      I would make sure you find a surgeon who works on athletes or other active people and understands your personal needs. My surgeon is at the aptly named “Summit” Orthopedics and they’re all about getting people back out there. Have you had a cortisone shot yet for pain? I had one in the left and it lasted FOUR years, and 5,000+ miles of walking.

      Good luck and keep in touch. It is definitely not the end of your active life, I promise!


  4. Oh dear….. I hadn’t really been following your peregrinations and had no idea what you were up against. I logged in here initially to pass on an article on the BBC website that I just came across, “The little-known hiking trail that built Canada” ( I’ve lived in BC all my life and had never heard of it.

    “It was used by First Nations, fur traders and early westward-migrating settlers. Now, local communities are hoping it could become the world’s next great long-distance hike.”

    But it doesn’t sound like that’s going to be one worth exploring, even “titanium-enhanced” 🙁

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