Darrow Kirkpatrick is calm, intentional, and a critical thinker. He welcomes new learning, investigates all angles of the subject, and thrives on problem-solving his way through difficult situations. He has always welcomed a challenge. As an early adopter of computers, developer of software, and with clear financial and investment planning, Darrow was able to reach the difficult goal of retiring at 50. However, the unexpected and painful change to his health was a challenge Darrow did not welcome easily. What was supposed to be a routine bike ride ended abruptly, with excruciating pain in his left hamstring. This neurological discomfort eventually radiated into the hip and lower back. So started a sober educational experience in pain, mobility challenges and mobility solutions.
I don’t often hesitate when asking questions, but did so before asking if Darrow ‘welcomed’ this experience of mobility loss from an educational perspective. Darrow paused, then replied with a chuckle, “It took a few weeks for me to ‘welcome’ this injury”. But once he did, he says, “it reduced my anxiety and took me to a new place to learn what I need, and not make it harder on myself”. Darrow began to ‘figure out his body’ and problem solve his way through this setback. First, he recruited a physical therapist and read the book, “Explain Pain”. He learned the road to recovery was “staying mobile”, by ‘incrementally’ walking through the pain, to full weight bearing on his legs, (not something that comes to one’s body intuitively). Finding the right crutch was Darrow’s second task. He investigated every potential crutch he could find and learned that SideStix promoted one to stay active and access the outdoors, which is something he values. He took his hard-found learning and wrote a blog to help educate others.
Darrow has now fully recovered from the hamstring injury, but an accumulation of past injuries occasionally flare up, requiring him to use walking aids. He disagrees with the common perception of forearm crutches that they are only for the chronically disabled and not required for short-term or intermittent injuries. “People like me can be helped by forearm crutches and they may not know that, unless someone educates them on it. However, it’s not an all-in or all-out thing”.
What Darrow values most is time and freedom to be outdoors. He’s educating others in his blogs, and on his financial/retirement website Can I Retire Yet on how to make choices to retire early and create the time and freedom to do what one values most.
One of Darrow’s heroes, Colin Fetcher, the father of long-distance hiking, said, “Tisn’t so much walking, it’s what walking puts you in touch with”. That connection with the inner and outer world is something I deeply value. At SideStix, one of our goals is in helping individuals like Darrow continue confidently, exploring the magnificent, beautiful outdoors.
What challenges your mobility?
It’s a mixture of stuff – sort of an accumulation. My knees have never been good. I worked with a physical therapist in college, but I basically had to give up running when I was in my 20s. I had a really severe ankle sprain that just never quite healed right, so it hurts me on and off. This past summer, I strained a hamstring after a really long bike ride, and that, for a variety of reasons, expanded into this neurological pain that was going on in my hip and back. I worked with a great physical therapist here in New Mexico who helped identify what was going on and how to get out of it, but I had to train and exercise with pain, which was really counterintuitive. I had to learn that this sort of neurological pain isn’t related to actual damage in my body; it’s just the nervous system firing excessively. I had to move and get out and be active. My SideStix were super helpful because they let me incrementally train my body. I could go do an eighth of a mile one day, then the next day I could do a quarter of a mile. I could very gradually add loading to train my brain that this pain wasn’t necessary. The SideStix were very helpful in that process.
I was given this book to read that was really revolutionary for me. It’s called “Explain Pain”, and it basically explains that the body gets into a rut of producing pain long after the injury is physically healed. There’s a combination of factors: the nervous system gets into this firing rut, partly because of anxiety and worry, trying to protect you from potential dangers. It sort of self-reinforces you the more it goes, and the worse you feel. You start dropping activities, life becomes less enjoyable, and it’s this negative loop. In my case, doing very targeted isometrics and then starting to get more active outdoors really helped to get me out of that, but it took three or four months. I’m basically back to being as mobile as I ever was, whereas last summer I had days where it was difficult to get out of bed.
It’s probably hard for people to understand why I still use my SideStix. Some people have this prejudice about crutches. I know it looks like a very intense sort of disability, and yet for me, they’ve become a very natural adjunct. When I’m going long ways on rough terrain, or if I’m having a bad day, they’re there. I’ve always been super active with rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking. An obvious tool like this that gives me freedom and mobility is just a no-brainer. I don’t care what it looks like. Actually, a cool thing about SideStix is that they look like high-tech athletic gear to me. They’re attractive, and I think that’s awesome!
I don’t know what percentage of SideStix customers fall into the category of ‘part-time or casual users’, but people like me can really be helped by this, and might not know unless somebody educates them! There was a period of a month or two this summer where I needed my SideStix just to get around the house. Now, I don’t use anything around the house. When I go out to a movie, I’ll use a cane, but when I go hiking, I use my SideStix. They’re incredible, and they remove a lot of anxiety I’ve had in recent years. I was afraid that I would hike out a few miles, and get hurt and get stuck out there. With SideStix, if something starts hurting as it usually does, I can very easily compensate. If it hurts a lot, I can fully take the weight off the leg, and get back to the car with no problem. They’ve just made being outdoors, which I love a lot, more relaxing and enjoyable.
What’s your favourite thing about SideStix?
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing! It’s just a really beautifully designed, nicely integrated tool that feels really natural. Everything works really well. It’s just the sense of it being the perfect tool that fits your body, and kind of fades into the background once you get used to them, so you almost don’t notice them. For me, I have a lot of pain while descending steep rocky trails, which I do a lot and love to do. It’s painful, but with the SideStix, it’s almost like having shock absorbers or being on a bicycle or coasting. They just totally take the significant pain out of it, and really eliminate the possibility of slipping. That’s just because it’s a beautifully integrated tool that fits your body well, and does exactly what you want. It’s hard to sum it up, but based on my 40 years of climbing experience, I think my favourite thing is the feeling that I have a bombproof, bodyweight handhold with each step. A tool like SideStix gives me the freedom and mobility to go hiking without anxiety. It’s just a no-brainer!
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I think a perfect day for me is probably hiking to an alpine lake in the mountains out west, and spending the afternoon watching the lake. I’d be at camp at sunset, have a great dinner talking with friends around a campfire, and go to sleep under the Milky Way. That’s pretty much heaven on Earth to me. There are other ways to have great days, but that might be my ideal one.
What are your passions in life?
I was a climbing bum for a big chunk of my 20s. I’ve done hard rock climbs all over the US. As I started to settle down in life, I got very passionate about small computers, kind of in the dawn of the microcomputer age. I have a civil engineering degree, but I got into software engineering, so I was very passionate about that. I worked many long hours, and was involved in small businesses and start-ups and all, but I think it’s come full circle. Now that I’m retired, being outdoors is the thing that speaks to me the most. It’s the thing that gives me the most enjoyment and inspiration. There’s something magical and spiritual that you can’t put into words. It’s visually beautiful. I love the big mountains in the west. I love the challenge of getting to a beautiful place over difficult terrain. There’s some sort of connection, maybe with the life on Earth that we all came from. It’s not something I can explain perfectly, but a lot of us feel it.
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
This is a fun one – I’ll say Colin Fletcher. He wrote “The Complete Walker” and “The Man Who Walked Through Time”. He’s the father of modern backpacking and long-distance hiking, and was a very interesting guy. He was the first person to walk through the Grand Canyon, staying below the rim.
Tell me about a time when you had to summon your courage.
This summer, I had all these plans for great trips, and then I had this hamstring injury that got compounded with this neurological pain. It was hard not knowing what was going on, and being worried that I was going to end up in a wheelchair. In that kind of situation, if it’s positive, it turns into a learning experience, where you say, “what do I need to learn to get out of this?”. A doctor friend of mine told me to check out forearm crutches to help me get around, and then I was introduced to a great physical therapist. It took a combination of help from friends, and re-dedicating myself to figuring out my body.
It took a few weeks before I was welcoming of that experience. There was a lot of fear and concern, and thoughts like “I wish I wasn’t here, make this go away”. But yes, I find when you mentally start to welcome something like that, it reduces the anxiety. It takes you to a new place where you can learn what you need to do, and not make it harder on yourself to get better.
What is your definition of ‘defy convention’?
That question really strikes a chord with me. It’s one of the themes of my life! I got into software engineering early on, as part of the small computer revolution, but I was never very comfortable in a corporate-type setting. I worked remotely for most of my career, and in my 40s, I really started feeling like I wanted to retire early if I could, to have more freedom. I just realized that time was more valuable to me than money. I had a high-paying career I was offered executive positions as I could have done anything I wanted in life and I just realized I wasn’t that interested in the money and the power and I was really interested in having the time to be outdoors and to explore life and figure myself out. Luckily, my wife was on the same page, and our lifestyle just led us in a different direction than a lot of people. We have less stuff, but we have a lot more time and freedom. I think that’s one of the defining aspects of my life. We always lived a very frugal lifestyle, and we saved a great deal of my salary. By age 50, I was financially independent, so we could pretty much call our own shots. I still do some work on my blog, but it’s a part-time passion gig; it’s not something I have to do to make a living. We’ve always lived way below our means. We love to travel, we love the freedom, but we don’t have a big fancy house, or drive fancy cars. We’ve always had this view of defying the mainstream convention.
Do you still travel?
Yes, we do! I would say in the warm seasons, I’m gone almost half the time. We don’t do international travel – that’s one of the things we don’t do in general because we can’t afford to do a lot of – but we can do tons of camping and road trips. We have a really nice, small Class B RV that we spend a lot of time in. Lots of trips to the western United States and hopefully a little bit of Canada as well.
What is the best investment you ever made?
20 years ago, I got very interested in Buddhist practice and meditation. I would say that the time I have invested in learning to meditate and practice yoga has really been the foundation of my mental health.
How do you stay motivated?
On a very practical level, I love to break out my maps. I have maps of the western mountains and trail systems, and I love to spend time planning trips. That gets me excited, even if it’s just next summer, to stay healthy and involved with life. Regular exercise is really important. I mentioned my meditation practices, which are also important. I count my blessings when I’m having a bad day, or feel like I have health issues. I know I have it so much better than so many people, so that gets me looking on the brighter side of life. I also think about my mortality, remembering that I don’t have an infinite amount of time left, and to make sure that I’m spending my time in the way that’s most important and valuable to me.