The Last Hike

I want to tell you about my friend Knut. He has been an influence on my life for 38 years. Knut was my friend’s father. The last two years of his life he spent time with me at Augustana Care Open Circle. If some fortune teller had told my 24-year-old self that I would be connected to Knut until 2018, I would never have believed it.

Knut was Norwegian and a force of nature. I also had a Norwegian father but of a completely different temperament. Knut would challenge youthful decisions by saying, “What are you, nuts?” My father would say “Well, if you think that’s a good idea.” Knut was up for the challenges of life: the mountain, the river, the hike. He would challenge his own record and measure everything. My father would contemplate everything and prefer the wind at his back.

One of my first memories of Knut was a wintertime family hike at Minnehaha Falls. “We’ll pick you up” they said. It was after dark and it seemed to be a strange time to start an adventure. Down the ice and snow packed stairs and over the railing marked “NO TRESPASSING” we went. I was the kind of person who obeyed the signs. “But Knut it says…” “They can’t have everybody back here. Some people don’t know what they are doing.”  I didn’t know what we were doing but I trusted his lead. It was scary and a slip would mean at least broken bones. I wished I was home until we stepped behind the frozen wall of water that was lit from the outside by the street lighting. Without Knut I would never have experienced the sensation of frozen time, water in motion stopped suddenly. In spring and summer, I often visit the falls from the usual side, but this was a different perspective. We scrambled through the brush up the slope and over the stone wall. Our evening wasn’t over. Knut retrieved a thermos from his truck and we sat at a picnic table with snow to our knees, each had a cup of German Gluhwein. The hot mulled wine steamed in the darkness. That night I was shown that if you prepare, take measured and educated risk, your experiences will become spectacular accomplishments that you will savor for years.

Another experience involved the Boundary Waters. I had never been there but my friend had been in a canoe since she was a baby. “What a good idea!” It is an advantage of youth not to question one’s limitations. “We could borrow Knut’s equipment, he has everything we need.” Knut had fashioned stuff sacks and engineered equipment before sports retailers had even thought of it. Everything he created was to solve a problem or simplify a task. As we put the Duluth Packs in the car he had parting words of advice: “Remember, wind is your worst enemy.” Nothing prepares you for your first trip to the Boundary Waters. It is like going back to the beginning, before people. The trees and lakes are familiar but not like this. The silence is noisy with birds and water. My heart would race because when we headed across a lake, I could not see the next portage. Then slowly it emerged, a gap in the trees, then a small trail. In that wilderness I learned that the path is never clear and often times you can’t see the next step until you need it. A long day on Basswood Lake, paddling against the wind, brought Knut’s words back to me, “Wind is your worst enemy.” It applies for me today. Obstacles can be worked around but it takes a special perseverance to face an unrelenting force against you. You must keep the goal in mind, find ways to mitigate the force, slip into a bay, find rest, and adjust your time table. You will get there and we did.

Hiking in the southwest was another world Knut showed me. We were out early in the day. Knut was always ahead on the trail but he knew his group. I was the one at the back of the pack and every so often I would see him turning around to see where everyone was, especially after a hard scramble. I remember sitting in the backseat on the ride home, my legs were rubber and every inch of my body hurt. “Wasn’t that great?!” Knut said. By the time a good meal revived me, I was in complete agreement. He was now retired and enjoying 50-mile bike rides in a morning or hiking with a friend up Superstition Mountain. He was still at the front of the pack and setting a pace 20-year-olds found hard to match. Knut would review stories of mountains, caves and cliffs and would remind us of his goals and how he had to make modifications to his shoes, bike, and routine to maintain optimal performance. There were no words of regret, only the affirmation that it could be done. He taught me that I was up for a challenge and could do more than I thought was possible.

A few years ago, Knut received the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I was afraid for him. Time with him was centered on storytelling and sharing tales of adventure. What would happen to this force of nature when the stories fell apart? I knew the road ahead because every day I see it in others at Augustana Care Open Circle Adult Day Services. I remember the day the call came. “Can we come for a tour?” My worlds collided.

I have always had the luxury of meeting members of Augustana Care Open Circle where they are. When a new member comes through the door I have only to gain from their presence. I know they have changed intellectually and listen to families share the stories. However, I have not experienced the changes; I have lost nothing.

In a few days Knut was at Augustana Care Open Circle. Once again, I didn’t know the lessons ahead. His intellect and wit made him curious about topics we discussed. Soon I saw friendships growing and heard jokes shared. I had anticipated frustration and I saw it. “It makes me so damn mad when I can’t remember.” He was frustrated by his long bus ride, “You’d think they would have figured out a better system by now.” Knut was right. If he were in charge he would have figured out a better system. For almost two years I had the privilege of seeing him twice a week. When he had a mystery to unravel he sought me out. When I shared a story about him, he’d laugh, “I guess I have to believe you.” I became his stored memory when he shared a story with friends and the details became scattered. Knut was ever grateful, loving, and funny. On this final hike together, he had gently moved me from the back of the pack to the lead.

Knut was a strong and trusted leader. When his life was changed by Alzheimer’s and age, he was wise enough to bestow the trust on others. He lived 92 glorious years. I will miss the challenges he put before me. I am saddened that when I glance back to see how the pack is doing, he is not there. However, I will be forever grateful for these last two years he spent at Augustana Care Open Circle Adult Day Services.  It was that time together which created meaning from stories. It was in his forgetting that I remembered.

Augstana Care Open Circle provides respite care for caregivers while helping people with changing physical, cognitive and/or social abilities to enjoy fulfilling lives. We offer three convenient locations throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. Each of our locations offer programs, recreation, personal care, respite and social connections to individuals with memory loss or other emotional and physical needs. Contact one of our centers to learn more about how Augustana Care Open Circle can support care partners to find balance and meaning in a life touched by memory loss or other diagnosis.

The author, Patty Crawford, is the Center Manager at Augustana Open Circle of Apple Valley. She has been a part of Augustana Care for 41 years. Patty is also a sought after public speaker on subjects of aging. She weaves her insight and research into meaningful presentations. Patty is a Master of Leadership graduate from Augsburg University.