Road Crew

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Single Girl's Guide to Thanksgiving

It’s thanksgiving.  My day looks like this:


Yes, I have paired it down to the essentials because if you are celebrating solo, no one will know if you bought cheap wine and pie from the store. If you are feeling indulgent, add a rotisserie chicken and a can of potato soup.  After the bottle of wine, you won’t even taste the difference!
The question you are all asking is, how did it come to this?  Like any holiday, there was some good old-fashioned maneuvering for a place at the table.   This shifted a good number of times this year in my family.  The only thing I was committed to was making myself available to the family for the first time in many years for ALL the holidays, wherever they might be.  Travel to the East Coast during the busiest travel time of the year? Sure, why not? Stay in Sedona to keep parents company? That’s fine!
 For various reasons, all these options caved in front of me with less than two weeks to go.  It didn’t help that I threw a little poorly timed dynamite into my relationship to watch it explode right before Thanksgiving as well.  That left me with exactly no place at any table.  Honestly, I am a little relieved.  I still appear young and hip enough that I have not yet reached the level of spinsterhood that warrants a pity invite.  Cheers!
Face it: a good 50% of America would love to be in my shoes.  This year I will not be groped by TSA.  I will not have to politely listen to Uncle Cracker toast America’s new found greatness.  I will not have to share a bathroom. Grandma’s dinner rolls were always a little dry and Aunt Jane’s salad never did much for me anyway.  This year I won’t have to lie about it.  There is much to be thankful for!
Fortunately this year has left me well practiced at wandering by myself. I planned on Utah to nab Capitol Reef National Park but at the last minute, even the weather turned uninviting.  Undeterred, I headed to Death Valley.  This way I could say that I was in the lowest and most desolate place I could be on Thanksgiving just to layer on the guilt to anyone that asks.
I had the privilege of being present for one of the three days it rains here.  I lay in bed at night listening to it ping off my aluminum roof while thinking of the blanket I left out on the picnic table. I imagined a sopping mess in the morning and worried how I would get it dry before having to pack it away.  No worries.  As it turned out, it evaporates at the exact rate it rains, which means that while it was raining, I folded and stowed a perfectly dry blanket.  I am still entranced by this bit of magic.  Perhaps this explains the price of ice. Death Valley will be memorable for several things not the least of which is the premium on any frozen object.  At twice the price of a gallon of California gas, it is hands down the most expensive ice I have ever purchased. I suppose trying to keep ice frozen while hauling it through one of the hottest places on earth will do that but, damn, it’s not like it turned to wine once it melted.  Ice cream might as well be gold.  Good thing I brought pie!
So raise a glass and a fork! It’s Thanksgiving!


Friday, October 14, 2016

Mesa Verde

You are much more likely to find me out on a trail than a museum but one thing I can say for the parks is that their ranger programs have been universally excellent.  Each time I walked away feeling like I had a much greater understanding and appreciation of the park.  They are really able to pull together the history, geology, climate, and ecology that makes me think, yes, I definitely picked the wrong profession.  I have never wanted to wear poorly fitted, forest green pants so much in my life.
In some parks like the caves or Mesa Verde, a tour is almost required to get up close and see the best stuff.  I always have mixed feeling about this.  It reminds me of middle school or high school when you love the book you read for English class but then discover you have to do a group project on it.  To compound the problem, the teacher would assign the groups so you knew she would pair you with one of the “under performers” to even things out, as if my spending time with these students would suddenly inspire them to crack open the book and want to dissect the symbolism rather than just reduce me to spending a class period explaining the plot to those that could not be bothered with Cliff Notes.

Tour groups in the parks have a way of attracting the same range of abilities, intellectual and physical. First you have the many retired couples.  They are usually active if not fit types that I am accustomed to from the campground circuit.  They are quick to strike up personal conversations that usually border on the intrusive.  “Alone?  Why are you here alone?  What happened?”  
There is a least one person that has been there before and tries to impress the ranger with her extensive, if questionably accurate, knowledge based on their one visit 15 years ago. 
There are two families.  One has the bored looking teenagers with glassy eyes and headphones on. The other has the 3 children ranging from 10 to infant.  The only thing interrupting the 4 year-old’s chatter is the intermittent screeching of the infant which we all pretend is not making it hard to hear the ranger. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how active and fit everyone is in the group, if there is that one person with a cane or oxygen, you will not be going any faster than that. 

This became a critical factor in Mesa Verde. Unlike in the good old days of 1280, they don’t make you free climb the rock walls to get into the houses.  Instead there are a series of ladders and steps to get up and down.  I am not great with heights.  This means, yes, I have been known to panic when given time to contemplate the possibility of failure.  I do okay when I just go for it (See Crater Lake).  However, being in line with 40 people climbing a 32 foot ladder means being stuck 20 feet in the air while someone else has a panic attack.  Those seem to be infectious.  It starts taking a lot of will power to not grab the ankles of the guy above me to pull him off so I can just get to the top already.

The experience gave me a lot of respect for the Indians.  I barely survived 2 hours with my groups and they made it almost 100 years!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mondays

Most of the time I have no idea what day it is on these trips. Weekends and weekdays blend together.  The only indication that something has changed is how full the campground is but given that it is late in the season and the crowds have died down, even that isn’t much of an indicator.  Another issue is that I am covering a lot of new ground, meaning that sometimes (often) I am not sure where I am or where I am going exactly.  I have some glimmer into the lives of the retired.  I can only conclude that as a physician I have been blatantly unfair to every disoriented old man I have ever evaluated.  Instead of trying to assess if someone is oriented to person, time and place, perhaps it would be better to ask how many holes on a golf course or who is your golf pro? Not exactly verifiable but probably more accurate given their day to day activity.
I say this because today felt like a Monday and as I belatedly discovered, it is!
This morning I woke up on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  The sunrise was golden and deer were nibbling on grass outside of my camper.  It was so perfect and, yet, I could not drag myself out of bed.  Even a run had no appeal. I had no need to rush out of the park but after giving myself vertigo just looking down into the abyss and lacking the proper equipment to play Spiderman along the shear walls of the canyon, I had little left to do but move on.  But where?  After years of training in scientific study and logical analysis, this is where I look at a map and say, well, that sounds nice.  Durango it is.
Then Garmin happened.  That bitch insists on the most direct route even if it happens to completely avoid the place that I would like to casually eyeball on my way through to evaluate for fine men, good breweries and cozy camping spots.  Nope, the General is all business.  She has one directive.  Get there as quick as possible.  With that I found myself in Cortez, just 8 miles from Mesa Verde but an hour from Durango.  At this point I had a small melt down.  I admit, I may have been  “hangry” given that I had skimped breakfast expecting to run just a few hours down the road and now it was well beyond lunch, but admittedly this was an all out temper tantrum.  I had a hastily made plan and it had been completely obliterated by a heartless electronic device.  To make matters worse, in the back ground was a series of arm twisting texts and emails from desperate managers to come back and work for obscene amounts of money.  I was feeling both guilty and greedy.  I sat on the side of the road shedding a few tears out of general anxiety and indecision.  Just go home, take a hot shower and make some money, I told myself.  Fortunately my inner B*$# calmly took a swig of wine, raised one eyebrow and said, “what the #@%*?  Where are your priorities?” I do know my priorities and work is definitely not one of them.  I headed into the park.
After settling in, I dutifully headed out to run.  It just happened to be 5 hours later than planned and it took about a mile to figure out that there was simply no gas in the tank.  No worries.  I kept going.  At least I did until I found myself on top of a deserted mesa with fresh bear scat and paw prints.  Given my hypoglycemia and general anxiety throughout the day, paranoia set in.  I only had another 5 miles to go.  I could do it. Finally I was hallucinating hippos and bears. THEN I headed home.

All this to say, you know it is Monday when after all that, the highlight of the day was the campground shower which was in a dark, tiled closet that smelled of urine but I could stand up and had unlimited hot water.  Absolute bliss.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Great Sand Dunes

I have probably said it before but I will say it again.  I hate sand.  It gets into everything: your shoes, your clothes, your food, small crevices that are impossible to clean.  You can reminisce about trips taken to the beach literally years later as you once again hopelessly vacuum the car.  So of course I would find myself in the nation’s largest sand box, Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It is quite possibly the only sand box large enough for us to all play nice in.  We are not talking a beach here.  It is sand piled hundreds of feet high, demanding to be climbed and with the instinct of a retriever, I dutifully climbed.  One purpose of seeing all the parks is to appreciate their great diversity but diversity does not come without challenges.  It sometimes means doing things that I would rather not do.  That said, I am pleased to be done with the caves and gave a small prayer of thanks that beaches are not the prevailing ecosystem of the national parks.
I set out for the top of the dunes shivering.  It had been a good many months since I had seen 32 degrees.  I was not well dressed for this adventure.  I admonished myself again for poor planning.  It seemed to be the theme for this particular trip.  I had pushed it off from August to September and finally to October.  I probably would have pushed it off once again except for the imminent threat of snow got me a bit motivated.  As cozy as the teardrop is, hauling the thing over an icy pass seemed suicidal.  Even then, I had doubts and guilt about leaving.  Maybe I shouldn’t go or maybe I should shorten the trip? It is hard to ignore the responsibilities of adulthood but as it turns out, this, too, can be overcome with diligent practice!  In one last burst of will power, I threw everything into the car and punched the gas to get as many miles as possible between me and a reasonable chance of turning back.
In my haste to leave as well as complications due to camper repairs, I had not charged the camper and so the fridge had not cooled.  This meant there was no point in going to the grocery store before leaving but that also left me without dinner the first night.  I also failed to refill the water tanks before leaving my first camp.  This left me with about 5 gallons with which to shower, flush and wash dishes.  The dishes are very dirty. I also failed in my pick of camping spot.  My habit is to pick something with plenty of shade and privacy but with a new solar panel, the mantra is now “expose yourself.”  I’m sure I will be making new friends in no time.

At the top of the dunes, my shoe was full of sand to the point it felt two sizes too small and was rubbing.  I stopped to empty it.  Was this really what I wanted to be doing, shivering in the sand?  I have always been a goal oriented person.  I like big projects but occasionally half way through I think maybe I picked the wrong project (i.e. medical school).   Maybe I should have brought someone along to share the discomforts?  I returned from my wonderings to comfort myself with a bowel of chicken noodle soup and a cider.  I felt even better after a hot shower. I considered having to share my five gallon shower and maybe being alone wasn’t so bad after all.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Grand Canyon

My parents called me in June with a plan to float the Grand Canyon.  Did I want to join?
Of course!  That is certainly the ultimate national park adventure, is it not?  When are you thinking?  Next year?
Nope.  Next month.
What can only be described as a miracle, there were seats available on a trip in July.  People wait for years for this opportunity and in 24 hours I was looking at a packing list for a week of rafting.  It took another 24 hours for it to sink in that I had just signed up for my worst nightmare: camping (the poop in a bucket and sleep under the stars type) on sand (I hate the beach) with a bunch of strangers (there is a reason I travel solo).
I also knew how very important this was to my mother.  I suggested that we take a tour of all the gorgeous historical lodges of the parks where there would be flush toilets and fine dining but this was her choice.  So I buckled my life jacket and prepared to be soaked.
Clearly Hollywood producers are not the outdoorsy types that have discovered the Grand Canyon because otherwise we would have a reality show about 32 strangers that decide to spend a week floating down a river, shitting in the same bucket and attempting to get along under primitive conditions.  The material would be rich and endless. 
First, you would have to contemplate the type of people that would choose this sort of adventure in the first place.  Athletic, nature lovers? As it turns out, not really.  From a well-known blue grass singer to a house cleaner and from families to singles, it spanned a remarkable range of backgrounds, ages and reasons for taking on the challenge.  They were not exactly the people I would choose to have should a true emergency occur and be forced to depend on their capabilities. Fortunately we had four grungy, bearded, alcoholic guides who I developed complete faith in to get us through.
Days were spent alternating between shivering from the cold water and baking in the heat.  There was no happy medium.  A shower consisted of a dunk in the dirty water.  Sand was ubiquitous: in your clothes, between your sheets, flavoring every bite. 
But for 6 days we rode a roller coaster Disney could never match. In between, there was 24/7 viewing of the most stunning scenery I have ever encountered. It is so hard to grasp what Grand means until you have experienced it at that level. I am beyond privileged to have the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon in such an intimate way. 
After a shower and with ice in my beverage, I contemplated the trip. We laughed and ate and let the world spin on without us for a week.   It was awesome.  I am so glad I did it.  I am so glad it is over.


Cancer

After two surgeries, chemo and radiation, my father had no evidence of cancer for a year but every three month check up we held our breath and hoped that our luck wouldn’t change. In June we received official word that my father’s cancer was back.  Like many patients and families with cancer, it was a hard dose of reality.  We did not win the cancer lottery.  The odds were never in our favor.
            I received this news in June sitting on the pier in Port Angeles, Washington while visiting Olympic National Park.  I was in the midst of an epic journey that I had given everything up for including my running and my job and the only place I really wanted to be was home.  In part, my father’s cancer had inspired and prompted the trip.  So many people I met along the way waited until retirement to do this but cancer had not waited for my father’s retirement so there was clearly no guarantees that I was going to make it that long. I also knew that the risk of reoccurrence was sooner than later.  I took my trip with some urgency hoping to complete it before cancer might make its appearance again.  I do a lot of racing but never before have I lost a race with such significant consequences.
            The reality was that there was no point in rushing back. There was a lot that needed to be done before any treatment could start.  My job was to be home in time to join my parents on a trip down the Grand Canyon, one last adventure before chemo threw our lives into uncertainty.  During the long drive home, I could already feel the anxiety creeping in, the same suffocating feeling I got before every shift.  The spontaneity and freedom I allowed myself on the road was wiped out as I considered where to live and work when I returned while supporting my parents.  There was no question that I wanted to be there for my parents but with it was a cold plunge back into the life I had tried to escape from.
            Doubt crept in that I would be able to complete my task.  I was stuck at 33 parks.  Would the remaining 26 remaining parks be mysteries forever?  I gave myself a deadline to see them all because I never wanted this goal to be left to “someday”.  I fought a feeling of failure.  My grand plan was crashing down.  With it, I lost my voice and my ability to write.  I could find no words sufficient to express my anxiety, frustration, and more than anything, my fear of losing my father. 
            Chemo has started.  With it have come complications, both expected and unexpected. I have spent a lot of time over the last month sitting, waiting, and thinking, not unlike how it was in the parks other than this time I am in a gorgeous place called Sedona and hanging out with my parents.  Oddly, I find myself feeling the exact same thing I felt in the parks: I am right where I need to be right now.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The teardrop tour has returned to Tucson after 15,000 miles and 20 parks visited.  It has been quite the adventure.  I am grateful for the many people that helped out in big and small ways along the way.  More than anything it has been such a pleasure to catch up with old friends.
As much as I planned, the tour always threw in a few unexpected twists and now that thing called Life just threw in an even bigger one.  I plan to continue to check off the parks but will need to do it in smaller chunks for the next few months.  Stay tuned!  I will continue to be posting reports but will not be as frequent.  Sign up for an email alert to tell you when something gets posted.
Thanks always for following along!