Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, June 01, 2017

An unexpected turn of events...

You may notice a redesign of the blog -- when I signed in last night, there was a popup from Blogger informing me that new templates were available, and they were compatible with mobile phones. So I changed to one of them. However, on their little mobile phone simulator it still looks like crap. Sorry, mobile users.

I don't always post the name of the location where I have adventures. These are special places that I don't want to be overrun. Of course, with a little effort you could probably still figure out where we went this weekend.

When I last wrote, I was suffering from some overuse injuries -- knee pain and toe numbness. At the time I was much more concerned with the knees, but they were mostly back to normal in 2 weeks. The toe numbness, however, turned out to be due to an interdigital neuroma, which soon became very painful. After limping for a month I was diagnosed by a podiatrist. A neuroma occurs when the nerve is injured and begins growing in a disorganized fashion.

Hidden 20-ft waterfall, invisible from the trail

Mine got a little better over time, but steroid injections failed to produce any further results. I could hike several miles at a time now, but felt sure I wouldn't be able to put in the 5 weeks of consecutive 15-mile days I'd need to achieve the dream that'd been riding along in my head for the last 2 years -- hiking the Colorado Trail for my 40th birthday.

Based on what I'd read and been told by my doctors, the next step was surgery. But surgery always carries risks, so I wanted to try all the things people on the internet said had helped them -- special foot pads, more arch support, stiffer shoes, more flexible shoes, toe socks, toe spacers...  My plan was to give all these things a fair shot, then schedule surgery for the fall; I definitely wasn't going to waste the summer recuperating. Nothing solved the problem, although stiffer shoes did seem to help...

Behind the falls

I checked in with my doctor last month. To my surprise, he said the next step was alcohol injections to kill the problem nerve, a treatment that was supposedly successful in 80-90% of cases. I was a little shocked -- no one I'd spoken to and nothing I'd read had mentioned this treatment. If I'd known, I would have tried it much sooner and not spent so much time hoping one of the internet remedies would work so I wouldn't have to go under the knife and spend months recovering.

These frogs were actually jumping up the near-vertical cliff wall. We saw a lot of wildlife we didn't expect to see in the desert -- frogs, a toad, chipmunks and squirrels, and one very unexpected character you'll meet later.

I've now had three injection treatments and it seems to be helping... I completed our (admittedly low-mileage) weekend trip with almost no pain. Unfortunately, like many things that increase our options, it leaves me in a dilemma: do I now try to hike the Colorado Trail this year after all? I will need to decide within the next few weeks.

The stream had a dozen places where the water had sculpted the rock into pools and waterfalls that were deliciously welcome after hiking in the 85-degree full sun.

There are so many little things that figure into my decision:

1. It's been my plan for almost 2 years to hike the trail for my 40th birthday.
2. I'm burnt out and miserable at my job.
3. I might be trying to move from my apartment at the same time I'll be getting ready for the trail, timing dependent... this is unpleasantly similar to last year...
4. Even though my foot seems better, I have no idea whether it'd stand up to hiking almost 500 miles...
5. But, no one who hasn't done it knows how their body will stand up to hiking almost 500 miles.
6. I'd be rushing and stressing to get ready now, the antithesis of the peace I'm trying to cultivate by doing a long hike...
7. But, even if I'd been planning for it all year, I'd probably still be rushing in the last couple weeks. There's always more info to read, gear to tweak, affairs to put in order, etc.
8. I'm going to hate coming back to no job, no health insurance, and possibly no place -- or no place I would have chosen under better circumstances -- to live. All the calm I manage to achieve on the trail will be gone in 2 days...
9. But, how likely is it that I'll really be able to line up these things next year?
10. If I go this year, I'll be cheating myself of  a year of anticipation.

Clear desert night skies

The last point might sound ridiculous, but it's not. Researchers have found that most of the happiness we derive from vacations actually comes from the anticipation and planning of them. As this article states: "Vacations do make people happy... But we found people who are anticipating holiday trips show signs of increased happiness, and afterward there is hardly an effect." Being able to look forward to something all year -- as I expected to be able to do, before I realized last fall that my foot wasn't getting better -- is a lot more fun than a couple weeks of planning where you're too stressed and rushed to enjoy the anticipation.

Now that I have a partner for adventures again -- and my old tent is barely serviceable -- I bought a new 2-person backpacking tent. The new tent has an awning instead of a fly with vestibule. In the morning we just have to undo one zipper to look out at the landscape, rain or shine.

But as I'm writing all of the reasons to wait, they begin to seem unconvincing. How many of the people who set off on long trails every year -- including the famous Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail -- lack a similar list? There are plenty of reasons not to go after our dreams. A mortgage. A relationship that's on the rocks. A new relationship you don't want to leave. Parents with failing health, a near-zero bank account, a great job, a bad back, fear that you're too old, fear that you'll deplete your retirement savings, lack of experience, fear of failure.

The model is the Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL. It's a hybrid single/double wall design, which means that part of the tent body is mesh, with a nylon fly over it, and the other part is just nylon with no netting. It's lighter than a traditional tent; the downside is that it will probably allow some condensation to get on our sleeping bags once we take it outside the desert.

It has 2 "wings" on the sides for gear storage, with little zippers that allow you to access your gear from the inside. The idea is that ingress and egress are easy as you only have to work 1 zipper, and don't have to climb over your gear, as you would in a tent with traditional fly and vestibules.

Why do I want to hike the Colorado Trail to begin with? It's because backpacking is when I feel most like myself, and like I'm doing what my body was made to do. Well, with the apparent exception of my left foot. Also, I really like Colorado and want to know it better.

Near an old mine, fragments of what appeared to be malachite, azurite and amethysts littered the ground.

There was also this odd "geode," which turned out to be beads of pine sap inside of some kind of shell.

As I've written before, I don't have any illusions about finding myself or achieving lasting peace... I'm a voracious reader and listener of trail interviews and podcasts, and despite the neatly packaged tale in the book Wild, it's clear that people tend to finish long hikes not only with no answers, but with even more questions about their life than before.

One of my favorite podcasts is Sounds of the Trail, where thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail conduct interviews with other hikers. What brought you here, what have you learned, what's it like hiking with your daughter, etc... The interviewers' favorite final question is: "What would you say to people who are considering hiking a long trail?" And the hikers' answer is always the same: "Just do it." Apparently, it's something you don't regret.

And so here we are...

On Sunday I took a little day hike by myself so A. could have some studying time. I went off-trail just a bit to climb a rock and get a view. Hoping to see some rare desert bighorn sheep, I got excited when I heard some debris tumbling down the side of the canyon near me. I peered around the bushes to see:

Definitely not who I expected! It's a black bear, despite the coloring. The bear was plodding slowly along and went into a side canyon. There was nothing frightening about the experience -- it noticed neither me nor the other hikers who passed by below me on the trail, chatting away. The other bears I've spotted in the backcountry immediately ran when they saw people, and I imagine this one would have done the same.

I found this item that day as well -- it appears to be a tool made by native people. The edge of the rock has been flaked away to form a sharp edge. This may have been a tool for scraping hides. (I left it where I found it.)

Collared lizard

We would hike for a couple hours in the hot sun, find an area where the stream coursed over bare rock and play for a bit, then hike some more.

Camp on the third night... while I held the spot, A. went back to get her pack. She was gone a long time and finally reappeared carrying both packs, which together were over half her body weight, just to spare me some effort... 

This was the first real test of my new pack. Normally, I'm loathe to spend a penny, especially when I already have items that work perfectly well. When I finally decided last year that since backpacking was my passion, I was allowed to spend some money on it, I began looking for a new pack to replace the nearly-five-pound Blue Beast. But nothing was comfortable for me until I tried the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, which was nicely discounted for Black Friday. The pack is just as comfy as the old one but includes the amazing modern inventions of water bottle holders and hip belt pockets. It also has some distinctive innovations like a tent pocket and unique top closure.

Gossamer Gear is one of the many excellent "cottage manufacturers" whose gear can only be purchased online. I think the Mariposa is better than 98% of the packs available in stores today (and probably equal to the rest), so if you're thinking of upgrading you should take a look at it.

A. has been using my old pack; at 25 years old, it can now rent a car. I finally had to make my first repair to it last year and it's still going strong.

Beautiful evening view near the campsite... 

Beautiful morning view... the tent, I mean... tent comes with free tent-elf. 

Same little falls as at the beginning, but in different light...

I was trying out hiking with an umbrella for the first time. 

 Petroglyphs depicting the annual giant turtle hunt

 Collared lizard and prickly pear

On the long, shade- and water-less hike out, we passed a lot of day hikers coming in. It was Memorial Day. One woman said she'd give me $25 for my umbrella; I said $50. But no verdict on the umbrella as backpacking gear... not yet sure it's worth the extra weight. I will keep trying it.

It's always nice to try out some new gear, and a bit sad to retire some old gear. My faithful water bladder finally started to fall apart, after around a decade of use. This thing was tough as nails -- I remember the ad for it had a car running over a full bladder -- but the outlet hose attachment finally started to pull off. We had to affix it with gear repair tape to be able to finish the trip.

My orange plastic trowel also broke in half, but I wasn't quite so attached to that one.

We also had a lot of minor injuries on this trip, which didn't fit in so neatly with the pictures... I gouged my bare foot on a rock by the water, burnt myself on my stove's pot supports, and walked right into a pointed broken-off tree branch in the dark, so hard I have no idea how it failed to pierce my jacket, let alone my ribs. A. walked into another pointy branch and got a gash on her scalp. Trees are always trying to kill you. It's like in the Wizard of Oz, but real.

Well, my friends, I don't know what the future holds. Tune in again soon?