From the Mountains to the Desert
We were quite pleased with our new, US, SW, snowbird itinerary for the winter of 2018/19. We stumbled upon the sequence last winter and actually planned it for the current year, and it worked like a charm. The route designed to maximize altitude acclimation from spending all of October in Arizona’s Grand Canyon area and to sustain it through almost all of November, would make us feel like super heroes on the 3 high peaks outside of Palm Springs.
Like last year, we indulged in a total of 4 weeks at the Grand Canyon RV Park, interspersed with two separate weeks at nearby Flagstaff to abide by the 2-week limit in the Park. That delightfully long stay was followed by 2 weeks near Idyllwild, California. This strategic move to the mountains above Palm Springs preserved almost all of our altitude acclimation by limiting the elevation drop from the move to about 1,000’ while providing access to numerous hiking trails.
Firefighters spared the historic Tahquitz Lookout from the devastating 2018 Cranston fire.
The “best laid plans” actually occurred and we didn’t miss a beat: each relocation went exactly as planned. What however wasn’t needed were new activities to make this season unique. On the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, the day between our icy ascents of San Gorgonio and San Bernardino Peaks from Banning, Bill’s older brother called to say that their sister, the middle sibling, had committed suicide that morning. It was a shock, but only a little, because it was her second attempt. It was saddening, but again, only a little, because we had grieved the loss of the relationship over the last 10 years.
She had suffered from depression since her early teens and disabling schizophrenia and bipolar disorder emerged in her 20’s and 30’s. We’d been closely involved in supporting her after the death of their parents and then, like with almost everyone in her life, her delusions had her aggressively turning against us. She literally evicted us from her life 10 years ago and given that she announced she felt entitled to do us physical harm, we didn’t protest.
True to my bias towards ‘telling it like it is’, her passing was a huge relief. At age 74, she had suffered far too much, and it was a relief to know that her pain was finally over. It was a relief to us because, though distant, she still retained the power to disrupt our lives at any moment. And in particular, it was a relief to Bill because as a mentally ill older sister, she’d done her share of emotional damage to him in his early childhood, convoluted damage that still lingered.
By chance, we had just begun a shared listening of a personal growth book at the time of her passing. The coincidence of the exposure to this wise, humorous book with the sister’s somewhat remote-feeling death, created an extremely empowering interval for Bill. It gave him a unique opportunity to shed the confusing emotional burdens of his early years while plotting a new course for knowing himself. This was actually, ultimately, an interval of tremendous joy even though its foundation was upon grief.
The San Bernardino Trail was treacherously icy.
I pondered how much or how little of our emotional journey to share when we began hitting the trails with the desert hiking club the week after her death. We don’t socialize with any of the members off of the trails, but a satisfying camaraderie exists nonetheless. And we knew that at this, the beginning of the winter hiking season, the dry desert air would be filled by the sounds of people sharing their recent voyages.
Instead of hearing so many recounts of sporting vacations like we did last December, we heard more about why exotic, overseas trips had been abruptly cancelled. Several club members had far more traumatizing tales to tell than ours, but there were no drama queens among us. Amazingly, the stories were told as the beat went on: the beat of our feet on the trails, the beat of life’s unfolding.
One woman made a point to have everyone in the club equally informed at the outset of the season that her husband had been forced to retire early because of being suicidal: he had been hospitalized out of state for 7 weeks to receive electro-shock therapy. He was recovering, but very slowly. Ouch! Another woman had horrific, parallel stories to tell of her mother’s recent passing that involved gross medical issues repeatedly dealt with at home by her as well as the ongoing nightmare of navigating the glitches in the Canadian health care system.
None of the storytellers shed tears on the trail while they relayed their recent episodes like they had been adventure travels. And there was a surprising amount of space for laughter. Our openness of course spawned many disclosures from others about their family’s mental illness. When Bill apologized to a new club member about all of the dreary talk, he responded with “That’s life”.
A few weeks after debuting our family drama on the trail, we were nabbed to become ‘Hike Leader Coordinators’ for the club. The crafty recruiter had a ready, compelling counter to each of our protests, so we finally surrendered and said “Yes.” We’d been corralled to be hike leaders on our first club hike 2 years ago, also against our preferences. Becoming hike leaders had been a net positive for us and we hoped for the same with the current ‘promotion.’ Never being short of opinions, I quickly discovered that I liked having a little soap box for them.
Yard decorations in nearby LaQuinta.
A little Christmas entertainment that I sponsored this winter was buying 23andMe DNA kits. Bill was cool to the idea until the results arrived and then he couldn’t keep is nose out of the reports. Fortunately, neither of us received any bad news, particularly regarding Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, so it was all fun. We do both have familial health issues to better understand and Bill salivated at the sight of all of the raw genetic data made available to us, though meaningless in its current format.
Learning genetics 45 years ago meant that our knowledge base was entirely outdated so Bill immediately embarked on fixing that. Instead of listening to a self-help author while doing our morning exercises, he shifted us to genetics lectures in hopes of decoding the raw data. The lectures were interesting, but slow going. It wasn’t long until he purchased an after-market product to the genetic testing, which was an analysis and interpretation of the voluminous raw data. As riveting as we had hoped, it looked like we’d now exhausted what could be had given the current state of the retail genetic testing market. It was then back to the audio Italian lessons in the morning.
Palm Springs De-Coded?
I was politely still and silent in the waiting room of a Rancho Mirage dermatologist’s office with a flock of other seniors, all on our way to looking like we had been cloned, when an equally aged, but elegant woman stopped at the check-in desk. Her stunning costume in beiges was carefully crafted: high heels seemingly veneered with cork; ultra-smooth, glistening hose; an almost floor-length, straight-cut beige overcoat; and what looked like the tail of a furry creature dangling from her neck, were all I could see of her from my vantage point.
“Fur? Really? Fur?” It was 10 am on a sunny, 70-degree day in Palm Springs and the rest of us were in outfits suitable for the flip-flops and tennis shoes we were wearing. “Anorexic?” rolled through my head, though I never saw enough of her to decide if she was painfully or fashionably thin. But she was definitely classically statuesque and high styling.
Were it our first winter in the greater Palm Springs area, I’d have been simultaneously snickering and scratching my head, but not now. Now I (think) I understand. Palm Springs and the continuous string of other cities in the Coachella Valley, are destinations that attract very passionate people. The typically warm winter temperatures and bright blue skies impart a spell over many of us that creates a guise of being laid back, but I’ve come to believe that many of the seasonal guests are actually quite intense.
We only get glimpses of the twist on intensity of the ultra-wealthy crowd to which the woman in beige presumably belonged. They seem to like being in the desert valley to see and be seen, but within their circle, on their gated turf. Some of their guarded communities have special, highly secure garages for their wildly expensive autos. They don’t actual go to the garages themselves, but the valets bring their vehicles to their doorsteps when they choose to take them for a spin. High-end auto dealers, like the side-by-side trio of Bentley, Land Rover, and Jaguar, and jewelers are concentrated near the El Paseo shopping district of Rancho Mirage. The volume of retail targeted to this market informs us that these people are out there, but our paths rarely overlap.
A manzanita in bloom.
Another senior we know, also an ardent hiker, generously squeezes hours of volunteer work in between her hiking escapades to gain free entry into the continuum of paid-entry art events and the International Film Festival. She is quick to share her tricks for viewing exclusive horse races, polo matches, and tennis tournaments for free. She cooks and freezes her dinners in batches for weeks of eating so she can dash back from a hike, shower, and go off to a classy event in her black pants outfit and best trail shoes, gratis.
Others are near-manic about playing golf or watching it, though hiking is overtaking golf in popularity. Palm Springs is a safe destination for gays to be out and about, some sporting their vintage convertibles as their contribution to the street theatre. Heavy drinkers take their pastime seriously as well, getting an early start each morning. Even the long-weekend, get-away crowd amped it up, like the trail runners with Eastern European accents that we gave directions to that were from Vancouver, BC. It didn’t matter that it was unseasonably cool, they were content with the brief reprieve from the bitter cold and were unconcerned that they didn’t know where they were going. Their only focus was putting on as many miles as possible in their tank tops before their return flight to snow.
Tans, broad smiles, and an easy-going manner are the predominant affect in the valley, but I now believe it’s the bright skies and warm winter weather that create an aura that camouflages the intensity with which so many pursue their desert passions—it’s one of the masks worn in the valley.
At long last, I found the Palm Springs massage therapist of my dreams—I’d been searching for 6 years and tried as many therapists. We use the services of several fine practitioners in Portland that employ a range of technics and this young man in the desert had his own special mix: he combines massage and acupuncture in the same treatment session.
His work was literally and figuratively so penetrating that we finally conceded that we couldn’t expect to do much more than laundry and kitchen chores the rest of the day. We were both absolutely delighted to have our chronic issues seen through yet another lens and, better yet, in the middle of our SW traveling season. In addition to undergoing major renovations in our tissues, we both gained new insights as to how to better care for our hard-working bodies.
Failure in my quest for solving my high blood pressure treatment problem was however, one of my deep disappointments this winter. I saw a cardiologist in December at the request of my Portland internist and the initial news was good: I didn’t need to have a surgical repair. But after 2 months of him voluntarily managing my anti-hypertensive medications he announced in a very brief appointment: “You are going to have a stroke. You will end up on 4-5 medications. This isn’t my area of expertise. You need to find a good internist; this is your last appointment with me.” I asked: “Can you refer me to one?” He answered “No, don’t you have any friends?” (who know someone). And that was that!
I was stunned, to say the least. It went no better when I went to pick-up an additional prescription from him the next day. My insurance company refused to pay for the first product; the pharmacy couldn’t obtain the second one; and the doctor’s assistant told me that I had to get the pharmacy to solve the problem, that the doctor’s office couldn’t keep playing this game with the pharmacy and insurance company!! I reminded her that as a patient, I had no leverage with any of them, but 10 days passed, and she still had not requested a new prescription be filled for me.
Since I was in Palm Springs and not at home in the NW, I at least had the hope of a ‘mule’ to help me obtain the medication. Several hiking club members make regular runs to nearby Mexico to buy cheap prescription medications and to receive dental work. While I waited to see the results of the tussle in the US health care system, I could put in a request for my drugs from these perfectly legal mules. I felt lucky to have any option in this life and death game that goes on with pharmaceuticals in the US.
After almost 5.8” of rain in 24 hours—a 5-minute walk from our trailer.
Valentine’s Day, 2019 Storm
“Shelter in place” and “whitewater rescues” aren’t phrases one expects to hear in a desert dotted with golf courses. But Valentine’s Day 2019 in Palm Springs, CA will long be remembered for those and other seeming contradictions. And this was in a place where the summer monsoons create the rainy season that delivers almost all of the 5.5” of annual rainfall.
Lucky for us, the forecast of 1-2” of rain in 24 hours had us scheduling an “in” day. It was perfect timing: on the previous day, we’d hiked over 16 miles on the heels of a blazing woman in her 60’s, maintaining a 2.8 mph pace for 6 hours with a 24” lunch break (I went over by 4” and had to catch-up). Fortunately, we’d teasingly anticipated a 3-mph pace for that 4,200’ gain hike, so we were prepared, but we were also happy to take an obligatory rest day.
Only on the day after the deluge, during which we had 2 flash floods alerts on our watches that practically knocked us off of our feet in our trailer, did we learn that the local police had advised Palm Springs residents to ‘shelter in place.’ We had done the right thing in the name of sensibility. Later, we spoke with others who couldn’t resist adding to the tangle of sighting-seeing motorists on the flooded streets.
We only ventured out after the 5.8” of rain in 24 hours began to taper. Thanks to a texted heads-up from Canadian, RV park neighbors, we took advantage of the photo-op from the nearby bridge. We’d learned several years ago after weeks of intermittent, heavy rain that our little RV Park was well-sited for such events, so we hadn’t worried.
Bill however did check flood patterns and confirmed what we suspected, that we weren’t in the published flood zone should the water retention dyke a 5-minute walk away from us burst. Even with almost 6” of rain, our neighborhood streets were draining like they did on a ½” rain day. We continue to request a site in the well-drained section of the RV Park and, effectively living on stilts (trailer wheels), we add several feet of our own buffer. Our big paperwork day unfolded with exchanging occasional comments about the heaviest downpours but with no worries or roof leaks.
A bit of online reading the next day was indeed shocking. Who would have guessed that the local police were performing swift water rescues in Palm Springs while we made another cup of tea? I was stunned that they even had a team. Hard not to chuckle when reading that one of the rescues was from a golf course. Really?? Yup. And despite our amusement, it was no laughing matter. Ten minutes after the young man in shorts was plucked from the rapidly disintegrating bank, one of the 2 palm trees levered against by the rescue squad toppled.
A Valentine’s Day in Palm Springs to remember!
Is it just me? Maybe I get out too much and don’t spend enough time indoors reading, or perhaps watching TV? An email from the hiking club president referred to “jefe”, which is a chief or head of something. “I’m out of pocket for Saturday’s hike” from another member a few hours earlier. “What? Really??” That meant she was unavailable. At least when this was all entering my mail box and “suborn” turned up in the Trump news of the day, CNN posted a dictionary definition regarding perjury. But not so for “codel” hours earlier. That one wasn’t in our electronic dictionary or defined by the announcers. Like with the hiker’s new images, I searched online to then learn that codel was a “congressional delegation”. Of course, the Trump presidency has hugely expanded our legal knowledge and vocabulary.
Similar But Not the Same
Our 2018/19 SW snowbird season had the same itinerary as last year and hiking hard was again at its core, but the experience was entirely different. We succeeded in meeting our goal of hiking 40 miles a week despite the many new demands (like being Hike Leader Coordinators); disruptions (the suicide); and the unusually wet, cold weather. Instead of reaching out to experience the area in new ways like planned, we turned inward a bit to study genetics and to experience our body’s in a slightly different ways with a new bodyworker.
The quiet, ongoing, integration of Bill’s sister’s passing and the changed dynamic with his much older brother continued without being overly intrusive. And, as feared, we were drawn deeper into the hiking club politics by accepting oversight of the hike leaders and their recruitment. We looked forward to the natural end of this unique interval in the desert valley and experiencing a bit more playful outrageousness in the near future.
Like shepherds taking their flocks to higher pastures for the summer, we made our 90” migration north to the 29 Palms/Joshua Tree National Park area on the first of March. Usually, it is a retreat to escape the building desert heat, though highs weren’t consistently breaking 60 degrees when we left Palm Springs this year. Higher and relatively flat Joshua Tree would be our last SW hiking venue for the season, and we’d be mentoring one last new hike leader there before we left the SW. We’d suddenly have more time in our days to continue our preparations for being at home in mid-April and then blasting-off to the continent 3 weeks later for the summer.