PALM SPRINGS: LEANING IN    January 2017  

Taming Our Demons
Our recent response to upsets, especially those that occur close to bedtime, is to resist getting caught-up in the drama of them. We strive to reduce them to “business matters” instead of personal threats. It’s proven to be a good strategy, especially given that some anticipated crises don’t actually materialize.

Good thing we had the pleasure of this hiking club adventure before Bill's surgery.
Our most recent problem responded well to this disciplined approach. Bill returned from showering just before bedtime in early January and showed me his new inguinal hernia. Immediately, we both started counting back from our anticipated mid-June departure for Europe: a 6 week recovery before he could lift suitcases or bikes; maybe 6-8 weeks to get an appointment with his primary doctor, then an appointment with a surgeon, then get scheduled for surgery. That had us ending our traveling season in early to mid-March. Bill countered with: “We could go home now and the come back”, which landed with a thud. All of that driving, especially in what seemed to be an endless string of snow storms, was a non-starter for me.

His next idea was a winner: have the surgery done now, in Palm Springs. I instantly sent an email to a hike leader we’d met on our first group hike in the valley 2 weeks prior. Her husband is a surgical specialist and we hoped for a recommendation of a respected, appropriate surgeon. By noon the next day, we had a name; by 2 pm, Bill had an appointment for a consultation with the prospect of surgery in about a month. Two visits to the RV park’s manager that day confirmed that she could probably extend our stay by a month to cover Bill’s recovery time.

In 24 hours he had an appointment, we had our lodging problem in peak season solved, we’d done enough online reading to allay his concerns about our keto diet being an issue with surgery, and we had a ‘return to activity schedule’ in hand to help visualize the next couple of months. In a flash, we had the potential crisis wrapped up with dates on the calendar and clear plan. No drama, no scattered energy, no angst, just a business matter to being tended to. Of course, post-op pain will be another matter but that drama would have to wait until it actually happened.

Giving Back
Our contributions to the hiking community at large these last few years had been limited to picking up a bit of garbage, adding a directional cairn here and there, and aiding a few who wandered, but the Coachella Valley Hiking Club made it easy to remedy our need to do more. 

By the arrival of our 3 week anniversary with the club, we’d spent a morning obliterating graffiti on rocks and picnic tables; were signed up for a morning of trail maintenance work; and were poised to lead our first group hike. This all was largely because one savvy club officer had quickly assessed that we had some under-utilized capacity. We assumed that a organization like this ‘promoted from within’ but she was clearly in the habit of ‘hiring from the outside’ as well.

Unlike most club members who were either permanent residents in this desert valley or who stayed for 5-6 months at a time and had normal lives that they lived while here, we were still travelers. Some had jobs and others had well-established weekly routines that included volunteer work; golf and tennis commitments; and other leisure time activities. We however show-up at our temporary destinations with a single-minded goal of maximizing our fitness hours with hiking and biking and filling in the rest of our time with our endless chores like culling photos, working on the webpage, and for Bill, constantly upgrading and refining our interface with the electronics world. 

The club’s tantalizing program of led and shuttled hikes that were more exotic than we’d been doing on our own, plus the social opportunities, had made us eager new members and we made no secret of it: a win-win indeed. So, beginning on our second day in Palm Springs, our normally ordered life in the desert valley became a scramble to keep up. Our miles driven per week shot-up; laundry was put-off for days; grocery shopping shifted from being a low-keyed, rest day activity to something squeezed in during the drive back from a trailhead; and the previously rare evening prep work for a dawn hiking departure became ordinary.

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Graffiti before.

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The rock after we became a different kind of graffiti artists.

We thoroughly enjoyed the morning of easy-going hiking between patches of graffiti; pooling our aesthetic senses to select a mix of spray paint colors for the best camouflage; and documenting our work with photos. This trail work day was also a chance to meet another member and spend more informal time with our club mentor. However, our first foray into trail maintenance was too much repetitive lifting for Bill’s back and we had to excuse ourselves early. We’d need to screen future work parties for being able to participate in less of a ‘bending & toting’ way, which would also be better for my SI joints that had just completed a 2 year healing journey.1/6  10:58 Spray painting a post on a windy day is tricky.??

Our original initiation as hike leaders was rained-out, but only a week later we’d have a second crack at it with a small group on a portion of our favorite ‘big hike’ trail that ends at the San Jacinto peak.

Going For “Yuck!”  
"Hayley of the infectious smile," spurred us to go for the “Yuck” on a joint hike from our RV park and coincidentally, Bill read about the brain benefits of it the next morning. Hayley, a 46 year-old former tri-athlete, and her husband overlap with us in Palm Springs 1-2 weeks each winter and we usually do a few hikes with them and their charming dog, Simon. We relish the challenge of their fast pace and they tolerate our habit of timing hikes so as to picnic in an ‘auspicious’ place.  

Hayley & Mark are inspirational trainers.
The first half of the new-to-all-of-us Maynard Mine hike was all ‘up’ and Hayley hit it from the start. Her very fit husband Mark urged her to slow down, recognizing that Hayley was in the zone, perhaps like when she was doing one of her 7 Ironman's. In contrast, I prodded her to persist. Staying inches from her heels was perfect training for me for the fast-paced club hikes and I was loving every minute of being pushed far beyond my comfort level. 

Our 20 year-old altimeter reads out, but doesn’t record, our climbing rate in “feet per minute”. It’s really only useful as a relative number, a snap shot in the moment, but its picture was worth a thousand words: Hayley was taking us up at a rate of 54 feet/minute, about double the 27 feet/minute we consider a respectable, sustainable pace. She and we kept it up essentially non-stop for an hour, doing a little over 2000’ and 2.3 miles in that hour.

I’d look at the tiny numbers on the altimeter face when it was safe to take my eyes off of the trail and see “48”, “45”, “48”, when “39” had been a thrill for us in the past and “42” was a rare, brief, sighting when on our own. I felt my face flush from the exertion, something that is usually a sign of nearing heat exhaustion. But it was a pleasantly cool day for a hike in the desert and that flushed feeling would become my new marker of “going for yuck” that Bill would read about.  

Interestingly, some brain researchers believe that superagers—old folks that have the brains of 20-somethings—are who they are because they have made a habit of pushing themselves to the point of feeling bad. It's the push beyond the comfortable edge that makes the difference, regardless if it is physical or intellectual angst. The deal is: "You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.” (Link at the end of this file.)

As we’d pushed to increase our trail endurance last year, I’d been clear that I was flawless at staying this side of yuck. I knew that it was limiting my gains but also felt that avoiding crossing that line would aid in injury prevention since I was guessing at the details of our training program. In contrast, having suffered 2 minor brain injuries over the last 17 years, I am experienced at pushing my brain through yucky frustration and am convinced of its benefits. Fair enough, now it was time for me to venture into this same irritating territory physically.

Mecca Hills Wilderness: the unusually colorful formations in the Coachella Valley.
That afternoon, after reading about the power of yuck, Bill sponsored re-instating our on-again, off-again interval training using brief bouts of uphill running alternated with fast walking. We had a great trail practically out our door and my knees had just recovered from their separate, recent, insults so up we went, looking for the yuck. That instantly became our 2017 training motto: “Going for the yuck."

“Going For The Cure"
First There Was Barb’s…. 
I’m starting to associate our annual long stay in Palm Springs with “going for the cure” like some Europeans do when they make their yearly, insurance-covered, trips to spa towns or radioactive caves for weeks at a time. 

I irritated my right knee in Tucson during an usually difficult descent on a sunrise to sunset hike. It was a familiar pain but it only occurred on this day when stepping straight down about 15-18”. As soon as the grade soften, it was fine. The DIY myofascial release work I’d been doing for the last year had significantly improved my knee health but didn’t seem to contribute to solving this specific problem. As I unsuccessfully tried to fix it after the hike, it occurred to me to seek help while in Palm Springs.

A couple of years ago, I’d stumbled upon a chiropractor in Palm Springs that took a highly effective and innovative ‘lifestyle’ approach to treating my irritated sacral-illiac joint and I hoped I could find a similar wizard for my knee. Online reading made me long to visit a particular knee clinic in New Zealand, but that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I searched for a Palm Springs physical therapist (PT) with a similar orientation to that of the New Zealand clinic, a “We’ll teach you” approach vs the “We’ll take x-rays and then you’ll do 10 therapy sessions…” approach.

Luckily, I found a small clinic with the same tone as the New Zealand business and exchanged emails with the clinic owner who does all of the initial patient evaluations. He sounded like my man and I booked an appointment for our first week in Palm Springs. My hope was that since all of my multitude of knee complaints were at a low ebb and my most recent injury was still active, that he could pinpoint the specific issue that had significantly hampered my descent off the mountain in Tucson.

I was in raptures: he heard me. He listened, he thought, he explained and he didn’t revert to a set script. He acknowledged my successes with strategies that were wrong in his mind and we went from there. He prescribed 2 simple exercises to strengthen my quads in a very narrow range of motion and they worked! In about 2 weeks I could feel a new comfort in my knee and the exercises were feeling less useful. Now all I needed was an equally wicked trail on which to test the upgraded knee.

These volunteer trail maintenance crew members were better adapted to the strains of the job than we were.
…And Then There Was Bill's
Bill irritated his vulnerable low back with repetitive lifting while doing volunteer trail work in the Palm Springs area about our 3rd week there. As we walked off the job in deference to his back pain half way through the work session, I suggested he see my PT for a new perspective. Normally he would have protested and stalled with a “I’ll wait and see” but he quickly overcame his pattern of resistance. He had an appointment scheduled in 2 days by the time we arrived back at our trailer.

Better yet, Bill came back from his PT appointment grinning from ear to ear like I had done. He had the same experience I had had: he had a clear understanding of what caused the 30 year old pattern of back pain; he was prescribed some simple exercises and lifestyle changes that were highly attainable; and he had the promise of being cured in a couple of weeks with the high likelihood of never having these problems again. (Being on a fast track to healing his transiently bulging disc was the result of having both the strength and flexibility to perform the exercises from Day 1). Two hours after returning from his appointment and having done a round of the exercises and interventions, he said “My back feels better already.” Stunning! 

“We’re going to Palm Springs for the cure” could become our new mantra. Palm Springs seems to have an over supply of health care professionals and they understand that many of their clients are seasonal. We get seen quickly and we get complete, decisive treatment packages. The only downside is that we pay 100% of the costs: our insurance didn’t cover my chiropractic appointments and we’d need a physician's referral to have a hope of coverage with the PT. But since we are getting single appointment solutions when our issues are ripe for fixing, we consider it a bargain to be able to instantly 'take the cure’ and get on with it.

Exercise Has Its Limitations
We and several friends noticed that hard exertion lost its curative magic when it came to our post-election grief. Usually a robust workout will interrupt an emotional cascade and help put events back into perspective. Not so this time--probably because there was no ‘back to’. The pain of believing that our country as we had known it was disappearing before our eyes was from too deep of a wound. Exhilaration, endorphins, and fresh air were no match for the fear.

We watched some TV news in the first days after the election and then had to stop. Our TV has been dark ever since. We learned that daily headlines from the electronic edition of the "NY Times” were at the limit of new trauma that we could tolerate. Bill read parts of several stories a week; I usually could only tolerate one.

Being outdoors only gave us a brief respite from our election grief.
The sense of isolation from other ‘safe’ news was unsettling and didn’t feel sustainable for 4 years, but protecting our mental health these days required extreme measures. We longed for a news media that would inform us of the bigger world without “going there” but didn’t feel resilient enough to even look.

When we were hiking in red states like Arizona, we overhead absolutely no conversation about the election results. We didn’t want to talk about it between ourselves and all around us were keeping mum. In California however, the subject was discussed publicly. A solid blue state, many assumed that they were surrounded by like-minds and would spontaneously blurt-out a never-Trump comment or joke. A couple of Canadians commented that it will be a good change for the country, that in 2 years we’d be pleased with the outcome, but no one responded. Like us, it seemed that Californians preferred not to expend much energy on the topic.

Changing Course
After being immediately thrilled with both the social and outdoor opportunities afforded by the hiking club, we had begun discussing lengthening our stay in Palm Springs from our usual 2 months to 3 in the winter of 2017/18. However, it wasn’t long after that that Bill developed a hernia and he booked himself for a local repair as soon as possible. In a flash, our “maybe 3 months for next winter" became "3 months this winter". 

Palm Springs was clearly a superior post-op recovery setting to the NW for both of us. Bill would have the likely prospect of sunny days for the prescribed easy strolling he would be limited to for weeks and I’d have ready access to trails for hiking alone as well as leading and following on club hikes. He had the uneventful surgery on February 1 and felt quite comfort by Day 4 afterwards.

Simultaneously, another change was underfoot: walking a National Trail along England’s west coast in late May. Cyprus fell through as a way to extend our overseas adventures this summer but not long after, England appeared on the itinerary. We’ll get about 2 more weeks of adventures out of our airfare since we are limited to 90 days on the continent. Luckily, Bill had his surgery early enough to allow time for this late-developing pre-trip.

Link to "NY Times" article on ‘going for yuck’ to be a superager: