Palm Springs: Hail & Hardy  (January-February 2017)

Impulse Buying  
The late-January Winter Storm Leo was the last straw: it was just too many inches of rain on too many days that prompted us to rush to Sears to buy a Maxi Climber—the first piece of workout machinery we ever bought. Not so crazy perhaps, but while traveling in a trailer?

The vertical climber delivered a great workout for core muscles.
It was towards the end of yet another “in” day in Palm Springs. I was flipping through a Backpacker magazine someone had passed on to us—flipping through from the back while interrupting my sitting at the computer with a standing break, when I spotted the VersaClimber. Looking a bit like an oversized pogo stick with a base, it seemed like it might possibility fit into our limited-space lifestyle. I tossed the magazine down in front of Bill, who was skipping his standing break, and instantly he was off and running, online.

The reviews were fantastic and he read on aloud: but it “can’t be justified with high quality alternatives on the market for about one-tenth of the price.” “Well, what are they?” I countered. The reviewer didn’t say, but in minutes Bill had nailed down the $200 MaxiClimber. No matter that we were under a flash flood alert and streets were already flooding, we were half way out the door to nab one when we learned that the local Sears was out of them—they didn’t even have a floor model to ogle. The summary report to Bill from my phone query was: “Out of stock. Hot seller. More should be in the store in 2 days. Won’t last long.” Bummer.

Like we’d passed out from a drinking binge the night before, I asked Bill in the morning if we were crazy for still planning on going after the MaxiClimber. He wasn’t sure. An hour later we learned that there was another winter storm system lurking at the end of the cold but sunny 10 day Forecast, which made lunging at a MaxiClimber sound sensible.

Lucky for us, the clerk who said more would be available in 2 days was right, not the clerk that had said 2 weeks. Bill was in the Sears store an half hour after they opened on the way back from an appointment with his surgeon. The clerk told him that they’d go fast and that they’d never had one returned.

Better yet, the assembly time was indeed in the advertised 15 minute range and we were both pleased with our first minutes on it. It’s a vertical climber, something especially popular with rock climbers, and seemed well suited to our conditioning needs. Its full body, cross-crawl motion felt like it might be very therapeutic for my alignment challenges, especially after a year of intense myofascial release work. Bill was impressed that our knee-cautious, 6 minute trial was quite fatiguing.

We’d only be able to use it outdoors because of its height but our trailer’s big, easy-to-use awning would make a suitable workout area on rain days. At least initially, it would be locked to the ladder on the back of our trailer when not in use and we'd store it on the floor when on the road. My fantasy was to whip it out at freeway rest stops for pre-lunch workouts on driving days.

The snow & ice captured the story of the winds.
Powder in the Desert
The good thing about Winter Storm Leo and his preceding buddies was that they dumped piles of powdery snow on nearby San Jacinto Mountain.  We seized one of the 2 clear days after the storms passed and before the freezing level rose several thousand feet above the peak for our 2nd-ever snowshoeing jaunt. It was a perfect fit: the day that the park ranger labeled the snow conditions as “ideal” was 5 days before Bill’s hernia repair and month of severely restricted activity.

The predicted temperature for the day was around freezing but it was 17 degrees F when we arrived at the upper tram station at 8600'. We’d braced for 30-35 mph winds but the ranger advised us to expect gusts of 50-55 mph. We had dressed for it, so headed out, hoping for the best. (That evening, I discovered that my insulated pants were rated for 60 mph winds.)

Icicles snapped off the trees by the wind made the trackless snow expanses crunchy as we neared Wellman Divide, which was a landmark junction with the Pacific Crest Trail that we knew from previous hikes. The trees were heavily coated with snow, ice, and icicles on one side, leaving no question about the direction of the prevailing winds. 

Bill checked his GPS app every few minutes the last hour to keep us approximately on course. The last half mile was exhausting. We were stopping every few minutes because of the brutal combination of ever-increasing altitude and steeper grades. There was no track, no trail, and we made our own switchbacks to cope with the difficult conditions. The wind was the least of our challenges.  With only ‘breathing breaks’ and not real rest breaks, it took us 3 hours to summit but half of that time to descend.

A glorious day of snowshoeing high above the desert.
My fantasy day of driving 4 miles uphill to the lower tram station from the soon-to-be 70 degree desert floor, then riding the tram to 8,600’ for snow play, was better than hoped for. We had a delightful day. The winds were strong enough to scoot the powdered snow around to partially cover our tracks by the time we descended, but not punishing. Amazingly, we found a sheltered spot at our 9600’ turnaround point for lunch at the Divide. We were alone for hours on this upper trail that we’d previously taken to the peak.

We felt triumphant to have made it to the Wellman Divide landmark and received praise from hiking club members on the desert trail the next day. It was an opportunity to ‘go for the yuck’, which is pushing long after you start feeling bad. Once again, we were thrilled with the opportunities afforded us by maintaining a higher level of fitness all year long.

The only downer for the day was seeing our chocolate bar flying down the steep face below us like a toboggan out of control. We could all but hear it squealing from the shock of suddenly speeding hundreds if not thousands of feet down the slope. All it lacked for its sporty look was a GoPro.

The flat bar had flicked out of the safe place between the folds in my insulated sitting mat when I pulled the mat from my pack—something that had never happened before. It was hopeless to try to catch it—it was out of sight in a flash. 

It was about 2 pm and the powdered snow had begun to form a crust, not enough to bother us but enough to speed our chocolate bar on its way. I did carefully walk a zig-zag course a short distance downhill hoping it had wiped-out on a tree. No such luck: our daily dessert for this lunch that was 2 hours late was hopelessly lost to us. It was a mixture of regret and laughter as we relived the vivid memories of its lightning-fast break-away. 

“Like ‘Duh’”
Do It Our Way
I sometimes sadly wonder why I’m so slow on the uptake. It was while exchanging trail stories with oncoming hikers that the lights came on: like them, we could probably do the Grand Canyon’s epic Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike if we took 2 nights off the trail instead of the customary none or one. Backpacker’s frequently take one to 6 nights to complete a Rim-2-Rim, so we could certainly take 2 nights off and still call it Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim. Like, who’s counting?

That “ding” took the weariness out of the afternoon’s long descent while we tried on the potential label of being 2-Nite-Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim’ers. Better yet, I already had all of the hard-to-obtain reservations we’d need on both the North and South Rim in October—we would only need to slightly repurpose them. If we changed our minds at the last minute, it would be fairly simple to modify our plans again.

They too thought broadly about their Grand Canyon events.
Do It Their Way
My next “Duh” moment had been rethinking hiking club members' travel plans. I’d thought it odd that some relocated in the Coachella Valley for 3-6 months in the winter and then went off to New Zealand for a few weeks. It seemed that they were wasting their pre-paid time in the desert, but one day I got it.

I ran the scenario of going to Machu Picchu from Palm Springs instead of home and it sounded smart. Unlike the 9 hour time difference in going to Europe, the 3 hour difference would make a short trip more enticing. There was the matter of already being 1,000 miles farther south and not far from LA’s airports. Suddenly, a southerly jaunt for a Pacific Northwestener snowbird into someone else’s summer sounded clever. We didn’t develop an itinerary after that “ah-ha” moment but at least we now we too had more options.

Do It The Right Way
When parking in the local Trader Joe’s typically tight parking lot, we learned yet another reason to always put your car in “Park,” even on pancake flat terrain. A woman driving a huge truck like ours, but apparently without cameras, hadn’t lined up well for head-in parking. She clearly wasn’t going to make it but didn’t realize it and pressed on. 

Bill was walking near her on his way to the store entrance and could see that she’d already caught the adjacent car’s rear bumper with her front end and was slowly pushing the car forward as her truck advanced. After being momentarily immobilized by disbelief, Bill alerted her and she slowly began backing out, dragging the car with her. They finally got the 2 vehicles separated and she wisely went on to park elsewhere. A missed opportunity for a “Duh” moment by the car owner who would never know how active their car had been in their absence.

Getting high (4800') with the 65+ crowd.
Sustaining Athleticism
Aging Well
I’ve been an active student of aging well for over 20 years, primarily drawing my conclusions from sidewalk observations, but this winter I was able to up my game by actually TALKING with my mentors. The hiking club members were all ‘making it’ and I wanted to know how they got there and how they were staying there. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a common theme—they were converging on the trails after traveling very different paths. 

One woman was a 10 K runner most of her life and became an endurance trail runner after retirement. More recently, she began doing high-mileage pilgrimage walks and the Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim. Another woman hadn’t done much in the way of focused fitness activities until moving to the desert about 7 years ago and then became an ace hiker and backpacker. The hiker’s histories covered the range from life-long, committed, athletes to late bloomers.

Training Rituals
I crudely sorted the hiker pool into 3 groups: exceptional, elite, and recreational athletes. There were 3 men and perhaps 1 woman in the truly exceptional group. These were the mountain-men types, the ones that would have had a place in the ranks of hardy explorers and adventurers of the past. The recreational hikers were the people that never turned out for the hardest hikes but were solid performers on less strenuous events. The middle group were the elites. In my mind, we had been recreational hikers on this scale into 2013, which is when we began transitioning into the elite crowd, the ones that do epic hikes.

We were most often among the elites when doing the longest, hardest club hikes, which gave me hours of traipsing-time to listen to their stories. They were an unpredictable mix; most of the people that I was able to ‘interview’ were women. I was most curious about their training regimes, hoping to tease-out the pivotal details for continued athletic success in one’s 60’s and 70’s. 

Mecca Hills scramble: very capable hikers who all value companionship.
A couple of women ranked as obsessive-compulsive, by my standards, in their use of very intense gym work-outs (I never go to a gym). Two hours a day or more of cardio and weights sounded like their idea of normal. I was somewhat shamed by their dedication but noticed it didn’t make their speed or endurance superior to mine. When jokingly comparing biceps and 6-packs (which for me were a product of my 5 minute headstand), I quickly became legendary among a small group of these women.

Several women had set routines that didn’t involve the gym. One woman a few years my senior humbled me with her weekly rhythm of 3 fast-paced bike rides that were usually in the 50+ mile range, interspersed with 3 hikes a week. She also did morning stretching and a Pilates class once a week.  Another highly effective hiking woman, also my senior, hiked 3 days a week and played golf 3 times a week. She too was disciplined about stretching, following a 30 minute yoga session on TV 5 days a week. As best as I could tease-out, no one indulged as heavily as I in what I call ‘tissue self-care’, which is a jumble of myofascial release, yoga, and a tad of Qi Gong—I was doing hours of ’soft’ while they were doing hours of ‘hard’. Yet another effective female hiker had a mix more similar to ours of several hikes a week, including one very strenuous one, some biking, and some strength work at a gym.

A woman a bit younger than the rest literally runs circles around us all. I would guess that she is a natural athlete and unlike most of us, she played sports as a youngster. Elegant even on the trail and apparently a persistent runner, she runs, rides, or roller blades to get around town rather than drive and plays competitive tennis, does long distance bike rides, and effortlessly does epic hikes. I suspect she is always moving quickly and powerfully and may not be reliant on any particular training regiment to be vigorous and injury-free.

The only formula for success that I could generalize from bits and pieces of conversations with these women was: do, do a lot, do it often, and do some of it hard and fast. An incidental quip I overheard probably is a common motivator: “We don’t have a lot of time left."

Discipline & Determination
Endlessly rallying their discipline and determination to keep going was evident in the elite hikers and in the recreational ones striving to raise their performance to the next level. Grit and “going for the yuck” (pushing through the yucky feeling when exerting beyond one’s comfort zone) were plain to see. There was however zero talk about pushing through pain or ‘pressing on regardless’—taking care of yourself for the long haul was a given.

The hindrances for women in expressing their grit tended to be bunion pain in their feet and a painful tug-of-war between buttock and upper leg muscles—both of which I know. Low back pain was more of an issue for men, especially those with a long history of heavy loads in their work or play. Both men and women in their mid to late 60’s (including us) seemed to have lost their backs’ tolerance for repetitive lifting, like needed on trail maintenance projects. Knees, especially when descending steep slopes, were equally problematic for both women and men that had made it to this level, but certainly not for all.

Mixing it up with the pro's.
Other Patterns
Some of the incidental comments I heard were also informative. I was surprised when I mentioned my 2-year-old diagnosis of osteopenia by how many nearby women piped-up with “Me too” or “So does —— and ——“. I was shocked that all but one woman, a woman with decades-old, symptomatic osteoporosis, were declining to treat either their osteoporosis or osteopenia with the prescription drugs. I know I won’t be taking them because the side-effects play into my genetic vulnerabilities and am guessing that it is side-effects in general that are  fueling the broad mutiny.

Broken wrists were by far the most common sports injury requiring medical intervention in the club, and in a few others I spoke with, though only 1 or 2 of these individuals had a diagnosis of reduced bone density. The cause of the injuries were evenly divided between hiking and biking and all were the result of putting a hand out to catch a fall. I was fascinated that none of the biking accidents involved being on road bikes but instead occurred when doing ‘not-clipped-in,’ street riding. I’ve fallen off of my road bike hundreds of times and I always went down sideways with my hands gripping my drop handle bars, which probably is what has saved my wrists.

Much to my surprise, it was largely the women that would readily be described as "tiny little things" that were also long distance backpackers. Sun-sensible dressing ran the gamut, with some relying on a good tan to protect them from burning and others covering up, though often not quite as much as we do. Few wore boots, though they are listed as a prerequisite for club hikes and most owned hiking poles, some always using them but many were occasional users like us. Bill and I were outliers in clinging to eating a ‘proper’ lunch everyday—many limited their downtime by nibbling on energy bars and trail mix. Indeed, this hiking club was a fascinating convergence of different backgrounds, diverse training regimes, and varied gear strategies that were equally effective in propelling us all forward at a good clip for hours on end.

Not a to-die-for view but a mesmerizing place to linger.
Magic On The Mountain
My feet refused to budge. I’d savored the familiar views during my leisurely 45 minute lunch at the 4800’ saddle, switched from sandals to trail runners, secured my pack, extended my poles, and was poised to begin the 3+ hour hike down the steep mountain but my mind was stuck in a loop. My body was willing, but my mind said to my feet “Just a little longer.”

I was alone this day. Bill was still restricted to level walking surfaces because of his hernia repair and few in the hiking club were willing to stress their precious knees on a training hike. The weather was fine, the winds were low, and I had plenty of daylight left, so I just stood there. 

Oddly, I realized I was looking but not seeing much. I appreciated the visual effect, but there was nothing more to know from scrutinizing the scenery details. I closed my eyes out of curiosity, but for just a moment. It didn’t matter that my brain wasn’t processing much--open eyes were an important  part of the experience. I lingered in the moment, and the next, and the next.

We joke about holding-out for an ‘auspicious place’ for lunch most days and this favorite spot was in the top 1%. The views 500’ lower at the customary turn-around point were nice, but that place didn’t grip me like the saddle did. There was something deeply nourishing about this particular perch that made me willing to commit 7-8 hours of hiking to it, week after week.

After another 15 minutes of stillness, I pressed to break the spell and headed down the trail. I knew that I’d float down for about an hour and then the magic would be gone. The first part of the descent always felt rhythmic and I imagined effortlessly cutting curves on skis on the endless switchbacks.

A Dudleya, a trophy find in the wildflower extravaganza.
Too quickly, the descent would take on the endurance quality of the ascent. My knees would start to complain, my rate of stumbling would increase as weariness set-in, and any lapse in my hydration on the way up would begin to take its toll on my sense of wellbeing. I’d finally hit the city streets hot, tired, and hungry. I’d rally like I always did to make the 20 minute ‘warm-down’ walk to the trailer even though on this day I’d already been out of water for over an hour.

And then I’d do it all again in a week, with more water on board, and be just as mesmerized at the saddle as I was on this day.

Moving On
It’s always hard to move on when you are having fun and each time we have to remind ourselves of the reasons why we must. In Palm Springs, it is the heat and the accompanying emergence of rattlesnakes though this winter, we lingered longer than before.

We typically depart Palm Springs on February 15. That optimizes our RV park expenses, which give the best rates for a full month stay, and moves us along before it gets too hot. This year, our departure was postponed until March 15 because of Bill’s hernia surgery. 

The first reported sighting of a rattlesnake on a popular urban trail was on February 22, about the time a pay-to-hike tribal area closed early due to a bold mountain lion while I was on the trail. By March 1, the sizzling 80’s had arrived and soon were stuck in the 90’s. The wildflowers were making their appearances too but all signs suggested that our compromise of leaving Palm Springs by March 1 next year was still a good plan. We’d suffer in the heat for almost 2 weeks  before moving along but the high temperatures did fuel the wildflower explosion—more about that to come.