Sunday, January 31, 2010

I might be rethinking the adult communities after Saturday the 30th. From Wednesday on, the predictions for the weekend were becoming worse and worse. Another big snow was threatening and by Friday morning over ten inches were expected, with the onslaught beginning as early as Friday afternoon. By mid-day Friday, the sky was a grayish mass seeming about to let loose at any second. I was supposed to perform in the evening, and I was looking forward to it after a very decent performance last Friday at Gillie’s. Since I was now single, I decided to try performing every Friday in hopes that my playing would improve a little faster. Now I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it tonight.
The snow hadn’t started by five-thirty so I began to drive into Blacksburg, with no surety I would even get to play. A quick and heavy snowfall would turn me right around, but there was still no snow when I got into town, about six. I usually play from seven-thirty to eight-fifteen, so I took a short walk and then a few flurries began. I got back to my truck and spent ten minutes warming up and then headed for Gillie’s. Justin Craig didn’t care when I started so by seven ten, I was already into the piece we usually open with, “Green Dolphin Street.” I kept glancing out the window but the snow remained light and by a few minutes after eight our set was complete, although we didn’t try our new piece, “Black Coffee.” I chatted with Justin for a few minutes then began my drive home with very little snow on the ground. My truck had no problem and in forty minutes I was back in the hollow watching satellite TV (which was out for exactly an entire month before the serviceman could get up my still icy road). By midnight I was ready for bed and I set my alarm for two so I could check the snow. Since my cancer treatment I have taken to using a mild, over the counter sleep aid to help me get seven or eight hours of needed rest. When I don’t take one of the 25 mg tablets (full adult dose is two tablets), I find myself wide awake at two or three in the morning, and the next day is dreadful. I should have known better not to take one tonight, but I did and I ended up groggily turning off the alarm at two and dropping back to sleep.
At three twenty I awoke startled, looked out the window to see four inches of snow, and quickly began getting ready for a long, long night. It took me about ten minutes to get all my gear on, and then I was off to the tractor barn to warm up the tractor. Fortunately, I had greased the tractor the day before (all 17 fittings) and also changed the oil in the generator, both done at 33 degrees. The tractor started right up and while it was warming I put on my breathing mask, used to keep the diesel fumes from aggravating my asthma. The mask also warms the air slightly and that can help prevent an asthma attack.
I was annoyed at myself for sleeping so late and the tractor wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted. If I had gone out at two, the angled blade would have slid the snow off to the side but now the snow was building up in front of the blade and I knew it would take me a number of passes to get down to the dirt. I drove past my gate and headed up to the hay barn to work on that road and as soon as I entered the pasture the wind attacked me. The stinging crystals quickly covered my glasses and froze my face. In a few minutes I had to take off my glasses just to see and once I got to the hay barn I could hardly make out the road because of the drifting snow. Fortunately, the tractor worked well enough (I only used the blade going downhill or it would stop the tractor in a few seconds) and in an hour I was back up my road and I saw that my first pass had helped a great deal. It was close to five but I decided to do one more downhill pass before I took a break. I knew I had to get as much snow off as possible or whatever I left was likely to turn to ice and I might have another month of problems. The second pass went well and only in a couple of spots did the tractor slip and I was able to correct that by using the separate brake pedals (as Mike had shown me after the December storm). Now all I had to do was turn around and run back to the tractor barn. My blade was up and I was running in first gear high, the same gear I had come down in, and as I got to the first steep section I could tell that it was already very slippery (my tires and the blade had compressed the snow) but by keeping it moving I made it to the top.
I went inside for a break and realized that I could hardly move so I decided to take an hour’s nap. One hour of snow wouldn’t cause that much of a problem and my eyes were closing even as I sat at the table.
That hour passed much too quickly but at 6:30 I was back on the tractor and I repeated my earlier routine up to the hay barn (about a mile away). After the second pass down my road, I was tired but glad that I had done a good bit of work on the road. I wasn’t hitting dirt yet but I was sure I could get my truck down, and I really could wait on that until Monday afternoon since I didn’t have to be at Radford until five that evening. I had just gotten past the steepest part, and I was really chilled and tired and somehow I found myself veering toward the ravine edge of the road and in a split second I was on the edge and the tractor was tilting and seemed about to flip. My immediate thought was to jump but instead I pushed the clutch in and the tractor stopped. All those movie scenes where someone is trapped in a car or bus on the edge of a cliff came flooding into my head, and I remembered that the slightest movement usually spelled doom. I carefully shut the engine off and then took off my seat belt in case jumping turned out to be the best choice. I sat for a few seconds and it seemed like the tractor was stable. Since the tractor was tilted I could see that there was no way I could jump even if I wanted to. I was going to have to climb out slowly and that is what I did. I can’t explain the relief I felt when my second foot touched the ground but I knew I had been incredibly fortunate. Perhaps my guardian spirit had intervened. I’m not sure what exactly happened but I knew I was so, so lucky.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This is first of several essays I intend to post. I am working on a book of short essays and I would like to see the reaction to some of my pieces. Also, since I am back from my vacation in Big Bend, my life is rather mudane, thus the activities are not worth posting.

In the January 14th New York Times there was an article titled “Like a College Visit, Minus Kegs.” The upbeat piece was about adult communities, those where you have to be a minimum age (often 55) to be accepted in. I am 58, though with the recession and a substantial mortgage, I am not about to retire soon. Nonetheless, I read the article with interest as a vivid contrast to my present life in an isolated hollow. The story talked about how people now often visit these communities for a few days to get a legitimate sense of the residents and the facilities. Fitness clubs, golf courses, pools and hot tubs, restaurants, social events, and then off to your spiffy condo or modern cottage. I thought of how I had to tramp almost a mile to get home through the 20 inch snow we had recently, and how I spent endless hours on my John Deere tractor scraping my road to get all the snow and ice off. My nearest neighbor is a mile away and the article’s mention of social gatherings with like-minded people sounded quite appealing. The idea of not having to take care of the batteries for my solar power system and all the little tasks that a log house demands was even more enticing.
Even with the amenities touted in the article--phrases like “casual and sporty” and “carnival atmosphere of cruise ships” enliven the text--I still wonder at what I would give up to move into one of these places. My life is a struggle in many ways but I have always been a worker, from my days in marine construction and as a scuba diver to my present position as an English Professor at Radford University. Most mornings I get up and write, and then I start my tasks. If it isn’t too cold I go out and if I need to build a rack for my kayak or a cover for my septic pump, then that is where my energy goes.
Once school starts, I spend a lot more time preparing for classes and grading papers, but I usually allocate some time fixing or building things. With my arthritic knee, I have to move slower, but I still like the sense of accomplishment that comes out of honest physical labor.
The psychological sense of independence is also very comforting. At a 55 plus community, I’m sure there are many concerns but all occur within a comfortable and safe ambiance where help is a few steps or a phone call away. When I have to use my chainsaw to clear my road, I have no backup. My cell phone doesn’t work there and so I have to be very, very careful since one mistake could be very dangerous and perhaps even fatal. No one would come search for me for perhaps days, and that might well be much too late. The thought is a bit scary but it also means that I have a heightened sense of responsibility, and I have gained a steady confidence that I can handle almost any situation that could occur.
I enjoyed the New York Times piece quite a bit, but for now I don’t think I’ll be making any visits to adult communities soon. At present the hollow is my home and the challenges and rewards of living there are the right thing for me.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Monday, my last full day at Big Bend, added to yesterday’s rewards. My goal was the Santa Elena Canyon, another place I have returned to several times. As you approach the canyon you find ocotillo, lechuguilla, blind prickly pear, honey mesquite, leatherstem, and hechita. The trail ascends to some spectacular viewpoints and then drops down to the river. The only plants I could identify there were River Cane and Catsclaw Mimosa, but the views along the river were inspiring.
On the way back to the Basin I stopped at Sotol View for some photos, and then at the Sam Nail Ranch, where I saw some cardinals, juncos and mockingbirds as I sat at the windmill, which pushed out a small amount of water with each up and down movement. I should have added another full day in the park, but who can plan to be sick, which cost me at least a half day’s worth of hikes and the half-day river trip I had planned.
The next morning, I decided to take the ranger-guided morning walk on desert medicinal plants at Dugout Wells. After checking out I drove slowly from the Basin to Dugout Wells where I met the ranger and five other people. She was knowledgeable enough but very western in her approach to how Native Peoples’ learned about medicinal plants and after enduring her condescending remarks for twenty minutes I left and began my leisurely exit from the park to Terlingua and then up to Alpine. I will try to get back to Big Bend when the birding is better, but my trip was worthwhile even with the obstacles I had to face.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For the most part, it was a long and boring drive and I began to wonder if I should just head back to San Antonio and try to get home early. My long anticipated trip was becoming a trial instead of a vacation. I was very weak and I had to stop for several naps before I got near Big Bend. Fortunately, the Traverse had a front seat which almost fully reclined so my breaks were fairly comfortable. I had been planning a seven week trip in my truck this summer out to many of my favorite western places including the Canadian Rockies, Vancouver’s Sunshine Coast, the Cascades, the Redwoods, and then the Bay Area, followed by my first visit to San Diego. Now the idea of being so far away unsettled me. But I also realized that getting sick happens even when you travel, and the best bet is to steady yourself and remember why you are traveling in the first place. By 4:30 I had reached the turnoff for the park, and the scenery began to ease my fears. I was nearing the mountains and I began to see occasional roadrunners and different kinds of prickly pears and yuccas. I was going to make the Chisos Lodge before dark and as I drove the last few miles, the sotol and century plants were joined by Pinyon pines and Mexican drooping juniper, along with a variety of small oaks.
I felt better on Saturday morning and decided to try out the inexpensive bike I had purchased at a Big Box store on the way out of San Antonio. My plan had been to ride it until I returned to San Antonio and then donate it to a thrift shop. I drove out to Dagger Flat Road and it soon became apparent that my special bike seat was not going to fit. I tried to improvises but I had only a small adjustable wrench with me, not much of a tool box. I drove back to the filling station near Panther Junction, and the fellow there loaned me a hammer, just the tool I needed. I drove about a mile toward Study Butte, and then back and when I tried to ride it again the back brake locked and nothing I could do could fix it. I gave up on the bike idea and decided that some short hikes would suffice. It was now time to head to Terlingua to watch my team, the New York Jets, battle Cincinnati. The Jets played well, winning handily, and I drove back just beating darkness to the Chisos Basin.
Things changed radically on Sunday. I took the guided walk at Panther Junction and then I went out to Dugout Wells and took the nature trail there. I saw dozens of plants including Creosotebush, Whitethorn Acacia, Englemann’s Prickly Pear, Lechuguilla, Torrey Yucca, Purple-tinged Prickly Pear, Sotol, Honey Mesquite, Blind Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Leatherstem, Big Bend Silverleaf, Strawberry Pitaya and Allthorn. I saw a red-tailed hawk, some quail, and several northern mockingbirds.
That afternoon, after a brief nap, I hiked into the Boquillos Canyon, and I took some fine photos with my new camera. It was very calming to sit by the Rio Grande and listen to it murmuring through several riffles.
I was feeling tired by the time I got back to the Basin, but I decided to walk a little of the Window Trail, one of my favorites. I was rewarded by spotting a cactus wren, and seeing Alligator Junipers, Pinyon Pines and a number of Century Plants. This was what I had come for and tomorrow should even be better as my energy improves.

Monday, January 11, 2010

San Antonio proved pleasant enough if chilly—the Arctic blast that had frozen the East had come this far—and I visited the Botanical Garden, worth a visit with a variety of desert plants. Friday was even colder but my thoughts were on Big Bend, and I was hoping that the weather there would be more temperate. After getting my rental SUV, a Chevy Traverse, a few hours later than promised, and picking up my UPS package, by noon I was on route 90 heading toward Ulvalde. The terrain was mainly flat but better things were to come. I had played 9 holes of golf at the Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio, and with the sun out, I decided to try another 9 at the Ulvalde course. I was playing well, but when I approached the 7th hole my stomach told me demons were approaching. I finished up and began driving and then it began. I had to pull over every ten minutes and by the time I got to my motel room, I was in the midst of a double-barreled intestinal attack that would last for four more hours. At that point I was dreadfully weak and fearful that I was becoming extremely dehydrated. I had to get help, and I couldn’t have crawled out of the room, never mind drive to an ER. I called the motel operator and asked him to call for an ambulance, the first time that has ever happened to me. In a few minutes the two ambulance workers appeared and once they got me into the vehicle, one of them hooked me up to an IV to start to counter the dehydration. I wanted something for the intestinal problem, but the fellow said I had to wait until I got to the ER. They wheeled me in and in a few minutes a nurse was giving my some Zofran, a drug I remember from my chemo days.
I was always scared of hospitals until the four days I spent after the colon resection, so having to spend the night in the ER didn’t bother me too much. I couldn’t get warm enough, however, even with an extra blanket the nurse gave me, but overall everyone was kind and professional. The attending doctor was an avid fly fisher and hunter and his stories were entertaining even if I found myself losing my focus occasionally. I had no idea what time it was but as the night deepened I was left to myself and I drifted off into brief spells of light and uneasy sleep. The nurse had said that they were going to release me when I had finished the second sack of saline solution and I was actually worried that they would release me too early. At 4:30 the nurse returned and told me it was time to go. I was feeling much better and when she took the IV out I was greatly relieved. It took me a few minutes to be able to stand up but by 5:15 I was in a cab on the way back to the Comfort Inn.
I fell into an exhausted stupor but awoke fairly refreshed at 8:30. Now I had to make a big decision. Should I push on to Big Bend where I had a non-refundable reservation for that evening or should I spend another day near a hospital or at least near reasonable medical services. If things went wrong in Big Bend I would have a very long way to go for any significant treatment. I pictured a couple hour ambulance drive to Alpine (where the nearest hospital was); it was not a ride I wanted to get on. The doctor had thought I could make Big Bend that day so after filling my anti-nausea prescription and picking up some supplies, I headed off and prayed for the best.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I had a very pleasant dinner with friends on Saturday night, and Sunday morning showed no precipitation, although the temperature at 6:00 was 14 degrees. After organizing and packing the gear I would take on the train (I had sent a box of stuff earlier to one of the downtown San Antonio UPS offices), and after finishing some housework I finally headed off around 11:50, having driven down to the pasture to check and see that Train 51 was just a few minutes late. Nothing eventful occurred on the drive up and a few minutes after 4:00, the train arrived and I was soon comfortably seated in my sleeper.
I began to ponder my trip to Big Bend and how different things are right now. In my thirties, I completed the outer loop trail, over twenty miles, in four days. It was an ambitious trek—the rangers didn’t want me to go alone, but I convinced them of my experience and they agreed to give me a permit if I left them a carbon copy of my boot print. I felt the isolation and grandeur the wilder parts of the west have always given me. Over the years I did the Chisos Mountains loop trail several times and always felt a great sense of accomplishment. Now, with my troubled knee, I would be reduced to rather gentle excursions. I would never get to the top of the Chisos again, and that is certainly a loss. But I have so many memories and photographs, I can’t complain too much. I have always felt that you should take advantage of things early on. That way if later life prevents you from certain activities, you have already had the experience. I hiked to the top of Mt. Rundle in the Canadian Rockies three times and failed on my fourth and fifth attempts (because of an injured calf). Those failures would have been much more negative if I had never reached the pinnacle before. In Big Bend I will be able to hike on relatively flat terrain, ride my bike, and paddle an easy stretch of the Rio Grande. I am more than satisfied with those expectations.
Last spring, even those hopes might have been somewhat delusional. The year before, my knee had deteriorated rapidly during the five months of chemotherapy. The doctors even tested me for chemo-related gout, but in the end it was simply arthritis. I had to move very slowly to get anywhere and I had to walk up steps with two feet on each step. When spring came my knee was even worse. I tried wading but after a few minutes my knee would pop and I would scream out in pain. I went back to the orthopedist, a personable and extremely competent surgeon, and he thought that I might try a new treatment called Syn-Visc One. Dr. Barranco told me I could get the drug in a series of three shots, but when he mentioned that I could get the full dose in just one, it was an easy decision for someone with a dread of needles. Syn-Visc One was an alternative to cortisone, but without the bad side effects and it might last up to a year, four times longer than cortisone.
Dr. Barranco has a fine sense of humor, and he uses it on me whenever I come in for a shot, as I have several times. I am always rather nervous—even with my half of a valium—and I inevitably ask him if the shot is going to hurt. His reply is always the same: “This shot isn’t going to hurt me a bit.” I realize it is not the greatest line, but I always start laughing and this time the effect was the same. However, when he asked me to grab hold of both of the nurse’s arms—usually the nurse just holds my hand as I lie there—I should have known that this shot was going to be different. I actually howled in pain as the viscous fluid slowly entered my knee, and more kept coming. I have never felt such interplanetary pain, and my hold on the nurse was fierce. When it was over I was shaking and they wouldn’t let me get up for at least ten minutes. A difficult moment but the results were remarkable.
I did a little wading a few weeks after the shot, and I was impressed. My knee felt flexible and it didn’t pop. The real test came out west where I successfully fished the Ten Sleep and caught a dozen trout in a little over a hundred yards. It was exhilarating to be back wading one of my favorite streams, something I had thought was not going to happen again.
My knee is still fine even after the snowstorm hike but I do worry about when the effects of the Syn-Visc are going to lessen. I already know I would go for another shot because the benefits were so substantial. However, I will take a lot more valium.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The respite from the treacherous weather proved temporary. On Wednesday, December 30, the weather reports spoke of coming icy precipitation but with just a trace expected to remain. I didn’t set my alarm that night since a trace could be handled easily the next day, if necessary. Imagine my surprise when I woke up to three inches of snow. The temperature was already over freezing and a light rain was falling but I had no idea how much would melt off, and the three inches would insulate the remaining ice on the road so the snow had to go. The tractor worked fine on my road, but when I attempted to go up the hill to the hay barn, it began slipping and I was forced to stop. If I wasn’t very careful the tractor could slide down the hill and perhaps even tip over. I had my seat belt on, but the idea of the tractor flipping over was very unpleasant. I turned the steering wheel hard and started backing up very slowly. The front slipped a little but after 5 maneuvers, I was able to get turned around and safely drive back to the bottom of the hill. I decided to go around the hay barn by heading up through the pasture and then I worked my way down the road a half dozen times with the scraper blade chipping off a little of the softening ice with each pass.
I called the weather service and unfortunately, the next few days were going to be very cold with a chance of more precipitation. Now I had to worry about getting up to Clifton Forge on Sunday to catch the Amtrak train to San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, a vacation I had planned months ago. Already I began thinking of driving up on Saturday afternoon and getting a motel room, but that would mean I would be stuck in the tiny town for 24 hours. Big Bend, one of my favorite national parks, seemed far, far away.