This was our 5th season of a 2, and then 3, month stay in Palm Springs as snowbirds and fortuitously, we didn’t have to work to make this year different, it happened on its own.
The nearly 3 week, unplanned, heat-driven, pre-desert stay in the Idyllwild area at 6,000’ on San Jacinto Mountain immediately set a new tone for us in the area. We previously had begrudged the hour or more drive from Palm Springs to hike on this, the west side of the mountain, and the few camping options seemed problematic. But we over came our resistance, gave the aging campground a try, and deemed it workable enough to do it again another year. Hiking club members were coming to the Idyllwild area for day hiking to escape the valley heat that drove us into the mountains, so we had plenty of company on the many trails.
Some were exhausted & all were triumphant while sheltering from the sharp wind on San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,500’.
All 5 of us struggled with the thin air from about 10,000’ on, but it was a stunning day on San Gorgonio. It instantly became my favorite hike in the region, largely because of the openness of those last 1,500’. The landscape at the top was somewhat barren, but it wasn’t ugly. I loved the visual interplay between the sparse flora, weathered rocks, and panoramas at that elevation.
In the course of a month, we made 2 more trips to these trails, this time as hike leaders or ‘sponsors’ as I like to say, on these non-club hikes with club members. We invited the same 2 women to join us on our first assault on the San Bernardino peak and our second on San Gorgonio. We were capitalizing on the extremely dry, so far no-snow winter, and as seasonal visitors, we all considered these as potentially once-in-a lifetime outings. Both trailheads began in the deep shade of forested north facing slopes at 6,000’, which could make the trails impassable to us later in the season even if the peaks again became free of snow.
Bill, Mary, Bonnie, & Barb on a warmer day on San Gorgonio.
Even though the Friday hike to San Bernardino had been taxing, we opted to make our 3rd Cactus-2-Clouds hike in 3 months on that last snow-free day, Sunday. We dressed more warmly than ever before and prepared to finish the hike in rain or snow should the precipitation arrive early.
We were extremely pleased that maintaining a high level of fitness year-round had allowed us to accept unexpected invitations, like summiting these peaks, without a second thought. There was no questioning if we had the capacity to do the events or do them without risk of injury because of our conditioning. When opportunities arose on short notice, we could confidently take them. Unplanned, we’d hiked to the tops of 3 of the area's 10,000+’ peaks 7 times in 2 months all because of the dry weather, our sustained fitness, and the initiative of other hike leaders. Wow!
Ed: Our Most Inspirational Hiker of the Year
We were warming ourselves on a large rock, somewhat discretely putting on a heavy base layer of dry clothing, and finishing our lunch for this our 3rd and last Cactus-2-Clouds hike of the season when Ed plodded by. Our jaws dropped. One of our Trail Ambassador duties is counting hikers and we couldn’t take our eyes off of him. His odd gait, clearly intentional but curious outfit, and elderly-looking, stooped shoulders were a riveting combination. At this 8,400' elevation, he’d likely exited from the Tram instead walking to it for 6 hours like we had done. Wherever he was going alone at his slow pace, it didn’t look good.
Like us, Ed had a carefully crafted outfit for his assault on San Jacinto Peak at 10,860’ hours before it snowed.
Ed had likely lived his entire adult life with the multiple, progressive disabilities from the autoimmune disease psoriatic arthritis. The damage to his hands was instantly obvious and made it easy to imagine what the curled toes he described looked like shrouded in the gigantic boots. That’s one of those horrible diseases they treat with biologicals advertised on TV, one of those in which the life-threatening side-effects seem to consume almost all of the ad narrative.
His distressingly heavy, custom-made, $1200 boots with their second set of Vibram soles were literally life-saving for Ed because only they allowed him to exercise on his deformed feet. A self-described, far-far left, social activist with "Black Lives Matter" scrawled on the brim of his sun hat, he was happy to visit.
I quickly learned that in addition to again enjoying the hike to San Jacinto Peak, that Ed and I shared another passion, which was having happy feet. We both were passionate advocates for footwear that allows people to reach their full athletic potential, including ourselves, though the solution for Ed involved more shoe and for me it was less.
I push and push some more for people to enhance the mobility of their feet to escape from the prisons of pain caused by bunions and other such reactive conditions. I advocate immediately switching to really wide shoes to let their crumpled feet unfurl. Next is to begin the transition to light, flexible, minimalist shoes by increasing the length of their calf muscles and working on their foot flexibility.
Ed paid $1,200 for these custom boots; we complain about spending far less.
Ed’s footwear advocacy, like mine, comes from personal experience, though his situation is far more dire than mine. Ed has fought an uphill battle with the VA to get his treasured boots covered as a benefit. It isn’t just for him, it’s a way to open the door for similar solutions for other vets. Happily, he has a podiatrist on his side and feels like he is making headway. Both Ed and I have had painful, limiting conditions that can cease to be barriers with the right stuff on our feet. We both want our fellow suffers to be free of these limitations by having the optimally shodden feet.
We saw Ed again about 3 hours later, close to sundown. We were happily bouncing down the trail in our feather-weight footwear while he continued trudging uphill to the still-distant peak. Chatty as ever, we pulled ourselves away after swapping the names of favorite garments in the Outdoor Research product line we all enjoyed. Like I habitually do with everyone at that time of day, I ran the numbers and estimated that Ed was at risk for missing the last tram ride down off of San Jacinto Peak for the night. We quickly settled ourselves, being confident that Ed had also run the numbers and knew exactly when he would finish. We could slip back into enjoying our encounters with inspirational Ed without getting stuck in problem solving mode.
Our 3 month long stay in the depth of winter in Palm Springs is our longest stay anywhere in the year. It creates the opportunity for the most social connections, especially since joining a hiking club last year. The numerous exchanges with folks in the area were especially satisfying this year.
Sunrise on our San Jacinto Cactus-2-Clouds hike.
Our “gifts” to others were delightful to give. About a half dozen hikers discovered for themselves the significant relief to be had from ibuprofen at higher altitudes. Bill coached them, based on a research article and his considerable personal experience, when we hiked above 10,000’, and he passed out tablets to those who didn’t have them handy. Yup, 100% found that their headache, sluggishness, and malaise noticeably improved within minutes. Like Bill, not all could perceive that it improved their speed but other trail mates could provide decisive feedback about their ‘before’ and ‘after’ pace.
Spring-boarding off of our recent decision in the Grand Canyon to carry Gatorade to give away to struggling hikers, like we’d done last winter in Palm Springs, we committed to carrying 2 spare headlamps to give away on peak-bagging days.
Over the last year, it had become increasingly clear that though we keep pushing our edges out in what we undertake, that we always stay well within our capabilities, it’s a safety thing. We always finish our epic hikes feeling like we could do more and we always have what we need with us and usually extra. Many on the trails with us are either unrealistic or are more comfortable being on a perilous edge in terms of their wellbeing, whether it be sufficient food, water, light, or clothing. On our first Cactus-2-Clouds hike in 2016, we escorted 1 hiker through the dark forest for close to 2 hours with our 2 headlamps and 3 men were shepherding another without a light.
Some desert hikes feel like a long march to nowhere—but it’s good exercise with great company.
Sharing our experiences with the low fermentable sugar, low FODMAP, diet we use spurred 3 others in two weeks to consider it to reduce their significant GI distress. It only took a few days for one to fully implement the regime change and to feel that she finally had a way out of chronic illness.
I joked with the massage therapist I was seeing that I’d turn him into a sports massage guy—he only cringed a little bit. After trying for several years to find a sport massage person anywhere close to the caliber of what I enjoy in Portland, I settled for a man in Palm Springs that gave great discounts for repeat customers and was a short drive away. His focus was on relaxation but he was willing to delve deeper, especially since I already had a good understanding of my issues.
I brought our outstanding anatomy software along with me to one appointment and together we rotated, expanded, and dissected the pelvis to study the 2 deep muscles that I suspected were the gremlins perpetuating my ancient pain cycle. He loved the app as much as I did and immediately bought an even newer version to replace his old anatomy program that was no longer compatible with his operating systems. Jazzed, he checked youtube videos for technics to dig deeper than he usually went and immediately began applying his new skills to other clients. Talk about a 3-way win!
A different hiking challenge in the Coachella Valley: skirting around golf courses.
On a lark in July of 2013, we increased both the distances we were hiking and how high we were climbing to train for an Italian mountain run a year later. It was an outrageous goal for us as current non-runners but achieving it wasn’t the point, it was moving in a new direction that mattered. We actually, though just barely, crossed the finish line 1-2 minutes before the cut-off time in 2014. More importantly, it set us on a new trajectory, one with no slowing in sight.
Somewhere along the way in 2017, I decided to introduce us with a bit of laughter as “novice endurance athletes.” We weren’t your average hikers but we weren’t exceptional, we’d struggle to explain, especially since we looked very average. It was a tentative label that we now feel we’ve earned.
In 2017, we hiked almost 2,000 miles out and over 500,000’ up, almost 100 miles. We’d been remiss in cranking out 20 milers in 2017 in preparation for our October Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim but began doing them once there and haven’t stopped. We finished the year by averaging 1 a week for 15 weeks and I was on track to tack on at least 15 more consecutive 20 milers in the first few of months of 2018 while in Palm Springs.
We finally did our long-planned 2 twenty milers back to back in November—another training goal for the Grand Canyon in October 2017 that didn’t happen. But as an unexpected bonus, we averaged a 3 mph pace, with the help of a little jogging at the end of both days. In mid-January we knocked out another pair on an equally accommodating trail, also with only 3000’ of gain, and then discovered we’d hiked 80 miles in 7 days, including 3 twenty milers!
It was a real eye-opener: we’d found 2 trails this season on which we could maintain a fast, steady pace and keep the hike plus a long lunch in the 8 hour range instead of the 10-12 hours typical of our hikes with more gain or more difficult footing. Once again, we were discovering unknown reserves to push both our endurance and speed, albeit under ideal conditions. What a shame some exercise physiologist wasn’t making note of what “exceptionally successful aging” can look like in average old people.
We kept pushing because we could. To our absolute amazement, we continued to be favorably adapting to the increasing stresses for 4 years. The biggest measure of success was the vast improvement in how we felt the evening after the big hike and the next morning. And clearly, if we could go do it again the second day, our bodies were coping well. We also noticed a diminishing need for a break and snack at 15 miles. It then became intriguing to answer the question: “How much can we do without plateauing or injuring ourselves?” Our bodies seemed to be purring with delight from all the movement and happily, we still don’t know what our limits are.
Putting our treasured fitness & mobility to use on a bit of ledge.
“It’s the Landing”
Our joke when hiking is that it isn’t the fall that matters, it’s the landing. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Go-Pro and didn’t think to get a still photo of my doozy landing in mid-January to document our point. We were about 15 miles into a 20 mile hike on a steep, rocky, descent. Fortunately it wasn’t stair-like steep but more of a steep, rocky ramp.
I caught the tip of my shoe, which isn’t uncommon, but it flung me forward, out of control. My short, bouncy fore footing gait was instantly displaced by the all-too-familiar, long-strided, pounding one as I sped out of control downhill. Careening down the narrow trail, I thought I’d be able to pull-out, to recover, but then an unexpected additional gyration from one foot step made it clear that I was going to go down and hard.
We know from our experience with falling that unless you are absolutely doomed to a face plant, you have an instant to manage the fall. We’ve both been unexpectedly successful in shifting our crashes to the uphill side on mountain slopes. I clearly made a choice about this landing and was a bit surprised in hindsight to see that I had decided to aim for the downhill side. It wasn't a steep cliff as is sometimes the case, but a definite downhill.
Debriefing once we were underway again, I could recall the flash of decision-making: I’d opted to dive into a brittle bush plant on the trail's edge. I instinctively tucked my left shoulder and head on the last footstep that aimed me in that direction. Lucky for me, over the last couple of days, I’d been relearning flowering plant names and had been reciting Latin and common names for a half dozen plants and studying details, like leaf patterns, on the fly. We’d been striving for a 3 mph pace, so the pressure had been on to make my plant analysis nearly instantaneous. I’m sure that activity paid off because the critical issue in crashing on this segment of trail, after dodging a face plant, was to avoid ploughing into one of the numerous large, branching cacti.
A month on, & my brittle bush was misshapen but thriving.
Like gymnasts say, I nailed the landing, by my standards. I managed to completely turtle onto my back and my pack buffered me from the harshness of the fractured brittle bush stems. I was unscathed but in a very awkward position. My head was pointing down the short, steep bank and I was viewing my bent knees against the blue sky. There was nothing in range to leverage against with either my feet or hands: I was too high off the ground to move without rolling my front body into the bush stems, which I wasn’t keen to do.
Bill came to the uphill side of me and in a series of slight tugging moves by him on my arms and a bit of clumsy pivoting by me, we slowly spun me around a little over a quarter of a turn. I could then push a foot against a rock behind and between his legs and found the ground with the other. Bill then hoisted me to standing.
Amazingly, I had absolutely no scuffs, bruises, twinges or any residue from the landing. There wasn’t anything new for my massage guy to fix. The brittle bush had been a perfect safety net. I’m sure that the memory sectors that maintain my fall and landing history took note of brittle bushes as top-grade crash pads.
Bill was less lucky a week later however with his seemingly benign, no velocity, fall and collapse. His undramatic twist and wobble on his right foot and then slow, zigzagging descent to the ground onto his rear end as his left leg crumpled, almost incapacitated him. Though his left knee hurt a lot, it seemed that it was a warning cry from his body that other things were wrong, not really something in the knee. After sitting on the trail, assessing, and strategizing for 10 minutes, he began the agonizingly slow, painful shuffle off of the mountain. It took us 2 and a half hours to travel perhaps a mile with Bill muscling on his poles and me carrying his pack. Even though we both had headlamps, we were pleased to hit asphalt at dusk.
The pain actually diminished as bit as Bill crept off of the mountain and so it was a bit of a surprise that he wasn’t able to hike for a month. After 2 weeks, he started doing easy bike rides on the flat roads and at 3 weeks, he resumed easy walks. The best that anyone could determine, he’d irritated his illiotibial band (ITB) that runs the length of the outer thigh and perhaps had small tears in his quads. The knee pain persisted, presumably as a “don’t you dare….” message to prevent over doing.
Bill faired better than this big horn sheep.
Rattlesnake #5 on our personal SW tally made its appearance on a club hike in mid-January before the big falls. Amusingly, it was mere moments after I corrected the hopeful belief of the hiker ahead of me that they weren’t out in the winter. Rattlesnakes are always around, they don’t hibernate, and a south facing slope on a sunny day is a good enough reason to warm themselves in the open space of a trail. We hold our breath hoping for zero encounters but only having 1 this winter meant it was a good year.
Our fantasy of experiencing 2 super blooms in a row by having another one this season was not to be. Unlike the less informed optimists that I overheard in early March who said “It’s been cool recently, the wildflowers should be out in about 10 days” we knew not to expect a display. Alas, the myths and hopes were more prolific than the flowers and the die was cast late last fall. Significant and well-sequenced rain from late October to mid-December sets the stage for a super bloom and the rain performance was as pitiful as it gets in late 2017.
Not only was there no super bloom this year but the February wildflower field trips that we enjoyed last year were canceled because of the unusually poor showing. As a substitute, the non-profit group offered an outing in search of seedlings, which we declined. Last year we photoed over 200 species of wildflowers and this year we only bothered with a couple of shots. We only saw about a dozen species in bloom this season and identified a single plant from last year and a new one.
We only spotted a single new wild flower this winter: this Bush Monkeyflower in November, no doubt left over from last season.
The relationship mix within the hiking club was surprisingly different than last year, our first year. A woman who did our weekly big hikes towards the tram last season opted to hike more with her less-ambitious husband this season than with the club. And she finally shared her secret: last season she was training to do Mt Kilimanjaro (without him), and fearing failing, didn’t tell anyone of her plans. Of course, she succeeded. A couple of folks who would hardly give me the time of day last year were surprisingly welcoming and several people who’s company we enjoyed last season didn’t return. Others who returned focused more on golf or tennis than hiking this winter.
We learned that the consensus among the older, strong, club members is that “the wall comes down” at 75. That’s based on the reports from the no longer active hikers that age. Generously, some volunteer to be drivers on shuttle hikes even after hiking feels too hard. And we noticed a vigor drop-off occurring in a handful of formerly extremely vigorous (as in several marathons per month and weekly 100 mile bike rides) pre-70 year olds, all of which was discouraging.
Fortunately, a bit of good news on the vigor front came from streaming a 3 day low carb conference at the end of our stay in Palm Springs. Though not addressing aging at all, their model was clearly of a ‘broken system’ from excess carb consumption and subsequent insulin resistance.
Patti about to slip through a tight spot in the boulders at Joshua Tree NP.
Off The Trails
Though it was a winter of recording breaking highs and persistent, unseasonable lows, it was largely dry for us. Last year we treasured our MaxiClimber that we dashed out to buy while the streets were flooding and yet we didn’t use it once in our 3 months in Palm Springs. This year we didn’t need the equivalent of a gym experience because we could get out to hike or bike nearly any day we chose. We still love our Climber and will be using it on our journey home and while at home.
We had our best winter ever of following through on biking. Our decision to overcome our resistance to ‘pay to play’ at the nearby tribal owned hiking area was a major factor in our success. I sponsored buying the 6 month passes for trail access but it was Bill that suggested biking on their low traffic roads as well.
Riding from our RV park, doing 2 laps on their 2 roads, and climbing the hill in a high-end residential area on a dead end road gave us 22 miles and 1,300’ of gain, essentially out of traffic. Our minds could safely drift while admiring the rugged desert terrain rimmed by mountains on the Indian grounds and then enjoy the out-of-place lushness of very green grass and colorful plantings in the exclusive neighborhood. The contrasts were so great that doing the same ride almost every week wasn’t boring. My internist always chides me that I don’t condition enough for a summer of cyclotouring, which is true, but this routine was enough to restore the tolerance of my knees to cycling, which is huge.
Playing hard with club members on a Joshua Tree NP outing.
Moving On, A Little Bit
Sheer indecisiveness had us tacking on an extra week at Palm Springs—we just plain couldn’t decide what to do. Unusually for me, I was clueless as to what I even wanted. The weather was still too cool and potentially stormy to make us want to budge. Half way into our extra week a plan finally crystallized: we would go to nearby Joshua Tree National Park for Bill’s ongoing rehab.
At almost 6 weeks since presumably tearing fibers in his quads, he could walk 10 miles but couldn’t tolerate much in the way of descending. We often limit our time in Joshua Tree because we ‘can’t get the gain’ but that was perfect for Bill. Sidewalks were his main flat option in Palm Springs but he could get off the concrete and on to the grit in the national park. For me, it would be a ‘relative rest’ by doing my ongoing 20 milers on flatter terrain. The RV park's outdoor but covered pool would give him a new rehab activity too—we would give pool walking a try.
While parked at 29 Palms village outside of Joshua Tree, we’d have one eye on our respective conditioning goals and the other on our return home in 6 weeks. Bill had nearly completed our summer reservations abroad but there were appointments to be made, unfinished projects to be completed, and taxes to be done. It only took a day or 2 to decide that a month’s stay instead of 2 weeks might be just fine and amazingly, it would be the same price either way.