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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Heat Blues...

Today, I am sitting in an air conditioned room at a local college. Prior to that, I was at home in my air conditioned living room. Granted, it’s not central air, so the act of going to rooms with a fan and an air conditioner left me sweating profusely. However, it beats being outside in this daily thunderstorms are coming weather.

Pennsylvania’s icky humid summers can be that way.

I sit here with a fan blowing directly on me, and I think about how nice that steady stream of air feels. Granted, some people find my level of comfortable cool a little different than theirs. That’s because I have Parkinson’s, which means I also have a bonus present called hyperhidrosis. Put simply, it means that my body burns hotter, so I sweat easily, and I sweat a lot. When many of you are bundling up in sweaters for the winter, I walk around my 65° house in shorts. At the job, when everyone else is in long sleeve shirts and ties, I do the 3 button polo shirt thing. It’s not that I don’t like shirt and ties, since I do have a lot of them, but rather, it’s just that the world doesn’t operate on 65° temperatures in the winter, so I compensate.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to wear shorts and a t-shirt, but alas…

I write those things today thinking about the summers of 2003 (unsuccessful) and 2007 (successful enough to be OK with it) when I went to the Wave on the Arizona side of the Utah / Arizona border. IF YOU JUST WANT THE END, skip to the end of this blog post. If you want the full, see the links.

You've all seen the nice pictures of the Wave, so other than the following 3, I'll show you what the hike out and back looks like.

The Wave is a beautiful geologic formation. Ten people win a lottery months in advance to go there. Ten other people win a lottery the day before to go there. While there is a trail, it’s not marked like the Appalachian Trail. Additionally, there is NO shelter from the sun there. Right now, it’s about 100° of scorching, exposed, dry desert heat. If you think I’m overstating my case, just ask Kane County Sherriff Alan Alldrege, who had the unfortunate job of reporting on the death of Belgian tourist Christophe Pochic. What made this worse is that Pochic’s 16-year old son had to report the death of his father after he became disoriented.

The NPS recommends THE FOLLOWING for hot weather hiking. Obviously, water and Gatorade type stuff are there. Salty foods and lots of food is there at number 2. First aid kit? Map? Flashlight? Spray bottle? Sunscreen? Hat? Signaling equipment beyond a phone, which won’t always get connection? Check to all of these things.

The point is YOU MATTER. The point is that we’ve all made it back to 98.6° from some stupid decisions. The point is that it only takes ONE TIME to not be lucky to be dead.

The woods / deserts / canyons / mountains / waterfalls are not a safe space. They are a beautiful place. They are a place we can find peace. They, like my Parkinson’s, are a place that is unpredictable, wild, unforgiving, and punishing. Those 4 adjectives strengthen us, but when we’re in the midst of them, we often lose control of our abilities.

Thus, the point is to be smart. Think ahead like it’s a game of Chess. We can control the equation in training. Granted, we can’t train for Utah in Belgium, but we can carry LOTS of water. Ultralite and the desert… not simpatico. 

And yes, we can travel with others.

Summer may be optimal vacation time, but autumn can offer lots of views with lesser temperatures.

We can balance risk and reward. THIS IS ESSENTIAL!!

For me, as my Parkinson’s races from stage 2 to 3 (of 5) I think back to hikes I’ve done and those I’d like to do, and I think about how some of my dream hikes are dreams that won’t be. I think about beautiful and intense hikes that I did, which I won’t do again. It’s easier to make peace with our abilities than to pay a hospital bill or a funeral.

This isn’t just about hikers like me entering a new stage of an incurable, progressively degenerative neurological disorder. Remember 127 Hours and Touching the Void? 

Think smart.

Remember what Ed Viesturs said: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” He would know. He could see the top of Everest, and he gave it up to ensure he survived.

If he can do that, you can be smarter on your adventure.


Eventually, I ran into a guy and his wife who were also hiking. We had some conversation about hiking in the area, and they must have taken pity on me for what I didn’t do right at Buckskin Gulch (bring gear to ascend out of wet holes so I could climb up to higher steps), so I was invited to tag up with them for the rest of the adventure. Their names were Ken and Lisa, and they were going all out to get to the spot as they used their color picture printouts from the Internet, which pretty much seemed mistake-proof in that it featured someone’s actual pictures of the sites that would be seen on the way, and a GPS to move through the sandstone wilderness for the 2.5 long miles of trail. This meant trying to match up landmarks in the desert with the pictures. Surprisingly, this was not as easy as I or they would have thought it would be.

After an endless time spent plodding through rocks, scrub brush, and sand, we made it to the final hill. I was completely blitzed from the heat, and I could feel the redness of the sun on my body and my neck and forehead. Being the experienced desert hikers that they were, they gave me electrolyte paste called Clifshots in order to boost my energy for the final assault to the top.

This simple act summed up the process of teaching to me. When you want to stay in motion and are willing to push forward, you do whatever you have to do to keep yourself or those in your charge in motion. For those people that can’t do this, they have the option to turn around. You don’t want to see them die (fail) on the way, and for this, you will give them whatever you can in order to keep them moving. However, in the end, the momentum and ability is up to them. But… if you can… you keep them going. You don’t do this in a way that makes all of the effort your own since that can endanger what you want to do and it can even endanger you, but you keep them moving and get them to press on towards the greatness that is up ahead.

As I thought of this, I didn’t think of the heat or my exhaustion; I was just thinking of other things than the height and incline of the hill that I had to get up and over. And then, just like that, I noticed that I had ascended the steepness and entered the hallowed confines of the Wave. 

It was beautiful, but it was so SMALL in comparison to the enormous world that I thought it would be. I know I didn’t see all of it, but all things considered, I figured that it would be closer to football stadium size than what we saw of it.

We walked through for 15 minutes. I shot video, and we took pictures of one another. As we did, a couple of groups that were there on vacation from California smiled beamingly as they ate their lunches and marveled at the late morning moon over the desert. It was gorgeous and relaxing and a culmination of everything that I hoped that it would be. To put it simply:

I was there. I had made it. 

Eventually, Ken and Lisa wanted to leave early, but that was ok. I was there, and I knew that Ed Viesturs was right – getting to the top was optional, but getting down was mandatory, so I took the guided company route as the best possible option for the journey’s end.

The walk back was painful. The sun was hitting us at 100 degrees and there was no tree covering to shade us. Everything looked the same, and it was hard to make heads or tails of where the trail was and wasn’t, but we used landmarks to lead us back to the cars. It was dicey at times as the GPS in the hands of Ken wasn’t as close to predicting where the actual trail was on our side of the mountain. As a result, we aimed for where the trail was on the bottom side of the valley, and in the end, we went down the least steep part of the side of the mesa that we were on. It took a lot more time than that, but in the grasp of exhaustion, things are as they come out. It’s a process, and we move forward, and suddenly, it’s all done.

And just like that, the journey was over as I tossed them some ice cold water bottles from my cooler and thanked them for helping me to attain my life’s most important accomplishment at that time: getting back to even by seeing the elusive natural beauty that I was encountering here at the moment.

We parted ways, and I headed off to Zion National Park…

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