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GRAND CANYON 2: October-November 2020

Flagstaff, Arizona

At the mid-point of our 6 weeks spent in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, we had a 2nd fruitful week in Flagstaff hiking, biking, and checking chores off of our to-do list. Our most anticipated task, voting in the November 3rd election, was completed early in our stay.
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Dropping off our precious ballots at the Flagstaff PO.

Amazingly, our ballots mailed from the State of Washington on Friday actually arrived on Saturday but alas, even with my 2 contacts with the KOA office staff on Saturday and 1 on Sunday, they were overlooked. We didn’t have them in our hands until dinner time on Monday, though we had until Thursday to receive them in Flagstaff without inconvenience. With smiling faces, we dropped them at the Flagstaff post office the next morning. On the same outing, we were pleased to receive our annual flu shots and pick-up a replacement cabin air filter for our truck. We began stuffing our refrigerator, freezer, and cabinets with more food for the upcoming 2 weeks in the Grand Canyon and bought a new length of shielded coax, hoping for cable reception while there to keep an eye on the political situation.

We also made provisions for the snow storm expected a day or 2 after our return to the Grand Canyon, including topping-off our propane tanks and confirming that our rarely used gas furnace worked in case the power went out. The storm was forecast to dump 6-7” of snow and drop the overnight lows to 7°F, neither of which happened. Well prepared, we were looking forward to the event like excited children.

On the wild side: Bill spotted 2 kingsnakes on 2 different hiking days in Flagstaff. We first thought that they were scarlet kingsnakes but, with further reading, decided that they were California mountain kingsnakes because they were not nocturnal like the scarlet variety and they were too big. Our only other kingsnake sighting was several years ago on the same trail in Flagstaff. Fortunately, they are not venomous and instead rely on their constrictive forces for defense, which are double that of pythons for their body weight. There was a possible 4th sighting years ago near Phoenix, though we weren’t able to distinguish it from a deadly coral snake.
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Now that’s a kingsnake!

Grand Canyon Ambiance
Modern Conveniences
Upon arriving, we knew our media life would be easier in the Grand Canyon on this, our 2nd visit for the year. The young woman at the Trailer Village check-in kiosk causally mentioned that the TV cable didn’t work in the first three rows, the area where we were previously parked. We’d complained about the lack of TV reception when there and the maintenance man convinced us it was our equipment. Bill had purchased a new 50’ cable in Flagstaff in hopes of solving the problem but, with the new information, the cable now was just expensive excess in our tight storage space.

The much cooler weather and prediction of snow scared travelers away, so we also had better internet connection because of less competition for bandwidth. These 2 enhancements were especially welcome because we’d be tucked away in Trailer Village through Thursday after Election Day.

When checking in at Trailer Village, I requested a different site so that, in addition to cable, we would have all-day sun, again, as a precaution for a storm-related power outage. Our generous solar panels and hefty, new, golf cart batteries would meet our electricity needs indefinitely in the presence of full sun, though we wouldn’t be able to use our microwave oven.

The Tourist Scene
The Grand Canyon National Park (GC) is a delightful and curious place. It’s a blend of a high-volume, international tourist destination; a Mecca for endurance athletes; and a nature preserve. The forests of tall ponderosa pines, smaller pinyon pines, and junipers nicely retain the natural flora, unlike the neighboring private lands that have been stripped of their trees, presumably for grazing. By design, the Park is an oasis on the plateau that is dramatically disrupted by the canyon. The zoo-like quality with the tame deer, elk, and squirrels emphasize the point that it is a preserve.

We would see the awe and expressions of delight on the faces of people in their cars when they drove into the Park from the surrounding, desolate land. They reminded us that we weren’t alone in our pleasure, even though we had such different perspectives. By this fall, we’d probably spent about 8 months total in the GC in the last 5 years. We’d spend more months in the Park were it not for the time limits in Trailer Village.

We were practically speechless when a young mom at a Park shuttle bus stop enthusiastically said “All day!” after we asked her how much time she had for their visit. We struggled for a moment to recover from her answer since she had asked us for recommendations of what to see and it was already noon. Of course, we knew that the average visit is measured in hours, but it was jolting to be reminded of that and to then hurriedly condense our experience into her time frame.
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Bill finally had time to replace our melted ‘shore line’ plug, our only connection to city power.

The Park Service does a great job of meeting the needs of their diverse audiences. They aren’t in denial: they know that most people whiz through the Park and they nicely accommodate those itineraries. The free, natural gas-powered buses keep the traffic down and coax people out of their cars. The Bright Angel Lodge area provides a quick hit for the tour bus crowd with ice cream, hot dogs, gift shops, stunning rustic historic buildings, and an immediate view into the canyon. I’m sure that most of those visitors leave satisfied with their quick immersion without adding many steps to their Fitbits. There is even a train line from nearby Williams. It only gives people 3-4 hours in the Park, but it offers yet another way to broaden the half-day experience.

The dedicated bike paths are a great resource for people who stay in the Park a little longer. There are bikes for rent at the Visitors Center near Trailer Village, including trailers for children. This year they added electric bikes, which were a big hit and a wonderful way to compensate for the 7,000’ elevation. The shop also has a trailer to haul bikes, so it appears that people can arrange to ditch their rented bikes rather than do a round trip ride. And all of the shuttle buses have bike racks. It’s a tourist fantasy land in a stunning setting. We always remind ourselves that what feels like a second home to us is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for others, even if only for a few hours. Of course, that is true of all tourist destinations but here we don’t feel like the tourists.

We were blown away 5-6 years ago when we began to understand the other world in the inner canyon, below the rim. We knew that hiking to Phantom Ranch was a ‘thing’ though didn’t know about crossing between the rims. When we shifted from “not in this lifetime” to considering joining the crowd at the river, it was mind blowing to think about those 2 different worlds. There were those on the rim and the less than 1% of visitors that stepped off of the rim and probably only 1% of those traveled to the bottom of the canyon or beyond. Even if you rode a mule down, you couldn’t weigh over 200 pounds (91 kg).

Ever since, our sense of the GC has been of the upper world and lower world; them and us; the masses and the athletes. It’s always amusing to know that we and others of the underworld mingle largely unnoticed with those at the top. But one year when we popped up and into the carnival atmosphere at Bright Angel Lodge from the N Rim, a young tourist asked where we had hiked from. She was clearly delighted to have briefly “captured” people from the other world before they disappeared into the crowd. Perhaps she would join our ranks one day.

Trophy Sighting
My trophy wildlife sighting this season was a single condor while on the S Kaibab Trail in late October. It was a memorable few moments while it flew up the side canyon adjacent to the trail I was descending. It was almost a ‘reach out and touch it’ experience. It was so close, so big, and so near to my eye level that it felt like special encounter. I could look over at it instead of up and over at it.

I assumed it was a turkey vulture, like we’d seen in the Colorado National Monument, but it was too big. It tipped its wings just enough as it passed me so I could note the coloration pattern. A little online research once back at the trailer confirmed that the pattern of white underneath its wings was that of a condor. We’d only seen condors in the Grand Canyon once before, several years ago. Both the turkey vultures and condors are scavengers that scan for the scent of decaying flesh; the sighting of the previous one’s in the Canyon was because they had located, by scent, the body of a suicide victim, which was a chilling, unforgettable experience. This condor didn’t appear to be tracking a scent—it looked more like it was on a commute.
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There was no forgetting the approaching election, even at the Grand Canyon.

Bulging Disc
The big surprise of the day on October 13th, the day we’d planned to embark on our 2nd Grand Canyon National Park Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike of the season during our first stay in the Park, was to be diagnosed with a bulging disc! I never expected to be excited about a diagnosis like that, but I was thrilled. To have any diagnosis of the cause of my latest, hobbling buttock pain was a relief and having a simple, do-it-yourself treatment plan was just my style.

Even if this diagnosis didn’t fully resolve my confusion as to all of the sources of my endless buttock pain, I’d be that much farther along in the “rule out process” when we arrived in Palm Springs (PS) in December. A physical therapist (PT) in PS actually diagnosed Bill with a bulging disc some years ago and even though Bill wasn’t consistent about his treatment, he no longer has any issues with it, which was encouraging. Unlike me, he has always had weak back muscles and so he had to do a lot of strength work in addition to the movements needed to shove the disc gel back inside the disc. My task was simpler.

I was a pitiful sight the day before, my brain snowed by pain while I slowly shuffling up the last of the S Kaibab Trail at the end of our 2nd ten mile hike in 2 days. I had had a stellar day. I reclaimed my speed on the difficult descent, almost breaking into a little jog in a couple of places, just like the old days. My buttock muscles ached a bit by picnic time but I felt powerful on our return ascent. We moderated our return pace because of the heat and I was very pleased with how I was doing. And then, with a single foot strike, I had instant buttock and leg pain and I could do nothing more than hobble the rest of the way, probably adding an hour to our return. I stopped on the trail to use our mini-massage gun that I was carrying, which reduced the pain-induce brain fog, but it only slightly improved my speed.

Surprisingly, I was hobbling when I arose the next morning. I was alarmed because, in all of these years of difficulty, that had never happened the next morning for more than a few minutes. I did my exercises and usual self-treatments and Bill and I discussed this latest wrinkle in the long saga. Five hours on, and I still could only hobble, indoors. We both agreed that it was time for a strategy shift but of course, that was challenging in the pandemic at the Grand Canyon.
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Other tears: the ravens were tearing-into our sewer line armor on Week 3 of 4.

Bill had been concerned for months that I had degenerative hip disease whereas I’d been firmly in the soft tissue camp; we retold our respective stories. He had been pressing me to see the PT in PS that we both had previously visited and also to have imaging studies done. I was willing to take the risk of seeing the PT in the pandemic, but PS was still a month away.

Our meeting broke-up without a plan and I looked again for online guidance, this time hoping to learn more about my issues by searching for a diagnosis based on ‘buttock pain with weight transfer when walking,’ which was fruitless. Next up, was to see if our PS PT was doing virtual appts, which he was not. Bill thought it best to wait to see him, a known quantity, but being the impatient one, I started looking for any PT doing virtual appts. In less than 2 hours, we were sitting in our truck under the Verizon tower by Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon and I was receiving a diagnosis of a torn disc via my phone!

I prepaid $89 for a 15 minute appointment, which seemed like a high hourly rate, but I was desperate. I however was thrilled to get a consult while my symptoms were acute instead of days later. (I later learned that the almost immediate appointment was due to a technical glitch at their end.) The virtual PT generously gave me 30” of her time.

The PT carefully listened to my summarized story; made the diagnosis, down to which disc was injured, after watching me do a series of movements in the parking lot; and prescribed a treatment plan. She was very optimistic that with the simple exercise (yoga cobra pose) that I’d be in good order in 3 days with the first bits of scar tissue being laid down. With a quick improvisation, I was demonstrating my cobra pose to her by lying on the lowered tailgate of our truck. In another week, she expected it to be well resolved. I later read online that full healing generally took 4-6 weeks, which sounded credible.

We both were of course on Cloud 9. My comments that morning had been that I’d hit ‘diminishing returns’ after 5 weeks of daily use of the massage guns. With the guns, we’d made huge progress in routing out knots and densities in my lower body muscles and fascia and they were clearly no longer the problem.

I had thought back to the previous night, when I couldn’t really walk, and we’d both used the guns on my butt muscles and didn’t find anything amiss. I had said “How could I have so much pain when the muscles weren’t painful?” A week earlier they were painful but no longer. On this day, my assumption was validated: it was no longer the muscles. I clearly had had multiple dysfunctions and had been correcting them one by one. Hopefully this would be the last dysfunction for this pain pattern. As we returned to the trailer from the phone video conference Bill said: “It looks like I’ll be getting my hiking partner back.”
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A deer at the Phantom Ranch branch of the “preserve”.

We had a big day planned for the next day: Bill would be going to Phantom Ranch and I was going to shortcut it by 1-2 miles. The evening of my pain episode, I had decided that was too risky for me to go for a big hike. By morning of my diagnosis, it was clearly a non-starter. Plan B was for me to repeat the shorter, previous day’s S Kaibab hike but instead, I settled for a flat walk by myself on the Rim. We’d banked half of our weekly mileage in the previous 2 days so now my modified goal was to complete the other half with short, flat walks. Of course, if it felt foolish the next morning, I’d settle for not meeting the weekly mileage goal. My $89 risk on the virtual appointment paid-off big time: it displaced a month of pain with a month of vigor.

Like the PT had predicted, I had an effortless healing journey. I dutifully did my prescribed yoga cobra poses every 2 hours for days and was hyper-attentive to maintaining lumbar-extension: a swayed-back position, when sitting, standing, or hiking. I minimized bending and lifting. To keep myself engaged in the treatment plan, I added about a 20 minute routine of yoga restorative poses to mimic the lumbar extension the PT prescribed. The familiar poses were unusually comfortable, which confirmed my hunch that they were good choices. Positions I typically sustained for 3 minutes became 6 minute poses, or longer.

I resumed normal movement the day after the diagnosis with a 10 mile flat walk on the Rim while Bill darted down to Phantom Ranch. It was disappointing to be dumbing-down my output and slowing my pace but it was so reassuring to be walking without the previous day’s pain. I walked carefully, intentionally that day and the next and then next, smiling all the while.

Quadratus Lumborum Tear
It was 1 step forward and 2 backwards for me in October while I struggled to regain my peak fitness like Bill was doing. It was 18 days after I injured a lumbar disc on the S Kaibab trail when I sustained what was probably a tear in the Quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle, a short, thick muscle close to the spine in the mid-low back. I was straddling my bike with my feet planted in gravel when I took a hit from the side. I barely managed to block the lateral forces to remain standing but my QL on the opposite side of my body literally took the hit. It knew something unique had occurred with the impact and it wasn’t good.

With care, I was able to complete the remaining 17 miles of the 19 mile bike ride but also knew that the next day’s hike was instantly off the calendar. I’m not a fan of total rest and usually only concede to “relative” rest but I knew enough about the nature of this postural muscle that I would grant it at least a full day of flopping in the trailer. It’s an “all or nothing” muscle and it would give its all until it couldn’t and then it would stop me in my tracks. It works quite hard in walking but not when road biking.

Bill kindly massaged my tender QL 3 times a day, both with the massage guns and his hands for weeks, and I intensified my therapeutic work on my buttock muscles. The buttock muscles that hadn’t completely quieted with the bulging disc interventions also had come to the rescue to stabilize me, to keep me from dumping over on the bike. They too were injured and needed extra hours of care each day. But, I was able to rally again to be on the trails but at an even slower pace. I urged Bill to dash-off without me; I’ve always insisted that we not “acquire each other’s disabilities.”
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Eye-level view of the Black Bridge over the Colorado River from our shaded picnic spot.

Season Confusion
It happens every year when we are in the SW: we get confused as to which season we are in. We always arrive in the Grand Canyon for our first 2 week stay in early October when it is definitely summer. This year, it was in the 80’s on the S Rim at 7,000’ and over 100° at Phantom Ranch at about 2400’ when we departed mid-month. We then spent a week in nearby Flagstaff and returned to the Grand Canyon the following Friday. Amazingly, the Sunday and Monday forecasts after our return were for snow with lows in the teens. In a little over a week, we went from sizzling summer weather to winter—no wonder we get confused!

Last year, we arrived in the mountains above Palm Springs in early November and were nervous about getting caught in wildfires at our campground or on the trails. We ended our 2 week stay there 5 days early, driving off of the mountain in falling snow. Our annual itinerary is designed to skip winter altogether by being in the desert SW, which is confusing enough, but having repeating bouts of winter in the fall keeps our heads spinning.

Two days before departing the Grand Canyon for the year, we enjoyed a proper finale hike together to Phantom Ranch. It was Bill’s 3rd visit to the Ranch this season and my first. I planned the week’s activities to maximize my recovery days from my recently torn disc and Quadratus lumborum back muscle. I was pushing my healing time line a bit with the hard hike but I gambled and won.

My hiking speed was still down and we consumed all but 1 hour of the day’s light on the trail and chipped away at the surplus daylight at each end on our 2/3 mile walk between the trail head and our truck. My fitness level had dropped during the pandemic, plus I needed to be extremely attentive to every step on this hike to sustain perfect form to protect my back. We both carried headlamps in case I misjudged my readiness for this 16+ mile hike with 4600’ of elevation gain but we didn’t need them.

Delightfully, I was comfortable on the trail all day, finished strong like I used to do, and felt great in the evening and the next morning. Those post-hike 12 hours are predictive of success or failure for the second half of a Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim event and I had finally turned the corner on that basic criteria, though the big event wouldn’t be on our calendar for a year. Further validation came with effortlessly doing a 7 mile walk along the rim the next day at a good clip. I was building back while I was healing.

And lucky us, it was a gorgeous day: it was a precious, clean-air day after so many had been muddy by wildfire smoke and the colors in the canyon popped. We usually make the trip to Phantom Ranch as a loop between the S Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Lodge, but we opted for the shorter, harder, out-and-back on the S Kaibab. It spared us 5 miles given it’s a 3-mile shorter route and the pandemic-reduced shuttle bus service would have added another 2 miles to the day. It’s a tougher trail because the same gain is done in fewer miles and there is no water on the trail itself.

We refilled our water bags at Phantom Ranch before lunch, then scurried right back across the Black Bridge over the Colorado River to picnic on the shaded side of the Colorado River, a first. The deep cool-down afforded by the shade near the river was welcome, as was the tranquility away from the need to socially distance at the Ranch. We lingered too long, but this was our last big hike inside the canyon and we wanted to take it all in. We were very glad we’d opted for the hotter, more exposed, steeper S Kaibab return route because the light on the canyon walls was so beautiful that day.
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The Silver Bridge across the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch.

One of my little successes on this hike was my new, stand-up pee funnel I bought specifically for use during the pandemic at the Grand Canyon. I’d successfully tested it on a number of previous hikes but it was especially welcome on the high-traffic trails near Phantom Ranch. Despite the lack of well-camouflaged “girl spots”, I was able to stand next to Bill at a good “boy spot” and confidently and discreetly pee while standing. My little “Tinkle Bell” has forever freed me from fretting about where and when to pee when there is no where to hide.

We left the Grand Canyon in early November hoping to return in the fall of 2021 with both the pandemic and our fitness challenges behind us. We looked forward to again doing the canyon crossings twice in early October and a making another backpacking trip into the canyon like we had done in 2019. And we also hoped that the West wouldn’t experience so many devastating wildfires. The Grand Canyon, and the Trailer Village within it, are our favorite places to be in the US and we couldn’t wait to return.

Unlike prior years, we were clueless as to where to go next. The snowstorm forecast to hit the day after we left the Grand Canyon made going to our usual venue in the mountains, Idyllwild, CA, foolhardy. This was the 2nd regional snowstorm in 2 weeks, which didn’t bode well for the rest of November either.

We struggled to select a venue for the next 3 weeks before our scheduled December 1 arrival in Palm Springs. The hiking trails at 3 of our 4 Southern California, November venues were destroyed in the fall fires, further complicating our decisions. And we learned that the RV parks near Julian, a new, hoped-for hiking venue, would only host us for a few days. We needed to be booked for at least 3 nights for Thanksgiving to stay off of the streets at that busy time and yet be close to Banning for a scheduled trailer repair. The early arrival of winter storms, the prolonged wildfire season, and the pandemic all conspired to make a muddle of our usual plans. At the last minute, we elected to park at 29 Palms near Joshua Tree National Park, a hiking venue we usually visit in March. We could barely obtain a space there but we finally had a good place to be.