Joshua Tree National Park, California
“Snow on the Coburg’s”
When growing up, “Snow on the Coburg’s” marked the moment when it was cold enough for snow to accumulate on the distant, 2500’ hills visible from our home. It was an ominous and exciting morning pronouncement made by my mother. Essentially, it was only made in the morning because it required both that the overnight low dropped sufficiently for the persistent rain to turn to snow AND the skies to have cleared enough for the hills to be visible. On November 9, 2020 I had my magical “Snow on the Coburg’s” moment when I stepped out of our trailer parked near Joshua Tree National Park (JT) and saw the new snow on the San Bernardino Mountains to our west.
At breakfast, I’d read about the current icy roads and foot trails in the Grand Canyon, which we’d left 3 days earlier, and the forecast of more snow there in the afternoon. We’d driven in strong winds for 2 days and sat out a fierce wind storm the next day with gusts forecast to 50 mph (80km) and occasional low visibility from blowing sand and dust. The day hadn’t been fit for hiking or biking but at least it wasn’t a driving day for us. We’d heard the rain arriving while crawling into bed the night before but our minds didn’t even consider the possibility of snow on the distant mountains.
Snow on the San Bernardino’s seen from Joshua Tree NP.
Life had been so uncertain since the pandemic intruded on our world in March and upsets like wildfires repeatedly reshaped our itinerary and yet, like with the colder weather, our world was suddenly becoming more predictable in the last 48 hours. The news agencies calling the election results the day after we left the Grand Canyon on November 6 was an enormous relief to us. “It was over” was deeply felt by so many, even though it wasn’t quite over and little did we know at that time how long it would linger.
The ballot counting and ballyhooing would continue, but it was certain enough to celebrate. Then, less than 2 days later, there was the Pfizer announcement of a preliminary determination of 90% efficacy of their coronavirus vaccine. “It was over,” though like the election, it wasn’t quite over. But for the masses of us dealing with PTSD from multiple directions, it was over enough. Driving into JT that morning triggered more welcome smiles upon seeing the light snow on its hills down to 3000’.
We usually spend 3 weeks in 29 Palms near JT in March but nothing was usual in 2020 and instead, November was the right time for us to be there. It was a bit eerie because it was where we were when the reality of the coronavirus hit us hard in the spring. It was where we were when we suddenly couldn’t buy food. It was where we were when uncertainty about everything shot through the roof.
Berries loading the junipers looked like decorative lights.
Against the historic backdrop of national chaos from the ongoing election process and the relentless pandemic, our time at JT was largely a pleasant episode of treading water until we settled-in at Palm Springs. Two friends from the hiking club joined us on 2 favorite hikes in the park and we doggedly racked-up our weekly miles for both hiking and biking despite occasional harsh weather.
In addition to our fitness activities, we made 2 trips into Banning, about 65 miles away, for our trailer. One was a brief appointment for measurements of our tub in need of replacing and the second was for the replacement. Unfortunately, the new tub didn’t arrive on time and we instead used that second appointment for a number of annual maintenance items, like a roof inspection and packing the trailer’s wheel bearings. It was time well spent but we were disappointed to continue using a jury-rigged shield to minimize the water sprayed on the damage area of the tub, something we had been doing since early September.
Towards the end of November and the end of our stay in 29 Palms, circumstances again took a turn for the better. There was more good news about the Pfizer vaccine and the outcome of the presidential election was increasingly clear. We were ecstatic! Symbolically, I decided it was time to order new, colorful, shoe gaiters with this renewal of our hope to be traveling to Europe in the summer. The day after ordering the flashy gaiters, my experimental, ultra-lightweight, hands-free, backpacker’s umbrella arrived. And then Bill followed-up by ordering a Garmin inReach Mini satellite communications device for rescue situations in the wild. We’d come close to buying a similar product several times in the past but the $100 discount on the Garmin coincided nicely with a streamlining of the products and associated services.
Bill immediately loved my new, hands-free, sun umbrella.
December 1: Palm Springs!
Arriving in Palm Springs on December 1st was as close to going home as we would experience in 2020. We hadn’t been home for 14 months and expected that it would be at least an additional 4 months before we received the coronavirus vaccine and then dared to return to the NW. We had left the Palm Springs area at the end of February and it did feel comforting and reassuring to return—a homecoming of sorts.
At last, we could shop at favorites like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Costco that had largely been unavailable to us since March. We had reasonable access to an RV repair shop in nearby Banning so as to get our cracking plastic tub replaced. I had an in-person visit with a physical therapist we knew for help with my buttock pain and we had our first dental cleanings in a year. And we could again online shop because we’d be there for 3 months. The occasionally errant package made mail ordering for more than the first week of a 3 week stay too risky.
Our highly anticipated annual social season with the desert hiking club was almost immediately curtailed because of the devastating surge in coronavirus cases in our new county, Riverside, and the adjacent LA County, which triggered a severe shutdown by the governor. Essentially none of the 300,000 Canadians that come to the Coachella Valley each winter were there, but there were still familiar faces and we did have a few friendly, repeat encounters on the trails. “Is that you , John?” helped start the conversation with the masked, oncoming hiker. Even seeing a few old trail buddies was soothing to our overly-isolated minds.
People-watching in downtown Palm Springs is guaranteed to be entertaining.
Even some strangers were more welcoming this winter than previously. A naturalist that wouldn’t give me the time of day last year was happy to chat for 10 minutes when we passed on the trail even though I’m sure he didn’t remember me. We had a lively conversation about the sheep, dogs, and hikers. We exchanged names and he invited me to drop in on him at a nearby trailhead on Saturday morning to pick-up his card. Amazingly, he was curbside when we cruised by on our bikes and he remembered my name. The Tribal Lands Rangers that we encountered in the past were hostile and bullying but “There seemed to be a new sheriff in town”: they were courteous and polite this season with a single exception. It was hard to believe that these shifts were anything but coincidental but nonetheless, we appreciated the warmer tone all around us.
Social distancing from our trail mates.
Buttock Pain Decoded
I finally had my long-awaited physical therapist (PT) appointment with a practitioner we’d each seen once before in Palm Springs. He promptly diagnosed me with a 2nd bulging or torn disc, though he didn’t elaborate on the specific nature of the damage.
This PT prescribed the same fix as the video PT I consulted while in the Grand Canyon, which was doing 10 yoga cobras every 2 hours to shove the disc back in place between my lumbar vertebrae. After my appointment, Bill looked up the innervation in the pelvis from the spinal cord at the L4 disc and it was an almost perfect match with the muscles we had identified over the months that were in spasm. It included a back muscle, 4 in the buttock, the TFL or tensor fascia lata at the front of the hip, and 2 leg muscles. Pressure and chemicals from the released disc gel on the spinal nerves irritates them and they pass their complaints on to the muscles they innervate, causing more pain and spasm.
The PT expected me to fully recover in 7-10 days, if I was compliant. The various challenges with the trailer over the next few days set me back but at least I knew what to do and why and could get partial pain relief fairly quickly.
What the Palm Springs PT did during my in-person visit that the virtual PT couldn’t do was mobilize my lowest vertebrae. I was dumbfounded that they had become immobile because for decades, I’d had excess curve in my low back and suddenly, I had too little and 3 stuck vertebrae.
The evening of this latest PT appointment, I asked Bill to replicate the treatment. OK, that was a bit ambitious since he wasn’t at the appointment and I couldn’t see what was being done, but Bill read a little online and succeeded. For almost 2 weeks, Bill loosened them each night and then the muscles surrounding the vertebrae would cinch them down again by the next evening. But instead of just relying on me doing cobras every 2 hours, having him jiggle the vertebrae around at the end of each day improved the pace of my recovery substantially. I doubt that I could have restored their mobility on my own with the only the prescribed exercises.
Doing cobras on the trail at the turn-around to protect my vulnerable discs.
December 12th: A Dip
For a moment in the middle of December, my excitement about the latest round of FDA approvals for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine was displaced by terror. It was like I was having a flashback or reliving a prior-life experience of horror. The encouraging news about marshals being onboard the cargo planes loaded with vaccine; all vaccine packages being tagged with devices that reported their location and other stats every 2 seconds; the extra security on the ground for the packages; special escorts for all UPS and Fed Ex delivery trucks; and the FAA alerting ALL airports in the country to be ready to give a vaccine flight priority for landing were a double-edged sword: mingled with the joy of the imminent roll-out, I had a moment of panic, like I was in a war zone.
The urgency, the excessive preparedness for any eventually was too life-and-death for my nervous system that morning. It brought with it a sense of doom, however fleeting. It was startling how the hyped-up urgency intended to be reassuring had hit a nerve that had never been hit before but acted like it had. It was very disturbing to simultaneous feel and observe myself feeling that penetrating fear. Fortunately, it was fleeting but it was yet another compelling look in the mirror at the deep effects on my being of the ongoing political and pandemic stress.
December 14: V-Day 2020
I was startled Monday, December 14th when CNN featured Anderson Cooper on the morning news. He is one of their top-dollar anchors with his own show and is part of their cast of stars that only appear in the evening but this was morning. Slowly, other familiar, nighttime personalities began appearing, like Wolf Blitzer, John King, and Dana Bash.
I was puzzled and then understood: they were treating coverage of the voting by the Electoral College like it was Election Day. They had all the special sets with appropriate banners, charts, graphs, and photos for an historic action, just like on Election Day. The pattern of switching between hosts, venues, and displays echoed that of Election Day coverage as well. It was all so familiar for an exceptional event but unheard of for this ritual.
I slowly understood that it was a subtle, deliberate, pushback against Trump, that they were celebrating this little-noted part of our democratic process with full regalia. Like my policy of exaggerating joy, they were amplifying this occurrence as being monumental. Over the hours, they commented that this hadn’t ever been done before, that none of them had ever watched or covered the Electoral College voting process. In the past, it was always a news item noted as having been completed.
We left the video running for hours and occasionally listened to bits of the narrative. The hosts created dramatic tension as, one by one, each state voted, but repeatedly said that the outcome was not in question. CNN producers clearly understood that many in their audience had frayed nerves that needed to be respected.
There would be live shots of the voting, then break aways for background stories and discussions between the hosts. The announcers kept it upbeat, entertaining, and informative. My emotional journey with this coverage didn’t match that of election night but it definitely was on the same continuum. They successfully hooked me in to being a part of something they had decided was more important than ever and I agreed.
John King in particular, acknowledged that this voting was a tedious process but noted that “This is the way democracy works,” a phrase often mentioned by him on election night as well. He underscored that what we were all watching together in real time was an inherent piece of our democracy as laid out in the Constitution. We learned some interesting bits and I considered it “mission accomplished”: I felt proud, I felt informed, and felt like I had been a witness to history. The new breed of doubters can always question reality but this 8 hour, televised display shrunk the space for that silliness. My pleasure with the whole production was increased by knowing that, loathed to admit it, Trump watches CNN.
CNN’S fanfare made December 14th a memorable day for me by punctuating what is usually only an item on someone else’s calendar. I can imagine that in 4 years we will recall this day for the inflated but necessary coverage of it and, hopefully, will note that it isn’t necessary. With luck, in 2024, voting by the Electoral College will return to being pro forma.
Repurposing our 4th of July sparklers for V-Day 2020.
Beginning almost concurrent with the Electoral College voting that morning, CNN was televising the first inoculations with the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and increased the coverage once the voting was over in the afternoon. Governor Cuomo of NY was smiling like a clown during a little ceremony in which the first ICU worker received the first vaccine in the state of NY and probably in the country. We had watched many of his 100 days of press conferences that began in March and deeply appreciated his empathetic leadership for the nation at that time. It was an absolute delight to see him exuding so much well deserved joy—he just couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. He looked like he was going to explode. Seeing his elation gave me a deep sense of closure for those horrible, early days of the pandemic we experienced with him.
What a joyous day it was for us: vaccines being administered around the country and CNN mercilessly slamming Trump while showing us democracy in action. The dark jokes about Trump, the joy and smiles by so many about the vaccine, it felt like a turning point in which good was prevailing over evil.
Smaller triumphs of the day including getting our trailer and truck washed and waxed on site the morning of the 14th by a mobile RV wash guy—something we’d never done. We wash the truck at $10 car wash places a couple times a year and try to get a cheapie wash for the trailer once a year. Both were long over due and I’d set an intention to get both rigs better jobs by Christmas. A nice little gift to all of us on their 5 year anniversary. I arranged for it on Saturday and it was finished by noon on Monday. And a bonus, my nephrologist’s office called to postpone my afternoon telemed appointment for 3 weeks. That neatly removed a potentially confrontational interlude from our joyous V-Day.
I had bought 2 little packets of sparklers for the 4th of July—another attempt at triggering smiles—but we couldn’t use them, even in the RV park, because of the high fire hazard at that time in Colorado. So we topped-off the big day on December 14th by burning one packet and will light the 2nd packet when we get our first vaccines.
Driven by the need to accommodate the rig washing, we broke the day’s hike into two 3 mile (6.5 km) segments, but even they were sweet. The first was a sunrise walk on the residential street towards Indian Canyons and at noon, we literally sprinted up the nearly 1000’ to the top on of neighborhood trail, the S Lykken, without packs. It made our ‘duty’ miles more playful on this festive day.
At last, we had a premonition of closure. One of the stressful things about uncertainty is the risk of there not being a definite end point, that it just slowly dissipates without a recognized release of the tension. We elected to make December 14th our closure day—nothing was finished but we felt like we’d almost made it to the finish line and we celebrated it anyway as a way to sooth our nervous systems by letting some of the accumulated stress unravel.
Butts, Butts, & Butts
“Butt” was spoken daily in our household for months in 2020. Primarily, it was because of my literal pain in the right buttock that had persisted for years, occasionally partially crippling me on the trails. Every day, I registered a passing comment about my pain level. Then there were our unkind references to the latest action of our president, as in “What a butt!” And the final reference was in response to Bill gifting me at Christmas with a full-length, framed, over-the-door mirror in response to me saying “I haven’t seen my butt in 9 months.”
A lament when we bought our trailer in late 2015 was that it had no wall space suitable for supporting a full length mirror. I could occasionally catch a peek of my backside, my belly, or the current length of my pants as they stretched-out with age, in a grocery store restroom or RV park shower house, but not reliably. I maintain it is especially important while one ages to keep an eye on one’s overall appearance—we all know what it looks like when people don’t. I didn’t want to be one of those folks with an off putting, regrettable, look and was frustrated by not having a mirror.
When the pandemic became real, we stopped using public restrooms of all kinds and some RV parks closed theirs entirely. Our views of ourselves became restricted to what we could see by backing the full 4’ away from our medicine cabinet mirror at our hallway bathroom sink, which got us down to about our armpits. The new hanging mirror was a wonderful upgrade to life in our trailer that was likely to soon span 18 continuous months. Concurrently, the other 2 ‘pain in the butt’ issues were also receding: my painful buttock muscles and the presidential platform for Donald Trump.
Finally, a full length mirror!
During a Christmas Day phone call, I heard myself saying “I believe we are surviving the stresses of the pandemic as well as anyone we know.” It seemed like a brash, arrogant statement to make but I also felt it was true. We’d managed to stay in climates that supported our outdoor fitness goals for the last 9 months and had made being calm and cheery our top priorities. We were always on the look-out for uncertainty, fear, and anxiety and snuffed them out at the earliest signs of them intruding on our lives. After the shockwaves during the early months of the pandemic, we’d nicely sustained our equilibrium.
The next day however, I was reminded that our resiliency still did not run deep. I switched-on the audio for a piece CNN was airing on “2020 in Washington DC.” It was a part of their annual, week-long, look-back at the year as build-up to their New Year’s Eve celebration. I lasted about 90 seconds: I couldn’t stomach it, and returned the audio to “Mute”.
One aspect of our mental health program had been carefully applied detachment—not denial—but detachment. We knew that our frayed nervous systems needed to be cocooned, to be shielded. Given that I still haven’t been able to watch a movie about the Vietnam War, I may never be able to tolerate a full-on review of 2020. My frailty around this subject does however give me a sensitive measurement tool of my recovery from the multiple traumas of this year, one that I’ll be able to employ whenever I choose.
“See Any Green?”
Returning to our RV park from a hike one afternoon, we paused to say hello to another long-timer guest who was uncharacteristically friendly this year because we were two of the few familiar faces. We reported that we’d been on the nearby, high, trail and he asked “Did you see any green? You know, any little bits of green grasses?” Startled by the odd question, we finally answered “No, no green.”
We knew it had been a record-breaking, brutally hot summer in the desert and this was apparently the new yardstick: “Any green?”. Our measure had been the sea of dead brittle bushes everywhere we hiked. The knee-high, globe-like plants with bold yellow flowers and pale leaves are well adapted to the desert: they produce large leaves in the winter and drop them for the summer, replacing them with smaller leaves that will lose less water. But the summer of ’20 was too hot for even them and they’d all shriveled and turned straw-colored.
It wasn’t until almost Christmas that I saw my first tuft of green. There it was, a handful of 4” long blades of bright green grass growing from under a rock on its shaded, north side. There were no others in sight. On the same hike, Bill noticed the tiniest little, sage-colored, fuzzy leaves were appearing on some of the head-high lavender bushes. There hadn’t been any rain at our trailer since we arrived on December 1st but perhaps on this canyon trail 1000’ higher, a bit of moisture had been squeezed out of the passing clouds and revived a few plants.
A Coachella Valley Christmas cactus.
I’m not sure “rose-colored glasses” would describe it, but after wintering in the desert for 10 years, we seemed to have some delusional notions about what we are seeing. We can often be heard uttering “Ah, isn’t it pretty?” or “What a beautiful day!” when we are hiking or biking through rather unremarkable landscape. Dead or dying shrubs, remnants of cacti, and twisted juniper stumps aren’t typically admired but we accept them as a part of our winter landscape.
Our eyes and brains seem to nimbly bounce from being intrigued by interesting little shapes in front of us to panning the hills for big horn sheep or unusual clouds. We apparently habitually skip-over the dreary mid-ground look to see what we want to see: bright blue skies, little air pollution, and lots of natural terrain. It’s joyfully dry and the prospect is that almost every day through the winter will be just like this one, which colors what we see: “Ahhh…” It seems best not to delve too deeply into the desert filters on our eyes and instead be grateful for the delusion and contentment.
Environmental Services Reports
Sometimes, the downside of having more information is then being stuck with doing something with it. In our pursuit of wellness this fall and winter, we had 2 instances of too much information. One was about noise, the other about air pollution.
One new source of feedback was from a new app on Bill’s Apple Watch that, unbeknownst to him, had an alert for dangerously high noise levels. I’m overly sensitive to noise, so I habitually navigate around high levels but his alerts were triggered quite unexpectedly. One day, it was a reading of a 100 db while descending a short hill on our bikes that set his watch abuzz. According to WHO, one should limit themselves to 24 minutes per week at that level. The other was an alert at 89 db from the wind while walking. In this instance, the recommendation was not to exceed 90 minutes per week.
I always have a pair of silicon earplugs with me when I cycle but I only use them in traffic, especially if we happen to be on a road particularly popular with motorcyclists. Other times, they are just for the general roar of traffic. It seems now that we routinely should be wearing our earplugs during cycling descents. It however will be a bit harder to remember that high winds are an issue. Usually the winds are intermittent but sometimes, like the 3 walks we did on the English Coast Path, we were in high wind much of the day. Upon further reading, Bill learned that the noise app may be less accurate with the noise from wind but we welcomed the heads-up about the issue.
Some clouds are more interesting than others.
The other TMI (too much information) instance was from our indoor air quality monitor when RV park neighbors were being excessive with their grills. One guy in the Grand Canyon seemed to be grilling over a pool of lighter fluid based on the persistent wall of fumes inside our trailer from his direction. We didn’t need our air quality monitor to inform us that it was time to close-up our rig but it certainly validated the toxicity of his grilling technic. Even neighbors who moderated their use of lighter fluid would trigger unhealthy readings on our device from their grilling.
Jump For Joy!
On December 29th, I was answering a friend’s questions about the coronavirus vaccine since both she and her husband were “preregistered” for vaccination in Texas and were waiting to be qualified and then scheduled for an appointment. Suddenly, she blurted out that her husband had just been called to come right in. It was incredible! He is a retired cop working security at a private college; she is an active duty cop and they are both in their 50’s. Just amazing!
Maybe it was an hour later when she wrote back saying that he’d received the vaccine. He is the first person we know to be vaccinated and we found it baffling as to why he was chosen so early in the process. She had commented in the past that he seemed to have an unusual amount of good luck in life and I had to agree. We were absolutely thrilled with his good fortune and the eventual end of the pandemic was made all the more real by knowing someone who actually did get vaccinated.
The next day, she received ‘the call’ and dashed in for her jab. I subsequently read that Texas is not following CDC guidelines, which didn’t put them high on the priority list. I also saw that Texas had one of the highest inoculation rates in 2020. That all fit with Bill’s conclusion that insisting on vaccinating long term care facility residents first was slowing the entire inoculation process too much. He maintained that there should be 2 concurrent conveyor belts: a top-speed one that could run high priority, ambulatory recipients through the lines quickly and a separate one that delivered the vaccine in situations that couldn’t go as fast, like residential care facilities.
On the same day, we saw that the governor of Colorado had neatly incentivized inoculations with a ‘use it or lose’ it program: any vaccine delivered but not utilized in 72 hours was retrieved and delivered to another site. These states with a snappier tempo for vaccinating people heighten our frustration of having zero information about when we might be vaccinated.
We don’t always run with the pack, but we were very mainstream in saying “good riddance” to 2020. Of course, it was nothing more that a satisfying assertion: little would change overnight. But, we too considered it an accomplishment to have lived to see New Year’s Eve in 2020 and chose to accept the symbolic renewal ushered in by the new year.
January held the prospect of more clarity and perhaps on its heels, more resolution. The initiation of counting the Georgia ballots for the 2 senate races on the 6th, the reading of the Electoral College vote before the joint houses of Congress on January 7th and inauguration of Biden on the 20th were all noteworthy turning points. We hoped that within those first 3 weeks of the new year that we’d also receive comforting, clarifying news about when we might receive the coronavirus vaccine. Our hopes for 2021 were that it would be a kinder, simpler year than 2020.
Wishing us ALL the best in 2021!