Monthly Archives: September 2015

Getting away from it all

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth.                                                                                                      Steve McQueen

I have always been an independent sort.  As I kid, I often ‘ran away from home’.  I never went far –usually exploring the outer reaches of our 25 acres.  Many times I had my school backpack and stuffed it with a sleeping bag, snacks and a book and had a good day.  Summers were great as I often set up a tent somewhere on the property and was ‘gone’ for a few days at a time.   A couple of times, I  built a little raft a floated it on the creek pretending to be Tom Sawyer.  As a child, my fondest wish to be a boy scout… just one problem, I lacked a penis.  Our town didn’t have a girl scouts, but that didn’t stop me from checking out books in the library on ‘wilderness survival’.  I  taught myself cool things like how to build a fire, how to set up a tent, and how not to get attacked by bears.

Up until my mid 20’s I considered myself to be pretty outdoorsy, enjoying to spend as much time outside and under the sun as possible, hiking, biking, communicating with nature and all that crap. But somewhere along the line, things changed. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when this happen, but I think it had something to do with getting my first big girl job. Working 6 days a week with minimal vacation time sucked the life out of my soul, and after about 2 years, I couldn’t do it anymore. It had been 2 years since I’d had a vacation so just after my two year work-anniversary, I took off to the North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks is awesome. The northern half where Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is by far the more popular part of the Outer Banks. Ocracoke Lighthouse is gleaming white. It was built in 1823, the second oldest still in use in the nation. It’s not a tall as Hatteras or as famous but nevertheless it is an awesome site!

Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes makes up the southern 10 percent. It’s a great place to get away from it all.

Going to the Outer Banks helped me re-assess my priorities in life. Did I want a life of relative security and stability? Did I want a life where taking a vacation was more of a headache than a means of relaxation? Hell no. I didn’t want that when I started, and after two years I didn’t like where that life was leading. Subconsciously I guess I realized how unhappy I was with my life, and deep down I was yearning to get back to my childhood roots, and to the last time I was really happy with life. I needed to get dirty, sleep under the stars again, and paddle about around on a body of water on a regular basis.

And where did I have this profound, existential realization? In a tent, under the stars off the coast of North Carolina in an area where the one of the most infamous pirates in history roamed.

I sure know how to pick my moments.

There is something incredibly cliche, but true about laying out under the stars, way out in the middle of nowhere, hearing waves crash on the shore that triggers some scary deep thoughts, right? Right? Please say this is not just me.

Seeing the sun rise over the ocean…

watching dolphins play in the ocean…

observing patterns in the sand…

These were the kinds of moments I had been missing over the past few years. Taking a step back away from all the craziness, all the rush, all of the stress that is involved with chasing the “American Dream” and realizing that simple, peaceful quiet moments abroad are often the most meaningful and profound. I exited the rat race at that moment [even thought it still took a while to start chasing MY American Dream].


It’s been 8 years since I’ve had that revelation. In that time I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries. I’ve had short adventures and long ones. I’ve become a registered nurse. I’m on my way to becoming a nurse practitioner. As I paddled around and explored the barrier islands off South Carolina’s coast, I felt the stress of the last few weeks melt away. I was light years removed from the stress of the last few weeks. With each stroke of my kayak, I felt so far removed from the hustle and bustle of life, I could feel a smile creep on my face for the first time in a while.

This was my kind of travel.

And I need to do it way more often.

Modern Medicine, circa 1900

 

Eric Johnson, Eve Hewson, Clive Owen in ‘The Knick’/Image © Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

I admit to being a nerd…especially when it comes to medicine, or more accurately the history of medicine.  Medicine today is strangled, but this is not about that.  I have recently discovered the TV show The Knick.  As per usual, I am late to the party as season 2 finished up last fall and it is uncertain whether of not, despite it’s good reviews, it will return for a season 3.  For those who have been living under a rock (much like myself) or completing nursing school (much like myself), here’s a quick synopsis:  Medicine, or more precisely surgery, in 1900’s New York City at a hospital  called The Knickerbocker or The “Knick” was a dangerous proposition. (To be fair, surgery anywhere in 1900 was a dangerous proposition.)  The Knick’s chief surgeron is a fellow named John Thackery (very loosely based on Dr. William Halsted, who happens to be one of my medical heroes). Thackery has a very serious cocaine addiction (because in 1900 cocaine was a wonder drug and it’s addictive properties were not known at all) as well as revolutionary – if not mildly terrifying – ideas that turn patients into guinea pigs at a time when doctors were only slightly more knowledgeable about medicine than barbers.

credit

I travel a fair amount, and not just to the beach for R&R, and in my travels, I’ve been to Semmelweis’ lab in Budapest, and the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London (you should totally go by the way, especially if you like The Knick)

operating museum 2
The old operating theatre museum, London

you see, ust like the TV show.

Summary:  The Knick is awesome.  It’s bloody; it’s gruesome.  It’s realistic.  But there’s only two seasons, and I have binged watched it in a whopping two days.  I have had to turn to books to get my fix.  A few I’ve discovered so far:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane: The search for Typhoid Mary, who is responsible for a massive outbreak of typhoid fever, is a fascinating side-plot during the first season, and Keane writes a great fictionalized account of the actual Typhoid Mary.

Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted by Gerald Imber: The character of Dr. John Thackery is loosely based on Dr. William Stewart Halsted, and this biography is a fascinating examination of his personal and professional life.

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery by Richard Hollingham: Though it covers a broader period than The Knick, having a sense of where these surgeons and their work sit in the larger history of medical history is helpful for context. And it does shed some serious light on surgery during the Victorian era.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: Often described as the P.T. Barnum of the surgical theater, Dr. Mutter’s flamboyant approach to medicine is a great primer for appreciating Dr. Thackery’s methods

Communing with nature: hiking the Grand Canyon part 2

A twist on the popular saying: What goes down must come up. After two days of descending into the canyon, I could think of just one thing: it was time to go up… on an ankle that was most likely broken.  Fabulous.

I was as rested, iced, compressed, [and well, elevated was going to be a problem] as one can be and by 4:30am, with the ankle wrapped, boots tied, and backpack on, I, along with the rest of the group was ready to start the upward climb out of the canyon.

grand canyon floor
One last view of the Grand Canyon floor and the Colorado River that runs through it

I puttered along, using my stick more like a crutch, but putting one foot in front of the other and more or less keeping up with the group. It wasn’t long until we reached the Colorado River and came to my Kryptonite.  I’m not sure why crossing bridges on foot scare the bejeezus out of me, but for some reason, I almost stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and went back the way I came.  The bridge was not the most sturdy [but certainly not what it could have been considering what it is], but what I can only attribute to nerves of steel and some deep, well-hidden vat of courage, I crossed the Silver Bridge to begin the ascent toward the South Rim.

Silver bridge colorado river

silver bridge
The bridge…. that caused me to act like a stubborn mule who refused to plow

The early part of the hike followed the Colorado River on a slight incline, alternating shade and sun. Temperature was manageable, probably in the 80s-90s, but the hardest section for me was a series of switchbacks which nearly brought me to my knees. But I am a stubborn wench, and I refused to be med-a-vac’ed out of the canyon.

One stubborn gal I am

switchbacks grand canyon
Switchbacks  nearly made me cry

stairs
Stairs that made me want to cry

Five or so hours later, I limped into Indian Gardens, our campground for the night. I debated the wisdom of removing the hiking boots that were acting a a de-facto cast for my ankle. I compromised. One boot on, one boot off. And I elevated, rested, and compressed. Icing was a no-go with the foot still in the boot. But I lunched and rested and later in the day, I took some time to wander around the campground to take some more photos because a good patient I am not. It was much greener than I had anticipated, with a plethora of flowers adding even more color.

grand canyon hike flower
A pretty white flower

grand canyon cactus flowers
pretty red flowers

grand canyon catcus flower
I often say I’m cuddly as a cactus, but upon seeing these, I might be *slightly* more huggable.

mule corral
Oh look… apparently there are some of my relatives. Did someone mention being as stubborn as a mule?

Nap, foot propping, photo shoot, dinner, then a short hike up to Plateau Point for the sunset.

plateau point
Perspective.

Sitting on the plateau looking over the canyon gave me perspective on how far we had come in three days and how much of the canyon remained. On the walk back to the campsite, I could see flickering lights far in the distance.

Grand-Canyon-sunset-at-Plateau-Point
a fabulous colorful sunset

Here’s the thing about hiking a canyon: the hardest part comes at the end, when you are the most tired and you have to go up to get to your destination. And because I like to make things extra difficult for myself, I get to hike up and out of a canyon with only one good leg/foot. Yay me!

We were up once again by about 4a eating breakfast, packing up our gear for the last time and getting our feet taped up. I made the executive decision to sleep with my boot on, because I had the feeling that once that left boot comes off, no amount of ace wrap or athletic tape will make it fit in again.

It wasn’t a terribly long and arduous hike from Indian Gardens to the Bright Angel Trail Head. This particular section is popular with day hikers and as such  is usually pretty crowded.  By 10 am… we were D.O.N.E

indian gardens
The more stupid people there are who chose to leave home, more need to display the obvious

A lot of people don’t like for group activities to end. They’ll hang around, take picture with, exchange numbers, and promise to stay in touch. It rarely happens though. For me, though, after being with strangers for four days, I really just want to be alone. However, this time, I had to hang out with people just a little while longer so that I could hitch a ride to the nearest urgent care clinic to confirm the obvious.

bright angel hike
The last hiking I will do for a while, just take it in, OK.

Communing with nature at the Grand Canyon

It was twilight by the time I finally dropped my pack on the ground nearly twelve hours after my day had begun. My legs didn’t ache as bad as I anticipated and my neck and shoulders didn’t pinch the way I feared. Considering how nervous I was in the days leading up to my “rim to rim” hike through the Grand Canyon, I considered Day One a resounding success.

I arrived in Las Vegas four days earlier, jet-lagged, road weary, exhausted and increasingly worried that I would not be able to handle this trek. However, at the orientation meeting the night before, the guides went through our itinerary and emphasized the importance of going at a comfortable pace. With two of them, one would always be at the front and the other at the back, meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting left behind if I went too slowly!  Score!

The group departed Flagstaff shortly before 7 a.m. for the drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After one stop at the Navajo Bridge crossing the Little Colorado River, we arrived at the north rim just after noon.

By just after 1:00 p.m., we hit the trail.

Day 1:  This day’s hike is entirely downhill… 7 miles and drop 4,000 feet! . I was immediately amazed and surprised by the scenery – so much more colorful and so much greener than I expected! The trail was dirt and rock, but not nearly as slippery as I thought it might be. I rarely felt like I would lose my footing. With a fairly narrow trail, my little group of 6 hiked single file.

grand canyon hike
The narrow trail, and my little group making the way one-by-one.

I caught my first glimpse of the agave plant and of tiny circular shaped cacti with flowers of yellow or fuchsia. I had to control my urge to stop at every turn to take pictures!

cactus flower
Cactus Flowers!

As mentioned earlier, the hike didn’t start until about 1p. It was overcast when we started, and like clockwork, soon after the hike began, it started to rain. The rain wasn’t entirely unwelcome as it helped to cool me off. We were already lucky to be walking in the afternoon shade. It was probably the best possible weather we could have asked for. It was just a shower, and unlike at home, the air didn’t turn unbearably humid after the short lived shower, and the skies were clearing as we reached camp.

Home for the night was a campground where we had a group primitive campsite reserved. Nearby was a water fountain with potable water and toilets that, while not flush-able, were at least composting so we could put the toilet paper down. Pack in-pack-out is kinda nasty when that includes carrying around used toilet paper.

grand canyon hike agave plant
Agave Plant!

Day 2 started out with a bang. Literally. It was about 4AM on day 2 of my rim-to-rim hike.  Pitch black dark, chillier than I would have liked, and I had to pee.  I grabbed my headlamp and boots [but didn’t lace them all the way up! mistake #1] and made my way to the toilets.  No spiders. No scorpions. No snakes.  Completely uneventful until BAM!  The Earth jumped up and hit me square in the face.  I slowly got up and wiped the dirt off my pants. Sitting down at the picnic table in the dark, I aimed my headlamp at my foot to get a good look at my ankle. I had just tripped over a large root between the picnic tables at our campsite, turning my ankle in the process.  It hurt, but nothing major.  I’d sprained my ankle many, many [so many] times in my athletic pursuits so I was quite sure that was what had happened this time. I made my way back to camp, took a peek and with no bone sticking out or limb askew, I put my socks on, applied the ankle brace that I always carry with me in my first aid kit, laced my boots up tight, and with the group, went on my merry way.

The goal was to be on the trail by 5:00, arriving at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by 9:00 or 10:00, escaping as much of the canyon heat as possible. Despite the early rising, we didn’t get everything together to actually leave camp until after 5:30 a.m. Needless to say, by the time we got going, I was ready to hit the trail. [This is why I usually avoid group activities].

Day two was another mostly downhill hike, although much flatter than day one. Early on, we made a detour to Ribbon Falls, a small waterfall tucked away several hundred feet off the path.

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 4

grand canyon hike ribbon falls

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 3

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 2

We alternated between shade and sun and followed mostly red dirt paths through the canyon. The scenery continued to amaze me with its diversity and the rocks continued to change as we descended further into the canyon. I smiled at the sight of sparkly quartz along the path – such a contrast to the rough limestone and the red dirt. The final leg into Phantom Ranch and to our campsite at the Bright Angel Campground was the toughest because it was the hottest. Can you say 104F – in the shade! But it’s a dry heat, they say. They can suck it. It was hot as blazes. Luckily, the campsite came with a stone shelter so we quickly dropped our packs and took off our shoes to relax in much needed shade. As I did, I checked out my ankle, which was suddenly throbbing as I removed my boots and brace. The skin around had turned a bunch of pretty colors. And then I realized I could hardly move it. Well, fuck me! It suddenly occurred to me this *might* be more than just a sprained ankle.

left ankle
oops!–look at that bruising and swelling

Luckily, Phantom Ranch has a cantina so I was able to buy a bag of ice for me to ice the foot a bit. The campsite was also near a creek so I could sit on the edge and soak my feet in the cold water. Because we arrived so early, I had the whole day free and I took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some alone time – for an introvert like me, it was much needed after being around other people for the last 36 hours. I hung back at camp before heading to the cantina for some air conditioning and lemonade. Then I returned to camp to read, snooze, and ice my ankle once again.

Here’s the thing about the hiking the canyon: Personally, I think everybody who can, should. The Canyon is truly one of the wonders of the world; one exhausts superlatives describing it. Every twist in the trail brings a new wonder; one walks in beauty and lives in awe.

The Canyon is also humbling, incredibly so. Our egos, our self importance, our absorption in the fleeting concerns of our lives, all shrink into insignificance before the awesome magnitude of the Canyon. The scale is beyond comprehension; we reveal ourselves to be the tiniest motes of dust within its walls.

The Canyon reminds us not only that we are tiny specks, it tells us that the vanity of our existence is but a blink of an eye. When travelers reach the Canyon’s bottom, they walk among rocks formed 1,800,000,000 years ago. A third of their time has passed in the sterility preceding this planet’s first life. Humans have been around for barely one ten-thousandth of that time; what loosely passes as civilization accounts for only 1/200,000th of that period.

Humility and awe. It’s good for the soul. Hike the Grand Canyon to discover wonders you’ve never imagined, to realize how small we humans really are.

Coming Soon: Communing with nature in the Grand Canyon: Part 2