What is summer to you?

photo (10) water sunset self-portrait sunset boatSummer has a way of sliding over me like my favorite t-shirt. It takes a little while for me to settle into my summer stride.  Maybe you relate. You know, first I have to fight off the nagging feeling that I should use my vacation to be productive, that I should EARN my vacation by a lot of work.  But then I went camping recently (and totally lacking anything productive) and suddenly it felt real.  There was a precise moment (sitting in the camp chair, feet on the picnic bench, joking about our state park neighbors) when I actually said, “This feels like summer.”

I have a long and meaningful relationship with this season.  I went to camp as a kid and then worked at a camp for 19 years.  I GET summer.  It is a magical time for me. Summer isn’t about weather for me. It is about 5 simple things.  What about you?

1) Being outside.  Getting my nature on.  Wandering into the woods or out on a dock and enjoying not being surrounded by people.  Having the view–the extraordinary view–be enough.  Be MORE than enough.

2) Relaxing.  Not I’ve got 15 minutes to sit down relaxing. I’m talking FORGETTING YOU HAVE A JOB relaxing.  This is the moment where your biggest decision is Should I make more tea or finish off the Doritos first?  It isn’t necessarily laziness–though Lord knows that’s an art form–it is about enjoying the pace of right now.  Nowhere to be.

3) Camping.  Now I know this might be sketchy territory for some folks, but hear me out.  Camping (or hiking even) gets you out of your space.  Gets you out of your home.  Gets you out of your parking spot.  It makes you small in the world.  Bye bye TV.  Hello, JUST SIT THERE.  Watch the way the fire licks the sides of the log you just turned over.  Stare up and actually notice that there are stars in the sky.  Stare long enough that you can’t count them.  Sip a cup of tea, tilt back in the chair and balance a book on your knee.  A BOOK.  Remember those? Heaven.

4) Laughter, preferably about something ridiculous and unimportant.  My friend and I, while polishing off cheese quesadillas, killed a good 1/2 hour discussing whether we could buy green vests and pretend to be the volunteer campground hosts.  We talked about what our duties would be and how we would hide the evidence if the real hosts came around in their golf carts.

5)  Being with kindred spirits.  My favorite people on the planet are kindred spirits.  They know me, they get me, they have no desire to change me, they banter, you get the idea.  True summer to me is saying to them,”I want to spend time with you” and their response is “Me too.”

What about you?  What makes your summer magical?

Is That a Bear on the Trail? Today’s Life Lesson…

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Facing a black bear in the middle of the forest never plays out like you think it will.  It is a lot like life that way.  I mean you can prepare and plan and make lists but the reality is it rarely ever happens the way you planned. 

We were stomping along the trail, the familiar rhythm that develops when you’ve been hiking for almost 4 hours and you’re almost back to the car.  It’s when your legs are on auto-pilot, when you have to pee but you’re going to hold it because you’re almost to the privy at the trailhead.  This is the part of the hike when you start to allow your brain to wander to what you really want to eat right now.

Burger…  Pizza….

Your trail mix and granola bar suddenly seem like the boring date you’ve put up with, but certainly don’t want to spend any more time with.

So yesterday, while hiking with K and her dog—only 10 minutes from ending a gorgeous hike in the Olympic National Forest—I glanced uphill in the forest about 50 feet away and thought I saw something…a black blob behind a tree.

I know, you want it to be more glamorous than that.  You want to me regale you with something Hollywood, but it wasn’t like that.

Then I thought I saw the blob move.

“K…stop walking.” I said in the same tone I might say, “K…I like your car.”

She didn’t stop.

“K…stop walking.”  I immediately said again.  This time, my tone was more I mean it.

“Stop.”  She did.  And I pointed out Bear.

She came over next to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “We need to look BIG.”  Yes, big is scary.  Let’s look big.

Then I’m almost positive K stood next to me, BUT a little behind me.  As if to say to Bear, “We’re both here, but if you have to chose, take her first.”

“What do we do?” she asked.

Being the experienced backpack trip leader I was suddenly the bear guru.

“We need to make noise to make him go away, let him know we are here.”

Then K started singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of her lungs.

That got his attention.   He looked at us.

I yelled out at him. “Go away bear!  Get out of here.  Move along!  Nothing to see here.”  Stuff like that.

He didn’t move much.

K switched it up in her No No Bear Medley to “Oh Susanna!  Oh don’t you cry for me!”

I whacked my trekking poles together to make more noise and waved them in the air to make us seem big.  Big, with long pokey weapons.

This would have been a great place for a cartoon thinking bubble to appear over Bear’s head.  I would have paid to find out what he thought right then..or if he enjoyed it when K changed to “Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’ Clementine!”

He stood still, looking down at us for a minute—time moves slowly in these situations—and eventually moved a little up the hill and stopped.

“What should we do?” K asked before starting her next song.

“Let’s keep going since we know where he is and we can keep making noise.”  I said.

So we got out of there.  Mountain bikers who showed up about 5 minutes after us at the car said the bear had come back down to the trail…probably only minutes after we were gone.

Here is what I learned when faced with a bear.  This is by no means meant to be an authoritative guide.  Just one dufus hiker to another.  Hopefully the lesson will apply to your life as well.

  1. Pay attention to the little stuff.  Not all big furry problems announce themselves at the beginning.  Notice the dark blobs in the woods.
  2. Stop.  Don’t keep barreling down the trail when something is wrong, that can make it worse.
  3. Panic…later.   Right now, face it.  You’ll have plenty of time later to talk about all the ways it could have gone wrong.
  4. Stick together.  Lordy it sound cheesy but seriously, I hiked that trail ALONE last week.  Stand over here and let’s look big together.
  5. There’s no shame in hiding behind a friend.  Sometimes you’ll be the hider and sometimes you’ll be the hidee.  I mean why have friends if your only thought is, “Go deal with it on your own.”  Come stand by me.  Let’s see what happens.
  6. Wave your poles.  Use what you have.  Don’t worry about looking stupid.  If all else fails, you entertained the hell out of a bear.  That’s something to be proud of.
  7. Sing.  K has quite a vast repertoire of songs in her head.  I’m pretty sure she never imagined those songs would be the ones to come to mind.  I’m also sure that at some time in the future I might start humming them around her just to give her a hard time.
  8. When it is time, move on…even if it scares you.

You are braver than you think.

Does This Oxygen Tank Make Me Look Badass?

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Heaving the heavy pack onto my shoulders after so many years was both familiar and forgotten.

The closest thing I’d felt to its bulky weight was the solid smack of my oxygen tank hanging loosely on the same shoulder for 2 ½ years.  “Tank’s” nasal cannula tube draped down my back, the prongs pulling in protest against my nostrils as the regulator pulsed puffs of oxygen.

The pack—which I affectionately referred to as the BMW of backpacks—had a sleek, silver design and was everything my silver oxygen tank was not.  Adventure. Activity.  Independence.  Healthy. 

But that was Hiking Me

Current Me is short of breath, fatigued by even the gentlest of hikes and aware of the way the hip belt digs into my stomach from the extra 35 pounds of prednisone weight.  Current Me hikes alone so that I can get back to Hiking Me without being embarrassed at my pace and how a relatively flat hike can kick my ass from here to there. 

Surprisingly, now that Tank is no longer my companion, Current Me savors the ability to hike at all.   My pride is on my sweaty back, my new fleece pullover and my muddy boots.

I fought the Ape Caves and the Ape Caves won…

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When Don invited me to go to the Ape Caves, I thought he was joking.

Did you say Ape Caves?

Ape Caves are the “longest continuous lava tube in the continental U.S.” (thank you very much Wikipedia) and are located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest-ish Washington. They are a balmy 42 degrees year round.   He thought we should hike it.

Hiking in the dark didn’t seem like the smartest idea, but it had been so long since I had hiked anywhere—sans oxygen tank—I was anxious to prove myself. There were times I was constantly trying to prove that I could handle things.

Traveling alone.

Getting a disease.

Carting an oxygen tank around at 36.

Friends getting cancer at an exceptionally high rate and especially young ages.

I wanted others to believe that I could handle it. I wanted to believe it myself, that I have somehow “got this.” I wanted to think that what drops other people to the floor would not drop me. I would be the exception. I wanted to believe that I would not be disarmed by tests, by drugs, by side effects, by the anticipation of massive loss.

So—hiking boots firmly tied, flashlight and headlamp at the ready—we descended into the cave.   Its walls damp and green further and further down until they were bare and almost entirely dark. The floor was uneven and rough. I wanted my stride to be confident, handling each up and down of natural steps with agility and comfort.

Instead I was awkward. My arms stretched to the side at times, ready to catch myself with each unseen crack and drop of the floor beneath me. My headlamp—which seemed just fine when I’d checked it above ground, was less beacon, more tealight down here.

It’s tough to prove yourself when you look as if you might land on your butt at any moment.

About a mile into the cave Don and I waited till we were alone and shut off our lights. No one else was around as we put our hands in front of our faces—totally unable to see them—and marveled at our own blindness.

Further in the tunnel—in a moment we will call Ultimate Graceful Essence—I bought it. A sideways falling with my hands smashing awkwardly onto the rocky floor, my right hip smacked the pumpkin-size rock with all my body weight and my knees scraped along the calloused surface of the lava tube.

I’m not sure which happened first, the bleeding or the swearing.

Bleeding hand with peeled back skin like chipped paint and blood mixed with dirt and stinging. My knees—bleeding—looked like a 8 year old who had fallen off their bike and wanders into the house with dripped blood down the shins. Genius. Could you pick a little less convenient place to bite it? My hip ached. For a moment I was afraid to move out of fear I had really hurt myself and moving would make it worse.

There was something a little embarrassing about having a place called Ape Caves kick my ass. Had they had a more intimidating name it might have been a point of pride for me. I wish I could have impressed people with things like….

Dragon’s Gauntlet showed me who’s boss.

Or

Satan’s Wall really schooled me.

Instead, the truth of it was The Ape Caves—named after a Boy Scout troop by the way—bullied me.

Still, there was something about it. Getting up—battle wounds still bleeding—and continuing on. There was something bold about it for me. If it hadn’t hurt so much I might have sat down on the ground and laughed about it. Those caves were a physical manifestation of the butt kicking I had taken for the last 4 years. But you get up. Why? Because really, what is the alternative?

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Sometimes It Just Takes a Backpack…

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Yesterday—deep in the woods of the Olympic National Park—I found a little part of myself.

I’ve been lost for a while.  Maybe you know the feeling.  The uncertainty that comes when life turns upside down and the memory of who you were before slips away like dreams in the morning.

I was healthy…then I wasn’t. 

I never thought about my breathing…then I thought about it often.

I was enthusiastic and full of energy…then I couldn’t remember what that felt like. 

I didn’t forget who I was overnight.  The loss was almost imperceptible.  Faint moments of forgetting replaced by whatever pressing matter was at hand.  Old thoughts replaced by new concerns, bigger concerns.

I know you used to do that…but NOW you do this.

I used to hang out with friends…now my social calendar included my doctors. 

Stumbling across little bits of me was a process.  Wandering down the trail I saw myself scattered like rose petals dropped carefully by a flower girl.  A little here.  A little there.   I had not lost myself all at once. It made sense that I wouldn’t find myself all at once either.

It started in the ranger station parking lot.

  • The familiar confidence of my hiking boots.
  • The daypack with enough water and snacks.
  • The extra Ziploc of emergency essentials—a pocket knife, small flashlight, a lighter, and a small first aid kit among other things.

My first step on the trail was a moment of pride.

Oh yes, I remember now.  This is who I am.

I picked up that part of me and made space for it in my pack.

Further down the trail, my feet falling into comfortable cadence, my breath escaped. This part was New Me.  Short-of-breath-me.  Can’t-quite-get-a-full-breath-in-damnit-me.

New Me—like a needy child—asserted herself and announced, “I’m here too!  And I’ve been here awhile, so don’t go hiking off without me!”

So I told Old Me, “Hold on a minute.  New Me needs some attention.”

And I slowed down a little and fought the short of breath, incomplete feeling.  Then I kept hiking.  I have this place to myself.

After 15 minutes, the trail begins to climb.  Nothing drastic, but enough to make my thighs start to burn and send my pulse to thumping.  The nature worship of only minutes earlier is not replaced with Ok, just get to that point up there and you can rest.

Soon, the trail levels out and I find myself again at the top.  I see the Oh yes, I can do this.  I remember this.  I put that part of me in the pack and keep hiking.  My photos along the way are my proof that I did this.  They are my evidence that I remember Old Me.

This trail, this green and mossy trail, with its Douglas Firs and Cedars standing protectively nearby, is my last 7 years.  And I am back.

I am humming Stephen Sondheim’s closing song to his musical Into the Woods.   All respect to Steve, I claimed the lyrics as I hiked.  He must have known my story.

The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there’s you, me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there…

Into the woods–you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.

I’m not the same me now as I was before all of this started.

But we’re in the same neck of the woods.

 

The Ten Essentials…a survival guide

The Essentials

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As a former backpack trip leader, I’d go over the packing list with my teen participants before we headed out into the Olympic National Park.  One of the things we would go over was The Ten Essentials.  These are things that are generally recognized as the must haves of the camping/hiking world such as a knife, compass, first aid kit and extra food.

It is how you survive if the going gets rough.

When I think about The Ten Essentials of my regular life—my life that has integrated with my healthcare—I can think of a different list of must haves. 

1. Warm Blanket– These are available in the hospital during treatments.  The warm blanket wraps up anything that is freaking you out, stressing you out, pissing you off in a comforting sheet of warmth.  It is without a doubt the most nurturing object in a hospital.

2.  Nurses- Whether it is their attentive care or the smart ass remark they make, nurses are the human version of the warm blanket.

3.  A sense of humor-some of the things that will happen with your doctors will be hilarious.  Don’t miss that because you are so busy “being sick” that you can’t laugh at the insanity that you life has become.

4.  Friends who remember– These are the little things.  My best friend tries very hard to remember when my doctor appointments or infusions are.  She doesn’t come to these with me, but she tries to text and check-in.  Friends who remember are essential while you are trying to act like visiting the hospital this often is “normal.”  Which it is not.

5.  Perspective– Remember that other people often have it worse than you do.

6.  Permission-Remember that even though #5 is true, that doesn’t make your suffering less valid.  Pain is pain.  Struggle is struggle.  You are allowed to have a crappy day, even if someone else had a crappier one.

7.  Music-Have something to listen to that makes you want to a) sing along and/or b)dance.  I like musicals, but whatever revs your engine.

8.  “I’d still like you” people–  You should have people who like you even if you are venting, ranting, swearing and storming.  These are the people who will not judge you when you pitch a fit.  They will be glad you called them.  They will not make you feel like you need to say, “Sorry I went off about that.”

9.  Something good to drink-Coke Slurpee, coffee, tea, wine, whatever.  Have something you enjoy.  This drink should be the warm blanket of the beverage world.

10. A flashlight-cause that’s always a good idea.

I’m Right Where I Left Me

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Coming Back

Being back on the rugged Washington Coast at the ocean after 6 years, disease, an oxygen tank and a life overhaul was like wrapping up in a comfortable warm blanket.  Walking the beach, a grin glued to my face, I looked up at the trees on the ocean. These trees are badass.  They lean recklessly into the wind.  Their branches sparse and thick.  Not a place for spindly branches with the protection of the forest. Trees on the ocean need to be able to stomach the wind and the salt water and be the first line of whatever came off the Pacific.  These were Don’t screw with me trees.  These trees were tested.  They weren’t as full or even as the ones further back in the rainforest.  But they had seen worse.

Me and those trees.  Worn and beaten. A little worse for wear.  Still standing.