Palm Springs, CA   (January-February 2016)  

Cultivating Contentment
“Palm Springs” is my sheepish reply each fall when a practitioner asks me what I’m looking forward to the most about our nearly 8 month road trip. It’s hardly a place of high adventure but it has become our reliable ‘catch-up’ and healing interval of the year. We spend more time in Palm Springs than any other single place and do very little driving while there.

San Jacinto Peak from 5300’ on Jo Pond Trail at Indian Canyons.
An RV park neighbor’s yard art sums it up: “Paradise Found.” Palm Springs and its companion, sprawling communities in the Cochella Valley are peculiar mixes of green golf courses and desert; opulent nests and homeless encampments; all intermingled with vast expanses of vacant tribal lands. We are distracted by that odd tableau, but repeatedly shift our focus to that which suits us. Not exactly paradise, but it does support our outdoor lifestyle in the middle of winter, which is divine.

Our cramped little RV Park that is in the shadow of 11,000’ San Jacinto peak and its associated range gives us immediate access to long, steep hiking trails for our now-annual “Winter Training Camp”. We begin our yearly 8,400’ gain hike (27,500 steps) to the upper Tram station by walking to the trailhead 20 minutes from our door. We hike the same trail weekly for all-day 4,200-4,800’ gain hikes (35,000 steps--round trip) and use an even closer trail for 1-3 hour outings once or twice a week. Many other hikes are readily available if we choose to drive to a trailhead. We can ride our bikes to shop at Costco, Trader Joes, and other markets and this year added the notorious 10-14% grades of the Tramway Road to our weekly biking schedule.

The Park’s threadbare rec/party room allows us to spread-out for our pre-breakfast exercises while watching the sun rise behind nearby palms. The extra wall space invites us to do special stretches and yoga poses that aren’t easily done in our trailer. The big open space with a view nudges us to linger for one more pose, one more stretch, which supports healing our bodies.

As our time in Palm Springs progressed this, our 3rd season, we more fully understood that our 2 month stay not only was long enough for ideas to bubble up, but to act on them as well. At our half-way point, I’d taken my first Pilates lesson; had a 1-on-1 session with a bodyworker teaching myofascial release; and we had taken a ballroom dancing class. Palm Springs service providers know that their customers are seasonal and are extremely tolerant of people flitting in and out, unlike at home where they want longer range commitment. Their prices are reasonable, their calendars are half-full and flexible; and they are very welcoming no matter how brief your engagement is with them.

The long layover at Palm Springs was perfect for remodeling our bodies this winter. Armed with the “Becoming a Supple Leopard” book, we both set-out to excavate old, hidden injuries and compensation patterns in our tissues. The ”smashing” or tissue compression technics are tedious and painful but yielded clear results. Many days I added an hour of “smashing” to my exercise time to make deep changes in an old ankle injury that has haunted me as well as advancing my self-care of my chronically challenged knees. We could feel that the new tactic was helping the first day we tried it but some areas required daily work for 1-2 months before we felt the old damage had been totally undone.

Still smiling 6 hours into our hike to the top of the Tram the day before the big storm.
And better yet, we had readily accessible hiking trails and biking opportunities for the follow-up work with our tissues. When old adhesions and scar tissue get ripped apart, the damage triggers the production of the “glue” that bound them in the first place. The trick is to actively and repeatedly use the newly released muscles and other tissues in a full range of activities so that when the new “glue” re-stabilizes the tissues that they are in desirable configurations and relationships. 

Our “spa time” at Palm Springs extended beyond our wellness to also taking the time to tackle nasty projects that we can’t time-slice the rest of the year. Some feel too big, too onerous to take-on without plenty of elbow room. In hindsight, most aren’t that consumptive, but it takes having the ease of extra time to discover that by actually tackling them. So, while others in the RV Park soothed themselves with another gin and tonic by the pool, we enhanced our sense of wellbeing by chasing the gremlins out of our bodies and clearing them off of our “To Do” lists.

Godzilla El Nino
Only experiencing diluted forms of the El Nino weather pattern was enough for us and our Palm Springs neighbors. Frost alerts, wind alerts, flood alerts, and too many clouds aren’t typical for the region but were all too common during our stay.  We had over 2” of rain in 72 hours in early January, with the same storms dumping over 2’ of snow at the top of the Tram at 8600’.

Bill proposed hiking to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram twice during our stay instead of the single event we’d done the last 2 years. It seemed ambitious but doable, so we began our training immediately. The worse the weather forecasts became, the more often we checked them and suddenly we realized that if we didn’t jump, we’d likely not make the big hike at all. 

The day before the early January storms struck, we made our assault on the Tram after only 2 training hikes. Another storm at the end of January then put our 2nd hike to the Tram at risk. A later and unwelcome spike of the day time highs to 90 did however melt enough of the mountain snow for our second Tram hike of the season on February 15, just before we left Palm Springs.

There are a number of challenges with the classic Tram hike. The 8,400’ elevation gain, with the last 2,000-3000’ being done in thin air for those of us with no altitude acclimation, are the predictable challenges, but the wild card is always the snow. The last half hour to hour or more of the steepest segment of the hike is usually on snow in the winter. The last bit of trail curves out of the almost constant sunny exposure into a north facing forest that seemingly receives no sun. Dark, cold, extremely steep, and a bit forbidding, it’s a hard way to finish the strenuous hike.

Bill & friend Ann working hard through the last minute of the first Tram hike.
Our trekking poles made this year's first traverse through the shallow but sometimes icy snow vastly easier than the previous 2 years. We were on snow that had fallen shortly after we had arrived in town but at least it wasn’t deep. This segment of the trail that clings to its snow also is the area with the most dangerous drop-offs—not where we want to be in deep snow on a trail with no markers.

Our 2nd hike to the Tram this winter was fantastically more difficult on the sun-less north face than our 3 previous efforts. The preceding week of very hot weather and reasonable Ranger reports about the snow levels had us expecting to race to the Tram in record time. And despite the fierce, unseasonable heat, we sped along until we hit the worst of the snow. We’d been told to expect 8” or a foot of slushy snow but encountered depths of at least 3’. My poles frequently sunk 2’ deep and once a pole disappeared to the grip.

The most brutal element of the day was a variant on “post-holing.” We carefully trod the steps already made in the snow but dozens of times the compacted snow collapsed under our weight and suddenly we were knee-deep in it on an extremely steep slope. The worst was when both legs were caught in separate snow holes.

Twice I face-planted uphill. It took me minutes of experimenting with various strategies to get upright. I couldn’t get traction with my feet in the mushy covering and had to maneuver with my arms instead. We thanked our high level of conditioning for the extra reserves to press-on for an exhausting 2 hours on a trail segment that should have taken an hour or less. The entire snow traverse was extremely demanding but we never felt incapacitated by it. We knew we had the strength and resilience to do it—it only required perseverance.

The Holidays
The holidays were a bit of a bust for us this year. Our new tradition of enjoying the outdoor Thanksgiving festivities of others at Death Valley’s Texas Springs campground fell victim to the dash to Portland for our new truck. We had to bypass Death Valley altogether. Instead of strolling about under stars enjoying large gatherings of extended families and friends around campfires, we were hunkered down on a cold, windy day in a dismal, graveled Bakersfield fairground’s RV area after driving too many hours.

Christmas too lost its fun buzz this year. The first third of December was spent driving more than we cared to do and the middle third was spent at the Grand Canyon. Certainly the Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch are stellar destinations but the national parks are sort of “holiday neutral” zones, so I didn’t get my customary fix of holiday energy there. Our Phantom Ranch excursion nipped the first 10 days off of our stay in Palm Springs, which meant we arrived there just days before Christmas.

We did join the Christmas Day potluck dinner at the RV Park and enjoyed the Christmas lights there, but had missed some of the park’s other holiday festivities. We took advantage of Bill’s extensive holiday song playlist and turned the park’s artificial tree lights on for our morning exercises to punctuate the season as best we could. It was a holiday season in which we traded-off new traditions for the sake of replacing our truck and having a long stay at Phantom Ranch.

Lingering clouds after the big storm dumped 2’ of snow on the mountains we had just hiked.
We however, fared better than many Canadians who canceled their snowbird flight to the SW altogether. The already weak Canadian dollar took another plunge just before “the season” began in late fall and it was the last straw for many. The streets of Palm Springs were noticeably less busy, there were fewer people on the trails, and familiar faces in our RV Park had gone missing all because the plummeting price of oil had eroded their economy and currency.

Inspire, Be Inspired

Something Special in Palm Springs

I don’t quite understand why, but Palm Springs is always a place where we find ourselves unusually inspired by the fortitude of other athletes and have learned that we in turn inspire others. The newest surprise is discovering that athletes in their 40’s and 50’s take comfort in our vigor and feel encouraged that they will be able to maintain theirs as they age.

The Regulars
I was pleased to again see 2 men that we found especially inspiring on the mountain trails above our little RV park in prior years. One was the middle-aged man with cerebral palsy that hikes the hard trails with his father; the other was a similarly-aged Hispanic man who works at a car wash and runs up and down the wickedly steep and rough trail like a gazelle. I now imagine that Enrique was a cross-country runner who wisely never stopped. 

And we slowly learned that a few people in our RV Park were inspired our by discipline without a clue as to our capabilities. They saw us doing our morning exercises in the rec room; heading out dressed for a serious ride on our bikes; and leaving the grounds on foot for our several hikes a week.

Out for a short stint up our steep “backyard" mountain trail one morning, a very fit man briskly walked passed us. “Keep up with him, Bill” was my immediate urging. It’s a good training game to play, to stay on the heels of someone faster than you for as long as you can, regardless of the mode.

Bill picked up the pace and I followed. In such games, it’s important not to get too close lest your ‘pace dog’ picks up his own pace in defense of his lead, perhaps making it impossible to keep him in sight. Though with this guy, Bill didn’t have to calculate a margin because the gap slowly got wider and wider. Bill was dropping behind the guy in the blue T-shirt and I was being dropped by Bill. We all rallied, we all pressed on to the picnic tables at the ridge.

When I arrived, Bill was chatting with Mr Blue Shirt at one of the tables and I joined in, thanking the man for being a good pace dog. Bill had already done the same and the man commented that he’d been keeping an eye on us, congratulating us for stepping it up.

At the end of a fairly long conversation for the setting, Mr Blue Shirt revealed that he was about to receive his 7th of 7 treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in a day or 2. We had been thrilled to have turned a normally 37-38 minute hike into 30 minutes with his help but were aghast that he had passed us while on a chemo regime. Talk about being inspired! At 57, he was clearly a life-long athlete, but we were spell-bound by his story nonetheless.

New Year’s Day: Happy to be at the cyclist’s stopping point on Tramway Rd.
Liz, the Hay Reseller
“You’re awesome!” who doesn’t love hearing that? Forty-something Texan Liz cruised up behind us on her high-end road bike she’d rented in LA and asked where we were going and if she could join us. It was her first time in Palm Springs and she only had an hour, but was clearly implementing a familiar strategy for meeting people and finding great local rides though we must have looked like last-choice picks. 

Liz was in her sleek lycra, we were dressed in our full coverage, sun protective clothing and layers shielding us from the cool temps; she was on a hot bike, we were on our 16 year-old touring bikes with a pannier each; she shot off like a rocket on the slight grades and had to wait for us, but she did wait.  We told her we’d soon be grinding up a sustained 10%+ hill to the lower Tram station, that we would guide her to the start and then she could fly up without us. We’d be stopping to use the public toilet at the base of the hill, shed our layers, and chug water.  Soon, we pointed her up the dead end road, gave her tips for finding her way back after her descent, and waved her on.

Liz must have stopped to chat with a fellow roadie loading his bike onto his car because she was only a minute or 2 ahead of us on the hill. She was on the road, we were on the multi-use path, when we noticed she’d stopped. Her body language suggested a mechanical problem and Bill indicated that I should go on, that he would stop to help her. As we neared, she shouted that she couldn’t get started on the steep hill after stopping to catch her breath.

With the little spare air I had and without stopping, I quickly instructed her on the art of tracking a diagonal line while using the full width of the street to effectively diminish the grade so she could launch—a trick I had learned our first year of touring overseas in 2001 on Splugen Pass between Italy and Switzerland—a technic I still use. 

We kept pushing those pedals around, riding continuously at little more than 3 mph, knowing that we’d be doing that for an hour. Liz would pedal a few minutes then stop again to rest and restart. She quickly understood that her bike wasn’t geared low enough and finally was making sense of what I meant when I said that we had touring bikes—bikes that are designed not for speed but for hauling. I hoped that she would make use of that information in her bike selection for her Tuscany bike tour in October. We spent about 20 minutes with Liz in sight behind us on the hill and then she turned around as planned, went out of our view, and was gone. 

We’ll think of Liz each week we ride that hill and smile. I’ll relive the pleasure of being told “You’re awesome” and again be pleased to finally have shared some of what I learned the hard way about climbing, tips that women riders especially need. I regret that Liz didn’t have time to learn more about hill starting but we like to think that we opened the door for her to the unfamiliar art of making steep ascents on a bike.

Inspiration Backfires
Mike, the host at our Palm Springs RV Park, could hardly get the words out between his rounds of belly laughs while holding a new, cello-wrapped, fuchsia-colored yoga mat in his hands. He asked if we would like it. Haltingly, through his non-stop laughter, he uttered more words: another guest had taken some yoga classes during her stay in Palm Springs and had bought the mat intending to continue practicing while on the road. The day they were leaving town she saw us doing our morning routine that includes yoga, decided it was hopeless for her, and left the mat with Mike with instructions to give it to someone else. We of course were horrified but Mike, who considers our moves beyond comprehension, was entirely sympathetic with her decision. So much for being inspirational….

The Ford
Parallel Parking
One-by-one, Bill enabled the optional features on our new Ford truck while at Palm Springs and educated us about its capabilities. He took most of the initiative, but given our extremely tight parking situation within the Park, I immediately sponsored the parallel parking lesson. And what a dazzling feature the self-parking is.

Some one asked “Is it scary?” and “Yes, it is” was my reply. It starts out simple enough: the push of a button activates the system and it starts looking for a spot nearby. Then, Sissi becomes more instructive: "Shift into Reverse, Remove your hands from the steering wheel.” Suddenly, the steering wheel spins like a top, then just as abruptly stops as the car angles back into the space. Another dizzying spin of the wheel, and the car moves again. The driver controls the speed and we both intently stare at the camera displays to make sure Sissi doesn’t crash the 4 nearby cars (2 across the narrow road.) And then, it’s done: another perfect parking job and we resume breathing.

Our annual Christmas Day hike in Indian Canyons.
360 degree Cameras
Back-up cameras have been around for a while but I believe the 360 degree view is relatively new and is it ever wonderful when in a big truck in tight spaces. Pulling into a snug, angled  grocery store parking place in the dark and the rain isn’t something I would have attempted in our other truck but was willing to do, even alone, in our new Ford. The front and side cameras gave me perfect information as I slid our oversized vehicle in between 2 cars, one of which partially disappeared from my direct view. The cameras were even more important when I exited because a new neighbor had further reduced my clearance while I was gone. The 360 degree view turns our otherwise bull-in-a-china-shop truck into a delicate dancer in tight spots. We no longer have to park in the ‘out back’ like we always did with our low-tech Chevy.

Trailer Back-Up Assist
Unfortunately, the totally new Ford truck feature that we really, really wanted didn’t work the first time we tried it, which is the Trailer Back-up Assist in which the truck aids in backing the trailer in to a slot. It’s not as overbearing as is the parallel parking feature--we do the steering—but it should be a huge help.

We’d made a quick stop at an RV service shop to have our trailer hitch adjusted for the new truck for a second time, then drove straight to the Palm Springs RV Park. Bill had noticed en route that some of the automatic features on the truck had become disabled from the service stop, but didn’t know why.  When he began backing the trailer into the extremely tight spot in the RV Park, it became clear that the cherished feature wasn’t working at all. Instead, Bill politely accepted the help of both knowledgeable and not-so-wise neighbors to complete what became a nearly hour-long backing job. We are expecting better results next time.

New Biking Opportunities
While in Palm Springs, we tumbled to the realization that we had an unrecognized opportunity with our new truck: it would allow us to drive to the base of mountains so as to bike to the top. In the last 15 years, we’d never done hill training on our bikes before going to Europe because they were too far away by bike.  We’d had a truck for the last 4 years, but the lack of a bed liner and the difficulty in putting the tailgate on made it a loser to haul the bikes around. But since switching from a camper to a trailer, the tailgate stays in place and the optional spray-in bed liner would protect the truck from the bikes. 

So, one night in mid-January in Palm Springs it was “Larch Mountain, here we come.” We always hike to the peak of Larch Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge during our brief stays at home but now we’d also be able to bike to the top on the back side of the mountain on the paved road. Hopefully the additional hill work there and in Palm Springs will give my knees the conditioning they need to have an easier time on our loaded bikes in the Alps this summer than they had in 2015.

Pushed Out
We always want to stay in the Italian Dolomites forever and we feel the same way about Palm Springs: living our fantasy life is easy so why move on? The answer is the same in both places: the weather. The coming snows drive us out of the Dolomites in the fall and the threat of hot weather pushes us out of Palm Springs in the spring (and the emergence of rattlesnakes). The convected heat on our nearby, south facing hiking trails at Palm Springs makes even a 70 degree day a desiccating event, so we need to be out of there before the 80’s arrive.

We only had about 2 weeks of normal weather during our almost 2 month stay in Palm Springs, with seasonal being about 70 degrees. A persistent high pressure system settled over the West about 12 days before our mid-February departure, shifting us from a string of cool, 60 degree days into the high 80’s over the course of a couple of days. It was usually 80 degrees by 10 or 11 am, which made hiking and biking all the more strenuous. I drank over 6 liters of water on an 84 degree hiking day. Heading out just after sunrise was only marginally effective in keeping us cool: it was 75 degrees at 4:30 am the morning of our 2nd hike to the Tram. So, this February when we left Palm Springs we were in search of cooler weather; at this time in 2015,Tucson was the only suitable SW hiking destination that wasn’t getting buried in snow.