WRAPPING-UP IN THE SW  (April - May 2016)  

Hiking at White Tank Mountain Regional Park on the northwest periphery of Phoenix put our minds at ease: we weren’t really wildflower snobs.  After being unimpressed with the celebrated wildflower event in Death Valley, we feared we were too elitist but that wasn’t it, we just weren’t obsessed. In Death Valley, seeing much more than the millions of daisy-like Desert Gold flowers required hunting for them. 

A typical wildflower huntress during Death Valley’s big bloom.
Not quite a hands-and-knees affair, it was a slow shuffle, head-down search for wildflowers in Death Valley. In contrast, in the Sonoran desert of Phoenix, we could readily spot stunning flowers while we briskly hiked. We happily spent time admiring, photoing, and identifying the easily noticed flowers, which is our idea of a fun wildflower extravaganza.

When we weren’t hiking in Phoenix, we were visiting our ailing friend, Iva. At 80 years and with several illnesses, she no longer had the excess energy needed to go out with us but Iva still had her spunk. Having over 60,000 miles of cycling on her knees, we enjoyed exchanging stories with her. For kicks, she and other members of her cycling club used to intentionally ride through the Indian reservation near Albuquerque for the challenge of being chased by the unleashed dogs. Hardly our kind of sport, but a good reminder that at any given age, Iva ran circles around us.

Spring Training Camp
Three years ago when we unexpectedly spent 2 months in Palm Springs, we dubbed it our “Winter Training Camp” to save face. Our visions of traveling far and wide in January and February of that year were trashed by the non-stop series of polar vortices that slammed much of the country with nasty-cold weather.  Winter Training Camp started as joke and finished as a reality when we completed the 8,200’ gain hike to the upper tram station, which was almost 4,000’ more than we’d ever done before.

Our annual month-long stay in Albuquerque earned the “Spring Training Camp” label this year because instead of just maintaining our fitness level with readily available hiking and biking outings, we actually were training for an event.

Blooms like these are easy to spot & enjoy.
While hiking in the Grand Canyon in March, we committed to doing the 24 mile-long, Rim-2-Rim hike in a single day in October. Weather permitting, we’ll make the iconic crossing from the North Rim to the South Rim via Phantom Ranch. Our longest hikes are typically 15 miles and our longest-ever had been a few eighteen milers. We finally broke the 20 mile barrier while at the Grand Canyon this March, which opened the door for us to the even longer Rim-2-Rim.

Two, Not One, Events
The wheels hadn’t been spinning long about tackling the Rim-2-Rim hike before another out-of-reach day hike landed on our October calendar: the “Cactus-to-Clouds” hike from Palm Springs. We’d done the warm-up 4 times, which is hiking from the valley floor to the upper tram station at 8,600’. We’d also done the second segment once, from the tram to the San Jacinto peak and back to the tram, as a separate hike. But the “Cactus-to-Clouds” combines them into a single day for about 22 miles and 10,400’ elevation gain.

We’d always dismissed the Cactus-to-Clouds hike because it was far beyond our proven ability. And the event was especially daunting in the middle of winter, which is when we visited Palm Springs, because of the snowy trails and limited hours of daylight. But going to Palm Springs for a week in mid-October would decrease the odds of snow pack slowing us and would afford us more daylight, so suddenly the epic hike looked possible. Even so, we estimated that both big events would take up to 13-14 hours and several hours of each hike might done in the dark. 

A huge bonus from piggy-backing the Cactus-to-Clouds onto the Rim-2-Rim hike would be lingering, partial, altitude acclimation. Sleeping at 400’ above sea level in Palm Springs is disastrous for keeping the feet moving at almost 11,000’. But if we spent a week to 10 days sleeping at 7,000’ at the Grand Canyon, we’d feel better as we climbed towards San Jacinto peak. Of course, driving days between venues would diminish that adaptation, but any would be better than none. 

We were buzzing with excitement: for only the 2nd time in two decades, we had motivational events on our calendar, with our 2014 Italian mountain run being the first. It was training for that mountain run that had laid the foundation for our current increased fitness level and we had to wonder what new challenge the 2 October events would spawn for 2017. 

Another unnamed flower on Albuquerque’s trails.
Hidden Reserves Revealed
In less than 10 days into our Albuquerque stay, we’d doubled our number of completed 20+ milers from 2 to 4 and soon broke the 50,000 steps in a day barrier. The relative ease with which we were knocking out 20 mile hikes for the first time confirmed what we thought must be true when at the Grand Canyon, that we already had met the fitness requirements for each of our 2 big October events. However, pursuing them this spring wasn’t an option because the road to the North Rim was still closed due to snow and it was already too hot in Palm Springs for us.

Amusingly, our hallmark of looking fresh on the trail still held while we abruptly upped our output. It took a lot of talking to convince Jeffrey, whom we encountered on a trail in the early afternoon, that we’d already hiked to the top of “that peak”, had gone down to the valley floor, and come part way up again (more of our ‘doubles’). Once we explained that we’d been hiking since 7 am and pointed to the peak on his map, he believed us. Another day we encountered a pair of hikers shortly after lunch at our 10 mile turn around point— a point from which they were certain that we’d only just begun our hike. We learned a few years ago that not ever looking bedraggled on the trails makes our replies as to what we were doing sound incongruous.

Training for Trotting
One of my special preparations for the Rim-2-Rim would be to reclaim my sturdiness for downhill trotting. Our descent on North Kaibab trail from the North Rim towards the Colorado River would begin with miles of very steep terrain but then the grades would ease and we’d likely have 6-7 miles of gentle descent or flat surfaces. I didn’t anticipate running a lot, but being able to trot during some of the flatter miles would shift the strain of the day to other muscle fibers, which would improve my endurance. 

Our Albuquerque trail mate Jeffrey.
Changing Our Routines
In order to have the 10-11 hours of daylight we needed for our weekly 20 mile training hikes this spring, I reluctantly sacrificed some of my standards. Out went my treasured 2 hour, pre-breakfast exercise routine of repair and maintenance activities on those days. My wildly improved tissue health from myofascial release work made it possible to forgo it whereas it wouldn’t have been possible 6 months prior. In addition, I had to compromise my food handling standards a bit. Intellectually I knew it was safe, but I always preferred the freshness of filling my water bottles and doing food prep the morning of our activities instead of the night before. Oh well.

Albuquerque Trail Mate
Jeffrey, a retired pilot and 3 years our senior, is relatively new to hiking but is a keen observer. Once he was convinced that we were into both speed and distance on the trail, he was all ears. Like us, he’d had an encounter with what I call “ultra-rabbits” and wondered how they did it. Ultra-rabbits are ultra-athletes, the ones that regularly do 100 mile trail events, the ones that quickly and effortlessly zip past the rest of us like rabbits and have scant clothing, gear, and water. 

Our one and only pair of trail ultras were glamorous and amazing middle-aged women who were doing the Cactus to Clouds when we saw them. We were surprised by their good cheer and honored that they stopped to chat with us. It seemed like Jeffrey had decided that we were a tad closer than he was on the continuum towards being an ultra-rabbit and he wanted to know what we knew that he didn’t.

We encountered Jeffrey 3 times on our favorite trail and must of chatted for 1-2 hours each time. He was a delight to talk with. It was like he had a mental compartment just waiting for each of our opinions and as soon as a compartment was activated, it linked with other stored information to generate new conclusions on the spot. He instantly “got it” when we explained some of our strategies, like forefoot striking; shoes not boots; hiking at “maximal sustainable effort” instead of taking breaks; and our ketogenic diet.

With our first encounter, we suggested Jeffrey unlace the tops of his boots on his descent that day and consider trying low-tops the next time for greater ankle mobility and stability. And there he was, a week later in hiking shoes. The following week, he told of having a case of the “giddy-ups” as he described it, and found himself doing the controlled falling of forefoot striking in his shoes down a nearby trail. Stunningly, he had cut his descent time by more than half of his usual and hadn’t crashed on the challenging surface. His trotting speed was only 5” slower than mine down Hawk Watch and it was his first time with the new technic, a technic I’d used for 7 years.

Jeffrey also reported his success with switching from taking rests to slowing as needed but not stopping on the trail. We consider making that strategic shift to continuously going at our maximal sustained effort as being fundamental to accelerating our hiking endurance.

Jeffrey swapped stories with us, telling us where the historic plane crash sites were in the mountains we hiked; about medallions placed on trailside trees by a local man commemorating distant historic events; favorite trails; and other local things to know.

We encountered snow on the trails at most of 2016’s hiking venues.
Ah, the winter of 2015/16 was a great traveling season. The frustrations and stresses surrounding upgrading to a trailer from the camper and a people-friendly truck from a work truck in the fall quickly faded as we delighted in all of our met expectations with our 2 new rigs. 

One of the goals of the upgrade was to make it easier to hit the asphalt with our bikes and it worked: we rode more often and farther because of the drastically reduced assembly time. And we did what we’d never done before with our other truck, which was to drive to a cycling venue, our first being outside of Palm Springs. Being fit travelers is our mantra and cross-training with cycling is too good to let drop away.

We exceeded our 2015’s fitness target of averaging a 4,200’ elevation gain hike every week by boosting it to over 5,100’ for the first 4 months of 2016. We hiked over 550 miles and accumulated almost 30 miles of vertical gain in the same period. (Bill noted that our vertical gain was about 1/3 of the height needed to launch into orbit…maybe by year-end.) Even better, our injury rate remained at zero. 

Learning in December about do-it-yourself myofascial release or “smashing” transformed our bodies by rooting-out decades-old injury residues from our tissues. My chronic knee, foot, ankle, jaw, neck, and SI joint pains moved into the shadows and only warranted maintenance-level attention after 5 months of intensive therapeutic work. And Bill was delighted to discover that the pain and limited range of motion from the “Live with it, it’s arthritis” in his hand was reversible.

We continued to extoll the wonders of our now, 2-year-old, ketogenic diet in transforming us into novice endurance athletes. We can effortlessly hike for 6-8 hours without eating if it suits us and have no flagging in our performance or recovery time. Next day weariness and stiffness has all but disappeared. And since we are fueled by streaming fatty acids instead of more temperamental carbs, our tissues feel and perform better, both on our active and on our rest days.

Our bodies had a stellar season and we challenged our brains as well. Switching from streaming Italian radio over the trailer speaker system to using a new iPhone suddenly made formerly elusive verb endings audible. Finally, intense concentration on every syllable was paying huge rewards. I doubt that I’ll ever be fluent in Italian but we do make trying to do so as fun as possible. And Bill confronted his old frustration with ballroom dancing by signing us up for private lessons while in Palm Springs. Doing a couple of group lessons before dances confirmed that private lessons were worth the money.

One of  our traveling goals,"being in search of 70 degrees,” is a lovely compromise between our needs when exerting and picnicking but it was elusive this year--we rarely saw 70 degrees this traveling season. We hiked in some snow at almost every venue starting in December, saw overnight temps in the teens, and felt the oppression of 90 degrees more often than we cared for. One morning in Albuquerque we left for our big hike of the week in 28 degrees temperatures; the following week it was 51 degrees at the same hour. And there was snow fall on our mountain, if not in our RV park, each of the 4 weeks we spent in Albuquerque.

There were a few amusing new sightings this traveling season. I encountered my first nude hiker when I was solo hiking on a favorite trail above Palm Springs. Heading in opposite directions, I happened to see him below me on a switch back. There was no mistaking his birthday suit for anything else and I appreciated the few minutes of advance notice before we crossed paths. Unexpectedly, he put on blue briefs and waited for me to pass, which simplified our encounter. 

Equally surprising but devoid of any interaction awkwardness, was seeing 2 unfamiliar RV "outdoor space” designs. In a Las Vegas RV park, there were 2 big rigs with cantilevered balconies about 4’ off the ground. I couldn’t answer my own question of “Why?” but there they were. And a month later in Albuquerque I spotted a Greyhound bus-sized coach with an observation deck on its roof. An aluminum railing outlined the full perimeter of the coach’s roof and it appeared to have a number of fold-down benches and snack tables built into it. The black and white racetrack flag graphics on the side was enough for my “Why?”: they surely were going to the races.  We’d learned previously that a slice of the snowbird crowd lives to follow the NASCAR circuit.

A view of the Columbia River from the Oregon side of the Gorge.
Our 9 day drive from the SW to the Pacific NW and our 5 weeks at home were the familiar whirl of activities to launch ourselves into the Alps for the summer. Bill pre-booked the entire 88 day stay in Europe to prevent any glitches that are more likely when traveling in high season. We were disappointed to learn that our Dolomite hostess, who kindly stores our bikes over the winter, shortened her season by a week which meant our cyclotour was diminished further to 6 weeks.

We managed to take 4 hikes in the Columbia River Gorge and to go on 2 energetic bike rides, including our much anticipated first ride to the top of Larch Mtn while at home. The fast descent down Larch in damp, 45 degree temperatures chilled us to the bone despite our thick extra layers. A couple of rainy weeks washed other planned bike rides and hikes off our calendar but we used the bonus time to whittle-down our belongings to the point that Bill said “We finally fit in our apartment."

The bumper crop of poison oak in the Gorge had us wading through it on 1 hike and navigating like walking on a slack line off and on for 5 hours on another hike on a 100 degree day. Ticks compounded the stress of the poison oak on the group hike with 1 companion plucking 7 off of himself, including 1 that had latched on.  The ticks were totally unexpected as was the sighting of a bear on our last hike. His thundering speed demonstrated why you don’t try to out run a bear if encountered—we saw little more than his rear end.

We were more organized before this trip than ever before, which felt fantastic. That elation was however countered by disappointment that our first week-long stay at a new hiking venue in the Italian Alps would be under a heavy cloud cover and rain—ugh! But we quickly began devising our Plan B: we would do P90X workout videos in the mornings and go for afternoon walks in the rain. If the apartment didn’t provide heat in the summer season, we’d be buy a space heater in the larger, next village to dry our rain gear and shoes. We’ll only know in hindsight if the Summer of 2016 will be remembered for the damp, cold, Plan B days or glorious summits under the sun like in 2015.