Lessons from the Aspen Grove

When I worked at an addiction treatment center next to the forest, our spiritual advisor would take the clients to an Aspen grove next to the center.  When the spiritual advisor left, I followed in his footsteps.  We told the clients that the Aspen grove, the hundreds of trees in front of us, were one organism. Underground, they were connected, firmly rooted because of how they intertwined with one another.  That way, when 2013 flood swept past, or when harsh mountain wind blew through, the trees remained upright.

I told them this with fervor, as I knew that at the heart of addiction was disconnection.  Many of the clients had already begun to learn this, as in group they let their guards down, shared their stories, and made deep friendships.  Within days, I could often see a shift in the clients, a glow, like those of Aspens in the fall.

I told this story again to my mother, just a few weeks ago, at her first chemo appointment.

Just the week before, she called me on a Wednesday evening to give me the news “I have cancer.”

She told me not to worry.  That she was tough and going to be fine.  She had the same doctors as my older sister (still going through her own cancer treatment), and they were going to take an even more aggressive route.  She told me not to come home, to continue my work in Colorado.

Two days later I learned from my older sister that my mom was in surgery to have her port put in, a small device put under the skin to make to make blood draws and infusions easier during chemo.  My older sister and my step dad went to her first chemo treatment, which my mom was upset about.  She wanted to go alone.  Not to be an inconvenience to others and their “busy” schedules.  It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out it was stage 3.

But when your family, both in blood and deep friendship, schedules and to-do list don’t matter.

My mom’s stoicism didn’t stop my from collapsing to the floor in pain and tears minutes after we hung up, with my dog rushing over to me to lick the salt off my cheeks.

It didn’t stop me from feeling anger, sadness, and confusion.

As I gave myself the space to feel all of my emotions, I came to a few realizations.

The first being that this storyline, the storyline of “I have this problem, but it’s not for you to worry about” has shaped my own beliefs growing up.  When I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to claw my way out of my body and escape to somewhere, anywhere else, that I wasn’t enough to share how I felt.  It was my burden to bear.  Alone.  Even after the depression passed, a fierce independence took over.  It’s taken me years to learn to lean on others, like a fallen tree resting on its neighbors.  Still, I have to fight the urge to just collapse.

Second, I remembered the message of the trees.

Even more amazing than hundred plus trees in one Aspen grove being one organism, they are connected even more intimately through a fungal network.  This network not only allows the trees to send vital nutrients to each other, but also communicate.  If there is concern about disease or insect infestations spreading, the trees will send out distress signals to each other, allowing the others to alter their behavior.  And if a mother tree is felled, the surrounding trees may continue to send her nutrients, keeping her roots alive.

Humans have created this world wide web in our own way through technology.  But I suspect there is a deeper form of connection between loved ones, one that may not be visible to the untrained eye (trees also send out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals).

I can’t say with certainty that without my phone I could have picked up on the distress of my family hundreds of miles away from me.  What I do know is that I feel better when I am in the loop, and even better when I can offer some form of help, be it a card or flying back to Ohio to provide company.

When I told my mom about the trees, I went on to say that because all the trees are connected, one’s challenge is not just theirs alone, but shared among the group.  My analogy, trying to tell my mom that we were all in this together.  She wasn’t a burden but an opportunity for our family and friends to come together and find strength.

She said she understood, but I’m not sure she felt my words.  Maybe I said too much.  I don’t know.

When I got the original call from my mom telling me she had cancer, I texted my sisters (after I picked myself up off the floor).  I told them that I never wanted us to keep things from each other, good or bad, that we never had to “go at it alone.”  When they both texted back “agreed”, I felt we solidified a pact.  We were in this life together, for reasons both known and unbeknownst to us, tied together by cell phone signals and invisible visceral strings of love.  My heart felt a bit lighter, like an Aspen leaf held up by the wind.

IMG_4228

 

“Be Careful”: Misadventures with a Moose, Saved by Supergirl (again)

Monday night, the boy and I got into an argument as I talked to him on my cell phone from my camping spot near Cottonwood Lake near Buena Vista, CO and he in North Carolina for his daughter’s high school graduation.  I picked up my phone a little disgruntled, feel weird to be talking into a box in my hand while out in the wilderness, above 9,500ft and quite a few dirt miles away from town.  I was looking forward to some quiet time, and probably should’ve have communicated better, in a loving way, that I needed some time away from technology.  Anyway, a few minutes into our conversation, he told me “be careful.”  I started to explain to him that I understood his intent behind the statement, that he cared about me, but he interrupted and said something like “that’s on YOU if you feel that way.”  I quickly said goodnight and ended the conversation, before I refuted with something I didn’t mean.

You see, “be careful” can rub me the wrong way sometimes, especially when middle-aged white men tell it to me while I’m out hiking.  Again, though I know they mean well, I still know there is a doubt in my ability, because I am a woman.  As a woman, I know this is not just an assumption, as some well-meaning men might make it out to be.  I’m not going to dive too deep into this topic now, as I’ve talked about it before, but I can say with confidence and without an enlarged ego that I have a decent amount of experience in the wilderness, both alone  and with a group, learning from others who have decades of experience, plus Wilderness First Responder certification.  I also always think about mine and Pacer’s safety, both at night in my tent and hiking during the day, considering what are my safety tools.  On my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I had repeated to myself “dog, hiking poles, bear spray, and knife” several times, so if anything did happen, my reaction time would be quick.  I also know that every time I go out into the wilderness, there is a risk, which I like to think of a  calculated risk, which I try to keep pretty low.  For example, I’ve learned to start all my mountain climbs early, and have learned when to turn back (albeit I still tend to go a bit farther than I should before making that decision, as the story below illustrates.)

3 days after the argument with my partner, my carefulness was put to the test in way that I couldn’t have expected.  Could I have been prepared more?  Probably a little.  Did I make a mistake?  Yes, but not as much in main experience that put Pacer and I in a dangerous situation.  And, I am happy to report that the boy did not shame me experience later on (I had already done that, regardless of what I could and could not have done), but supported me in acknowledging the inherent risk in adventure, in life, that even the most experienced adventurist can fall upon the unexpected.  What follows is mine and Pacer’s story, that I say with some embarrassment, as I did not think something like this could happen to someone who respected nature.  I questioned telling this story, for what cause?  My hope is that if I share my experience with others, that they can gain experience from my story, without having to actually go through it.  Of course, I always find some catharsis in writing too, even if I put  myself at risk for being judged, for I know someone else will understand and appreciate my words.  So here it goes.

Pacer and I started our hike just before 6am (about 30 minutes later than planned) Thursday morning in Lost Creek Wilderness.  I was somewhat familiar with the area, first going through it when backpacking the Colorado Trail and then returning twice after to get to know the land a little more.  This time, Pacer and I had a 27 mile loop planned.  I had been thinking about it since last June, when we ran the Colorado Trail section with the boy, and then learned of the loop popular* among runners.  Pacer and I were going to fast pack it, as I was still healing from a calf strain and had been instructed by my PT to keep it flat when running.  Hence why we were starting so early.

*Popular is relative in the Lost Creek Wilderness area, as it is pretty remote area, between the “towns” of Bailey and Jefferson, which are very teeny towns.

We cruised the first few miles, both in our excitement for adventure and because the trail was mostly flat and smooth (great for running, I had thought).  About an hour in, maybe less, we came to a cool looking rock cropping, off to the side of the trail, which we stopped to take a picture at, then got back on the trail.  We continued to pass empty campsites, and the trail became slightly more technical.  I figured we were supposed to get some elevation in, so it seemed okay.  We also passed another hiker, who stopped to ask me where we were on the map.  I told him where (I thought) we were, and it sounded like he had missed a turn and was hoping to get a ride back to his car from the Lost Creek Campground.  Pacer and I continued on, following a dirt path up and down near a stream, that got increasingly more technical.  Before I knew it, we were in a canyon and following cairns on boulders.  We did this for awhile, before I decided this was getting to dangerous, and I wouldn’t put Pacer through anymore of this terrain (she has amazing athletic ability, but boulder hopping is not her favorite thing.). I figured we could hike back to where we started, and start heading out for awhile on the trail we were supposed to loop back on.

We got a bit lost heading back, with me first trying to take an easier path back.  Eventually we back tracked, finding a familiar point, and then re-tracing our steps from there.  From my experience, back tracking is ALWAYS the answer (okay, maybe 97% of the time).  I was happy with my decision to turn.  I can’t remember how far back we traveled, but we were still on part of the trail that had some ups and downs.  Pacer started picking up speed, and I knew she smelled something.  This is a familiar experience, as it is almost a daily occurrence on our runs or walks near where we live in Estes Park that she smells or sees a deer and starts pulling me a long.  She was looking across the creek, so that’s where I look too, following a weaving trail.  Then we turned and entered a bit of a clearing, and 15ft in front of us was a bull moose.

At least I think it was a bull moose, I think I saw antlers, but everything happened so quickly after that.  The moose started charging towards us, before I even had a chance to think, only to feel fear. Pacer was barking madly and pulling at her leash, which I dropped.  I watched as this huge, 1,000 pound animal ran over my dog, my heart, while I screamed.  It then stopped and turned towards me, and I stupidly put my hands up, using bear technique, which I usually think about more that moose tactics (usually I just think “stay away” for moose, as I had always first seen a moose at a distance).  All I can remember is it continued to run towards me, then I was down, he was over me.  I can’t remember how I fell, if I did it on my own or if he pushed me down (I have bruise on my shoulder, so maybe he pushed me with his head?).  I don’t remember the position I was in when I hit the ground.  It wasn’t that I was knocked out, it just happened so fast that I can’t remember.  Out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the moose stop and turn towards me again, but by that time Pacer had recovered and was running toward him.  I screamed more, as I was worried for her safety (something happening to her is my worst nightmare.)  But she continued to run after him, and he ran away through the trees.  Not long after, Pacer ran back towards me, and I was awash with relief that she was okay, we were alive.  I was also in a state of shock (not to be confused with medical shock, which can be life threatening).

First, I processed what Pacer, aka Supergirl, had done.  She had protected me, against an animal 10x my size, and 20x her size.  Again, she had saved me.  First from myself years ago, and now from a potentially terrible injury.  (When I told this story to my parents, I didn’t not use the word fatal, which moose attacks certainly can be.)  I then assessed myself.  Nothing seemed broken.  My right calf was hurting and swelling, but I could walk.  Being a WFR, I assed my own level of awareness.  I was A+O x 4.  All good.  Miraculously, Pacer and I were relatively unharmed.

And so, I got up and continued to hike out.  Pacer led me gently out, knowing I was hurting a bit.  Mentally, I did my best keeping myself together.  We had to get back and I didn’t feel like explaining my condition to another hiker.

My thoughts were like a frozen berries in a blender, though not as tasty.  There was bewilderment of what had just happened, blame for putting me and Pacer in the situation (even if it was partially just bad luck), and admittedly, even some anger/sadness that my joyous adventure day was ruined. And fear.  While I feel like I’ve always had a healthy fear, a respect for the wilderness, this was new.  The place that I had always felt at home at, the place I had first felt like I belonged, was now doused in a very visceral fear.  It was like a burglar had broken into my house.  Would I ever be able to go back inside and feel safe again?

Eventually we came back to the cool looking rock-cropping.  I noticed what looked like a trail on the other side of it.  We walked passed the rocks, and I looked at a fallen sign post by my feet.  The wood was pointing in the direction of the trail I head been on, but someone had lightly etched “Wigwam Trail” into it with an arrow pointing in the other direction.  Fudge. (Okay, I probably swore.). I had considered that we may have taken the wrong trail, but thought it was perhaps at one of the water crossings.  I knew there was an obscure trail on my map that I wasn’t supposed to take, but this wasn’t what I pictured. I had thought at that if the trail was obvious, it would have at least been properly marked.  But I had missed it.  Poor on another layer of self-blame, heavy like fudge, but more like sludge.

We made it back to Surry (short for Surrender-supposed to be a good reminder for me) the Subaru, put Pacer in with extra treats and fresh water, left a note in the camp fee box that asked to fix the trail sign and warnings of an aggressive moose (I did not mention the attack, as many moose who attack humans are euthanized, and I believe the moose charged out of surprise and his own fear), and drove the 20 miles back down the bumpy dirt road until I got cell service.  I had been debating on whether to call my sister or the boy first.  I just needed to mentally lean on someone, rather than hold it all in.  I chose my sister, as I still had the boy’s “be careful” warning in my head.  I choked up as soon I started talking, not being able to hold it all in any longer, but not wanting to worry her either.  Really, just needing to hear a calming voice.  I talked to her for a bit and then I called the boy, who was boarding his plane back to CO.  I repeated the story, him making sure I was okay to drive the few hours back to Estes Park before we ended the call.  I felt okay, so we went home.

The drive was uneventful, but I could feel the pain in my calf increase, could tell the swelling had continued.  I had my  NOLS Wilderness First Responder book in my car, so I looked up Compartment Syndrome.  Symptoms include:

  • Pain out of proportion to the injury or stimulated by stretching or movement (Kinda.  Walking hurt. Touch hurt.)
  • Palor: Pale or cyanotic skin (Nope!)
  • Pulseless: Diminished or absent distal pulse (Still good here)
  • Pressure: The muscles may feel tight or full. (YES)

Treatment: Rapidly evacuate.

When we got home, I hobbled inside holding onto Pacer’s leash.  The cats were happy to see me (and wanting to be fed) and one brushed upon my leg (which was now comparable to the cyclist with calf implants in the Liberty Mutual commercial) which caused me to scream in pain.  Still, I managed to shower, then lie on the couch with my foot elevated.  I can’t remember if I called the my insurance’s nurse hotline first, or scrolled through Netflix.  I think it was Netflix, so I’ll start there.

Of course, I had to check Facebook before going to Netflix, and vides of Gabe Grunewald, the professional runner who recently passed at age 32 after battling a rare form of cancer for several years.  Then I went to Netflix, scrolling through the “comedies” section,  needing a laugh.  My mouse hovered over “50/50” which looked good, until I read the description that it was about a young man who had received a cancer diagnosis with a 50/50 survival rate.  That was it.  The dam had broken, flood gates open.

Because the truth is, what I had been holding back wasn’t simply the fear I had felt in my experience earlier in the day.  What I had been holding back for weeks was there fear of my older sister’s (second) cancer diagnosis, something I have chosen remain private about until now.  The truth is, I’m terrified.  She’ll find out if the newest treatment has been working on my and my twin’s 31st birthday.  It has to be working.  There’s no other option.  I can’t even handle the thought of it not working.  She’ll turn 35 years old, 2 weeks after my 31st.  She is too young not to live.

Once I stopped sniffling, I finally chose “Julie & Julia” which I had never seen before (great film besides all the dead animals used for cooking).  I then decided I should call the ER, who turned me to my insurance’s nurse hotline.  After going through my history and current symptoms (looked like cyclist from insurance commercial, yelling at the poor cat when he touched me, but could wiggle my toes!) she told me I should go to the ER, that I should have someone else drive me.  My twin offered to come up from Boulder.  The boy said to call our landlords.  I stubbornly drove.  (Feeling safe to do so, knowing I wasn’t putting others at risk!)

0613192256.jpg
I know the quality of this pic is terrible, but it gives an idea of how much my leg swelled.

To make the story a little shorter, I’ll wrap this part up quickly.  Because Estes Park is a small town (without the tourists), I saw the doctor right away.  He quickly ruled out compartment syndrome, as when he touched my ankle, the whole compartment didn’t hurt and the pain would be more constant.  I got X-rayed. No broken bones.  Again, a small miracle that I neither Pacer or I were badly injured, which I in part owe to my mom for praying for her 3 daughters every morning.  With instructions to rest, ice, (compression was out because it would’ve hurt too much), elevate*, and take ibuprofen, I limped back out of the hospital.  The boy got back home an hour later, food in tow.  Pacer laid under my leg, helping me to elevate it as I ate and watched Julie & Julia.  My Supergirl.

62447042_2076769685950096_2917946423796301824_n.jpg
Recovering with Supergirl.

*RICE is not a proven treatment for musculoskeletal injuries, and NOLS stopped teaching this practice in December, 2017.

A few days later, my leg is still swollen, but I was able to (forcibly) pull on my skinny jeans.  Now that the swelling has gone down some, the bruises are starting to appear.  I’m cycling, but still days out from running.  Pacer is eager to go on long walk tomorrow.  I’m looking at 14ers.com, checking out the snow conditions.  When will I be able to climb up again?  Pacer is lying on the other side of the pillows elevating my leg, eyes closed.  Sampson the cat is scrunched up on the other side of the pillows, close to me and twitching in his slumber.  I still haven’t processed the event, mixed in with the rest of life.          I know I’ll go out again, just me and Pacer, but I don’t know what else besides our gear I’ll be bringing with me.

I know the likelihood of being charged by a moose again is rare.  However, stories like this are no longer something I just read about.  Now it’s real.  I hope my friends don’t have to have an experience like this, and that they, you, can continue to spot moose from afar, enjoying their massive grace.  Still, as what I feel is my duty, here are a few tips from beprepared.com if you are ever charged by a moose:

  • Back off and run. Make sure you get behind the nearest tree, fence, or building that acts as a strong barrier between you and the moose.
  • Curl up in a ball. If a moose knocks you to the ground, curl up into a ball. It may continue running, start stomping, or kicking you. Curling up will protect your head and vital organs.
  • Don’t get up until the moose moves a good distance away. If you try to get up while it’s close, it could attack again.

Here’s a link to the full article: https://www.beprepared.com/blog/15573/7-signs-youre-going-to-be-attacked-by-a-moose/

(Articles also state to keep dogs on a short leash when hiking through moose territory-there are a reason for the leashed dog signs!-which have worked for Pacer and I in past encounters with moose.)

11953532_10153595753467806_2661304695917895619_o
Moose seen safely from our tent on the Colorado Trail, near Molas Pass.

Safe & Happy Adventures,

Ray & Pacer (aka Supergirl)