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THE GRAND CANYON October 2019

INTERPERSONAL JOURNEY: A Pen Pal
What does a classically trained pianist who is a Texan cop that rides a Harley have in common with a gray-haired, cyclotouring, NW yogi? A lot, it turns out!

Amazingly, Leslie, 17 years my junior, reached out to me in August after discovering my webpage chronicles regarding my horrible journey with high blood pressure medications; she too was being crushed by them. I’d posted 2 pieces about my worsening situation and she hoped that there was a follow-up, happy-ending piece, in the works. She was currently in a near panic because of the many frightening side-effects from a drug I also had taken, the drug that had us buying e-bikes in short-order and shipping our custom touring bikes home the previous summer because I couldn’t breathe.

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Barb & Leslie meet-up.

Leslie had done her detective work before contacting me by delving into the corners of our webpage and was amazed as, one-by-one, she discovered the many parallels in our lives that went far beyond high blood pressure and medication intolerance. She and her husband had done Rim-2-Rim several years ago, though as backpackers. We wore the same brand of minimalist shoes, Altras. She followed the Portland-based ‘natural foot care’ podiatrist whom Bill and I had both seen as patients. Leslie recently went on the keto diet, a low carb diet we switched to 5 years ago. Leslie and both of us had struggled with plantar fasciitis. The intersections in our experiences went on and on, which we both found simultaneously intriguing and peculiar.

I was smitten with Leslie’s thoughtful curiosity about so many things that she backed up with research and experimentation. She would ask a few “gee-whiz” questions about subjects I knew a lot about, or had strong opinions about, and I delighted in the challenge of consolidating my thoughts into a response tailored to her. Like with writing for our webpage, I learned volumes while crafting responses to Leslie’s queries and appreciated both the stimulation and the attention.

With our age and geographical differences, came differences in life experience that were interesting to explore. Both Leslie and her husband came from families with a history of police service whereas in our families, each person in every generation had struck out in a different direction. They are very family oriented whereas we are in the loner-traveler crowd. Her husband commented with a grin that he “liked his stuff” whereas as we basically lived out of suitcases for 10 years and are in a continuous state of downsizing. But even with so many differences, we were of like minds in so many ways.

Leslie and I both quickly became addicted to the dialogue, with us each confessing that we checked our emails more often, hoping for a reply. I imagined that the swirl we were being drawn into was a lot like the excitement of internet dating though we were merely pen pals.

We both enjoyed telling friends about the fun we were having with our unlikely, new connection. And we were both worried about saying something wrong that would abruptly curtail the friendship. I had carefully brushed against the topics of politics and religion, but she was the first to name the apprehension about offending the other. It was a relief to say that I thought we’d established enough trust, enough resilience, in our budding relationship that we should agree to drop the fear and resolve to indulge ourselves in the fun of it.
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Leslie on our vertical climber & Leon with his signature smile.

At one point, Bill mentioned that we should make a trip to Texas so that Leslie and I could meet, but high-energy Leslie beat us to it. She crafted a plan to drop-in on us at the Grand Canyon on their way back home from doing a bucket-list glacier walk at Banff in October.

And amazingly, it happened! We spent part of 2 days sharing meals and rolling around on the floor of our trailer teaching them both the intricacies of myofascial release and a little anatomy with the help of our ½-size skeleton. Interestingly, one of our ‘fixes’ was for an occupation injury pattern from their handcuff holders being positioned asymmetrically on the backs of their belts.

I’d pondered how “the husbands” would fare at this proclaimed girl-fest but they did just fine. I’d primed Bill with what I knew about Leon’s interests to give him some openers, but it didn’t seem necessary. Early on, Leslie commented when we were walking in gender-matched pairs “I can’t believe that they haven’t stopped talking!” Another time she asked: “Is Bill really interested in that stuff?” “Yup”, I reassured her, “Bill knows a lot of stuff and is very curious.” It was a unique opportunity for Bill to learn about tasers and welding, among other things.

We had a grand time with them and enjoyed the slightly cross-generational and cross-cultural aspect of the exchanges. Leslie was further motivated to solve her body issues that are interfering with her fitness so that they can join us on a Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim hike next fall. She also took note of our dates for being in Joshua Tree NP, another bucket-list destination for them. Fortunately, they aren’t averse to driving like we are and enjoy the SW. Of course, unlike us, they are rationing their precious vacation time when they consider going anywhere.

Hanging-out with Leon was a bonus. We’d been listening to podcasts on Taoism, a ‘go with the flow’ philosophy, and unbeknownst to Leon, he was the most Taoist person we knew. It didn’t come as a complete surprise because Leslie’s comments about Leon had revealed some of those qualities and I had already teased her about him being a Buddha in disguise. She had described Leon as a happy, contented, ‘go with the flow’ kind of guy for whom most things came easily.

Indeed, he was a big guy with a big, ready smile and a wide-open heart. He proved to be a well-timed role model for what we were both hoping to be. And being in his presence was especially welcome for Bill because he lamented the shortage guidance from men that live in the world with such open warmth. With Leon, we could say “That’s what it looks like.”

INNER CANYON JOURNEYS
Flip-Flops & Reversals: R-2-R-2-R #1 - October 4 & 5
The usual tension that precedes making the “crossings,” hiking from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other and back again, wasn’t in the air the days before our first event of our 4th season but uncertainty was.
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Contemplating Phantom Ranch & the N Kaibab trail to the N Rim at lunch.

Bill began experiencing ferocious muscle spasms in his back and buttock muscles shortly after our September 5th return from Europe. A long, fast-paced urban hike deeply fatigued the muscles and a day or 2 later, being overly robust with jockeying boxes in our apartment, pushed his muscles over the edge. Bending, lifting, and twisting had always poised a threat to his chronically weak back muscles and this particular mix of activities irritated them in a new and dramatic way. No permanent injury was added to his single bulging disc vulnerability, but the pain pattern was novel and persistent.

Our first backpacking trip in Washington that was planned for less than a week later was cancelled and then it was the overnighter on the Arizona Trail while in Flagstaff that disappeared from the calendar. October 4th was the next big event, which was the first of 2 days hiking between the rims at the Grand Canyon. I decided to not do the backpack trips without Bill but did opt to do the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hikes alone. “Not acquiring each other’s disabilities” was one of my longstanding rules for thriving in the face of aging and I would abide by it for the pair of day hikes.

I had been busy for over a week re-organizing my preparations for making the huge hikes alone when I learned that the “unaccompanied bag” delivery service we had used was permanently canceled for hikers not riding one way in the shuttle. I was in shock: part of what had made this big event possible for us was being able to send a 20 pound bag of food and clothes between the rims so we could be comfortable during our overnight stay in a cabin on the N Rim without carrying the extra gear ourselves. Every pound on my back mattered for hiking about 46 miles with almost 11,000’ of elevation gain in 2 days. Suddenly, having increased my tolerance this summer for carrying a 20-pound backpack looked like an even better idea than it had at the time.

My level of fitness had dropped more than usual during our fall transition between Europe and the Grand Canyon; I was having a worrisome new flare-up in a now-chronic hip-back-leg muscle problem; my easily irritated right knee was being troublesome; I was now doing the event alone; and instead of carrying less weight than ever before, I would be carrying more, were the thoughts rattling my confidence. To add to the complicating factors for our 2-week stay in the Grand Canyon, the Flagstaff Whole Foods market flubbed my order of 10 pounds of ground pork and Walmart canceled 3 separate orders for a dozen chocolate bars that Bill had made.

While I was unpacking my “unaccompanied luggage” bag and re-equilibrating from the many changes in expectations, Bill began toying with an intermediate solution, which was to hike to the N Rim with me and take the shuttle back to our trailer the next day while I walked back. Two days before the event, he committed to the new plan. It was definitely good news, but out came the duffle to be packed again as unaccompanied luggage for shuttle-rider Bill. In the past, non-shuttle riders could use the service as well.

Other than us missing the first bus at 5 am to the S Kaibab trail head because of my tardiness, the hike went smoothly. Unlike last year, there was no rain, and the predicted 90+ degree temperatures in the river valley were tolerable, primarily because of the strong winds. We made the south to north traverse in a respectable time of a little over 12 hours, which was an accomplishment given my sketchy knee and Bill’s back issues. We were both pleased to have traveled the dramatic route again.
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The iconic view of the 2 bridges flanking Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River.

Likewise, the following day unfolded without a hitch. I did my first solo crossing, though one is hardly alone on those trails. The 4-hour shuttle ride might have been as taxing on Bill’s back as walking, but he was nonetheless glad that he didn’t hike both directions. And of course, his use of the shuttle had allowed us to have more fresh food and clean clothes for our overnight stay on the North Rim than if he had not made the crossing.

Extremes 10 Days Later: R-2-R-2-R #2 - October 14 & 15
Dickens’ classic opener “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” also neatly summarized our 2nd and final Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike at the Grand Canyon for 2019. Hiking from the South Rim to the North Rim delivered our very best times, personal bests, for both of us in mid-October. I didn’t need to consult our spread sheet to know how well we’d done. All previous efforts were “12 hours and x minutes“ whereas this days’ time was just under 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Likewise, I didn’t need to peruse the archived numbers to know how miserable our times were for the return hike the next day, from north to south, which was over 15 hours. No “12 hours and….” for that one either. Bill’s back pain that had haunted him for 5 weeks brought him to his knees on that hike.

Being Day 2 of 2 was part of the problem for Bill but even more importantly, it was that roughly 2/3’s of the distance on this day was downhill whereas only 1/3 of the first day’s route was downhill. For some unknown reason, perhaps the accumulated “g’s” of force, the downhill was disastrous for his back muscles. Had the hike been entirely in descent mode, it might have taken him another 3 hours to finish.
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Bill on tilt on the good day.

Fortunately, the tedious and regrettable journey only caused minor, not lasting setbacks, for him, nothing major. Who knows why, but he spent about 10 hours walking with an extreme side bend to the left even though his back issues were on the right side, which put unwelcome strain on his left knee that was still vulnerable after a significant injury almost 2 years ago. The resulting change in his gait also triggered the development of an enormous blister on the side and bottom of his left big toe. Fortunately, the blister was quite shallow and wasn’t expected to slow him down for the usual 2-week healing period. Its formation certainly underscored the unusual stresses on his low body from his persistently whacky, pain-induced, posture.

What surprised us both was that once Bill hit the sustained ascent, his posture snapped back into place and his typical power returned, even after so many hours of anguish. No more lumbering pace, no more long and frequent breaks. He of course was still uncomfortable, but pain was no longer was in charge.

We had plenty of food and water for the extended time out and sufficient clothing to keep us safe while the temperature dropped from a forecast 90 degrees at the river into the 40’s on the South Rim, but we weren’t happy to hike past dinnertime and then past bedtime. Knowingly returning to our cold trailer with a cold 10-gallon hot water tank made it all the harder. We skipped making the celebratory, bun-less, bacon-avocado burgers and in fact, skipped dinner altogether. It was a 90-minute scramble to shower and crawl to bed without leaving the most important chores undone.

Bill slept like a log that short night. I however, only got 3 hours of solid sleep before the very sore throat that pierced me with pain each time I swallowed and the congestion of my 4-day-old cold shredded to bits the rest of the night’s potential sleep.
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A personal best finish at the N Rim.

Musculoskeletally, we were both unscathed the next morning. Our bodies were so comfortable that we cut-short our morning exercise/repair routines in favor of tending to practical matters. Other things were more compelling, like pre-washing the pile of red-dust impregnated socks we had worn; hand washing my back pack that got a nasty food spill on it once we were back in the trailer; and emptying and sanitizing the bed of our truck after discovering a mouse was making a mess there the morning we left for our 2 days of hiking. Mice in the region carry Hanta virus and we wanted to eliminate any potential hazard before we drove to Flagstaff at noon that day.

Inspiration
The internationally renowned scenery, the peak expression of athleticism by so many, and the camaraderie on the Grand Canyon trails are front and center when traversing the 10-mile wide canyon between the rims; they are the most riveting part of the experience. The heat this year, the rain last year, or the spotting of our first rattlesnake in “The Corridor” punctuate these grander memories.

However, the more subtle experiences, what we feel and learn about our bodies along the way, are what create even deeper ripples in our beings. “It’s amazing…” is often spoken and repeated about our bodies, not just the scenery, for weeks and years after these demanding hikes. These epic hikes are our sports medicine laboratory.
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A rare rattlesnake encounter in “The Corridor”: the snake retreated first.

Resiliency
The 2 most amazing lessons that were reinforced on the trails this October were that we continue to become more resilient with each passing year over these last 4 years of hiking in the inner canyon and that we seemingly can actually improve our maladies by doing these stressful hikes, which isn’t the usual expectation.

Usually we have to analyze the numbers, like the times to traditional check points, to understand our relative performance on huge hikes like these, but this year it was different. Because of having a cold and needing to guard my right knee, I didn’t feel robust as I walked, but I knew in round numbers that we were making good time between the major watering holes. However, what impressed me even more was that we didn’t collapse upon arrival at these popular stops.

I’d come to understand these last few years that it wasn’t the food at the stops that I needed but that I needed to rest. Because of my keto diet, I literally could go all day without eating but that hadn’t diminished my need for down time. But this season was different.

In prior years, despite the best of intentions to keep our breaks short, they often extended to 40 minutes or more, but not this year. I, and we, didn’t unravel at the water pipes, we kept it business-like and snappy, like on the trail. We had the mental clarity and reserve energy to be organized and efficient while having a snack or meal, peeing, filling our water bags, fixing a shoe or pack issue, and then being off again. Both my watch timer and my inner knowing said that something had changed.

The “something has changed” (again) experience occurred in the evenings this year as well. Instead of coming in for the night and moving like zombies, we were functional. Like at the water pipes, our brains were clear enough that we could do what we needed to do efficiently even though our muscles were stiff.
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The interior of the Grand Canyon Lodge at the N Rim.

Not feeling totally depleted was a huge change and an uplifting marker that we were continuing to increase our exercise tolerance. We didn’t understand the details, but there could be no doubt that deep and profound metabolic and other advances were occurring at an age when most people struggle. I was certain that almost all of the gains in our speed came from shortening our breaks and not from walking significantly faster--this was a different measure of our increased capacity.

Note: The remainder of this piece gets ‘into the weeds’ about tackling our muscle problems. It is likely only of interest to a few people. If you don’t share our fascination with this topic, consider using the photos like stepping-stones to speed to the end of this piece, which is ‘Next Up’.

Healing with Exertion
It’s puzzling but true: the comfort of my body was substantially greater in the days immediately following hiking 46 miles with almost 11,000’ of gain in 2 days on my
second R-2-R-2-R event in 10 days than it was before the events. My chronically tight calf muscles that are prone to spasm; frequent imbalances in the muscle tension in my quads that can make stepping down painful for my knees; and the worrisome, asymmetric tension in my low back were all improved after the big effort. I’d been pleasantly surprised in the past that I could do what are for me epic hikes and be uninjured, but to actually be so much better than before was incredible.

I’d had a chronic ‘pain in the butt’ on my right side for over 30 years. It was usually quiet but would spring out from seemingly nowhere and bite me at unexpected times, like when taking ballroom dancing lessons. Holding my leg and foot up a bit in the ready position triggered spasms. Then about 2 years ago, it became a source of near-constant pain.

My best guess was that finally fixing my chronic sacroiliac (SI) joint issues on the left side revealed that it was the tugging of muscles deep within the tissues on the right side that had caused those SI issues for so many years. I now viewed the right side as being the real culprit that was finally being outed; the left side had been the victim. But it was good news-bad news because now the right buttock muscles were always triggering, or were on the verge of triggering, pain; pain that was occasionally disabling instead of only being annoying. Even as recently as at the end of August, I could barely shuffle home for the night from some hikes because of the intense buttock muscle pain.

All of the best efforts of massage therapists, acupuncturists, and myself hadn’t been able to fix the problem that would cause a half dozen other muscles to also go into spasm. Gradually, late this summer, I seemed to be gaining on it, to be interrupting some of the cascades of muscle spasms. No longer having to support myself against a wall with my hands upon arising in the morning spoke to the diminished pain and associated weakness.
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One of a number of fossil slabs that trail crews position for the entertainment of high-functioning hikers.

Out of frustration, I embraced what I hoped would be a new opportunity to crack the code, which was to retrain, repattern, the muscle firing in the area. My flexibility is probably in the top 1% for my age, it seemed that my extensive use of myofascial release for the last 3 years should have cleared out any significant adhesions in the involved muscles, so abnormal muscle contraction sequencing seemed like the last bastion to explore. I didn’t know how to achieve that goal of repatterning the firing of the cluster of muscles, but I was compelled to try.

I did know that injuries to muscles can disrupt the firing sequence of both the injured and companion muscles. If a damaged muscle can’t do its job, other muscles literally develop a ‘work around’ to keep you going with reduced, or no participation, on the part of the injured tissues. It’s a common problem for the muscles that have come to the rescue to keep performing their new helper function even after the injured muscle recovers if the injured one was out of the loop for too long.

The goal of physical therapy (PT) is often to strengthen the recovered muscle in a way that limits the assistance of other muscles that may have taken over its role and thereby re-establish the correct firing sequence (that’s why PT exercises often feel very annoying). Ongoing pain in rotator cuff (shoulder) injuries is sometimes due to misfiring, to the underuse of the proper muscle to do a job and overuse of muscles not designed to carry the load. It can be a case of some muscles contracting too much, others contracting to little, or contracting at the wrong time.

Coincidental with selecting my new problem-solving approach, our Portland sports massage therapist had sold Bill a jar of CBD salve, hemp oil, when we were at home in September. It was effective in reducing the muscle spasms Bill was experiencing for several hours at a time and presumably reduced inflammation. It didn’t fix his underlying back problem, but it allowed him to survive his healing journey and to sleep better at night.
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Bill’s tilt was less-severe on the flatter portions of the descent from the N Rim.

I somewhat reluctantly tested the ointment when I hiked to Elden Lookout in Flagstaff to assess if it would help my spasm issues without causing me harm. It was helpful, though didn’t give me as much relief as it did Bill. Something was better than nothing, so I used it twice a day on my 4 Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim crossings. The salve did put enough of a lid on my muscle spasms to limit the pain and to maintain my pace without developing my usual limp.

My buttock muscle issues were better than ever the day after the last crossing and the following rest days as well. My best guess was that my latest strategy had worked: if I could somehow disrupt what must be a muscle firing sequence problem and then exhaust the helper muscles, perhaps they would all find their way back to correct sequencing under the demands of deeply fatiguing, sustained hiking. It was akin to getting the timing of the firing of an engine’s spark plugs just right so that it runs smoothly.

Presumably, the CBD salve was the unknown but hoped for disruptor of the habitually disorganized muscle firing pattern in my right buttock that had been caused by a long-forgotten injury. It worked best when I applied the salve just before hitting the trail for the day. Perhaps applying it early retarded some overly zealous, secondary muscles from rushing to help, to prevent excessive contraction from the wrong muscles, giving the primarily muscles time to become engaged. I imagined that it sufficiently calmed down the hyped-up muscles that had heroically been doing the job of others for decades so there could be a re-negotiation or re-assignment of tasks.

Of course, time will tell if this is the final fix for this old, sometimes disabling muscle spasm pattern. But even if the pain recurs multiple times, I was grateful to know that the tissues could be well, to have gained new insights into the issue, and to have the salve as a new tool for disrupting the cycle of pain and dysfunction.

Other Disrupters
Bill also explored my “dysfunctional muscle firing pattern” model as the latest strategy for fixing his body. Unfortunately, his new CBD salve only worked as a pain reliever for him whereas I was cautiously optimistic that it was allowing my muscles to rediscover their proper firing patterns. Bill then took a new step to disrupt dysfunctional firing patterns, which was receiving acupuncture.

A Flagstaff acupuncturist I’d located for treating my hypertension indicated that she had tremendous success treating back pain, so Bill jumped at the opportunity to try the new approach. That which she indicated sometimes happens, happened to him: he got worse before he got better. Interestingly, though his back pain became worse after his first treatment, his posture dramatically improved. We both took that as a hopeful sign, that the muscles in his back were renegotiating their roles but not without comment. Fortunately, he had no such backlash with the 3 subsequent treatments.
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A cargo mule train on the move on the south side of the canyon.

Also, when back in Flagstaff between our 2 stays in the Grand Canyon, we bought Bill a cervical collar, a foam neck brace. The hypothesis was that if the brace kept Bill’s head and neck more aligned with the rest of his spine, rather than being in their chronically forward bending or ”tech neck” position, that it would unload his low back, allowing those muscles to heal more quickly. The human head weighs about 12 pounds. When you lean forward, the load on the low back increases by 50%.

The cervical collar was an instant hit. Within minutes, Bill could feel the strain on his upper back muscles as they started doing their job of supporting his head. His chronic slouch had allowed them to be bypassed and they sent-out immediate “This isn’t fair” alarm bells. Not surprisingly, the spasm area in his low back suddenly felt better. His low back muscles were smiling from off-loading the work whereas his upper back muscles were furious to have to do their jobs after a lifetime of slacking. Less than an hour with the neck brace in position was all that he could tolerate with the first use of it.

Amazingly, after using the cervical collar off and on during the next 3 days, he was happy wearing it for all of a steep, 7-mile hike with almost 2,000’ of gain on the S Kaibab trail on the 4th day. He was so comfortable, he forgot to remove it at lunch. And even more remarkable, this hard hike was the first day during which he was totally free of back pain since the injury in early September.
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The first wooden dory we’d seen on the Colorado River (upper left).

The hypothesis of shifting the muscle firing pattern was working for Bill as well: instead of snoozing and being overstretched, his upper back muscles were doing their job of contracting and stabilizing his spine without overusing the lower back muscles. This was a stunning and rapid result for a $15 intervention, the price of the neck brace.

We were both well on our way to implementing this new approach, correcting glitches in muscle firing patterns, to improve the comfort and resiliency of our bodies. Challenging our bodies to perform in new ways and at new levels on the trails was continuing to expose problems lurking just below the surface, which in turn was forcing us to find novel fixes to our problems. It is a painful process, but the payoffs have been life changing.

One can have aches and pains from inactivity or activity. We have been putting our money on solving the problems that arise from getting stronger and more durable rather than those that arise from using our bodies less. “Exceptionally successful aging” is still in our sights.

NEXT UP
We spend 6 weeks in the Flagstaff, AZ and Grand Canyon area each fall, both of which are at 7,000’ above sea level. We start with an altitude acclimation week in Flagstaff and another week there between our two 2-week stays at the park. Unfortunately, RV park usage is limited to 2 weeks at a time. We’d love to instead spend the entire 6 weeks in the Grand Canyon.

The Rim-2-Rim hiking season ends October 15 for almost all of us because the lodging on the N Rim closes at that time until May. We still enjoy being in the Grand Canyon, but our attention usually shifts to day hikes on the Rim and in the canyon upon our return for our last 2-weeks in the Park, but not this year. This year, Bill booked us for a night in the primitive campground at Hermit Creek, near the Colorado River, for our first backpacking trip. That and having dinner with a couple we met on a trail in the Dolomites back in 2017 were set to make our experience of the off-season at the Grand Canyon this fall more memorable.