Traveling with chronic pain requires a conscious, mental effort of ignoring that pain. Actually, that’s one of the
On my second day in the Rocky Mountains, I hiked around the campground to stretch out. My lower back was becoming increasingly painful. I was tired from not sleeping well, and fatigue started to pull at my muscles and brain. I drove around the eastern section of the National Park and stopped at a fairly easy hiking path. I walked slowly but fairly well for about a mile on a gentle, uphill path before pain started stabbing into my lower back and hips. I found a log and sat for a few minutes, enjoying the peace of being the only human there, listening to the sounds of birds, the rustlings of branches and leaves, the occasional hum or zip of a fly or other insect, and enjoying the smell of the pines, other trees, and of the cool, clean air. The view of the mountains, even among the forest, encircled the bowl of the horizon. The snow capped mountains surrounded everything and stretched into the sky so far the moon, which was visible even in daylight, seemed to be poised between the peaks. The peacefulness, the beauty, were relaxing and invigorating. Focusing on my environment instead of my pain allowed me to relax and feel better. After sitting there for awhile, I felt able to go on, and slowly made my way back to the minivan, this time downhill. My back still bothered me as I drove, but I felt much better in every other way. I traveled along the winding mountain roads, stopping at some of the small lookout points, which were very small parking spots on the sides of the road for tourists to safely stop, get out of their vehicles and take pictures. I took many photos, but also used those stops to walk around a bit and stretch amid a stunningly gorgeous landscape created out of such enormous pressures and friction that part of a continent was forged into a number of huge mountain ranges extending from New Mexico through Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and up into Canada.
Because I had promised my niece I would be in Las Vegas in a few days to visit her, I headed out of the park and across Colorado, promising myself I would return again perhaps next summer. I drove down and then up, winding through the Rockies, at times driving through snow laden passes and deep tunnels. There were plenty of gorgeous places to stop and walk around as I drove toward Utah and Nevada. I passed Colorado Springs, Vail, Aspen and lots of smaller, lesser known ski resorts and hot spring towns. The beautiful scenery distracted me so much I didn’t realize how stiff and sore I had become until I stopped and got out of the minivan. Eventually the landscape changed from alpine to desert, and then I was in Utah. The hot wind blew fiercely there, stirring up the dust and sand all around. I passed two motorcyclists parked on the side of the highway. The bikes were shaking so badly in the wind where they stood that I could see the motions before I could make out what the riders looked like as I drove toward, then past them. The rest areas in Utah gave out free coffee for which I was grateful. I imagine truckers are also grateful – there aren’t many places to stop along that route.
I realize caffeine makes symptoms of fibromyalgia, and probably of arthritis, worse, but I find I can’t function well without it. It’s the only thing that helps me fend off the fatigue and brain fog that are part of the curse of fibromyalgia, especially when traveling. When the fatigue hits hard, I feel as though I am trying to walk underwater; my body becomes that sluggish and heavy. My brain also functions sluggishly then, so I make poor decisions, and my short term memory fails me in small but sometimes important ways. I drink coffee and tea to prevent that. Sometimes I have to weigh short term benefits versus long term consequences, and the short-term wins.
I made it to Arches National Park in Utah that evening. Unfortunately, I had again stupidly not made a reservation at the campground there, so I had to go farther on to Moab and camp at the KOA there. By the time I pulled into my site, it was getting dark, and again, I slept in the back of the minivan. The army cot seemed to be slowly making my back worse, but I wasn’t really paying close enough attention to what that pain was telling me. I would pay for this later, in Las Vegas. I sat at my site’s picnic table and ate a power bar, nuts, a peach, and drank a can of V8 juice. That combination seemed to work better at helping my energy and comfort levels than some of the meals I ate at restaurants. The wind wasn’t as bad there as it had been on the highway, but it was still strong enough to blow sand and grit into everything. I crawled into the minivan to escape the wind. I could see some of the scenery from my windows before the night completely enveloped it all. Part of the campground was surrounded by sheer walls of rock jutting out of the sand and gravel, ending in a flat top. The mesa stretch outward beyond the town. In the dimming light of evening, it looked black.
The next morning, the rising sunlight turned the mesa bright red and orange with streaks of brown and black lines in various parts of it. There were large boulders and strangely shaped rock walls in the same kind of sandstone all around Moab. I ate an omelet for breakfast at a local diner, hoping the protein would give me energy, then drove back to the park entrance straddled among more massive mesas and buttes of the red, porous sandstone. I drove through the national park to see the unique desert and rock formations, stopping at a few of the small, easy trails to hike in and see some of the arches and other formations. I limited myself to ones that weren’t too strenuous in terms of hills and length; there are several of those. The park even has a small road and parking lot for people who can’t do the strenuous trails to drive up close enough to one of the most famous arches and photograph it fairly well. I drove into the scenic views that were accessible by auto and took photos from a greater distance than if I had been able to hike in, but I still enjoyed the unusual, beautiful, grand scenery, stretched out my muscles and joints and exercised them, but didn’t overdo it. Most of the National Parks, I discovered all along this trip, have some kind of handicapped access to enough parts of each park for people with physical impairments to enjoy at least a small portion of the park's attractions or sites. Arches National Park is probably one of the best in terms of access to its wonders for everyone. After about four hours of sightseeing there, I drove on to Nevada, again stopping every hour or two to walk around the van or around a rest area.
Utah is pretty much all desert along I-70 and I-15. The mountains, canyons, bluffs, and peaks change in shapes and sizes along the way, and the desert is uniquely beautiful because of them. Unfortunately, there is little else along the way, even gas stations. I was grateful that I left Arches National Park with almost a full tank. The scenery made it easy to focus on what I was seeing rather than on what my body was feeling. Eventually, the landscape changed and resembled Colorado more, but drier. As I approached Arizona, the environment changed back to desert with large red rock canyons and buttes, though covered in Sonoran desert plants, especially cholla cacti. Eventually the small part of Arizona I went through turned into Nevada and the Mojave desert, which is mostly dirt, dust, rocks, a few trees, and some varied grasses, at first, but then Joshua Trees and other cacti started to appear, and eventually the Joshua Trees seemed to populate the dry, sand and gravel strewn mountains, and then the flat desert areas like dwarfed, oddly shaped, spiny trees. By the time I arrived at my niece’s house, I was exhausted and my back and hips hurt, but I was sure I could do the rest of this trip. I spent four nights there. We took the sightseeing slowly, doing one major hike a day, usually in the morning before the heat finished its climb into triple digits.
I may be one of the few people in the U.S. who stayed in Las Vegas without ever going to The Strip or casinos. I grew up by Atlantic City, which has its own casinos, and go back there to visit my parents often, so The Strip is not much of an attraction for me. I was there to see my niece and her husband. However, there are beautiful state and national parks in the Nevada desert. Red Rock Canyon is my niece's favorite, so we hiked around there for quite a while. We drove the scenic route around Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area then hiked a short way into some of the more interesting paths. My back was so bad from driving that we didn't hike as far as we should have to really see some of its most beautiful sites, but we did enjoy much of it. It was also extremely hot - it got up to 97 F that day, which was cooler, really, than usual at that time of the year. The next day it was about 105.
We saw the tortoises that are kept there in an enclosure within the visitors' center and learned about the desert plant life and the local burros and horses. My niece was disappointed that we didn’t see any of the burros or horses as we drove into the national park. She said she usually saw quite a few of them in her past visits there. Apparently the Bureau of Land Management relocated approximately 200 of the 250 wild burros and horses that roamed in the area. The staff members we spoke with at the visitors' center could not give us definite answers as to where the animals were relocated, only that they were moved, most of them to somewhere in California because there wasn't enough water or grass to maintain that many of the burros and horses. Apparently the numbers of the burros and wild horses had exceeded what the area could sustain, so they removed many of them. We left the visitor's center to go hiking.
One of the trails brought us to a section of rock walls and boulders that contain both petroglyphs (art carved into the rock) and pictographs (art painted on the rock). By the time we returned to my niece’s house, I was exhausted, and my lower back felt as though it were on fire. I thought a night in a real bed would help, but the mattress I slept on may have been too comfortable. It had as little support as the army cot. The next day we went to Hoover Dam and walked around the tourist section of it, as well as taking a guided tour through it. The next day my back finally gave way.
The day before I was to leave Las Vegas, my lower back went into such spasms that I could barely walk. I was in the shower and leaned forward to grab a shampoo bottle. A sharp, burning rod of pain seemed to stab into the lower lumbar region of my spine like a branding iron had been jammed into my back. I spent several hours lying on the floor, hoping gravity would straighten out my lower back, and trying to stretch out the muscle spasms with exercises I had learned from a chiropractor a few years before. I took a lot of Tylenol and a Tramadol. Eventually I felt well enough to walk gingerly down the stairs.
We didn’t do much that day. We talked, and I worked on my laptop, writing, and planning the rest of my trip with help from niece, alternating standing and walking around with sitting at the table. It’s important to know when to give up and take it easy. I realized that I needed to conserve my strength and time for the places that I really wanted to see from here on in the trip. My sister lives in Dallas, but to get to there from Tucson, which I really wanted to see again, and then back on track for New Orleans, would add at least several more days of travel and long driving, plus the time spent staying there. She was busy teaching summer classes, so I didn’t know how much I would actually get to see her if I went there. I decided to not go that way on my eastward return trip though I felt bad about missing her. And, to be honest, driving through Texas is worse than driving through Kansas in terms of the landscape. It would be faster and easier to drive from Tucson through the southern part of Texas to get to Galveston, which I really wanted to see. So I adjusted my plans accordingly, and then the next day drove the last, long western stretch to San Diego. I was feeling better; the back pain had dimmed to a dull, throbbing ache. I had already promised my brother I’d be there, and he’d taken off days from work; plus, I was looking forward to seeing it again. I had lived there for a few years when I was younger. I took a lot of Tylenol on the drive out there and had to stop every hour and walk around to give my back a break.
I am at my most relaxed by an ocean, probably because I grew up in a house on the beach block of a barrier island in New Jersey. My brother’s apartment in San Diego looked out onto Imperial Beach. His front deck stretched out over the sand. I slept on a futon – just hard enough to give my back plenty of support – in the front room looking out onto the beach with the sliding door slightly open and the sounds of the surf rolling over and crashing against the sand just a few yards away. I slept better there than even in my own bed in my own house. Being relaxed makes a big difference to my pain levels and ability to sleep. During the day, we walked around the estuary that acts as a border between California and Mexico, and other historic or beautiful sites of the city. My brother has his own health problems, so we took our time and wandered slowly, resting when one of us needed to (usually me). I visited with an old friend who lives there, as well, and mostly relaxed. By the time I headed south and east toward Arizona, I was feeling much better.
In Tucson, I stayed at the house of a friend and her husband who were away on their own travels. They are 72 and 80, respectively, suffer from arthritis, but still manage to travel extensively throughout the year. They consider travel part of the point of retirement. They are my inspiration. While I stayed at their house and wandered around Tucson, visiting old haunts from my graduate school days at the university there, and taking small hikes in the mountains in Saguaro National Monument, they were partying with relatives in Vermont. They spent the entire summer driving and taking boat trips all through Maine and Canada, then drove back through Michigan and the great lakes. They hit almost every state in between and on the drive back to Tucson, as well. Throughout my trip, when the pain or fatigue kicked in and I wondered if I should go on or just sell the minivan and take a plane ride home, I thought of them. I figured if they could keep going, so could I. The hardest part of the trip, though, was still ahead.
End of Part II. To be continued in Part III.