A Big-Gulp® for the Soul Apr04

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A Big-Gulp® for the Soul

Bikram Pose

Bikram Pose

If Nature Church Sedona was a gorgeous protestant or catholic cathedral, invigorating and inspiring, lifting your eyes and spirit toward heaven, then Nature Church Tucson was Bikram Yoga. We happened to be in Tucson during some unseasonably warm weather, low to mid-90’s, and while the sheer expanse of desert and cacti was inspiring as you first took it in, it quickly became a bit repetitive and the worship, so to speak, was very body-local. Bikram Yoga, 26 postures, 105 degrees – Nature Church Tucson, 9 types of cacti, 93 degrees.

We hiked 3 days in a row, pushing ourselves to increasingly longer distances and more challenging terrain each day and on the fourth day we snuck into the indian casino pool and it was good. But first the hikes.

I already mentioned that our backyard was the Tucson Mountain State Park so it was an easy choice to head out for our first hike right from our RV door into the desert. We strategically planned to get an early start to avoid the more severe sun and heat of the afternoon and our neighbor happened to be out and about so we enlisted him for some advice on where to aim ourselves. Gilford and his wife Nelda were in the 5th wheel trailer next to us at Justin’s Diamond RV Park. They were in their early eighties, soul mates of nearly 60 years, he a retired botanist and she a retired teacher turned novelist. They hiked 2 hours most every morning.

Gilford suggested we take the middle trail of the 4 that started in our RV park and mentioned an overlook that was about 2 miles out as a destination and turn-around point. Now this was music to my ears. Not the part about the 2 miles which was a great distance for a 2 hour hike for us, not the part about knowing the exact trail we needed to take to get there, these are the things that Allison craves. She wants to know how long, how far and that it’s a well-marked trail that someone put on a map. For me, it was the overlook with a view of the valley. I love the destination, the treat at the middle point where I get to celebrate an arrival and see something wonderful (ok and rest a bit too). The bigger the treat, even if it’s just big in my mind, the better the hike.

Zero shade happening here.

Zero shade happening here.

Over the last month we’ve developed a habit of sounding off the items on our various check lists to each other for good measure. We have several related to the RV of course, but we also have a check list for starting out on a hike. The Hike 6: sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, water, keys, camera. CHECK! And away we went, scuffing off into the hard scrabble sand and dirt of the Sonoran Desert. Our early departure time meant that the sun was lower in the sky, it was at our backs on the way out which we really didn’t appreciate enough at the time, but there was no breeze and the shade offered by a Saguaro forest is patchy at best. Our brows and pits dripped, our skin baked, our water warmed, an hour passed and the trail got harder and harder to make out.

Allison was calling for a turn around. I was hot and our water was low, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. I wanted my treat, even if the hills it might be in were still quite a ways off in the distance. I argued for continued confidence in the now invisible trail because we’d been met and passed by a couple of mountain bikers coming the opposite direction to us, “See, there’s a trail of tire tracks we can follow.” Ali wasn’t really buying it, the bike tracks went off in about 8 different directions, but she indulged me for another 10 minutes of walking. Then she asked in a polite soft sweet voice, with only the thinnest of veils flapping up and down over her motives, “How far away do you think those hills are?”

Surrender. Concession. “Okay, okay. Fine. You’re right, the hills are too far away. We must have done something wrong.” We turned around. Allison took that opportunity to remind me that it’s not always about the end point. The actual achievement of the goal is fleeting, it’s the process of reaching that goal where the real meat of the experience is. She’s a smart girl. I was just about to shed the dejection I was wearing solely based on Ali’s truism, when we saw the most enormous bunny hopping through the cactus in front of us. It was the size of a dog or a small fox – a huge rabbit – so huge I’m sure it would have insisted we call it a hare. Glee and squealing was followed by a failed attempt to grab the camera in time. It wasn’t an overlook with a view of the valley, but it was treat enough.

Our return trip shouldn’t have been a problem. We picked up the trail again and were making good time, but Gilford had mentioned we should take the West Entrance trail on our way home if we didn’t want to back-track over the same terrain. So as we approached the same gate in the fence we’d come through before, we passed it up and continued heading west to try to hook up with our alternate trail. It turned out we’d been on the West Entrance trail the whole time which only became clear as we spied houses and the road that borders the State Park coming closer and closer. Normal everyday Allison is just a little uncomfortable with being lost, no big deal. A hot, sweaty, tired Allison despises being lost. I suggested that we weren’t really lost, we were just wrong. A hot, sweaty, tired Allison despises being wrong too. I refrained from repeating that thing about the process just then.

The next day we planned to hike in the Saguaro National Forrest and chase a sunset. We’d read in one of our books about a particular spot that was ideal for that, a raised hill with a short loop trail that led to some petroglyphs. The plan was to start out at 4:00 pm, hit a few different trails ahead of that one, and to be at the petroglyph trail at 6:30 pm in time to say goodnight to the sun. It was just a 12 mile drive from our RV Park, through the State Park, to the West Saguaro National Forrest Visitors Center. FYI, we bought the $80 annual pass to all national parks, which has been genius and paid for itself already after just one month and we always go to the Visitors Center before we explore a park. Not only do we really enjoy the movies they often have that explain the history and importance of the park in a nice 15-20 minute synopsis, but we run into things like Prickly Pear Candy and Chili Dark Chocolate.

Dear God, thank you for this chocolate!

Dear God, thank you for this chocolate!

Chili Dark Chocolate! Was this something that could be left alone to wait for 2 or 3 hours of hiking? Ali asserted that it was far more valuable than a reward for hiking, it was a reward in an of itself simply by it’s discovery. Besides, it might melt. So we licked our lips between full-throated mmm’s and embarked on the first of our trails – the Discovery Trail – a paved half mile loop out into the Saguaro Desert and back, suitable for wheel chairs. Good thing we had the chocolate high going on, because it was an underwhelming trail to say the least. Loop shmoop! I guess every athlete knows the importance of a warm up, I’m just not sure many would incorporate chocolate into theirs. We’re cutting edge for sure.

Back in the car for another 5 minutes and we arrived at the head of the second trail in the plan, the Hugh Norris Trail. A summit, it said on the sign! A summit! A treat for Linny, yay! It’s funny how two people can read the same paragraph and come away with such different impressions of the content. Assent, long, difficult, 7 miles round-trip versus quite spectacular, splendid views.

Trail sign - super encouraging!

Trail sign – super encouraging!

I saw the unending steps leading out and up, into the army of statuesque Saguaro that covered the hillside, and started bouncing in place like a puppy. “We can do it! Let’s do it! We’ll just go to the top of this hill, we won’t go the whole way.” I think it was the chocolate – I was using the caffeine-influenced definition of hill.

Stairs be damned, let's go!

Stairs be damned, let’s go!

Steps are not usually very encouraging to me with my bad left knee (it’s arthritis the doctor said, nothing really he could do). It hurts a bit on every stair, big tall ones especially, and it’s harder on the way down than on the way up.

The big three.

The big three.

It’s not a huge deal, I go up and down stairs all the time, including the really big three that are required to get into our RV, it just hurts and I live with it. I had also noticed on our other hikes, like the one in Sedona, that my knee had about a 90 minute cut off, steps or not, before the pain and swelling became irritating, which gets in the way of the churchness of Nature. So as we literally stepped up onto the Hugh Norris trail, I was ready for the twinges of pain, but I didn’t care.

Four steps, five, six. No pain. Granted, these were the “trail kind” of steps with a deep run and a somewhat short rise so the effort required on the lift wasn’t super serious. Fifteen minutes in and I still felt really good, zero problems. I yelled over my shoulder to Ali, “I feel so strong today, my legs feel good.” She gave me a little “yay” and we kept climbing. A few minutes later I shouted back again, “Don’t be scared, I’m gonna run for a bit,” and I took off around the corner taking each long step in a single stride. I pushed myself up the hill for exactly 50 steps and then did my own private Rocky Balboa dance. Triumphant. I waited for Ali, sipped on my water, asked my heart to please stay in my chest, sincerely thanked God for my legs, cottage cheese thighs, creaky knees and all – and took in the already glorious view we’d gained on the valley below.

In the movie at the Visitors Center a Native American Elder explained that the Saguaro was once a man, but the Creator turned him into a cactus making him part of the earth and it is his job to remind all generations to come of man’s connection and relationship to the earth. Standing there, I felt utterly reminded, deeply connected. When Ali came up on my spot, we took some photos, grinned at each other a lot and then assessed our progress deciding we were about half way up. After 4 more steep switch backs with progressively taller steps in the trail, we were really huffing and puffing. It seemed the right time to offer up a cheer for both of us. “I think we’re almost there,” I said, “the treat is just around the next corner, one or two more switch backs and we’ll be at the top.”

Blooming Ocotillo Cactus

Blooming Ocotillo Cactus

Ali and I decided afterwards that it was like the mountain was wearing a pair of Spanx, concealing all of it’s curves and bulges from us putting on a façade of skinny and easy to climb. You couldn’t really see the next switchback until you were almost at the top of the one you were climbing up, they were that steep and yet still the top of the mountain eluded us for several more turns.

I love these rocks!

I love these rocks!

Finally we arrived and the world opened up to us in every direction. I held my breath at the sheer beauty and fought the lump in my throat. Also at the top was a big pile of chunky rocks tipped up onto one another, my favorite climbing friends and next to them a beautiful tall Saguaro. The video isn’t nearly vivid or big enough to convey what it was that we saw and felt, but then neither are my words, so I’ll just leave it at that.

We bounded down the same trail we’d just spent 70 minutes climbing, gravity now our dearest hiking friend. We counted intervals of the stairs and timed ourselves trying to calculate just how many steps we’d conquered that afternoon and came up with something like 1,500 one-way. It didn’t take long into the descent for my knee to start whining and then while we drove the 10 minutes through the park to the final trail for our short sunset hike, every leg muscle had tightened up. So much so that when I got out of the car to start walking, I audibly moaned and stumbled over to the trail sign to hold myself up. There it was – the humility that is so necessary to keep balance in our lives. My legs warmed up enough to get me to the petroglyphs and we enjoyed a pink and delicate sunset.

Clouded sky at sunset.

Clouded sky at sunset.

The culmination of our 3-day hiking rally was a 5 mile round-trip into Sabino Canyon to see 7 Falls. The canyon was inside the Cornado National Forest, about an hour and fifteen minute drive from our RV Park so we knew it was going to be a long day. We packed a full backpack of snacks, lunch and extra water and set out early that morning. They don’t allow cars inside the park grounds, instead visitors have to pay for tram rides that leave hourly from the Visitors Center to tour the canyon or get to trail heads. Ali and I made it on the 10 am tram.

The tram.

The tram.

The early part of the hike was super fun. We had to criss-cross over the river and back several times, balancing on well-placed rocks easily, not even getting our feet wet and we climbed a gentle grade deeper and deeper into the canyon. It was an easy enough incline that we could keep a good pace and still talk to each other without those dramatic pauses that happen when our lungs are screaming for more air. It was a beautiful, but very hot day. The teenage girls that started the hike in front of us wore bikini tops, cut off shorts and keds for their hiking attire. We thought for a minute that we might be able to ridicule them, but then they left us in the dust at a pace we couldn’t even begin to match. We saw them again an hour and a half later at the falls laying out on the rocks mostly-naked. We allowed ourselves 1 second of ridicule.

There were all ages on the trail which helped us stay positive and competitive for the most part, but the distance and mostly the heat started to wear on us after an hour in. There weren’t any signs or markers of any significance along the trail, certainly nothing that offered a status or any feedback on how much farther we had to go. We could look back and see the valley and tiny houses in the distance, and the river was flowing more aggressively – all positive signs – but then we saw them. The dreaded switch backs and people so far away and high up that they looked like ants crawling up the side of the mountain across the river from us.

A look BACK at the switchbacks after we'd already conquered them.

A look BACK at the switchbacks after we’d already conquered them.

We started our way up, it was steep hiking for sure and we were doing OK, except an old guy kept tail-gating Ali. He was hiking faster than his wife (and faster than us clearly) but he wouldn’t pass us when we offered because he said he needed to “wait for his lady anyway”. Cartoon anger steam was puffing from Ali’s ears and she began mumbling, “I’ll help you wait for your lady by knocking you on your…” Quick action required, “Hey, how about we eat a little snack to get some energy.” We pulled over to the side of the trail, leaned on a rock and ate a handful of wasabi almonds. Guess who pulled over too?! His LADY ambled up a minute later and they both took a break, right next to us.

Snack break photo

Snack break photo

Just then a couple rounded a corner and headed down the trail toward us. We NEEDED feedback for pity’s sake. On a scale of Ewok to Chewbacca, how big and hairy was the climb up the side of this mountain going to be? The couple and I smiled at each other from a distance and then as they came up on our somewhat surly group I said, “Hey there, we are in desperate need of some encouragement. How much farther is it to the falls?” They gushed and raved about how the falls were so worth it and said we were just another half mile away, but that it was hard hiking. OK, so we had a Chewbacca on our hands, but at least we knew things now. While the old guy’s lady made the couple repeat the same info to them, we took off.

Because they found out we were almost there, our legs moved with new found excitement. But that last half-mile was incredibly steep and narrow and the final crossing over a dry part of the river to the falls required scrambling up and over and down 4 – 6 foot boulders. As I huffed and grunted through the last 100 yards, I found myself worrying for the lady, hoping that her old guy would stick with her and help her out at least during this part. We found a great spot to each our lunch right at the foot of the falls on a chair-shaped rock, but I have to admit the experience wasn’t quite so moving. There were about 30 people walking around the falls with us at any given time, people coming and going.

Seven Falls

Seven Falls

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Ali sitting in our lunch spot.

Ali sitting in our lunch spot.

So at this point, I’m just as tired of writing about hiking as I was of the actual hiking that day, so let me wrap this up by sharing just a couple thoughts on that word – tired. Before this trip I used that word practically every day for years, but what I meant was tired in my mind, tired emotionally, tired from stress, empty, drained, sick and tired. And still no matter how tired I felt, I often had trouble sleeping. I slept like a Tivo, still managing my schedule, updating to do lists, searching for things to recommend to myself the next day. I now know again the other, and dare I say more real, definition of tired – body tired, full-heart tired, happy tired, the tired who’s best friend word is sleepy.

You know those books “Chicken Soup for the Soul”? It’s a homey metaphor, your soul snuggled up in bed under blankets with a pile of snotty tissues on the night stand, sipping the curing soup. Or maybe your soul’s just cold from playing outside in the snow and needs the soup to warm up. Either way it’s nice, but I’m gonna branch out with my own metaphor, and I know I’ll have a little trouble with it, but I’m going for it anyway.

Okay, now that's just ridiculous!

Okay, now that’s just ridiculous!

Hiking was like a Big-Gulp for my soul. In my day that was the biggest size of fountain soda you could get from 7-Eleven and there are probably 3 or 4 sizes bigger than that now, so there’s problem number one. It’s also meant to carry soda which even if you choose a diet option isn’t really healthy, all full of chemicals and artificial things, so there’s another problem.

But here’s the thing – when Ali and I were alone at the top of that spanx-wearing Saguaro-covered mountain, reveling in the unexpected power of our clunky, but spunky legs, surrounded by the unending beauty of God’s earth in every direction, I felt my soul get bigger.

It’s like I’ve been carrying around one of those small styro-foam coffee cups and worrying about not having enough, walking slowly so that I don’t spill even one drop of my soul juice, and now I have a Big-Gulp cup and it’s so full that juice is sloshing over the sides when I run down a mountain trail, but it doesn’t matter. My cup is huge and it’s full, it runneth over and I will keep running. Run, Lin! Run!