All posts by Dr. Mike

On Dyslexia And Backpacking

Freddie Nietzsche has referenced the impact of life’s difficulties in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but with that said I do have the ability to turn something negative into something positive. 

 

I have mentioned my dyslexia in the past, but I think it deserves re-referencing here. As some of you know, I was unable to read in second grade. My teacher told my parents that she thought I was very bright and attributed this inability to poor vision. My parents took me to an optometrist who prescribed a very weak eyeglass prescription. I guess optometrists have to make a living.  

 

My 7-year-old expectations were dashed when I put on the specs only to discover that I was as illiterate as before. The fear that my parents would be angry at me pushed me towards a solution; I created my own method to make sense out of the jumble of random symbols that my mind was seeing. I feel that my alternative way of reading has given me an advantage. I may read slower than many, but I have superior comprehension. Beyond comprehension, I appear to have an excellent ability to understand the subtext and sub-connections in a written piece. My reading difficulty turned into a reading advantage for me.

 

I apply this concept to other aspects of my life; most recently to the subject of backpacking.In a past post, I wrote about my trip to Glacier National Park, and how it had a life-altering impact on me. A subplot in this post centered around backpacking. 

 

I enjoy day hiking, but I declined an offer from my friend, Tom to backpack with him. Tom is an inexperienced backpacker who challenged himself to hike in the backcountry armed only with knowledge from YouTube videos, and a healthy cash donation to REI.  

 

His 4 day/3 night trip turned into a 6 day/5 night experience due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical exhaustion. Despite these barriers, Tom succeeded in his quest and enjoyed the experience. Further, he feels that he bonded even closer to his son, as they had to work together to accomplish their goal.

 

I am happy for Tom’s accomplishment, but I am also grateful that he brought me a wealth of information on this topic. I had thought a lot about backpacking and read extensively on it, but third-hand data can only yield so much real-world details. Through Tom’s narrative, I was able to get an up-close understanding of the experience. What were the primitive campsites like? How did he go to the bathroom? What would he change in future hikes? What were the positive things about the experience? What gear did he wish he brought? What equipment that he brought was unnecessary? It is one thing to watch a YouTube video from an athletic 25-year-old backpacker, it is another thing to listen to a 52-year-old guy’s first time out. Tom’s story gave real context that allowed me to visualize myself in his situations.  

 

My personality is such that I get enjoyment from learning information and skills. As a new area of interest, the topic backpacking offers both opportunities. Additionally, my solo day hiking trips revealed something about myself that surprised me. Despite being a loner, I very much wanted to share my experiences with someone else, and I wanted to do that sharing in the first person.

 

I already had a sleeping bag, and I decided to buy an inexpensive lighter weight tent. Other small purchases followed: a blowup pillow, Smartwool socks, a better headlamp. 

 

My next phase was to try out new behaviors in a controlled environment. I set up my little tent in the living room, unrolled my sleeping bag, and climbed in for a nap. Success!

Setting up my backpacking tent in my living room. Making sure my sleeping bag fits (and taking a little nap).

When Tom came off the trail he gifted me all of his Mountain House freeze-dried food with the statement, “I’ll never eat that stuff again!” I have eaten MH on occasion and found it reasonably palatable. However, Tom ate Mountain House for all of his meals, and quickly became sick of his soft and lukewarm diet. I would likely have a similar reaction, and so I have been exploring other simple backpacking meals. In fact, I have created a few homemade “freezer bag” meals that my official tester (my daughter, Gracie) said tastes better than the commercial stuff. 

Trying to rehydrate pasta and my own dehydrated veggies. Rehydrating commercial freeze dried veggies. Making my own freezer bag meals that will be compared with a MH meal.Thanksgiving dinner in a freezer bag. Just add hot water and wait 10 minutes! My meal rehydrated.

 

The next phase of my experiment will be to attempt a backyard sleepout. I’m curious if I’ll be able to stand up straight after sleeping on the hard ground all night. Pending the weather forecast, I will likely do this in the next few days.

 

So, will I backpack? Unfortunately, I have run into some pitfalls in advancing this process. My goal was to do a three-night hike with Tom next summer when he travels to Yellowstone National Park. When I mentioned this to him, he was receptive but informed me that he was thinking about a 5-6 night adventure rather than a 3-night trip. This long trip would not be wise for me based on several factors. Tom is younger than me but in similar physical shape. Despite drinking a lot of water, he became dehydrated, and due to the sequelae of electrolyte loss simple movement became difficult for him. It is also clear that he became physically depleted after day three of his hike; this was his energy limit based on his level of physical conditioning. Any additional days became ordeals for him to conquer rather than enjoy. I would likely have a similar experience. Lastly, the way that he coped with this exhaustion was to lengthen his trip, advancing his adventure from 4 days to 6 days. This expansion would be multiplied with a more extended trip. For instance, a 6-day trip could turn into 9 or 10 days. Based on all of this, it would be foolish for me to consider such a long hike. I did suggest to him that we go on a few short local overnighters, which would allow me to check out my ability in situ, but as of this moment, he isn’t too interested.

 

What about other options? It would be great to hike with my son, Will, but he has no interest. Julie has never expressed a desire to go backpacking. My other kids are busy with their lives, friends, and activities. 

 

I am starting to explore the option of an organized club or Meet Up group, but I wonder if the cohorts would be too advanced for me. I have even pondered finding someone on Craigslist, or some other public forum. What would I say in an ad? “Wanted a middle-aged or older guy who has never backpacked who would like to go backpacking with someone equally inept.” For some reason, I don’t think I would get a lot of takers.

 

At this point, I am enjoying learning about a new topic and testing out new skills. If this hobby advances further, all the better. With that said, I believe that learning new things is always useful, even when the knowledge doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose. Seemingly specific information can often be generalized. For instance, my ability to develop decent freezer bag meals is directly related to the many years of hotel room cooking that I did when I worked 2 days a week in Rockford.

 

My goal is to enjoy the journey and not negate the process by only focusing on the end game.

 

Today I told you about my backpacking transformation, but the same techniques can be used when dealing with much more difficult problems. In fact, these rules also apply to other issues, even trauma. There are several factors necessary to turn an unwanted experience (a negative) into one that is desired (a positive).

 

1. Understand the process. 

2. Explore the pitfalls. 

3. Practice the behaviors. 

4. Evaluate if the overall outlay of time and energy are justified.

 

This methodology works, and so I thought I would pass the tips on to you. 

 

Peace

Coping With An Empty Nest.

A $50 Sunbeam microwave oven sits on my basement floor. The device is positioned haphazardly, and it partially obstructs the path to our basement fridge. A Target build-it-yourself cube bookcase looks awkward in our living room. Caddy-corner to the cube is a pile of unopened bedding: a masculine grey plaid comforter, mattress liner, grey sheets, and pillowcases. On the second floor of our home resides a collection of random objects: a folding solar panel, a Kiato worldband radio, a universal AC plug adapter, and a brand new teal blue Hydro Flask.

The microwave and storage unit belongs to my daughter, Grace, who will be returning for her second year of university where she is studying Psychology and Pre-Medicine. The plaid comforter is my son William’s, who will be starting university majoring in Biology and Chemistry. The random items on the second floor are owned by my daughter, Kathryn, a recent graduate who will be spending the next 2 and ½ years in Africa teaching math as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I have been an active parent for the last 36 years, and with the departure of my youngest children, I will become an empty nester. In less than four weeks, my life will change in the most radical of ways.

I can already see the stress that this change is causing Julie, my wife. She has become quieter, and I can feel her distancing herself from me. I’m not taking offense to her actions, as I know that she is defending against her loss feelings with everything that she can. Past experiences predict that her former self will return soon after our last child is safely in their new environment.  

But how are these changes impacting me? That is a more difficult question as I tend to deal with negative feelings more obtusely. I do feel anxious.  Am I really anxious?

I remember worrying as a child. My mother was chronically ill with a severe form of diabetes, and it was not uncommon for her to be near death. I recall countless times when my father would wake me up in the middle of the night during one of her insulin reactions. I would find her sitting on a kitchen chair drenched in sweat. Her head would be lying limply on the kitchen table, and she would be moaning. 

In most instances, she would revive with a large glass of orange juice laced with sugar, and life would return to normal. However, there were other times when her blood sugar was too high instead of too low. Those times an ambulance would be called, and she would be whisked off to the hospital. During these episodes, my dad would wake everyone in the house. After my mother was taken by ambulance (which could be at two or three in the morning), my father would send me to bed with the expectation that I would go to school the next day. Now isolated from the rest of the family, I would feel hopeless, alone, and very anxious. I would pray for my mother’s health during these times. Unfortunately, my obsessive nature would also kick in, and I would believe that I had to say a series of prayers entirely, or my mother would be in mortal danger. It was common for me to fall asleep mid-prayers only to wake up to start the whole block of prayers again (if you are Catholic, think rosary). This staring to pray and then falling asleep could go on for the remainder of the night The next day the rest of the family would take the day off from work to sleep and to console each other, I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t included. Perhaps it was felt that kids don’t worry, or maybe it was just easier not to have to deal with me. With that said, those post-ambulance school days were miserable for me.

My prayer behavior suggests that I had a lot of anxiety, which I tried to silence with compulsive actions. But was that anxiety another mask to help cope with my feelings of isolation and sadness? I think the latter may be more accurate as (in this example) prayer helped my anxiety as I could turn my request over to God. However, in those days, I had no strategies to deal with isolation and sadness.

Now at 66, I believe that I’m once again using anxiety to mask my sad and lonely feelings. However, with years of life experience, I now have tools to deal with these emotions. 

I can explore if I have any control over a situation. For instance, I do have concerns over Kathryn going to Africa, but I have no control over her actions as she is an independent adult.  

I can ask myself if my concerns are valid. I worry about my college kid’s safety, but their new environments are likely as safe as their current one. 

I can assess if I am reading my feelings correctly. In this case, I’m feeling sad and dealing with loss and not anxiety. 

Why am I sad? I’m sad because I’ll miss my kids, who are an integral part of my life.

What is the reality of that loss? They will be physically away from me, but I can still have regular contact with them.

What is the likely outcome of this change? They will become self-sufficient adults. I will not lose them and this separation is temporary.

What else can I do to reduce my sadness? I can explore the benefits of being an empty nester. I can travel without burdening Julie with additional responsibilities. I can also travel with Julie more spontaneously and less expensively. I can explore other interests. I can learn new things. And so on. 

Naturally, I can still (and do) pray, just not as obsessively or magically.

Do these techniques eliminate my feelings? Of course not. However, when I start to feel myself sliding downward, it is easy to revisit these skills and feel better. Dear reader, it is OK to feel sad; I don’t want it to be my dominant feeling at a time when I should also be experiencing happiness. The reality is that my kids are all doing incredible things that will help them become more competent adults. I need to recognize and celebrate these positive changes and not focus exclusively on my loss.  

Life is full of transitions, and many of them are bittersweet. Kids going off to college, the loss of an elderly but suffering parent, transitioning from work life to a retired one; humans feel. However, it is pointless to sink into an abyss of despair. It is important to acknowledge feelings, understand them, and appropriately act on them. However, it makes no sense to be so consumed by feelings that you lose the joy of daily life… and as in all things, one foot in front of the other is sometimes the best way to get out of a negative place.

Dear reader, have you had to deal with anxiety, sadness, or the stress of life transitions? I hope that some of my techniques will be useful to you. Or perhaps you can explore your techniques using the above model as a template.

Peace.

Two of my kids will be attending college this year.

The Bear Chronicles

When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.


The offer was made in 2017, but I had to decline.  My friend, Tom had asked me if I wanted to go backpacking with him and his son, Charlie.  He had just come back from the remote Glacier National Park located in the west corner of Montana, and he wished to return in 2018 for a backpacking adventure. The trip would be a father/son experience as I would bring along my son, Will. 

The idea sounded exciting and appeared to be a great way to bond with Will, but he wasn’t interested in going, and the idea of spending a fortune on backpacking equipment without him didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me.  As luck would have it, Tom had to postpone the trip until this year, and during that interim, some things in my life had changed.

The main change being the purchase of an empty cargo van in the spring of 2018, and its eventual transformation into “Violet” my campervan. Violet’s design was the culmination of over twenty years of owning different campers.  I knew what I needed, and more importantly, I knew what I didn’t need to make a van conversion work for me. That conversion process started in the fall of 2018 when I had Wayfarer Vans insert a prefabricated interior into her.  That project added a bed, ceiling, walls, floor, and a kitchen counter to her interior. After that work was done, Tom and I spent several months customizing her further. We added three-hundred watts of roof solar panels, a vent fan, swivel front seats, LED ceiling lights, a custom storage compartment under her bed, a 12 volt Dometic refrigerator, and other refinements that turned a generic campervan into a travel companion with a personality.  She was christened with the name Violet as her interior cushions had a cheerful purple/violet color.  

My empty cargo van.
Empty van converted to Violet the campervan.

I had already taken her on a variety of short trips to Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Also, I traveled to Arizona to gather my graduating daughter’s possessions from the U of A.  During that trip, I sampled four national parks along the way, turning an ordeal drive into an enjoyable event. Those trips confirmed that my planning had paid off. Violet was not only roadworthy; she was very liveable.  

Tom and Charlie would travel to Glacier in Tom’s Ford Flex whose cavernous interior could easily be converted into sleeping quarters for the two of them.  I would follow them in Violet. In the ensuing two years, I decided that I didn’t want to spend days in the backcountry. While Tom and Charlie were backpacking, I would do day hikes where I could ponder and take photos.  It seemed like a plan.

I approached Julie about this idea months earlier, and on the surface, she was supportive.  However, I could sense an undertone of more ambivalent feelings. I convinced myself that clairvoyance was not in my job description and moved forward with my plans.

There wasn’t a lot to do to get Violet ready.  I did have her oil changed, and I gave her a good bath.  However, most of my camping gear was still in her storage bins from my Arizona trip.  I even kept some of the shelf-stable food in her cupboards, as it made no sense to unpack them only to repack them a few weeks later.

Everything was going according to plan until my aspirations were interrupted by, of all things, YouTube. YouTube’s algorithms are a closely guarded secret, but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to predict a viewer’s interest. I wasn’t explicitly looking up National Parks or hiking trips, but I started to get video suggestions on both.  More concerning was the fact that I was also getting a multitude of “killer bear” videos. These videos chronicled the terrible dangers of being in bear country, what to do if attacked by a bear, and the number of people in national parks who disappear never to be seen again.

Each ensuing video seemed to be more dramatic and made me more frantic.  There was the video of the trained “movie” bear who killed an actor with one bite.  There was the video of the happy hikers confronted by a mountain lion. And there was a video of a bear peeling a door off a sedan to obtain the food treats inside.  One video advised:  

“If a bear attacks, lie on your stomach and play dead. Don’t let him flip you over as he will eviscerate you. If he is starting to eat you, no longer play dead and fight him with any method at your disposal.”  

Fight back if he starts to eat you?  I ordered the largest can of bear spray that I could find.  More importantly, I began to develop a real concern that I was about to travel to a dangerous place, as Glacier has a healthy population of both black and Grizzly bears.

A few days before the trip, I pulled out a large plastic storage bin that I keep under Violet’s bed. That box contained some packing cubes in which I would stuff my clothing, one for socks, one for underwear, one for pants, etc.  It was warm in Illinois, and I was only going to bring shorts, but at the last minute, I tossed in a pair of jeans to be on the safe side. 

I needed to buy some snacks as well as some fresh food, and so I shopped for a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a packet of Oscar Mayer turkey cold cuts, a block of cheddar cheese, a case of water, and some chips and nuts.  I also bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. I usually don’t drink hard liquor, but I did have a drink in the evenings when I was traveling to Arizona, and I enjoyed it. Having a whiskey drink had a “manly/Indiana Jones” quality about it. I thought about buying some cigars, but I can only be so manly, and to be honest with you, the smell of cigar smoke makes me sick.

The night before the trip I powered up my Dometic chest-style fridge so it would be cold when I transferred my groceries from the house fridge into it the next morning. I returned my now filled clothing box, and I loaded a case of water into Violet’s “garage” area along with my Kloss carbon fiber travel guitar. Our plan was to leave Monday afternoon after Charlie’s guitar lesson. I had taken trips with Tom, where we traveled in the same car, and we did well together; I was hopeful for a pleasant trip to Glacier.

Decades before I had “caravaned” with my sister Nancy and my brother-in-law Mike.  During those trips, we had CB radios in both vehicles, and we were in constant communication. I found it fun to travel in tandem with them. Traveling in this manner was different with Tom.  There was little car to car communication, which left me in an alert mode so I could anticipate Tom’s next driving action. Also, he is a more aggressive driver than I am. Lastly, Tom likes to wait until the low gas warning light goes on before he looks for a gas station.  I want to top off my tank before the gauge registers one-quarter. This later habit of mine was amplified in the wilderness of North Dakota and Montana where one could drive 100 miles before finding the next gas station.

There were many miles where we were the only two cars on the road.

I already had a fear of bears, and I was now dealing with the concern that I would run out of gas on some desolate highway in the middle of nowhere. The only solution was to come clean to Tom about my fears, and with my confession, he agreed to stop for gas more frequently. Strike one on my tough and manly persona.

It is over 1500 miles to Glacier National Park or almost 24 hours of driving. My wife Julie and my daughter Kathryn helped me load audiobooks from the library on my phone, which I could then play via Bluetooth on Violets sound system. Also, I could use my trucker style “Blue Parrot” headset to take and make phone calls. Lastly, I did have a cell signal on most of the highways, which allowed me to use Spotify.  Despite all of this connectivity, I spent the majority of my time thinking, and I tried to use some of this unstructured space to quell my bear-phobia.

Since 1967 there have only been ten deaths due to bear attacks at Glacier, and there are typically only two incidents of aggressive bear events (maulings) per year at the park.  The chances of me being killed by a bear were tiny. I used these statistics in an attempt to appease my concerns, but I was still unsettled. I further analyzed my feelings, and I discovered that my “bear anxiety” was in part masking other feelings, principally my guilt for going on a fun adventure while my family remained at home. 

The first two travel nights, Tom, Charlie, and I boondocked. In other words, we camped in unauthorized and unimproved places.  The first night at a beautiful rest area in Minnesota. The second night in a gravel parking lot in Sand Springs, Montana, a town that consisted of a single building that contained a little store, restaurant, two gas pumps, and post office.

Boondocking at a beautiful rest stop in Minnesota.
Boondocking at desolate Sand Springs, Montana.
We were full of excitement and anticipation at this breakfast restaurant in North Dakota.

Sand Springs is about 360 miles, or about 6 hours away from St. Mary, which was our port of entry to the park.  When we left Sand Springs, I knew that we would be at Glacier by mid-afternoon that day.

Bored, I decided to troll for local radio stations.  I switched on the radio and pressed the scan button. Within seconds a voice crackled through:

“Glacier National Park officials say a man who disappeared on July 8 is still missing, and the trail he’s believed to have hiked on is now closed due to aggressive grizzly activity.”

Mark Sinclair, age 66, left his car at Logan Pass unlocked, and with his dog inside.  He never returned, and it is speculated that he was taken down by a Grizzly. At 66 he was exactly my age, was this a warning? My bear fears flooded in.

As we drove further north towards the Canadian border, the temperature got progressively colder, and it started to rain. It was a freezing, miserable rain, and I was grateful that I had packed a pair of long pants. 

We arrived at St. Mary, which was less of a town and more of a small conglomerate of buildings.  A place whose only purpose was to serve the needs of park goers. Two gas stations, a tiny grocery store, a couple of restaurants, and a few motels comprised the entire town. We turned left off Highway 89 and onto the Going-To-The-Sun road, and we entered the park.

Despite the cold and the rain, the initial views were spectacular and inspiring.  Although I was tired, I was awestruck, and my bear fears subdued. Glacier National Park has almost no cell coverage.  However, there is limited Verizon coverage for a few miles in from St Mary. I adjusted my T-Mobile phone so that it could make calls over wi-fi, and I switched on my prepaid Verizon hotspot.  I would be able to communicate with Tom, who was in the car in front of me, for at least a few more miles as we tried to locate a camping spot.

We bypassed the visitor’s center and went directly to the Rising Sun campground, about 5 miles west. Tom noted, “Last time I was here there were campsites open in the hard-sided (no tents) portion of this campground.”  Unfortunately, when we went to check that the entire section was closed due to aggressive bear activity. My bear concerns were on the rise.

“Mike, go to the visitor center, and I’ll check out some of the other campgrounds,” Tom said.  Tom drove off and traveled beyond the little Verizon bubble around St. Mary. I busied my time watching the park’s introductory video, and talking to one of the park rangers. “How serious do I have to be about bears?” I asked. “We have had a lot of bear activity this season.  I would advise hiking with others and making lots of noise. Don’t forget to carry bear spray.” Her comments didn’t reassure me. I looked at a notice on the center’s bulletin board which warned not only of bear activity but also mountain lions. Next to it was a flyer with Mr. Sinclair’s photo. “MISSING Mark Alan Sinclair.  Last seen Monday, July 8 at 2:30 PM on the Highline Trail.” “Crap,” I thought, this is not helping.

I reconnected with Tom who excitedly told me that there were open campsites at the Many Glaciers campground, about an hour away from St Mary.  An available campsite was fantastic luck, and we started the trek to Many Glaciers. We turned left out of the park on highway 89 and headed north.  We then took another left onto Many Glaciers Road for the long drive to the campground. The Many Glaciers Road was in terrible shape, riddled with huge potholes, and at times it seemed to dissolve into the gigantic Lake Sherburne below.  After we entered the campground, it became apparent why there were campsites available. A large red sign read:

WARNING

No tents, tent trailers, or sleeping on the ground allowed in this campground.  High Bear Frequency.

There had been two separate bear incidents in July at the campground, the last one requiring the rangers to “haze” two bears who refused to leave.  This caused park officials to ask all tenters to depart, which opened up their campsites. “Crap again,” I thought. But at least we had a campsite.

I talked to the camp host, Rae, who found us a spot, and then I went to the campgrounds kiosk to fill out paperwork and to pay my fee.  I have a National Parks Lifetime Pass, and so the nightly rate was only $11 for a beautiful site. We were staying for 8 days, but Tom was paying for half of the bill.  $44 for eight days of camping, perhaps my luck was changing.

“Are you sure that we can camp here for eight days?” I asked Tom. “Sure,” he replied.  We parked our vehicles, and I went to place the receipt on the campsite’s post. I looked down at the post and saw the word “reserved,” and my heart sank.  Just at that moment, Rae came by doing her rounds. “Can we have this site for eight nights?” She rose a single finger to indicate that it was for one night only.  We explained our situation and the fact that Tom and Charlie were going backpacking in the wilderness. Rae nodded and said she would see what she could do, but there was no certainty.

That night I could barely sleep.  It was raining outside, and something or someone kept bumping up against Violet.  My GI system was going hyperactive, but I didn’t remember where the bathrooms were, and there was no way that I was going to leave the safety of Violet and enter the black void of the night. I started to feel responsible not only for myself but also for Tom and Charlie, as if I had to solve the camping problem on my own.  Where could we leave Tom’s car? Could I camp outside the park? How much did the motels cost? Did they have rooms available? I had many questions, but no internet access to explore solutions.

At 7 AM the next morning, I heard Tom’s engine start-up.  He was going back to St. Mary to secure backpacking permits for Charlie and himself.  I didn’t go out to wish him goodbye; I was already beat.  

After they left I heated some water to make coffee and I cooked some oatmeal to which I added freeze-dried blueberries.  My breakfast was OK, but my stomach wasn’t into it. I started to read through the materials that the park gave me. Where were the other campgrounds?  If I paid the nearby Swiftcurrent motel a fee could I leave Tom’s car in their parking lot? The questions continued.

The nearby and very sweet Swiftcurrent Motel.

I felt tired, dull, and queasy, but I decided to walk around the campground to get a lay-of-the-land.  Just as I was opening Violet’s cargo door, I saw Rae approaching with a note in her hand. She saw me and happily told me, “I arranged everything.  I placed you in a different campsite for the next seven days. I already put the sticker on the site, and it is yours.” A massive wave of relief came over me, and my queasy feeling was instantly reduced by at least 50%.  Through her kindness, we got past a major hurdle. “Rae, you are the queen of the park. I am so grateful for your kindness,” I told her with sincerity.  

Our initial beautiful campsite.
The campsite that Rae found was was also great!

On Tom’s return, I told him about my sleepless night, my worry, and Rae’s incredible thoughtfulness. “Mike, I never would have left you alone with this problem.  We would have figured something out together,” he said. I knew that he was right; I tend to take on all burdens by myself, a habit that I’m am trying to break.

“Do you want to hike to Iceberg Lake?” Tom queried. “I guess so,” I replied.  I grabbed some snacks, a dehydrated Mountain House Turkey dinner, and a liter of water, shoved them into my Osprey day pack and headed to the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan trailhead. The temperature was cold, perfect for hiking, and although tired much of my crazy worry had passed.  We entered the trail and started our uphill climb to Iceberg Lake, so named as it typically has snow icebergs floating in it even in the summer.

The scenery was spectacular, mountains, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and meadows filled with wildflowers.  Everywhere I looked was a postcard picture and I took many photos even though I realized that they would never compare with what I was witnessing in person.

Spectacular scenery.
Everything was so beautiful.
Wildlife was everywhere.
Hiking the path to Iceberg Lake. Note the beautiful Bear Grass (Lily) flowers.

As we continue to walk, it started to rain again, and that rain eventually turned into snow.  I dug into my pack and pulled out my hoodie and put it on. We ultimately reached Iceberg Lake and paused to take in its surreal beauty.  It was late July, yet that lake had vast slabs of snow in and around it. Tom set up his Jetboil, and we each reconstituted our meals. Me with my dehydrated Turkey Dinner, Charlie with Chicken and Dumplings, and Tom with Teriyaki Chicken. At our feet, fat marmots cajoled us and begged for food, not unlike Mercury, the cat back home.  We didn’t feed them as we had been warned too many times that such generosity is harmful to wild animals. Eventually, the marmots wandered off to a family less concerned about following the rules.

Eating Mountain House free-dried food at Iceberg Lake.

Hiking downhill was harder than going uphill as my big toes kept smashing into the front of my Vasque hiking boots.  We meandered back towards the trailhead, and I was once again dazzled by the scenery, which included vast stands of flowering bear grass, a prairie lily with towering white blooms. Our 10-mile hike was almost over as we were about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Directly in front of us was an object that was half-way into the path.  At first, I thought it was a black boulder, or perhaps the trunk of a burnt tree; neither consideration made a lot of sense. A second look revealed the object’s true identity. Ten feet in front of us and entering our hiking path was a huge black bear! Surprisingly, I didn’t panic; I fell back on my doctor in crisis training. I slowly pulled out my bear spray and snapped off the safety on the trigger.  I held the can in my right hand at about hip level as I started to call out, “Hey bear, hey bear,” to let him know that we were humans. Tom and Charlie also had their bear spray at the ready as we stood motionless and tried to appear non-threatening.  

The bear paused and looked at us.  After about 10 seconds he slowly waddled first parallel to our path, then away from us.  I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was also aware that it seemed like bears were everywhere at Glacier National Park. 

We celebrated our hike with a trip to Kalispell and a stop at “Famous Dave’s” rib joint. I have to confess that every muscle and every joint in my body seemed to be sore, and even getting out of the car was difficult for me. I took a couple of Motrin with the hope that I would be my old self by the next morning.

I wasn’t sure how I felt after the bear encounter.  In some ways, it confirmed the fact that there were bears everywhere, and that they were not afraid of humans.  However, all of us, including the bear, acted reasonably. I went to bed exhausted and slept like a rock.

On Thursday I woke up to Tom knocking on Violets side window.  He was frying up bacon and asked me for the eggs that I brought on the trip.  With them, he made a bacon and egg scramble, which I relished along with a hot cup of strong coffee.  

Tom was repacking his huge backpack with clothes, food, a medical kit, and other necessities. “Where is your compass?” I asked. “Hmm, can’t find it,” Tom replied. “You can use mine,” I said. “Take my battery pack, and don’t forget your trail map,” I said. “Yes, father,” Tom replied and flashed me a grin.  

Tom agreed to purchase an InReach satellite transceiver before the trip, which I programmed to work with his iPhone.  The InReach radio transmits directly to the Iridium satellite constellation of 66 active spacecraft, which are about 500 miles above the earth. Since I also had a device, we had to ability to send simple text messages to each other even though we had no cell coverage.  

I called on my experience as an amateur radio operator and established a nightly communications net with Tom.  I used the visual imagery of the points of a triangle to outline the three daily steps that he needed to do. My litany was as follows:

First Point: At the start of your daily hike turn on the InReach’s navigation function and have it transmit your current position every 30 minutes.

Second Point: When you arrive at camp, turn off navigation to conserve your batteries.

Third Point: Between 7-8 PM contact me via the device,

By using this simple protocol, Tom’s position was tracked (in case of emergency), and as a net controller, I could stay abreast of any particular needs or problems that he was having.  Without the satellite radio, none of this would have been possible.

The tiny InReach satellite communicator.

Everything that could be done for the hike was done, so we piled into Violet, and I drove north to the Glacier/Waterloo International Peace Park, which is yards from the Canadian border.  Our destination was the Belly River trailhead, which was the starting point of Tom and Charlie’s 45-mile hiking journey. “Why don’t you hike with us a little bit, it can be your hike for the day,” Tom said.  Never one to ignore a good idea, I agreed.

Getting ready to hike the Belly River trail.

This path was completely different from the Iceberg Lake trail.  Dark, lush, wet, and very green. It sloped downward making hiking almost effortless. It’s beauty compromised by the legions of mosquitoes that were as big as horse flies and just as aggressive.  The hiking was so easy that I got caught up in the moment and I continued past my initial turnaround point; eventually, I bid my farewell to Tom and Charlie, and I turned back the way I came. 

Now going uphill, I became aware of just how far I walked.  In the stillness, I felt very alone, and a disappointment came over me as I was once again filled with concerns over bears and mountain lions.  Every 60 seconds, I called out, “Hey bear,” and snapped my carbon fiber trek poles together to make a cracking noise. At one point I saw a stand of tall shrubs move as I heard loud grunting. “Hey, bear.  Just passing through bear,” I said in my most convincing voice. 

By now, the temperature had risen, and the canopy of trees acted like a Saran Wrap cover keeping the humidity high on the forest floor.  I was sweating bullets. A couple of hikers approached me; I stepped out of the way so they could pass as we exchanged pleasantries. The brief interaction re-grounded and calmed me for the remainder of that journey.

On my way to the campsite, I stopped at the “Two Sisters” cafe for a ridiculously expensive hamburger that was also too salty.  I then returned to my campsite and contemplated being alone. I grabbed a cold bottle of Kirkland water and started to sip on it as I ran various options through my head.  It couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t explore the park further, so I knew that I had to push forward despite any fears. I reached for the packet of information that I received when I entered the park; my goal was to come up with a list of potential solo hikes.  I grabbed the pile of pamphlets, maps, and newsletters; out fell a glossy flyer with a bold headline, “Be Bear Aware!” The second item was: 

“Avoid hiking alone.  Most bear attacks have occurred with single hikers.  If possible hike in a group of 4 or larger.”  

I was a solo hiker who was already fearful; I didn’t need to see this. I thought about making myself a whiskey and coke to calm down, but it seemed like too much work.  Instead, I fell into deep despair. I had an urge to turn the key on Violet’s ignition and drive home, but I had a responsibility to make sure that Tom and Charlie were safe.  Besides, I was in possession of his car. If it had to be moved, I was the only one who could do it as he was literally in the middle of nowhere. Without the internet, I couldn’t check facts and research options.  I was mad at myself for being a wimp, but all of the evidence that I had supported my feelings. With no immediate options, I temporarily escaped by falling asleep for almost two hours.

When I woke up I had a new conviction.  I would come up with a workable, and hopefully, an enjoyable solution. I was at one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was determined to experience it positively. The question was, how would I do it.

I’m a shy person who was taught at a very early age to believe that if I engaged someone before they engaged with me, I would be an unwanted imposition on them.  Intellectually, I knew that was not the case, but in the past, I didn’t possess a model to change this behavior. My friend, Tom is very friendly, and I have been teaching myself the art of successful interaction by watching him and modeling his behavior. I was already walking up to random people and starting a conversation at Glacier, and I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and receptive most folks were to me.  However, to turn around my situation at Glacier, I would need to up my game and move from simple interactions to the dreaded task of asking someone for something. If you have read other post from this blog, you will recall that as a child I was typically shamed and humiliated when I asked for help, and my resolution to this angst was to become wholly independent of others. Although I have changed this behavior with people that I trust I certainly have not done so with people who I don’t know. I bit my lip, and I told myself, “Follow the pattern of behavior that you have seen.  Accept that rejection and humiliation may occur. Assume that you will have enough successes to offset any negative interactions. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.”  

Months before the trip I had purchased a large volume on Glacier National Park, but I never read it.  I now pulled it out and studied its contents. I decided that I would go on a significant hike every day, and the determination of that hike would be based on its overall popularity. This statistic would make these paths the ones most traveled by others.  I reminded myself that bears maul only a tiny number of hikers, and mountain lions attack less. I convinced myself that being proactive and reasonable would place me in the majority category of happy park goers, rather than the minority group of those attacked by bears.  I was not about to let my fears stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

My hike the next morning was to the old Ranger station at St Mary, and then on to the Beaver Pond Loop.  I walked the mile from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, but by accident, I entered at the exit of the path, not the beginning of the loop.  This not only meant that I was hiking mostly uphill, but all other hikers would be walking away from me, not along with me. As I started the path, I was met with a yellow warning sign noting caution due to recent bear activity.  I swallowed and moved forward. Much of the forest in the Beaver Pond area had been burnt in a wildfire giving the landscape an exotic look and feel. However, the absence of shade had a pleasantly unexpected consequence; the entire forest floor had become a sea of wildflowers.  Pedals of dark yellow, ultramarine blue, deep coral, and pungent pink surrounded me with both their visual beauty and fragrant smell. At one point I saw fresh bear scat on the trail. I couldn’t go back, so I went forward.

The old St Mary ranger station.
The forest floor was covered with wildflowers.

That evening I went through my usual routine of making dinner and tidying up the campervan.  However, I also incorporated modifications of activities that I usually would enjoy at home. I studied by reading all the printed material at my disposal.  My Glacier National Park book, handouts from the park services, and even an instructional manual. I took the time to become better at operating my hiking GPS unit.  I turned on my old Grundig 350DL worldband radio and listened in to some international shortwave stations. I then tuned the FM band. The only stations that I could receive on FM were from Canada.  I found CBC1 at 101.3 from Lethbridge, Alberta, and felt comforted by its NPR-like programming. I listened to downloaded music and the audiobooks that Julie and Kathryn had kindly set up for me the week before.  I was enjoying myself; I was starting to feel like my old self again.

At 7:05 PM, I received a text message from Tom, “The scenery is spectacular. You should have hiked with us.” I responded by wishing him safe travels. I then turned off my transceiver and went back to my other activities.

The next day I hiked to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, the most popular hike in the park.  Putting my plan in place, I made a deliberate effort to say hello to everyone that crossed my path.  I also asked several people if they would be kind enough to take my picture. This action resulted in smiles and pleasant interchanges.  The falls were spectacular, and despite another bear warning sign, I felt comfortable hiking due to the number of people around me. While hiking the path, I found a large flat rock that overlooked a small waterfall.  I took off my Osprey pack and pulled out my bottle of water along with a whole wheat and peanut butter sandwich. Sitting on the rock, I savored the beauty of my surroundings and was surprised by a sense of awe and joy.  It was a good feeling.

I asked strangers if they would take my picture as a conversation opener.
I sat on a rock and ate my whole wheat peanut butter sandwich.

My evenings continued along with my recently developed solution, and my sense of aloneness evaporated away.  My pace slowed to meet my more limited demands, and I continued to feel a sense of peace.  

My nightly contacts with Tom continued, and over the days he informed me that his three-day hike was becoming a four-day hike, then a five-day adventure. Tom and Charlie were unable to cover the 45 miles in the time that the ranger had given them.  They were also altering their plans by taking a somewhat longer, but flatter trail. I was grateful that his movements were tracked and that we could communicate. If I didn’t have those communications, I would have demanded a search and rescue operation when they didn’t return at the designated time. The InReach communicator had made an enormous difference.

The next day I hiked to Redrock Falls and Bullhead Lake.  I kept alert and saw what appeared to be a nice family hiking ahead of me.  The family consisted of a mom, a dad, and several adult children. I approached them, “Hey guys, I’m a lone hiker, would you mind it if I hiked along with you?”  “Sure,” replied the mom. We started walking and entered into an animated conversation. I usually don’t tell people that I’m a doctor, and I certainly don’t tell them that I’m a psychiatrist as I don’t want to intimidate them.  However, this mom got that information from me in short order. “What kind of doctor are you?” I called upon one of my other board certifications and told her, “I work with people who have addictions.” At that point, a big smile crossed her face, and she said, “I’m a nurse, and I’m in recovery!” She then noted, “My husband is an addictions counselor, and he is also in recovery.” We continued to talk and had lively conversations on SPECT scans, ACEs, nutritional therapy, and a variety of other exciting topics.  She introduced me to her son, who had just been discharged from the Marines. She said, “He is a photographer,” which is another one of my great passions. With him, I talked about image sensors, lenses, and all of the other things that only photographers care about. It was a delightful hike filled with beautiful sights and pleasant conversation.

I ask a Marine to take my photo at Bullhead Lake.

That evening Tom texted me outside our 7-8 PM time. “This mountain is kicking my ass,” He wrote.  Later he sent, “I’m cramping all over.” I wrote him back, “Tom, you are severely dehydrated you need to up your fluid consumption right now.”  

The next morning I decided to hike the beautiful Lake Josephine, and then take the path to Lake Grinnell to see the Grinnell Glacier.  Sitting at the edge of Lake Grinnell, I pulled out my snack, a peanut butter Clif bar, and I started to much. Another fat marmot approached me, and like the one at Iceberg Lake, he began to beg for a chuck of my bar. “No way marmot.  You are supposed to be wild, go find some acorns or something,” I told him. A couple came up to me, laughing. “That guy was after our food too!”

On my return trip and I had a few random conversations with fellow hikers.  I came upon a young family with two boys who appears to be around 10 and 12 years old. “Hi there, would you mind if I hiked with you?” I asked. “Sure,” was the reply.  The family was from Southern Illinois, and they were heading to Yellowstone after their stay at Glacier. I entered into a long and delightful conversation with the dad.  At one point, we hiked up an incline, and I was exhausted. “Hey guys, I need a little break, and I’m going to rest for a couple of minutes. Thank you for walking with me and safe travels” The dad replied, “Well if you are going to stop, then we are going to stop too.” We paused for a bit, and then started our walk and talked again.  We exited the trailhead, and I thanked them for their company and bear protection. Smiles and handshakes were exchanged.

Facilities on the Lake Grinnell path.

Directly to the right of me was a park bench, and on that bench was Victor, a man who was camping next to our site. “Victor, do you mind if I sit with you, I’m exhausted.” Victor nodded, and I sat down and wholly downed my flask of water. Victor was a quiet man, but with a little encouragement, he started to talk.  He told me that he had retired early from his job as an overland trucker, and he was now living only on social security. “I need to go back to work. I don’t have enough money. But I need to lose some weight first.” He noted that he was from Great Falls, Montana, which was a few hours southeast of the park. There were no mention kids, and his shy demeanor left me with the impression that he had been single all of his life.  We chatted for about 20 minutes, and I then continued my walk back to the campground.

The text message from Tom that evening revealed that he was exhausted.” Initially, he was going to use the park shuttle system to get back to the campsite, but those plans changed with his new exit at Packer’s Roost, which was several miles west of his designated extraction point. I would be picking him up. “Bring four large bottles of Gatorade, preferably lime.” He wrote.  I had already had purchased a care package for Charlie and him, two real Cokes were chilling in my fridge, and I had a pack of Oreos for Charlie, and some banana bread for Tom. “You got it,” I replied as I made a mental note to pick up the sports drink on my drive back to the parks main east entrance.

The next morning he contacted me to confirm our plan.  I drove the hour from Many Glaciers to the St. Mary Visitor Center, stopping at a gas station to pick up four large bottles of Gatorade.  The gas station didn’t have lime. Instead, they had red and blue drinks. Not knowing what the flavors were, I purchased two of each and stuck them under my sleeping bag in an attempt to keep them as cool as possible as my little fridge was already full.

I knew that I would be waiting at St. Mary, but I wanted to pick up Charlie and Tom as quickly as I could as they were clearly at the end of their endurance. Still, it would take me over an hour to travel over the narrow and winding Road-To-The-Sun from St. Mary to their extraction point.

Hours later, Tom messaged me that they were at the trailhead, and I started my drive along one of the most beautiful roads in the US.  Eventually, I spotted them waving their hands and looking very bedraggled. Charlie gave a little cheer when I gave him the Oreos. Tom set about drinking three large bottles of Gatorade and a coke; he was very thirsty.  Charlie said, “Uncle Mike, we don’t have to go on another hike today, do we?” I replied, “Today is a day of rest.”

Tom bedraggled and dehydrated after I picked him up at the Packers Roost.

Afterward, I asked Tom about his backpacking adventure. “It was very hard at times, but I feel that it was a success.  Charlie and I worked as a team, and we got through it.” He said, “When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. I remembered that elephant thing you talked about a long time ago, Mike.  You said that handling a big problem is like eating an elephant; you do it one bite at a time.” Tom said he thought about that saying with each step he took up that “ass-kicking” mountain.

I smiled to myself; I worked through my issues using things that Tom taught me, and he worked through his problems with something that I taught him.  I guess that is the benefit of a good friendship; you are stronger because of each other.

Some good resides in bad things, and some bad lies in good things.  That is the way life is. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. If possible, try to make lemonade out of your lemons; if this is not possible considering tackling your problem, “one bite at a time.” 

Our last meal in Glacier before we started our long drive home. Tom and Charlie are as good as new after some food and fluids.

Peace

Time For Dr. Mike To Make A Life Change.

It is early in my retirement, and I’m taking a walk with my friend, Ralph. He comments that he knows that I’ll be busy in my retirement as I have so many varied interests. I nod in agreement.

****

When I was in the planning stages of my retirement, I made a deliberate effort to develop activities to fill my retirement time. Although these interests were diverse, they all had a unifying theme, they were all productive.

My work life was hectic, and when combined with my family life, there was very little time to do anything else. Additional tasks had to be carefully sandwiched into my daily schedule, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to live my life in 15-minute blocks of time. My schedulable time was so tight that I would frequently feel guilty when I was working on one project, as I thought that I should be doing something else. For instance, I might be paying the household bills while feeling guilty that I wasn’t weeding the garden. In retrospect, it was all pretty crazy.

With the onset of retirement, the amount of unscheduled time at my disposal became exponentially higher and offered me the ability to accomplish significant tasks. However, despite having massive amounts of available time, I have not written a blockbuster novel or discovered the cure for cancer.

I am accomplishing some of the items on my list, this blog is one of them. However, other planned tasks never made it to the initiation stage. Although I did ponder this inequity, it didn’t seem to bother me too much. Other activities were filling my time, which included doing a lot of social media work for my friend Tom’s business, and building my campervan. The latter being a fantasy project, turned into reality.

I also became aware of another internal phenomenon. That phenomenon consisted of a feeling that started subtly and continues to slowly build to this very day. It is hard for me to define this feeling, the closest tag that I can come up with is “peace.”

****

It is early morning, and I am camping in Colorado. I’m finishing my breakfast of scrambled eggs, pork-n-beans, and coffee. I’m parked at a campsite in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Anxious feelings are starting to build in me. I’m once again having the feeling that I should be doing something else. In this case, I should be dashing out the door to go on a hike. I looked around Violet, my campervan, and note her disarray. I start to rush as I wash my dishes and quickly and carelessly place them back into their bin. I forcibly stop myself and take a deep breath. Why am I in such a hurry? Where am I going that requires me to rush? Why am I feeling stressed? I mentally tell myself, “Mike, you are exactly where you should be at this moment. Plant your feet on the ground and stay in the present.”

Being an orderly person what I really want to do is to clean and reorganize Violet. I make a conscious effort to repack the cupboard in a more organized fashion. I then take out my area rugs and give them a good shake. I follow this by wiping down surfaces and using my whisk broom to sweep Violet’s tiny floor. Along each step, I remind myself to stay in the moment and to not drift into the danger zone of thinking that I should hurry as I need to be doing something else.

The entire cleaning process doesn’t take very long, but it still consumes about three times more time than the rush job that I was initially going to do. The slower pace allows me to leave for my hike feeling peaceful rather than frantic. Also, it is lovely knowing that I will return to a clean and tidy van after my hiking adventure.

****

I am seeing this slow-down phenomenon occurring in other areas of my life. If I go grocery shopping, I don’t feel a need to finish and immediately move on to the next project frantically. When I am working on any project, I make a concerted effort to celebrate what I have done as opposed to what I have yet to do.

At this time, I’m cleaning out a storage area in my basement, an absolutely overwhelming job that I have avoided for years. However, I am approaching this project differently. My simple goal is to fill one black garbage bag a day with items which I’ll either toss or donate. After I fill a bag, I am done with that project for the day. When I load a bag, I make an effort to pat myself on my back and celebrate that I have accomplished my goal. “That is one less bag of junk in my basement,” I remind myself.

My current daily routine includes some “productive” activities and a lot of growth activities. I am a person who loves to learn for the sake of learning, and who loves to understand the world through the perspective of others. I recently got to talk to some police officers and saw the world through their eyes.

I tend to be more of a “peace and justice” kind of guy, but I have deliberately been talking to folks who are more of the “less government, more self-responsibility” viewpoint. My learning technique is simple; be respectful of others’ opinions, and they will happily share their perspective with you. I don’t feel a need to push my views on anyone, and I look at conversations as an opportunity to learn, and to connect with someone else. We live in a bipolar world where many people assume that if someone has a different opinion on anything, they are the enemy. What a silly and constricting viewpoint that is. There are good people everywhere, and they are easy to find once you get past your own biases.

I am aware that my retirement is not what I had planned, it is evolving. I’m unclear where it is heading, and I’m OK with that as I don’t have any particular place where I need to go.

My newfound unstructured time has made me more peaceful and less frantic. It has made me more open and less rigid. However, most of all, it has made me happy. In the past, when I was very physically sick, my goal was to use every ounce of energy in productive pursuits that involved either my career life or my family life. By the grace of God, I have been given the one-two punch of newfound health and unstructured time, and I have used these gifts to stretch my behavior in ways that I did not think possible. I am traveling and discovering, I’m learning new disciplines, I’m talking to people who have a different view of the world, and I’m making an effort to celebrate and to be grateful. I’m very excited about my upcoming trip to Glacier National Park, but I also enjoy going grocery shopping with my kids.. I refuse to waste even a single day by ignoring the present in favor of some future goal.

Dear reader, a few years before my retirement, I was both excited and frightened as I had a feeling that something inside of me was changing. I felt like I was floating down a river to parts unknown, and with no ability to control my journey or destination. I still feel like I’m traveling somewhere, but I now think that it is OK to not have total control of everything around me. As I slow down, I become more aware of myself and the world around me. It is fantastic to be retired and to be discovering things about myself and the world around me.

The lessons that I’m learning are simple:

Stay in the present

Be grateful

Connect with others

Accept others for who they are

Be yourself

These lessons can be summarized simply by the statement, “Go with the flow.”

Will I continue along this path a year from now? A month from now? Or even a day from now? I have no idea, The flow will take me where I need to go.

****

Dear reader-I’m about to embark on another trip, this time to Glacier National Park. I may try to do some writing while I’m there but I know that I won’t have Internet connectivity. I’ll continue my posts on my return. Peace and Love to you.

A cat teaches Dr. Mike how to be a friend.

It is 5 AM, and the house is quiet. I sit and type on my computer’s keyboard. I’m subtly aware of another presence in the room. Now, something is brushing my leg. I look down to see my friend, Mercury, the cat. Her jet black fur shines, and her golden eyes stare up at me. She is motionless. Suddenly and silently, she leaps onto my lap and finds a comfortable spot. Soon I’m scratching behind her ears, and she is purring.


I continue to examine the whys of how I relate to others. I’m discovering that some behaviors that I felt were intrinsic to my very core are likely artifacts from past experiences, while others seem to be central to my person. As I learn more about my own behavior, I have discovered that some of my unsuccessful attempts at friendships were the direct result of my own actions.

As I have mentioned in many other posts, I am an introvert. In a simple explanation, I enjoy people, and I like spending time with them. However, prolonged social interactions (especially in large groups) are energy-draining for me, and when I am faced with those situations, I require alone time to regroup and recharge.

I also have behaviors that I have unconsciously learned that can keep me emotionally distant from others. When I was a child, it was not OK for me to ask for help or assistance. My early attempts at this were often met with comments that I was wasting parental time or that my requests were impossible to fulfill and therefore, unacceptable. At the same time, I would be given a conflicting shaming message that I should be able to complete the task myself. Pretty confusing for a kid.

That confusing message fueled me to become a better problem solver. As a child, I would retreat and solve the “impossible” problem on my own in the hopes of getting approval. The approval was still withheld, causing my pride to turn that need into anger, which had the dual effect of stopping me from asking for help while becoming ever better at figuring things out for myself. In the end, I was left with the belief that I could only trust and depend on myself, and that asking anyone for anything would result in me being humiliated and shamed.

As I became more competent and independent, I started to pursue different interests, including science, as I was no longer constrained by outside expectations. Being smart in school garnered me praise and recognition from teachers and other adults. I wanted attention, and now I had a way to get it.

Like most strengths, this skill set had a flip side, I saw my value to others in what I could do, rather than who I was as a person. Also, I inadvertently found friends who viewed me as someone who could do things for them, which further strengthened my belief that my value in life was to produce. Unfortunately, this meant that I tended to form one-sided connections where I was giving, and others were receiving. These lopsided relationships of benefactor and recipient had additional ramifications, which could result in the recipient becoming resentful rather than grateful. If someone wanted my help, I was more than happy to give it to them… but often more than what they wanted.

Dear reader, I recognize this problem, and I have been working on it for decades with success. However, changing a core part of myself has not been easy. I initially started this process back in medical school by setting limits on those who wanted me to be on committees or do other acts of service of which I had no interest. Besides, it was also reasonably easy to set appropriate limits with patients. I have always strived to provide the best possible care, and proper care means ethical boundaries. It is not the job of a patient to make me feel better about myself.

I have always had reciprocal relationships with my sisters. This was easy as we were all raised in the same household, and so we are all helpers rather than individuals who ask for help.

I have worked hard to have a mutual relationship with my children and in my marriage, and I continue to redefine these roles as my wife takes on more of the family breadwinner responsibilities, and my kids transition from teenagers to adults.

After decades of effort, I thought that I had finely tuned my ability to take on extra tasks based on choice rather than obligation. However, a very significant outlier in this part of my life was the psychiatric clinic that I co-founded. In that setting, I found myself taking on more and more responsibilities as I always pushed myself to do things. The examples abound and ranged from teaching myself web design to save the clinic the cost of having a professional create a website, to spending months designing to what amounted to a customized electronic medical record for clinic professionals to use. I initially gained some kudos for my work, which made me want to work harder, but that praise ebbed over time. This reduction in acknowledgment had the paradoxical effect of making me want to work even harder to regain the attention that had waned. It was a vicious circle.

I remember one incident where I had to update everyone’s staff photo for a website revision. By that time, I had enough photography experience that I was capable of doing pro-level work. In other words, I took pretty good pictures.

I recall using my own funds to buy additional (and expensive) equipment for the shoot, as well as spending my evenings organizing and gathering my existing photography gear. Beyond this hunting/gathering, I also studied portrait poses, set up a temporary studio in my home to perfect my lighting, and even did practice photos with my kids.

This photo update was at the request of the professional staff, as their prior photos were becoming dated. Since most of the staff wanted a new picture, the activity became a mandatory clinic expectation.

Weeks before the shoot, the staff was informed that I would be taking their pictures on a designated Saturday, and they were required to sign up for a 15-minute block of time on that day.

On the morning of the shoot, I arrived very early and brought one of my kids along as an assistant. We went through the tasks of hauling equipment and setting up gear that ranged from multiple mono lights (flashes) to backdrops. I even bought a portrait stool for the occasion, as I wanted to be able to pose individuals in the most flattering way possible.

The first staff person was very late, and this was only the start of the issues of the day. Some people scheduled a block of time but then scheduled patients during that same time. Others didn’t show up at all, which forced me to go through the whole setup process for them on a separate weekend. Some staff acted as if they were doing me a favor, instead of the other way around. Some seemed annoyed and put upon.

I had staff members asked me to make prints for their personal use after they saw their initial images. I did this for them at my own expense. Besides, I spent many hours retouching photos. Pimples vanished, bloodshot eyes became clear, and old wrinkled skin was smoothed out. The headshots looked great (not just my opinion). In the end, not a single person thanked me for my efforts, including those individuals who wanted me to print up personal photos. Apparently, they had gotten so used to me tackling projects that my efforts had become expected.

I write the above as an example; it was not an isolated incident as I was always doing elaborate projects for the clinic that ranged from writing the clinic’s policy and procedure manual to creating/hosting/producing a weekly audio podcast that showcased the professional staff while also providing clinical information to listeners.

Dear reader, the fact is that I was equally to blame for this lack of praise and recognition. A dynamic was established similar to other scenarios in my life.

I am grateful that I can learn complex skills, but it still takes work. Superficially, it looks like most things are easy for me. Give me a job, and it will get done. However, what people don’t see is all of the background efforts, which is why I wrote the above example in such detail. A staff member’s exposure to the photoshoot was only 15 minutes, and no one was aware of all the pre and post work that was involved. Besides, I now believe that most felt that this was something that I really wanted to do, which likely led some of them to think that they were doing me a favor. Who was the person who established that dynamic? Me!

The requests to do additional tasks never really ebbed, and the stress of working so hard as a business partner and full-time physician started to cause health consequences with me. Because of my health issues, I decided to leave my partnership and gave my colleagues over 2 years of notice of my intentions. During that process, I slowed down my frenetic activity and had time to explore why I was working as hard as I was. It became clear to me that I was once again trying to prove my worth, this time to my partners. The clinic had become a metaphorical family for me, and my partners represented my two brothers who I was never able to achieve a close relationship with. Without realizing it, I was hoping that if I worked hard enough, they would accept and value me. Leaving my partnership was the only reasonable option at that time, and I was grateful that I dared to do it, and I was thankful that I had the understanding to learn from it.

Dear reader, that process happened when I was in my late fifties. Growth and change is a lifelong process.

At sixty-six, I am now knee-deep in the most challenging part of this personal change; the core issue. I have always been cautious of close male friendships, the reasons in total for this are beyond the scope of this post, but some of the significant factors have been already discussed above. My past unsatisfactory strategy was to keep male friendships at arm’s length. If I kept a male friend at a safe emotional distance, I felt that they couldn’t hurt me or shame me. However, a number of years ago this changed with my connection with my friend, Tom. I like helping Tom, but Tom also likes helping me. When we started our friendship, I made a personal decision to be completely honest and transparent to him, and that I wouldn’t turn into a chameleon. Instead, I would simply be myself in total. I would do things for him because I wanted to, not because I felt that I had to. I would show him not only my strengths, but also my many weaknesses, fears, and imperfections. The result? We typically connect with each other on a daily basis, and I believe that we both would agree that we are the best of friends.

Part of my growth journey involves admitting who I really am in a public way, as it forces me to be honest with myself about my flaws. I also know that some of my kids read these writings, and I want them to know me as a person who strives to improve. Lastly, I write this for all of those who feel that they can’t change the trajectory of their lives. I have been working on this one aspect of my personality for 50 years and have made good progress. However, I still have work to do in this area. I did not fail in my past efforts in this regard. Instead, those efforts have served as a foundation to build my current changes. We live in an instant world, but those rules don’t apply to changing a complex behavior.

Some of you may think that a medical doctor with three board certifications and professional life of helping people should have perfect control of his own emotions. I would challenge such an idea as naive. I’m not a one-dimensional cartoon character, I’m a real person who will continue to improve myself as long as I am cognitively able to do so.

For those of you who feel that you are too old to change your life, I’m here to tell you that your belief is rubbish. For those of you who think that intricate behavior patterns can be replaced with one magical step, a single self-help book, or a potent pill, I am here to tell you that is bullshit. Those things can start a process of change, but if your goal is to make a significant behavioral change you need to accept that it is a continual process that involves effort and honesty.

Improving your life is like peeling an onion. You get through one layer, only to face another one. Having to deal with the next layer of behavior does not mean that your first efforts were in vain.

When I tackled the above issues, I started with the most comfortable situations first, setting limits with individuals who I didn’t have an emotional investment with. I then extended it to patients, who I was invested in, but whom I knew that it was in their best therapeutic interest for me to retain my connection with them in as professional way as possible. I then moved to progressively more challenging situations over the last 30 years. This last decade of change has had me deal with situations that were at the core of this issue. Understanding my actions at my clinic helped me find some peace with the lack of connection that I had with my brothers, which then helped me form a genuine friendship with Tom. Investing in my friendship with Tom crushed my false beliefs that I am unworthy of such a connection.


Sitting at my computer, typing, and petting Mercury, the cat. Her warm softness makes me happy. She seems to be equally delighted with me. I’m not doing anything productive for her, she isn’t doing anything productive for me. Yet, we are content with each other, our bond established in our mutual desire to be together, and nothing more. However, it is more than enough.

Mercury, the cat.

In Life Some Things End…

In life some things continue, some things end.  This was what I thought as I packed Violet the van with food, water, and my clothes.  

I was getting ready for the Kuna Kousin Kampout at Van Buren State Park in South Haven, Michigan. I had ransacked our pantry for camper food: crackers, cheese, some odd pieces of bread. I complemented these supplies with items from the market: a pound of lean hamburger, a pint container of deli potato salad, and some bakery cookies to pass.  I packed light, bringing only a single change of clothes and my Dopp kit. The Kuna Kampout is only a two-day event.

Julie and the kids used to come to the Kampout, but their attendance has waned with the onset of competing demands for their time. I said goodbyes to my family and climbed into Violet’s front seat.  I knew that some of my cousins had been following my travels in Violet and so I made sure that she had a bath before I left. I wanted her to look her showroom best.

I don’t mind traveling alone as it is easy to get lost in my thoughts, but this internal entertainment lasts only so long, and by the time I approached South Haven I was eager to connect with others.  However, that was not to be the case.

I backed Violet into my site, making sure that her power port was in line-of-sight to the site’s electric hook-up. Setting up camp was as simple as plugging her into mains power.  My recent travels have been off-grid, and the possibility of unlimited free electricity for my microwave and heater seemed intoxicating. In reality, I left the heater in its Sterilite storage bin, and I used my microwave only to heat water for coffee.  I guess I am a creature of habit.

I didn’t see any familiar Kuna faces on my arrival, which surprised me.  My T-Mobile iPhone barely functions at Van Buren, but I was able to get enough signal to post, “At Van Buren and so far I’m the only Kuna here.” on Facebook. It was chilly, and I needed some internal warming, so I microwaved some water in which I added a heaping teaspoon of Nescafé Clasico instant coffee.   Porting some Etta James into Violet’s sound system, I sipped coffee and chilled. After about 20 minutes, I saw my cousin Ron and his daughter outside my door, and we exchanged greetings. Ron and his family were several rows over, which is why I didn’t initially see them. I walked to his site to acknowledge the rest of his crew and to admire his impressive set-up.  He has a large C class RV, and his site was carefully arranged with tarps and chairs. I oohed and aahed over his camper, and we sat and talked for a bit. I returned back to Violet, and within about 30 minutes of my return, his family wandered over to see her in person and reciprocated with their own oohs and ahhs.

Shortly after that, my niece appeared at Violet’s door as she saw my Facebook post. Her campsite was up the road, but far enough away that I  had initially missed her. After showing her Violet, I moseyed over to her site to enjoy her campfire and conversation.

So many of our regular campers were absent this year.  My sister and her husband canceled due to illness. My other sister, her daughter’s family, and my sister-in-law stayed at a local hotel.  Other regulars were absent due to obligations, and even the main organizer of the event, my cousin Ken was only present on Saturday, as he and his wife also stayed at a hotel this year.

This was the 20th year of the Kuna Kampout, one of several yearly events designed to keep the cousins connected.  However, with the absence of several key players, it felt different. As the afternoon wore on, it started to rain, a constant, steady rain. In the past, several of the Kampout’s participants would bring canopy tents which were latched together to provide an ample sheltered space to gather.  Unfortunately, those campers did not attend this year. Instead, we became a canvas of umbrellas and rain ponchos. Hardly ideal, but good enough.

Our dinner is usually a community event, but this year, we didn’t have the large grilling surface that we typically use.  My nephew, Tommy, offered up his small tailgate style propane grill, and with careful planning, we all had enough space to cook our food.  Part of the Kampout tradition is to bring a dish to pass. I gave away three of the 4 hamburgers that I made, as I munched on my sister-in-law’s gluten-free macaroni salad, and my niece’s cut-up fruit.  Such exchanges are the norm, and our combined efforts turn our personal meal plans into an eclectic feast. Eventually, the rain stopped, and we sat, ate, and talked into the night.

Yes, this campout was different from past ones. Some key players didn’t attend, and others stayed at hotels as it has become too difficult for them to tent camp. Initially, I had some sadness about this change, but I have since reconsidered.

The lower attendance allowed me to chat with some relatives who I rarely have contact with.  Despite the smaller crowd, the spirit of the campout was the same, as was the level of genuine friendliness and enthusiasm.  We managed with a small grill, our umbrellas, and a lot of real excitement.

It would have been easy to focus on the negatives of this year’s campout. However, when all was said and done, it was our attitudes that determined the tone of this experience. The campout was just as much fun as it had been in previous years. Those of us who were there wanted to be there; we wanted to connect with each other.  This year’s Kuna Kampout was a success and a delightful experience.

In life some things continue, some things end, and still, others evolve.  Was this year 20 of the Kuna Kampout or was it the first year of the Kuna Kampout 2.0?  Here is to 20 more years of burnt hamburgers, late night hikes, friendly smiles, and good conversation!

Looking out of Violet’s side door.
Wet campers.
Making coffee in the microwave.
My campsite.
Rain and umbrellas.
Eventually the rain stopped and we were able to have a campfire.

How To Survive A Family Vacation

The family vacation is an important rite of passage. Often viewed with great anticipation, even a simple trip can involve significant investments in both time and money. Therefore, it can be disheartening when activities or attitudes don’t go as planned.

I have been told that I’m easy to travel with, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to adjust my actions and behaviors over the years, as have the rest of my family. Here are some things that the Kuna family does to maximize vacation enjoyment. I hope that you will find these tips useful for your next family adventure.

Understand your fellow traveler

I am the guy that likes to pack a week before a trip. My wife is more freestyle and prefers getting ready the night before. When it comes to packing, we respect each other’s position, but our different behaviors impact us in other ways.

I find crowded and fast-moving airports confusing and stressful. Add to this the fact that at 6’ 3” flying is uncomfortable for me, and you can understand that my stress and irritability build the morning of a flight. My wife is more relaxed in these situations and sees nothing wrong arriving at the airport “just-in-time” or less. In the past, our conflicting attitudes could create tension at the start of the trip, which usually resulted in me becoming progressively more tense and quiet, and Julie becoming more critical of my lack of engagement.

This changed some years ago when I fessed up to her about the anxiety that airports and flying cause me. Now, instead of two people acting out their frustrations, we cooperate. I make a concerted effort to stay in the moment, and Julie makes an effort to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I still don’t like flying, but I now have an ally instead of an enemy the morning of our flight.

Be realistic

Do you anticipate your vacation months before it actually occurs? We do, and such anticipation can make it easy to become unrealistic with plans or expectations. Our family trips often involve 5 people, which makes even simple activities complicated and expensive.

It is unrealistic for us to spend $350 per person ($1750/total) to take a Grand Canyon helicopter ride, but we can certainly enjoy the park ranger talks, hike the trails, and have lunch at one of the park restaurants. This philosophy extends to less extravagant activities. We don’t go to novelty wax museums or other low-value/high-cost events. However, we will do activities that are unique to the location, such as going to the top of the Seattle Space Needle or touring the Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. Our rules of engagement are understood by all family members, and I can’t think of a time when someone had a fit because we didn’t do a low-value activity.

We attempt to be economical with our accommodations. Our preferred vacations are campouts, as we are all nature lovers. However, we have also had many trips that involved hotel stays. We view a hotel room as a place to sleep, and our priority is on clean as opposed to luxury. We value hotels that offer family-friendly amenities such as an in-room fridge and a complimentary breakfast. We will go to a fancy restaurant or two on a trip, but these visits are considered bonuses. We celebrate a great dinner, but we can also enjoy hotel room PB and J sandwiches.

Cooperate

Imagine 5 adults traveling. Person A may want Chinese food, but person B wants Mexican. Person C is ready for the next adventure, but person D wants to linger at a current activity. We have found peace with the simple idea that it is OK not always to get what you want. We try to live by the concept of majority rule, but when push comes to shove either Julie or I have the final vote.

Expect The Unexpected

Things don’t always turn out the way that you want them to, and sometimes things go terribly wrong. We have blown car engines on trips, and have had other mechanical disasters. Several years ago, our accommodations got screwed up, and the 5 of us were expected to stay in a cabin that had only a single bed. Although we try to be proactive, sometimes even the best plans fall apart. We don’t expect our vacations to be perfect; instead, we focus on the positives of the trip.

Reward Effort And Behavior

In the past, I did most of the driving, but more recently, I have been sharing the driving with Julie. On our most recent trip, we faced a horrific thunderstorm as we drove on the congested expressways of Atlanta. At times the downpour was so torrential that it was impossible to see the car in front of us. Julie was driving, but I tried to do what I could to relieve her stress. When we safely reached our destination, I announced to the family that we should give her a round of applause for her skillful effort. Acknowledging her validated her stress and gave her temporary hero status. Costs of making her feel better, completely free.

Be Flexible

On the same trip, we also faced rain when we toured Charleston, SC. Charleston is a beautiful and historic city, and we were hoping to spend a lot of time exploring. However, the rain prevented much of this. We shifted our visit to indoor activities instead. Although hardly ideal, we still got a flavor for the town and enjoyed our stay.

Give In

A vacation is just a vacation. Practice the art of generosity, and both you and your vacation mates will be happier. During most holidays, there are things that I may want to do that may be different from activities that someone else may wish to. My solution? I tend to give in to the other person’s wishes. In a hyper-assertive and self-absorbed world, this may seem weak. However, imagine that all parties practice generosity. When we tally up our adventures at the end of a trip it usually turns out that we all got to do the things that we really wanted to do. When everyone cooperates, everyone benefits.

Find Joy Everywhere

There is a lot of joy to be found beyond the exclamation points of a trip. A beautiful sunset, fragrant flowers on a walk, engaging public art; there are enjoyable experiences everywhere. Finding hidden joy initially takes practice, but if you make the effort you get a lot of happiness in return.

Find Humor

Our return flight from Atlanta to Chicago was scheduled for 9:30 AM. We had to return a rental car, check our bags, and go through TSA. We knew that we had to be up and out very early. To give us a little more time, we decided to find a room close to the airport for the night before our flight. Hotels close to airports are typically pretty expensive, but Julie found one that was only $80/night. Fortunately, the room was clean. Unfortunately, there were other compromises, including the fact that anyone who used the bathroom faced the real possibility of being trapped there, as the bathroom door was defective. We all had a good laugh when someone got stuck, which evaporated any frustration (all parties eventually escaped!). Laughing at minor problems turn dissatisfactions into funny family stories.

Respect Each Other

Most of my suggestions focus on mutual cooperation and team effort, but it is also OK to be an individual on a family trip. My kids are older and responsible, and so universal participation isn’t required. Julie and I did several couple walks, and when possible, I let the kids sleep in. My “jam” may not be theirs, and that is OK.

Understand Financial Constraints

Despite being conservative, our 7-day vacation for 5 cost us over $3000 (airfare, hotel, food, car rental, activities). However, it could have been a lot more expensive if we ate out more, stayed at more expensive hotels, or did additional activities. By having an active conversation, we all work together to keep cost reasonable. We know to not go for the most expensive item on a menu, and we don’t feel the need to buy a souvenir at every stop. By being clear about finances, we avoided credit card shock on our return and kept our vacation memories sweet.

No vacation is perfect, but by following some simple rules, most family trips will become a fond rather than a painful memory.

A beach scene from one of the few sunny days.
Eating out at a nicer restaurant.
Sampling local cuisine.
Congaree National Park. Beautiful, but we got soaked!
Exploring is free and one of our favorite activities, but watch out for Alligators! BTW, we actually saw one on this walk.
National Donut Day happened during our trip so we had to stop to get our free donuts.
Me hamming it up at the Coke museum… and, no I didn’t buy myself a onesie.
Yes, it rained A LOT!
Getting ready to watch a movie “in 4-D” at the Coke museum.

The Parade Has Passed Me By.

Julie used to be the initiator, then it was me, then we tried to do it together. However, those days are now over. What was once so important has become unimportant. I guess that is the way life is.

_________

3:45 AM I wake up and stumble to the bathroom and dress, I groan. I open the bedroom door to head downstairs, and I’m greeted by Mercury, the cat. She looks up at me, gives me a quick meow, and proceeds to scamper down the stairs. Her friendly welcome is really a ploy to get her morning treat. She succeeds.

After a check of social media, I’m out the door and walking to Starbucks for my 3.5-mile morning walk. It’s Memorial Day and the early morning is peaceful due to the lack of work traffic. As I get closer to downtown Naperville, I become aware of the hidden activity there. A police car blocks an intersection here, cone barriers are placed there. The city workers have been busy during the early morning. The city workers are getting ready.

It is now 5:30 AM and I’m walking down Jackson Avenue on the side of Nichols Library. The sidewalks on both sides of the street are lined with empty lawn chairs of every design and color. Interspersed between them are old blankets and sheets that claim other patches of sidewalk and curb. The residents of Naperville are securing their spots for the annual Memorial Day parade that starts at 11:30 AM. If you live in Naperville, you know that it is imperative to claim your viewing space early or risk being relegated to standing at the back of the sidewalk.

The Naperville Memorial Day parade is an enjoyable event, and likely similar to thousands of other celebrations that are simultaneously occurring across the country. Some watchers come to enjoy the spectacle. However, most attend to be supportive of someone who they know who is marching.

When I was active in the YMCA Adventure Guides (then called Indian Princesses) program with my two young daughters, we often marched in Naperville parades. When my kids started in middle school, they continued to march via their school’s bands.

In the beginning, Julie would be the one to get up very early to set up our bag chairs at the edge of the sidewalk. As the years went by I became the chair placer. Then over time, we both would go to mark our parade viewing territory.

Part of our attendance was due to the holiday celebration, but the primary reason for showing up was the excitement of glimpsing our kids when they proudly passed us playing some popular march. At the instant of their appearance, we would stand, clap and scream their names. Although they claimed embarrassment by our uncouth actions, they also seemed pleased with their moment of recognition and stardom.

My kids are in now college and beyond and their Memorial Day mornings are spent sleeping in rather than marching; with their change in behavior has come ours. The local parades that had been so important to us in the past have become unimportant.

When I was a young child, one of my absolute favorite activities was watching Saturday morning cartoons. Then it became unimportant. As a teen, my collection of LPs were played until their vinyl was so worn that the records almost became transparent; now their music is just a trigger for nostalgic memories. I can recall a desire to buy a bigger house, something that I absolutely would not want currently. I can remember taking on professional positions and responsibilities to advance my career; now, I celebrate my abundance of unstructured retirement time.

So many aspects of my life that seemed irreplaceable became replaced by other things, which in turn were changed out for still others. Life is not a static photograph; instead, it is a dynamic movie that twists and turns throughout time. It is a river that carries you down a journey.

Some people fixate on a part of their past and are forever trying to relive or return to that time. The middle-aged man who recalls his glory days in the military, or the former cheerleader who wishes to return to her popular past. Two examples of countless more.

There are also the “if only” people. These folks ruminate over a past misstep. “If only I would have married my high school sweetheart.” “If only I would have finished my college degree.” “If only…”.

Dear reader, we are precisely where we should be on our life journey. However, if we want to be somewhere else, we need paddle ourselves in that direction. We can enjoy our memories from our past successes, and we can learn from our past mistakes. However, to expend large amounts of time or energy in fruitless activity is a waste of both.

Last night my family and I streamed the movie “The Commuter,” a terrible movie. We all laughed at the lousy script and ridiculous premise. The experience was akin to a bunch of friends sharing a fun evening together. I smile when I remember their parade days, but I would never trade this present to return to the past.

As a kid, I didn’t give up Saturday morning cartoons, I traded that time for something else. I didn’t attend a parade on Memorial Day, but I connected with my now adult kids in a way that was just as enjoyable.

To live in the past prevents me from celebrating my present. Each day is precious and is never to be repeated. Together, Let’s look at what we have instead of what we don’t have. In reality, the parade didn’t pass me by, I was the one who moved on.

Julie securing a viewing spot from a parade 10 years ago.
My daughter as a proud flag bearer from her junior high days.
Empty chairs securing a spot for 2019 parade attendees.

Facing Terror

I did a quick mental calculation and confirmed that there was an extra day before I had to arrive in Tucson. My initial miscalculation was based on the incorrect assumption that I could spend a full two days exploring the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Parks.

I now had a decision to make, should I somehow extend that experience or find a new one elsewhere. I looked at my road atlas, and I did a Google search; several possibilities appeared of which one looked intriguing. Apache Lake was a large reservoir lake located in Arizona’s remote and mountainous Tonto National Forest. Created by damming the Salt River in 1925 it was long and narrow, as such artificial lakes often are. Posted photos made the body of water look surreal and misplaced because it was surrounded by buttes and had mountain tips poking out of it. Further exploration yielded that the lake had a campground, a motel, a lodge, and even a restaurant; all located in a single compound on its eastern shore. It seemed like an ideal place to spend my excess 24 hours.

Apache Lake is isolated, and the closest city on my northern route was Payson, which was 1 hour and 40 minutes away via the twisting and winding roads of the Superstition Mountains. I made a mental note to gas up in Payson as there didn’t seem to be many other options beyond there.

I put away my morning cooking gear and secured Violet’s living space making sure that I strapped down any loose items. I took out her rugs and gave them a good shake and then proceeded to sweep her floor with the little whisk broom that I purchased from Walmart. Carpets replaced I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from my Dometic chest style fridge, and then pulled shut her sliding door. I was now ready for the three and a half hour drive from Holbrook, Arizona to Apache Lake.

The Superstition Mountains are tall, but they don’t compare to the Rockies that I drove through a few days earlier. Also, I was feeling more confident driving Violet in the mountains as I had figured out how to downshift her transmission, which made it easier to navigate the 8 percent downhill road grades.

Up and down I went as I drove into more and more remote forest. AZ-377 S, AZ-260 W and AZ-188 S to AZ-88 W, I followed Google Maps commands to go further and further into the wilderness. As the road narrowed, I started to spot dirt forest roads splintering off from the highway into what appeared to be oblivion. I drove on.

After many twists and turns, I came upon the magnificent Lake Roosevelt. This large body of water was also created by damming off the Salt River. I drove on. Google Maps instructed me to turn on Arizona State Road 88, a much narrower and worn roadway. After many more twists and turns, I came to a sizeable flattened piece of earth on a precipice. I looked back to see the gigantic Roosevelt Dam directly behind me; it sent shivers up my spine. For a split second, I wondered what would happen if it’s immense structure burst. I refocused my thoughts and looked ahead. Google Maps was instructing me to drive forward towards a road that was heralded by a yellow caution sign that read, “Pavement Ends.” I drove on. I was now navigating the Apache Trail.

The sign says it all.

Soon caution alarms started to sound in my head. The road was very narrow, almost certainly too tight in my mind to accommodate two-way traffic. There was no shoulder, only a small strip of piled dirt that demarcated the edge of the road from the abyss on the other side. Hundreds of feet below I could see the Salt River winding from Roosevelt Dam. The way was pitched upward as it had to climb the mountain before it. I drove on.

I started to feel a panic that emanated from my abdomen, moved into my thorax, and terminated as a lump in my throat. I deliberately started to slow my breathing to calm myself. I drove on.

The road was not only unpaved and narrow, but it was also in terrible condition consisting of a continuous deep washboard pattern that was further sprinkled with potholes. Violet the van was shaking uncontrollably, and I had a real concern that she could be damaged to the point of becoming inoperable. There was no place to pull off, and my T-Mobile cell service was fading in and out. I flipped on the Verizon hotspot to boost reception, but neither carrier could compete with the granite mountain that was blocking reception. I drove on.

A very narrow road. The Salt River is hundreds of feet below.

I wanted to turn around, but there was no place to do this. The road was so narrow, and it appeared to flow in a single direction. I had a real concern that if I did manage to reverse my course, I could face a car coming directly at me. In my mind, if that happened, one of us would have to reverse either up or down the mountain. Of course, an impossible option. I continued to focus on breathing.

I attempted to drive in the middle of the road so I could stay as far away from the edge as possible. As I turned into a hairpin twist, I was immediately confronted by a huge, bus-sized RV approaching me from the opposite direction. This tiny dirt road was for two way traffic! I reacted by automatically swinging my steering wheel to the right as Violet’s front right wheel brushed into the dirt curb that separated me from the valley below. My heart raced as I tried to stop Violet from moving forward. I looked up towards the massive Class A RV and glimpsed the driver who appeared to be in his 30’s. His sweaty face and horrified continence suggested that like me he was unaware of the challenge of the Apache Trail. As he passed me, it was clear that we could easily touch each other. I drove on.

This dirt road was 14 miles long, but that distance translated to over an hour of driving as my speed varied from 10-20 MPH. Violet continued to shake uncontrollably as secured objects broke free and crashed about her cabin. A box crashed into the back of my head and sprayed me with its contents of bolts. I drove on.

I finally spotted the turnoff to Apache Lake. Ahead the Apache Trail continued with a new caution sign stating that the next 5 miles were only a single lane. I turned right and started the descent down. I pulled into the resorts parking lot feeling like I could pass out from adrenaline. It was not a good feeling. In my usual fashion, I tried to center myself and gather more information with the idea that knowledge is power. Although I did have a cell signal, it wouldn’t support data, and I finally gave up.

When I exited Violet, I was literally vibrating. Some of my oscillations were due to the emotional aftermath of my harrowing journey, some were due to physically being shaken for oven an hour. I did a quick assessment of Violet’s condition, and she appeared to be intact. However, her internal contents were strewed throughout her cabin in a twisted and incoherent mass.

I walked into the lobby of the lodge and made my way to the desk. A young Hispanic man greeted me. “Wow, that road in is pretty rough, how do you guys commute here every day,” I said trying to appear calmer than I really was. “Yeah,” he noted. “It is pretty bumpy, we actually live on site here,” I asked him if the trail south towards Phoenix was any better, but he couldn’t give me a clear answer. He told me to find a spot to camp and to then return. I drove down towards the lake, but I couldn’t really determine where the campsites were. At that point, I was on complete overload, and my ability to problem solve had reached its absolute limit. I drove back to the lodge and asked him how much it would cost to stay at the motel. He replied, “Seventy bucks,” and I booked a room for the night.

The small motel was in clear sight of the lodge, but the road to it was not. I got temporarily lost driving there. When I finally reached the motel’s parking lot, it was completely empty. I was the only guest. I entered my room using a standard key with a diamond shaped key tag stamped with the number 5. Having a real motel key seemed to be a throwback from the 1970s, but I was too shaken to appreciate its novelty.

I entered the room and flipped on the air conditioning unit and was greeted by a familiar musty motel smell. The room was clean but spare. The walls were white, painted cinder blocks, and a single table lamp was the only source of illumination. Surprising there was a relatively new flat screen TV attached to the wall directly opposite the bed. I crumbled onto the bed, shoes and all, and flipped on the TV. A total of 5 channels greeted me, but one of them was frozen in some sort of digital TV mishap. I stumbled onto the beginning of a movie and decided to watch a bit. Within minutes I realized what I was viewing. The film was “Into The Wild,” which is a story of a foolish adventurer who decides to explore the wilderness and winds up dying after prolonged starvation. I elected to turn the TV off.

My spartan motel room.

I attempted to investigate alternative routes to Tucson, but the lack of internet data blocked my efforts. It was now around 5 PM, and I decided that I would go back to the lodge for dinner. When I approached the dining room, I was aware of two things: the waiter looked very surprised to see me, and the large room was completely empty. I sat at a table, and he handed me a menu.

I scanned the menu’s contents and discovered the usual resort fare… burgers, sandwiches, and a few expensive items like steak. I chose a Reuben Sandwich with a side salad, and the waiter disappeared with my order. I continued to be struck by the emptiness of this cavernous room, which reminded me of a scene from “The Shining.” Eventually, the sandwich came, and it was surprisingly good. My total bill was under $10.

On return to my room, I decided to have a drink. I had brought with me a small flask of bourbon to mix with a Coke that was chilling in Violet’s fridge. For some reason, I thought having a little whiskey on the trip would be a manly thing to do, strange as that sounds. This was definitely the time to use it.

The alcohol calmed me, and I reexamined my room’s appointments. I was surprised at the number of ashtrays available. One in the room, one on the little table outside of the room, and three on the picnic table directly across the room. Five ashtrays within 15 feet of my room, I thought, “Well, you don’t see that every day.” The alcohol had its desired effect, and I drifted off into sleep, it was 7:30 PM.

Ashtrays everywhere!

I started to rouse at 9 PM. In the recesses of my mind, I heard what sounded like demonic chanting. I woke a bit more and became aware of a heavy bass riff that was repetitive and persistent. My fogginess assessed the information as some sort of heavy metal rock concert, but that assessment seemed off. The bassline was so loud that my bed was shaking in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, and in the middle of a note, the music cut off only to resume a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself many times. The same song would be played at a quaking volume for anywhere between 1 to 3 minutes, it would then stop abruptly only to resume minutes later. It was creepy.

I looked out of my motel room’s door towards the parking lot to discover that I was still the only car parked. I looked in the opposite direction, and at the far end of the motel, I spied an old car with its interior lit up like a Christmas tree. It was parked on the motel’s walkway and looked completely out-of-place. The car was the source of the music.

Now fully awake, I retired my cellular internet connection, and surprisingly it worked. I was able to to use a couple of my GPS applications, which gave me different routes from Apache Lake to Tucson. One direction took me the 14 miles back towards Roosevelt Dam, the other was a 26 miles long trek south on the Apache Trail. Further research yielded confusing information, but it was clear that at least 14 miles of the 26-mile southern route were also unpaved, and at least 5 miles of that road was only a single lane. There was no easy highway route, and I found my anxiety building.

I called upon my cognitive skills to calm me. I did see a couple of vehicles in the lodge’s parking lot. Several were of the 4-wheel drive variety, but one was an older Chevy sedan. “It made it up the trail OK,” I thought. Perhaps the road wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Also, I now had some working knowledge of the trail, and I even knew that Violet could survive the rough road.

My cognitive restructuring helped only so much. Honestly, I would have paid someone to drive me out if that had been an option. I still had to decide which route to use the next day. Which way, the known northern route, which was more out of the way, or the more direct southern route, which was utterly unknown? I went to bed.

I woke the next morning around 5 AM and took a long, hot shower. I looked out my door and found that the heavy metal car was no longer there. It was almost as if its purpose was to wake me when the internet connection was better. I chucked at my willingness to attribute a meaning to every random event in my life.

I tried to do more research, but the internet was no longer working. I went back to Violet and pulled out a road atlas from her driver’s door storage pocket. There wasn’t enough detail on the map for this remote spot, and I slotted the atlas back into its door spot.

I decided to try connecting my phone while in the van as I had previously installed a cell phone signal booster. Although the booster didn’t help me when I arrived at the lodge, I was now a block away and at a slightly higher elevation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I tried the phone, and I was able to connect slowly to the web. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with any new information, and so I went back to the motel room to pack up my things. It was now 7 AM, and I had some time to kill as the restaurant didn’t open until 8. I took a walk along the lake with my camera in hand. Now, slightly calmer, I was able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the location. Apache Lake was long and majestic, and there seemed to be a spiritual presence in the air. I took it all in as I needed as much calming I could get.

Another view of Apache Lake.
Beautiful Saguaro Cacti
Apache Lake has mountains, water, and desert all in one package.

I still was uncertain which route that I should take, but I wondered if the road towards Phoenix was in better condition, as it would have been the one more traveled. Should I risk the dirt road to Phoenix with the assumption that it was more roadworthy, or should I go back the longer but more familiar route? I needed more information, but there was none to be had.

I went to the lodge’s dining room and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was not alone. At another table were two “country” looking guys. Both appeared to be in their 40’s and were sporting similar goatees. They were wearing jeans and sturdy work-type boots. On their heads were camo colored ball caps, on their torsos they wore long-sleeved Tee styled shirts with a short-sleeved tee shirt pulled over the top.

In the past, I would have been too intimidated to approach them, especially since they had a rough look. However, their garb was similar to the dress of many guys that I see on construction sites, which gave them a familiarity. I boldly walked up to them, introduced myself, and started a conversation. They were very friendly and supportive. They told me that the road in either direction was equally terrible, but also noted that they had pulled a trailered boat on it the other day. This was another confirmation that Violet should be able to successfully get back to the highway if I drove her slowly enough. I decided to return the way that I came. Yes, it would make the overall drive longer, but the familiar factor would reduce my stress. I elected to wait until midday, as I thought the opposing traffic would be the lightest then.

Despite all of the cognitive efforts to neutralize my anxiety, I was still dreading the trip back to the highway. I wasn’t in the sheer panic that I had been in, but I was clearly outside of my comfort zone. I pulled myself into the driver’s seat, attached my iPhone to my dash phone holder, and turned the key. I was off.

I was glad that I chose the northern route when I started to recognize familiar landmarks, and I drove a full 5 miles in complete isolation. I took a sharp curve and faced another huge bus-sized RV approaching me. However, this time, I was more prepared as I knew that the road was two-way. The RV passed without incident. I qualified that encounter with the idea that this would be the only vehicle that I would see on the road so the rest of my trek would be clear sailing. At that moment another huge RV approached and drove past me, oh well. Eventually, I saw Roosevelt Dam in the distance. It’s massiveness frightened me the day before, but it now calmed me as I knew that I soon would be on paved ground. I stopped at the dam to take some photos and to catch my breath. My trauma was over.

The sight of the huge dam gave me comfort as I knew I would soon be back on paved ground.

Was my Apache Lake adventure worth it? I would say, “No.” The setting was beautiful, but the shear stress of getting there depleted any joy. Did my cognitive restructuring, internet research, and information gathering do the trick in calming me? Again, I would say, “No.” However, my efforts did reduce my anxiety and gave me more of an illusion of control over the situation. Therefore, those efforts served a useful purpose.

The reality, dear reader, is that sometimes you just have to do things that you don’t want to do. Sometimes you have to face your anxiety and move forward despite it. Life is not always easy, and to expect every day to be stress-free is not only unrealistic, but it is also unhealthy. Sometimes dealing with stress makes us grow and become stronger. Sometimes stress is just stress. That is the way life is.

As an aside, I found this quote from Theodore Roosevelt about the Apache Trail as I was getting some background for this post:

“THE APACHE TRAIL COMBINES THE GRANDEUR OF THE ALPS, THE GLORY OF THE ROCKIES, THE MAGNIFICENCE OF THE GRAND CANYON, AND THEN ADDS AN INDEFINABLE SOMETHING THAT NONE OTHERS HAVE, TO ME, IT IS THE MOST AWE-INSPIRING AND MOST SUBLIMELY BEAUTIFUL”
-THEODORE ROOSEVELT, 1911

Well…perhaps I could have enjoyed my adventure more if someone else was driving (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?).

On Aloneness

I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.

On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.

Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.

The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.

________________________

The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.

I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.

I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.

I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.

The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.

A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.

By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.

After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.

My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.

On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.

One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.

I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.

My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.

A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.

I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.

I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.

During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.

It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.

On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.

However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.

This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.

As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.

Hiking up one of the Great Sand Dunes.
Exploring a Pueblo Cliff Dwelling.
Hiking up a mountain.
Lake Apache.
Violet, my campervan.