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Tooling along on I-15 from Barstow, CA to Lake Mead, NV on a Sunday afternoon with the first 100 miles of 150 behind us, Bill slowly pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. I was social distancing in the back seat because of his recent covid infection, not making sense of his quiet mutterings into his mask. Our treasured, 8-year-old Ford pick-up started violently vibrating every time he went over 25 mph, though the engine never died. Shutting the engine would reset it, so we proved ourselves trainable by spending the next 4 hours driving in what mechanics later called “limp mode.”

Neither of us was counting on making it to our lakeside RV site that night, but we were off the road and tucked-in before sundown. While I drove, Bill had skillfully plotted a backroads and backstreets route around the Las Vegas freeways on the fly, which calmed our nerves because pulling a trailer in limp mode on the freeway was terrifying. Several police cars and many drivers respectfully passed us on our alternate route with nary a honk; I assumed they were thinking “At least its not me.”

When the shops opened Monday morning, we anticipated having the truck towed the 20 miles to the nearest city, having the diagnostics run in the morning, and perhaps being on the road at the end of our reserved week on the lake according to plan. We’d forfeit our Hoover Dam tour tickets and our 12-mile round trip walk to the dam that day to get the truck promptly repaired. Little did we know of the nightmare that awaited us.
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It felt like we were saying “Good-bye” for the last time.

The 4 Ford dealerships in the greater Las Vegas area I called Monday morning were on overload. Some service departments didn’t answer their phones or return calls; one’s that answered said they had up to a one month wait for diagnostic testing and a 2-3 month wait for transmission or engine work. We were in shock.

We were after all, in a first world country adjacent to a large metropolitan area. Supply chain issues from covid had long ago eased and the worker shortages were largely being integrated by businesses, leaving us dumbfounded and terrified. I’m rarely flummoxed, or flummoxed for long, but I was overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. Buying a new truck outfitted for towing on short notice wasn’t appealing, but even that necessity could jeopardize our early June departure for Italy.

I finally called the nearest tow company in the neighboring small town to have our truck hauled to a Ford dealership, a shop that possibly had better turnaround times. We were dead in the water without a diagnosis, and we desperately needed to do something. One of my life strategies is “When nothing is working, move, move anything or anywhere”, and so we would move the truck.

At 9:30, after having begun calling Ford dealerships at 7 am, Brandon began winching our truck onto his flat bed. More available for chit-chat than some young men, he educated us about the biz while he drove and suddenly, we felt cared for, and our problems felt smaller. We accepted his offer to drop us and our precious truck at an independent repair shop near his tow company’s office in Boulder City, only 7 miles up the road from our trailer park. He introduced us to the manager and in minutes, the truck was in a bay for non-dealership diagnostics.

Bill expressed concern about the too cozy collaboration between the 2 shops, but I was willing to ride with it instead reflecting small town culture. The personable co-owner/service manager with the “girl next door” bounce and the 4 gray-haired ladies in the waiting room were reassuring. While we waited, one of the ladies smiled and said, “They’ll take good care of you.”

Meanwhile, Bill read online that “limp mode” was actually a technical term akin to “splinting” like I had proposed the night before. Both are systems, one mechanical, the other mammalian, whereby the system purposely degrades performance to protect the subject from further injury when there is something amiss. The tension in our bodies dropped by a couple of more notches knowing there was a possible, non-catastrophic, diagnosis for our truck.

Brandon, our tow driver, also educated us about “transport” vs towing should we need to make a beeline home with our rigs or search for more available service farther north. Once our truck was in the diagnostics bay, the much cheaper transport was looking less likely to be needed, but at least now we knew what to shop for if it came to that. And he told us that if we ever had to tow or transport both our trailer and truck, to confirm the driver had a ball for the trailer hitch; more tension drained from our bodies. After the 20” cramped ride in the tow truck cab with Brandon, we had a clear vision of our options, no matter how devastating.

At 11 am Lee, the service manager, laid out which small systems in our truck had glitches and failures, and that excess data needed to be cleared from the truck’s computer memory to make it whole again. For a mere $1200, they could complete all the work with parts they’d pick-up from a Ford dealership and have it ready by closing at 5:30! The last remnants of stress and helplessness in our minds and bodies invisibly pooled on the floor around us.
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Later in the week, we were first in line, but the Hoover Dam officials canceled the full dam tour for the day, so we were limited to this view of the Power Plant.

Debriefing the surreal morning while picnicking lakeside in a Boulder City park, we realized that it was doing things the old-fashioned way, by talking to people in a small town of 15,000, that had extracted us from what seemed like an impossible abyss. It also dawned on Bill to have the shop do the needed brake work, if they had time.

Lee phoned before we had finished lunch, saying that it had been a good call on the brakes and there was so much wear on them that the rotors had been damaged. Bill had pressed dealer service shops for over a year and had been reassured there wasn’t anything urgent with the brakes, but he hadn’t been convinced. That was the second problem that Lee’s team identified which had been overlooked by dealer service departments.

Our strategy of buying-up for service at dealerships had failed. We had expected the approach to give us quality work and ‘continuity of care’ while on the road, but it hadn’t. We now wondered how we would find great independent service shops in the future like we were using in Boulder City.

The brake job required the shop keeping our truck overnight to complete the work, which was inconsequential to us. Bill was immensely relieved to have the ongoing brake problem resolved and we were thrilled to anticipate the return of our truck the next day in tip top condition.

We declined Lee’s offer of a lift in their courtesy car and elected to walk the 7 miles back to our trailer to capture the lost exercise time. With walking to our picnic spot in a park, we did over 10 of the planned 12 miles for the day, which neatly solved that problem.

And as hoped, about 3:00 on our long walk, I could feel the next wave of tension releasing from my body while we debriefed non-stop. We debated if we’d been unlucky or lucky, but settled on us having been lucky. We’d walk to the shop the following day to fetch our truck, accumulate the mileage we needed to keep our exercise week on track, and further restore our sense of calm.

In addition to bailing us out of this unexpected repair crisis, Lee highly recommended using AAA approved shops for vetting independent establishments when we were in need of service on the road in the future. And Bill later read that we could have bought an on-board diagnostics scanner for $50-100 to quickly have learned that the truck’s issues were not a crisis.

Clearly, we were behind the times. We thought only Ford shops could access the diagnostic info, but we later read that by US law in the late 90’s, manufacturers were required to allow universal access to those functions. Our limp mode trauma had been contained and we emerged from it feeling empowered with options should we ever have a repeat episode.

Nothing had gone according to plan in our week at Lake Mead: the unexpected trauma and drama of limp mode; the water being too cold to safety paddle board—the reason for being there; Bill’s covid symptoms returning after 2 negative tests; and not being able to take the Hoover Dam tour we’d anticipated. The setting isn’t nearly as pleasing or as rich with hiking opportunities as the Grand Canyon, but like the national park, Lake Mead has a tranquil quality that we enjoy and we appreciated it as backdrop to our string of disappointments, and we would be back.

Our truck’s terrifying journey in limp mode the first weekend in March inadvertently taught me something about my body’s own limp mode that had been increasingly frequent over the last 10 years, and especially the last 5. It was having our planned 3-hour drive to Lake Mead devolve into 6 hours that revealed a remarkable discovery: I survived it without experiencing brain fog that always had been triggered by as little as 90” of sitting, especially in the truck.
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Tail bone relief: the retail model & my DIY travel version.

During our 4 hours on the road in limp mode we changed drivers, though much less frequently than our usual 30-minute stints, which should have made me worse. The other variable with this drive was I was sitting on a cushion with a cut-out for my tailbone I purchased a couple of weeks before. It had been the recommendation of my myofascial release (MFR) practitioner to prevent compression of my coccyx, the tailbone, from prolong sitting. I’d used it for short drives and in the trailer without forming an opinion about it, but knew my nemesis was travel and it worked.

Of course, it was a poorly controlled experiment because it was only a single trial, but I was delighted. The last thing I needed on this potentially dangerous and very stressful day, was for my brain to be snowed from sitting, a condition that can take hours to resolve.

The cushion was literally a bulky solution and, always favoring minimalist interventions, I was quickly at work after the long driving day designing a pocket-sized support that would be easier to travel with internationally. Hopefully, my healing would eventually eliminate the need for sitting prop, but I would be ready if my dependency didn’t recede.

My 14-month’s effort to resume a normal life after my spinal pain episode left me with 3 objectives once I could somewhat reliably walk at the 11-month point. The easiest of the 3 to attain was the capacity to hike uphill, which I achieved in December with a 10-mile, 8,000’ elevation gain hike. Next, was the need to match that capacity to go uphill with the ability to get down without inducing pain, which I partially achieved in February by doing a 4500’ descent. And here at Lake Mead, in early March, I conquered the 3rd of 3, which was the capacity to do “endurance” sitting without triggering brain fog with the help of a specialized pillow.

In hindsight, I now wondered if my tailbone’s intolerance to compression had been the root cause of my increasing vulnerability to spinal issues for decades. Perhaps it is what had me self-identifying as “I don’t sit well”. Perhaps my predictable, recurrent agitation and restlessness with sitting that I experienced all of my adult life was masked spinal pain signals that only partially triggered the right response, which was to “un-sit”.

The ongoing MFR treatments clearly had been improving my plight, but I still had the niggling thought that there was something more, that something fundamental, was being missed. My new hypothesis was that this episode of prolonged sitting in the truck on my special pillow had revealed compression as the occult source of my intermittent but chronic vulnerability to pain. The hypothesis was a promising hope and I’d wait for necessity triggering future experiments to confirm the hypothesis or, in other words, I’d wait and see.

Layered on top of our truck’s limp mode crisis and all we learned about the auto repair business, there was something new I learned about my spinal issues, increasingly harsh weather and a new phase of Bill’s covid infection.

On the scale of covid, Bill’s prolonged bout with probably the JN1 variant, was a “nothing burger”. His symptoms were only that of a cold and he only really felt bad for a half dozen days of his almost a month of following the most stringent protocols after his initial case and his rebound. But like for many, it was the being in exile quality of the experience that wore him down. The 6 nights in a Palm Springs motel was annoying for him but it was subsequently sleeping on our trailer floor for almost 3 weeks that made him grumpy.
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It was cold & lonely sleeping on the floor.

Bill valiantly followed the strictest covid isolation and testing protocols for my sake: his highest priority was to not infect me, and it worked. Likely because of his quick action and strict compliance, I never tested positive and remained symptom free. “Thank you, Bill.”

As we moved from the pleasant winter desert climate of Palm Springs; to sitting out the windstorm at Barstow, CA; to parking on the shores of Lake Mead, NV with our truck in the shop; and then on to the Grand Canyon, the temperatures progressively dropped until we were briefly snowbound.

We began our trailer version of the isolation lifestyle by keeping almost all the windows open and our ceiling fan running 24/7, slowly diminishing the ventilation employed until the overnight lows were in the 20’s, and then only cracking 2 windows. I slept in our bed with a pleated folding fabric room divider closed, reducing the air exchange between me and Bill, who slept on the other side of it on the floor in our sleeping bags. We ran our Dyson air purifier so it recirculated the air only in his sleeping area. Upon awakening, Bill would open both trailer doors to “blow out” residual viral particles from the trailer for a few minutes because he found it impossible to sleep with a mask on.

When it was finally too cold to vent the trailer all day and all night, Bill substituted running into our tiny bathroom, where the ceiling fan was on, when he had coughing fits to reduce the “spray” of viral particles. He masked indoors for the entire month except when eating and sleeping, and we ate our meals sitting at opposite ends of the trailer.

And then it was over: at last, the illusive, 2 consecutive negative tests after the onset of covid rebound and no subsequent symptoms, were about a week after he felt like he was over it. Time would tell, but it seemed highly unlikely he would succumb to the much-dreaded long covid.

It seemed like our more than 20 years of traveling had resulted in us always being a bit behind, always a little out of touch, like with not knowing about “limp mode” on autos. We learned the hard way with our truck about that technical term, and now we knew. Less than 2 weeks later, I was literally trailing behind Sienna on the S Kaibab trail while we were both heading towards the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and she updated me about something else I had missed: river boarding.

Sienna had a heavily loaded backpack, I had a day pack; she had a mini sports board of some kind lashed on her pack, and I had no additional gear. While trying to catch her and craft a minimally out-of-touch question about her cargo, I overheard “river board” mentioned by an oncoming hiker. I was in—I was spared the public shaming of not knowing what it was and was handed an easy entrée into conversation with this powerful, 26-year-old.
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Jubilant Sienna with her river board on the S Kaibab Trail.

Even though she’d been hiking uphill for hours from the river, she had plenty of energy to talk without slowing her pace and was delighted to share her thrilling, 7-day trip down the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch with a rafting party. Critically, the rafters had the necessary permit to be on the carefully regulated river and they were her “sag wagon”, her support. They included her pack in their holds while she ran the rapids face down on her board every day. Sienna packed both a wet suit and a dry suit so she could dress for the conditions and ate and camped with the rafters.

Even after 7 days on the water and close to 7 hours of hiking with her heavy load, she was pumped and eagerly chatted about her fabulous adventure. Every story had a happy ending, even the rainy day they all got too chilled on the water and pulled into a rocky overhang, built a fire, and warmed themselves. The food was fabulous and even the guy with the puncture wound on his foot was doing better. For me, there is no better propellant than storytelling to effortlessly get me up a steep trail. And now I knew, I knew about river boarding and was ready for my next encounter with an aficionado, wherever that might be.

The Inner Canyon Tribe
I’m always gobsmacked when hiking below the Rims in the Grand Canyon by the suddenness with which a sense of community can develop with multiple strangers, like during our out-and-back excursion to the Colorado River in March.

I was deliberately plodding along at my steady, all-day pace for this hike that would require 7 hours of moving time when I watched 2 tall, solidly built, late-20’s men repeatedly leap-frog me on the ascent. The trail was wide enough that it wasn’t bothersome, but I was silently critical of their hiking style.

They were both bare chested, which struck me as foolish in the strong sun, and one had red rub marks on his bare skin from his small pack’s webbing, both observations which suggested to me a difficult night’s sleep ahead for him. Worse though: they were running uphill for short bursts, collapsing in the rare bits of shade to recover, and then racing off again. It was a classic ‘the tortoise and the hare’ script with me being the tortoise and their hare approach usually being a failing strategy on this particular trail.

When I arrived at the privately funded, shade shelter at the Tip-Off junction a third of the way up from the river, the 2 men were panting and broadcasting their embarrassing story: “We saw all of these old people going down the trail and said ‘We’ve got this!’ and then learned that all the old people were spending the night at the river!”

Having done exceptionally well at limiting myself to a 5” break to text Bill, I passed by them when I exited and quietly said “Just to set the record straight, I’m one of those old people but I’m doing what you are doing and returning the same day.” One lead guy quickly responded with a broad smile and said, “And you are crushing it!” Of course, tortoises never feel like they are crushing anything, but I thanked him for the compliment and offered a fist bump.
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Where else, but the Grand Canyon?

They caught up with me again a half hour later on a notoriously hot, steep series of switchbacks and when I recommended they pass me, the spokesman replied, “We’ll go at your pace.” Clearly, they were seeing the benefits of my slow and steady pace, but like others who have understood the inherent wisdom on display, they had difficulty gearing down. After a couple of the tight turns, the quiet guy slowed and started limping.

I suggested the 2 of us in the lead press on to a switchback in deep shade a few minutes away and wait for the guy in pain there. Saying nothing when he arrived, I directed him to sit on an almost flat bit of rock, sat along side him, and began applying deep, steady pressure with my fingers to the medial quad he had been rubbing. “Trigger pointing” I explained, as I attempted to calm the spasm with strong, focused pressure.

After a few minutes of inducing a different pain in his leg, I gave us both a break and pulled out my little, pill-sized zip bag of mixed salt, a grocery store item with both sodium and potassium. It was sounding like one or both of them could be low on electrolytes and water, though they declined my offer of water, I added 2 tiny spoonfuls of the electrolytes to the last of his water. A few minutes later, the lead guy blanched when I countered his comment that they would get more water farther on up with “There is no water on this trail: no water, no ranger station.”

Bill arrived at our shady respite after having added a couple of miles to our route at the river and having a friendly but probing conversation with another first-timer in the canyon about his condition and his water supply. This hiker however, realized he was weighted down by an excessive amount of water but was afraid to pour it out.

Bill had pushed hard up the switchbacks and he realized he was low on salt. While he spiked his water with salt from his own stash, the young men sprinted off. I felt like I should have posted a sign “Aid Station” for what became a half hour stop for me, but for other people’s needs.

A bit later, in another shaded spot, we paused for a moment so Bill could shuffle his gear, and a trail runner who had passed us on the way down to the river in the morning slowed. Without looking up he asked, “Do you have what you need?” I thanked him, replied “Yes”, and he went on. I was surprised and honored: even with his singular focus, he too respected the tribal culture of the Inner Canyon despite us not being in his athletic tier.

At Cedar Ridge, the halfway point, the guys from Georgia were resting again and this time, when I offered to split my remaining water with them, they accepted. It wasn’t a lot for the 2 of them, perhaps ½ to ¾ of a liter, but it was welcome.

They were in disbelief when I explained how little water I typically drank on the familiar trail, explaining that our slower paces were extremely metabolically efficient. They again thanked us and commented upon how lucky they were to have run into us on this, their first experience in the Grand Canyon. “This is what we do here” was my reply, we keep an eye on people and offer help, like we had done with them and others on the trail the same day.

The next time we caught up with the men was at Ooo Ahh Point and the quiet guy was now massaging the quads on his other leg. Bill was confident he had sufficient water to complete the hike, so we offered his excess to them. We first answered their question of “How much farther?” with “45 minutes” and then they accepted Bill’s spare ½ l to pour into their bottle. Amazingly, they still could not reconcile themselves to a slower, steadier pace, succumbing to “get there-itis”, which does not work on this trail, partly because you are ascending into progressively thinner air.
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Adventure Land: Canyonlands National Park

Not surprisingly, we finished ahead of the 2 young men and never saw them again. That’s the way it is in the Inner Canyon: transient, sometimes intense, connections form, and then suddenly break, becoming only memories, perhaps cherished memories.

Like at our other venues this winter, the temperatures in the Grand Canyon were running around 15° F below normal, whittling down our accumulated exercise stats to well below our expectations. In the Grand Canyon, ice on the Inner Canyon trails and on the paved Rim Trail, narrowed the number of outdoor walking hours safely available to us. And then there was the significant mud and huge puddles on the trails when the ground thawed for a few hours each day. The strong winds many days challenged our resolve to be out, though we added layers of clothing a pressed on.

We departed with little triumphs: Bill’s body finally was rid of covid; we successfully reintroduced Nordic leg extensions to our resistance training routines without injuring our hamstrings; we both shed a couple of pounds of body weight, giving us each a welcome buffer in weight management; and we maintained our weekly walking mileage. I however, missed my target for accumulating extra elevation gain because of the threat of being in the Inner Canyon on one of too many 2 pm rainstorm days; because of his superior body’s wellness to mine, Bill hadn’t gotten as far behind on going up mountains as I had this year.

Off we would go to Canyonlands for 4 nights of dry camping (no water or power hook-ups) to sample a new hiking venue in above freezing temperatures.