Now and Then, April 15, 2020

Facebook can be cruel, unintentionally cruel, but cruel none the less. It seems like every morning Facebook presents a “memory,” usually a picture from some previous year of me out hiking with friends. I look at the picture. I see where I am, who I’m with, what flowers are blooming – and I say to myself, “That’s when I was healthy.” I haven’t seriously hiked since I went up Mt. Diablo to Juniper Campground on Burma Road January 14. The downhill painfully jolted my spine and I figured it was from my ice skating fall the previous week. I didn’t find out it was due to the possibility of something else until January 19. I say possibility because I didn’t believe the cancer marker test result I’d just seen in the John Muir Portal while sitting at my desk, alone for the weekend; or the repeat test. It wasn’t until I saw the bone scan on my doc’s computer screen – a skeleton lit up like the Milky Way with fast growing invaders, that the truth of the matter broke through my denial. I still asked my doc, “This isn’t from an injury is it?” She said, “No,” and I collapsed.

I’ve been trying to compare and contrast my new life and old life along with reconciling and accepting the change, even as my situation is fluid and changeable daily.  This time last year I’d wake up around 6 am on Tuesdays, get dressed, have breakfast, and head off to meet hiking friends at Peets Coffee in Walnut Creek before our 8 mile round trip, 2800 foot ascent and descent of Mt. Diablo on the steepest trail in the Bay Area, Burma Road. On Thursdays I’d do the same preparation and at 8 am meet friends at the Old Briones Road Trailhead here in Martinez for a ten-mile loop in Briones Regional Park. Friday would find me joining the Friday Hikers at some East Bay Regional Park that Larry Fong would pick and lunching with them afterwards. Occasionally, I’d join hikes on Mt. Tamalpais across the bay. Even during the Covid-19 quarantine, many of my hiking friends are still doing solo hikes or hikes with the correct social distancing.

On the other hand, at present I wake up at some undetermined time, depending on how well I’ve slept, stroll over to the kitchen, eat some Cheerios (now that I can eat) to keep the “morning sickness” at bay from the anti-estrogen shot I get once a month, and go back to bed and stare at my phone. I make sure my stomach is settled so that I will keep down my main anti-cancer pill and then wash it down with a few more Cheerios. After lazing around my eyes will get heavy and I’ll take a nap for an hour and a half. By now it’s noon or later. I’ll get up, wander around, and work on my next big job of the day:  bathing. Often I’m too weak to stand for a shower so I’ll take a bath. Afterwards, I’m so exhausted that I head dripping wet to the towel I’ve laid on my bed. After a while I’m up and dressed, having lunch and looking out the window to the back yard, contemplating a walk among my blooming poppies and lavender. Sometimes I just sit on the edge of the deck and take in the colors and feel the warm sunshine on my skin. Other times I walk around the back and sit down watching the bees. Today was a big day. In the evening I held onto Rick’s arm as we strolled to the end of the court and back. This is my day. I completed 20 bouts of radiation a week and a half ago and they tell me I’ll get better.

So it was in the spirit of comparing and contrasting my two lives that I found myself thinking about my nights and how I now tend to wake up nightly in a puddle of my own sweat. I like to think that these night sweats are due to intracellular toxins released by dying cancer cells, not hormone shifts from the Faslodex injection I get once a month. Having been dropped into menopause by chemo for my first bout of cancer twenty years ago, I never experienced hot flashes and night sweats. I’d rarely had them with the flu or when a fever broke but never every night, not to the point of needing to sleep with a towel.

The whole idea of waking up soaking wet stirred a memory from the summer of 2016 with me waking up drenched in my sleeping bag in the backcountry, usually a very bad thing.  It was a special trip with friends – special for the first reason because it was a mistake. I requested the permit from Inyo National Forest six months in advance but mistakenly put July as the entry date instead of August. But a wilderness permit for ten out of South Lake on the east side of the Sierra should never be wasted so I sent out an email to a bunch of friends: “I am in possession of a wilderness permit out of South Lake and into Dusy Basin for July 19. Who’s with me?”  The emails immediately started pouring in:  “Count me in!” “Hell, ya!” In no time the permit was full and the trip was on.

Now July in the eastern Sierra is a magical time and place. There’s still snow in the peaks, the sapphire lakes are “warm” enough to swim in, the wildflowers are at their peak, and the mosquitoes should be abating. Most of this group had roamed this cross country area before and in the whole 400 mile long range, it’s one of our favorites. This was to be an easy trip, a stroll.  I’d just completed a twenty-two day trek of the whole John Muir Trail with my sister the week before and, while I was still acclimated, I could use some rest. So for me, rest on this trip included carrying my pack over 12,000 foot Bishop Pass and a cross-country wander among granite boulders and wide open fell fields around flower-dotted crystal clear lakes with my tribe of hiker trash. There were no big mileage days, no exploratory loops into points unknown, just strolling and swimming and sunning on big granite slabs like lizards and catching up with each other.

The previous April I’d been sitting in a lawn chair around a campfire in Yosemite Valley when I blurted out to my two young friends: “So when are you guys getting married?” The future mother-of-the-bride sitting next to me playfully swatted me with her hand and then conceded, “You can say that but I can’t.” I knew that. I took full advantage of my unique position and put it right out there. Regina responded with a frustrated: “I’m waiting to be asked!” while Banning slunk in his chair, lowered his chin and quietly redeemed himself with, “I have a plan.”

Well, the night before we left for the Dusy Basin trip, Banning phoned my husband and warned him that he would be proposing on the upcoming backpack trip. We didn’t know when or where but it was going to be on the trip and it would be a surprise.

Our second backcountry lake was a high nameless one at 11,400 feet, that I call Big Beautiful. With a swimmer-friendly granite entry surrounded by some of the Sierra’s highest peaks, we had all swum and sunned, our pink, naked hairless, bodies splayed out in contrast on the sharp granite. Dinner was cozy in a granite amphitheater overlooking the lake. There had been circulating the notion that the question was to be popped after dinner when we would all go for a walk, with our cameras, toward a peninsula that jutted out into the lake, ostensibly to capture the sunset. We all kept our distance and set up our tripods for “the sunset” as the couple wandered toward the peninsula. Then suddenly, with gasps from all of us, the knee hit the granite, shutters clicked away, and the globe rocked a bit on its axis. That’s the second reason that this trip was special.

Big Beautiful Lake
Amphitheater Kitchen
The Knee
The Ring
The Alpenglow at Sunset
Moonlight on the Lake

We were way above treeline so I slept on my pads in my husband’s tent and not in my hammock like usual (no trees to hang it from). But not before we stayed up to watch the full moon crest the peaks to the east and spread spangles across the lake. The next day I suggested we drop down a few hundred feet into the trees so that I could sleep in my hammock.

Lemons Paintbrush along the way
My hammock below the Palisades

You may now be wondering what this story has to do with night sweats. Well it’s a long winded walk down memory lane to when I had the one and only time that I thought I’d, unbeknownst to me, peed in my sleeping bag overnight – another kind of waking up in a puddle. Even in summer, high altitudes in the Sierra can get cold at night – really cold, frost-on-your-bag, and ice-in-the-puddles cold. Especially because I’m swaying in a hammock, surrounded by air, hanging in the Universe under a spray of stars, I can be colder than the others even if they’re cowboy camping on the ground. To mitigate that I’ll often boil water in a pot on my stove and fill a plastic one-liter Platypus water bag with the hot water and place it in my sleeping bag like a hot water bottle. This is what I did that night. For twenty years this method had kept me toasty without one leak. Well, I awoke warm and cozy in the morning sunshine, but damp. Had I peed myself? A quick look at the Platy revealed an empty vessel. There was relief of a sort that I didn’t need the Depends that I thought I might, but also a deep worry because if this had been a very cold rainy day coming up, I might not be able to dry my sleeping bag out. As it turned out it was another hot, sunny day with more swimming, sunning, and drying out of the sleeping bag.

So, the lesson in comparing and contrasting my present and past life is that, no they aren’t so different after all. Maybe if I can just pretend that my night sweats are as annoying as a leaky Platypus in the backcountry with a sunny day ahead to dry out, I’ll feel better about the whole thing. Just thinking about this memory makes me happy. I have a LOT of those kinds of memories in the bank and instead of seeing them as a cruel reminder of a happy past, I’m committing to treasuring every one and counting myself blessed to have lived them.

10 thoughts on “Now and Then, April 15, 2020

  1. Love your memories, love your photos, you are amazing and have shared that with so many fellow hikers. I am glad you have such a talent for sharing it.

  2. Karen, you’re a wonderful story teller. Thank you for sharing your lovely adventures. Think of you often ❤💛💚

  3. Dear Karen: What a great then and now story, rich with tactile, auditory, and visual imagery. I love your prose and love your accompanying photographs! Your ability, while facing cancer, to capture these moments reminds me of war corespondents jotting down observations while shells are exploding over their heads. Thank you so much for sending it to me. Will Maas

  4. Dear Karen:   You have led the life in the mountains which I only have dreamed about.   I posted a comment after reading this wonderful story.  I wonder if you’d be willing to let me quote some parts of it, and maybe use a couple of photographs in the future in one of my blogs?  I would, of course, attribute the quotes and photos to you.   Please think about it.  If you decide so say no, that’s fine.  Please keep sending me future posts.   Best wishes,   Will

  5. The trip to Dusy Basin was where I met you in person. A large group (yours) was getting water at the bottom of the switchbacks going to Bishop Pass and you had a Ladies of the JMT bandanna tied to your pack. I was solo. We talked briefly of passes further north and your trip with your sister. Then I went on. At the Pass, some of your friends were waiting for the rest of the group and had erected a tarp for shade. They talked about you, and how you had mentored them. There was so much love and respect in their comments. Those interactions gave me the courage to reach out to you during the time when I was waiting for the results of a breast biopsy. I loved reading this story.

  6. I’m reading this while enjoying Rick’s fireside concert. Mike is next to me commenting on the photos. I sure do love you! ❤️

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