*Photo taken from Tahoe Rim Trail, overlooking the Carson Valley from Spooner Summit area.
A year ago in early July, Michael and I were just getting to know the Carson Valley of Nevada. It’s hard to imagine a whole year has passed since we crossed the Martian landscape of Nevada and arrived in the much greener valley near Lake Tahoe. This week of renovations has been brutal and exhausting, as we now have a deadline towards which we must push hard to get ourselves to New Hampshire with a finished house to sell in Olean. The soul-sucking nature of the tedious work over the last week has caused me to think about where we have been, and where we are going, because it helps me to dream a little to get me through the present moment. I decided to offer up an old memory from our early days in Nevada last year, a particularly lovely memory of hiking the trails there. Several trails became regular spots for me, but I think my absolute favorite was the Tahoe Rim Trail. Along with a pair of hiking experiences, I share that I learned a breathing and stepping technique which helped me hike more efficiently. I’ll put a description at the end of this blog post in case anyone is interested in trying it. Enjoy my little drop of honey from last summer!
July 7, 2017
I believe I am falling in love with the Tahoe Rim Trail in much the same way that I fell in love with the Adirondacks. Today we hiked along part of the Rim Trail for the second time since our arrival in Minden, NV, starting from the Spooner Summit parking area and heading North this time. This trail covers over one hundred miles through the forested mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, with well-marked paths which are well-traveled. The smell of pine fills the air, and one catches frequent glimpses of the incredibly blue lake as you hike between the trees and large rock formations which litter the trail’s edge. Though the trail itself is fairly easy to moderate hiking, it does require some acclimation to the altitude if you are not accustomed to being above 6,000 feet. After spending three months in Ely, NV at an elevation of 6,500 feet (and hiking there, too), Michael and I are quite used to the elevation by now.
As we made our way through the woods, yellow swallowtail butterflies flitted atop the scattered foliage, ground squirrels and chipmunks scampered under the brush, and a light breeze blew the pine aroma to our noses. I find it quite refreshing to hike the Rim Trail, as Carson Valley below the lake is hot and exposed, and hiking in the sun there can be brutally punishing. Being in the trees and up a little higher, one gets both a breeze and shade, a boon in this desert climate. The beauty of the woods here does remind me somewhat of the woods in the Adirondacks, though there are not as many rocks to climb, and certainly none to scramble up and over on the trail. Still, that alpine quality of the high desert, along with lots of rain and snowmelt to supply the plants with flowers and green is very welcoming.
Less than a week ago I hiked with a former mountaineer I met at a meeting (a spin-off from the Women’s March in January, called “Huddles”). She offered to take Michael and I hiking, so I jumped at the chance to find new trails. As it turns out, Michael was much too tired to get himself up early enough to get out for that first hike, but I made it there by myself. It was a good thing, since the day was hot, the mountain had absolutely no shade, and the hike was all sand up a rather steep slope. The dogs would not have done well with those conditions. Nevertheless, I hiked up Hot Springs Mountain with the group, and learned a tip which I already feel may have utterly changed my athletic life. For my entire adult life, I have suffered from exercise-induced asthma, a condition which isn’t terribly serious, but is annoying when you want to hike mountains, ride fast on your bike, swim, or run. Well, anything that gets me breathing hard when my heart rate goes up is going to get me turning blotchy and red, and then my lungs start to shut down. I mentioned this fact to my guide, and then she graciously taught me a breathing technique which mountaineers use “to get up Everest,” she said. In trying this technique, I found that my stunted oxygen intake was vastly improved. Long before my lungs gave out, I was finding my legs locking up with lactic acid! Wondrous! I can’t remember the last time THAT happened.
So I once again used this technique to head up the Rim Trail, also employing the “rest step” as taught to me by the former mountaineer. As if magically transformed, I was charging up the switchbacks, straight up the path which only a week ago would have had me gasping for air and stopping every few minutes to catch my breath. Instead, I found myself nearly freed of the confining trouble my lungs have cost me for decades. I walked up the mountainside with what felt like the agility of a mountain goat, and then when it was time to turn around I gleefully RAN down the slopes, once again freer than ever before. What a gift! For such a long time I have struggled with this silly condition, never really wanting to use an inhaler because I just don’t want the expense nor the hassle of medication, and I also really don’t want to have to use chemicals to treat a condition which isn’t really a medical emergency. Instead, I keep at the exercise and try to make my lungs stronger, but this new breathing technique has done more for me in a few minutes than all my hard work since I was a teen. Hooray for oxygen!
In any case, Michael and I have thus far been enjoying our return to civilization. Being in the Carson Valley has proven to be a delight with all the sun, trails to hike, places to shop and eat, and friendly locals who keep inviting us to do things with them. I find myself often missing the green of the Northeast, particularly missing our first home away from home in Keene, NH, where Michael fulfilled his first contract as a travel nurse. However, I really don’t miss the frequent clouds and rain, and this year the Northeast seems to be suffering from some particularly bad weather for this time of year. Lots of cold and gloomy and rainy days since winter supposedly ended. [This summer has been rather rainy and gloomy, too. Ugh, climate change….]
I suppose weather concerns are part of what drives me to see the country now before it changes too much more. Before fires have a chance to destroy the Sequoias, I got to see them in their natural habitat, vast and majestic and impressive as they are. I am seeing the desert while the weather still allows it, before temperatures become intolerable for humans (like Death Valley already is at certain times of the year, with temperatures into the 120s at times). I hope to see glaciers before they melt, see the Arctic Circle before it turns to mush, and see some of the beautiful coasts before they vanish. Our trip to Louisiana in the spring, just prior to leaving New Hampshire, allowed us a side-trip through New Orleans. Though I didn’t feel the same desire to sightsee in the city that most might, I am glad we drove through the French Quarter and that I got to eat a meal in the city which has a very special history with food. Really, I feel so lucky to be living on the road right now. Michael and I both still come home from a little jaunt and see our Falcon parked in its temporary home and remark on the fact that we still can’t believe it belongs to us. Both of us feel completely thrilled and fortunate to be doing what we do, especially to truly experience a place for long enough to fall in love with it and to stop seeing it as just a vacation. We end up seeing a place as home, which really causes a different sense of being in a place. Vacationing is nice, but I am loving the chance to not only find the fun, but also get to know the people, enjoy the life of a place, and feel part of the land under that section of sky.
I found it serendipitous that I was looking through my past writing to discover my glowing desire for New Hampshire to be home has been there all along our travels for the past couple of years. Now that we are moving there to call it home for a time, and to plant our roots before hitting the road again, it is a joyful ambition. My heart yearns to finally live in a place where I feel fitted to the region, the people, and the love of what I can do and be there. As an artisan, New Hampshire promises to kindle a new opportunity for my art and writing, and the woods calls to me like a barely-heard humming in the wind. When I was a child, I read the Chronicles of Narnia over and over again, never getting enough of the excitement, the magic, and the aching sweetness of good deeds being done. Somehow, New Hampshire feels that way to me, like a magical place where at any moment, the wood nymphs will come out to play, satyrs will dance, and the animals will laugh and sing. When home calls, it’s a delight to answer. No matter how impossible it may seem to reach for the stretch of sky you want to see overhead, the river you want flowing in your yard, or the view you want to see out the front door, it is possible to have it. If you can see it in your mind, keep it there like an eternal flame, a beacon for your soul. Trust that if you know it will make your heart happy, you are meant to have it. I truly believe this life is meant for happiness, no matter how hard it may be now, or what you may have already endured. There is room for joy. Find it. Create it. Nurture it. Be alive right this minute, because you never know when this life may end. Live it like today is your last.
The exercises: First, I must credit Trish Ackerman for sharing these hiking tips with me. She attended a program to become a mountaineer many years ago, and has since retired to offering guided hikes with locals around the Carson/Tahoe region. I will do my best to describe the techniques she taught me so that anyone else who suffers from exercise-induced asthma may find the same freedom I found. First, the breathing: Take a deep breath in through your nose, and do your best to fill your lungs. When taking a proper deep breath, your belly should pop out a little, and your shoulders remain square. If your shoulders go up, put your hand on your belly to focus on making the belly pop and the shoulders stay down. When exhaling, force the air out of your lungs as hard as possible, using your diaphragm to push the air out hard. It may feel almost like coughing, but instead of a cough, you make a “ch” sound when you exhale. The exhale is the most important part, as this is what causes your lungs to utilize all the alveoli and have a higher exchange of oxygen and CO2. If you get working really hard, it’s fine to inhale through your mouth, but keep going with the hard exhale.
Couple this breathing with a “rest step,” which is similar to what you might do when climbing stairs. This is especially useful when hiking up steep slopes with a lot of scree, loose sand or dirt, or snow. Stab the toe of your shoe into the slope as you would when stepping on a stair. The back leg should now straighten as you place weight on the foot you “stepped” forward. As your front foot takes the weight of your body, the back leg is now “resting” to use less oxygen and less energy as you climb, and the main work is being done by the strongest muscle in your leg: the quadriceps (large muscle of the thigh). By using this stronger muscle to pull the body up instead of pushing yourself upward with the back leg, you save energy and can climb more efficiently. Combine this step with a breath, one to one, and discover the wonder of how athletes climb Everest.