Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 3

Originally written 6/18/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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The Rangers introduced themselves. Amy appeared to be the team lead, a wiry, strong-looking woman perhaps in her forties, with brown hair and a ready grin. Duane was the paramedic, a tall, muscular man in his thirties. His physique and bushy reddish beard reminded me of a movie lumberjack, but his laid-back, friendly demeanor was more like a surfer. Mary, an athletic woman in her twenties with long red hair in a braid, seemed to be the junior member of the team. She might have been a new ranger or a trainee, since the other two would occasionally give her instructions or explain what they were doing.

Duane examined Ray’s knee and took his vital signs while we explained what had happened. Amy listened, then went up onto the rock overlook to radio for a litter team and someone with crutches.

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“On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you can imagine, what kind of pain are you feeling right now?” Duane asked.

“When it first happened, it was about an eight,” Ray said, “but since I’ve been sitting here, it’s calmed down to like a five or six. It hurts most when I try to straighten it.”

“Can you put any weight on it?”

“Not my full weight, but a little. I can kind of hobble.”

Duane gave Ray some Tylenol to take the edge off the pain, and Amy came back from radioing the dispatcher. The three of them started talking about how to get Ray down the hill. It made me feel better that, even for these experts, the problem didn’t have an easy solution. They discussed the pros and cons of crutches, litters, and winches (!) with shrugs and shakes of the head.

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“I don’t know if this helps,” Ray broke in hesitantly, “but I’m willing to try sliding down the hill on my butt, if you think that will work.”

The Rangers’ ears pricked up at this. “Do you think you could manage that?” Amy asked.

“Yeah, I think so. I could push myself along with my hands and my good leg.”

They discussed it. It seemed like the best solution all around, because it was relatively safe, didn’t require any special equipment, and was easy on the Rangers. This last point was the one that Ray kept emphasizing, saying that he didn’t want to be a burden to them.

“This way, we can go ahead and get moving toward the trailhead, instead of making you wait for the litter to get here,” he said. “We could at least meet it partway. I would hate for you to have to sit here for hours with me.”

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“Don’t worry about us. We’re here for you, buddy,” said Amy. “But if you want to try sliding down the hill, let’s do it.”

Everybody seemed happier being active.

To my secret amusement, all three Rangers unstrapped crash helmets from their packs and put them on. It must have been required safety gear for a rescue, because the only even remotely dangerous part was the first hill, and that must have seemed like a cakewalk to the professionals. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

We didn’t have crash helmets, but Ray put on a knee brace that he had with him to help stabilize his knee (next time I think I’ll tell him to put that on BEFORE we start hiking). Amy also gave him a little rubber net studded with spikes to put on over the shoe of his good foot. She then unstrapped a rolled-up sleeping bag pad from her backpack.

Mary went down the incline to ask everybody at the bottom to please wait there for a while so that we didn’t end up with a traffic jam on the slope. Amy spread the pad out on the ground while Duane helped Ray sit down on it, and together they pushed, pulled, and dragged the pad down the hill.

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It was like the slowest sledding ever. The snow was too soft for Ray to slide much, so although the pad helped, his arms and good leg were really doing most of the work. Duane waded through the snow on the downslope side of the trail, both helping to drag the pad and making sure that Ray stayed safely on the path; Amy walked along behind, straightening out the pad whenever it bunched up underneath.

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I brought up the rear, carrying the backpack. This was a slightly harder job than it sounds like, since Ray had broken the shoulder strap when he’d fallen. Channeling my inner MacGyver, I’d had to jury rig a working strap using only the things in the pack: three bananas squashed in the fall, a bottle of water, a glucometer, a bottle of glucose tablets, several 100-calorie packs of nuts, a package of beef jerky, the car keys, and Ray’s runner number from the 5K obstacle course we’d done the weekend before, which still blessedly had a safety pin in it.

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I wish I could say that I used the squashed bananas and the package of beef jerky to fix the strap (that would REALLY be like MacGyver), but mostly I used the safety pin.

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I was also documenting the journey for posterity. I mean, if my birthday hike was ending with my husband having to get carried off the mountain by search and rescue, I might as well get photos, right?

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I love that Amy is grabbing Ray’s hood here

After about ten minutes, we reached the bottom of the hill safely. Hooray! Ray stood up against the rocks to rest and let the patient hikers waiting at the bottom go by while he and the Rangers strategized the next leg of the trip.

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The path at this point was snowpacked but mostly level, and there was the little stream to cross. Sliding on the sleeping bag pad was not going to work. Ray and Duane discussed it, and they decided that the easiest thing to do would be to have Ray try walking. Ray put one arm around Duane’s shoulders, with Duane’s arm around him for support, and Amy came along behind, holding Ray’s belt loops. (Ray said this was to slow him down, because he kept trying to go too fast. I thought it was to keep Ray’s pants from falling off).

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It looks like Duane is teaching Ray to cha-cha

(And check out Amy holding Ray up by the belt loops!)

This method wasn’t fast, but it seemed to work fine.

We worked our way down the trail, Ray sliding on the hilly stretches and walking with Duane on the flat parts. Mary walked in front, keeping the path clear ahead of us, and every ten or fifteen minutes we’d stop for Ray to take a break. Amy and Duane kept asking if Ray was OK, worried that the hobbling might be making his knee feel worse, but the combination of Tylenol and activity actually seemed to be making him feel better. He’d been very upset when he’d first fallen, but now he was almost cheerful.

“You’re a rock star, Ray!” Amy said.

Duane agreed. “Easiest hike-out we’ve ever had. I can’t believe how well you’re doing for a guy with level five or six pain.”

“Better than just sitting there, waiting to be carried out,” said Ray.

I don’t know–it would have been fun to get pictures of Ray being toted down that hill on a litter.

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“I love you, man!”

The rangers were amazing. Throughout the whole process, they were patient, calm, and very positive, encouraging Ray at every step. They were funny, too—while helping Ray slide down hills, Amy kept making jokes about how sledding wasn’t allowed on this trail.

“We just took the ‘no sledding’ signs down last week!” she said. “Don’t tell anybody we’re letting you do this!”

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Once, while Ray was taking a breather, a family from India with two small children stopped nearby. The younger child, a girl, looked at Amy with wide eyes. I think it was the khaki uniform, complete with shiny badge and crash helmet, which caught her attention.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“I’m a park ranger,” said Amy.

“You’re a Power Ranger?” the girl shouted in delight.

And Amy could have corrected her, but she didn’t. “That’s right! I’m the green Power Ranger.”

“Show me how you fight bad guys!” said the girl.

So Amy did some karate kicks and threw punches in the air, making sound effects with her mouth all the while. “Pow! Bam! Hee-YAAAA!”

It was awesome.

powerrangerPhoto credit: RyC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryc-behindthelens/14236442995/

Near the bottom of the trail, we finally ran into the ranger coming up to meet us with the crutches (Amy had radioed him to send the litter back but bring the crutches just in case). Ray experimented with the crutches, but in the end he decided to try the new ranger’s hiking poles instead, since they had little spikes at the bottom to grip the snow. Those worked so well that he mostly walked by himself, with Mary in front, Duane at his side, and the other three of us–Amy, the new ranger, and me–at the back.

The new ranger was wearing not only the regulation crash helmet but also Yaktrax, which are like shoe-sized versions of tire chains for semis. The other rangers gave him a lot of grief for wearing them (since I guess the amount of the snow on the trail was no big deal for them).

yaktraxPhoto credit: Peter Stevens, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nordique/3151309797/

“Hey, man, I thought it might get worse,” he said.

At this point, they sent me on ahead to get the car and drive it around to the near end of the parking lot so that Ray wouldn’t have to walk much farther. I skipped ahead gratefully. Not only did it feel good to be doing something useful, but the fancy outhouses were on my way to the car.

THANK GOODNESS.

outhousePhoto credit: Michael Gil, “The Real Outhouse,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/msvg/4847763487/

Seriously, by then, I would have been fine with this toilet. I REALLY had to go.

I drove around to the pick-up area near the trailhead’s ranger station, where Amy was waiting. She helped bundle Ray gently into the car.

“Great job, Ray! Be sure to go to the doctor, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ray said.

Amy, Duane, and Mary, if you’re reading this, words cannot express how grateful I am to you.

I drove away, glad that we were safely down off the mountain but knowing that our ordeal was only partly over. Ray managed to get in to see the doctor on Tuesday morning, and by Friday he’d had an MRI and gotten the news that his ACL was completely torn and his meniscus so badly damaged that it might not be salvageable. He had surgery on the following Wednesday, and right now, he’s asleep in a lawn chair in the bedroom, his elevated leg swaddled in layers of gauze, ACE bandage, compression support hose, and a knee brace so big and uncomfortable that Ray keeps muttering about the Marquis de Sade. Despite the fact that he still isn’t allowed to walk without crutches, he has to do physical therapy three times a day at home (“Three weeks ago, I wanted to deadlift 400 pounds, and now all I want to do is be able to straighten my #$%! leg!”). The doctor says he’ll be in the brace for six weeks and doing PT for at least six months.

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It’s been a whole new adventure.

On that Sunday, however, the diagnosis and surgery still lay ahead of us. All we knew was that things didn’t look so good. We drove back through the Park towards the entrance, me thinking a whole jumbled-up load of thoughts that included worry for Ray, plans for the worst-case future, and sadness—selfish sadness—for my lost birthday.

“You know what I need?” Ray said, breaking into my thoughts.

“What?” I said. I probably snapped it. It had been an emotional morning.

He put a hand on my knee. When I glanced over at him, I saw that his face was full of love and gratitude.

“I need some pie,” he said.

So we stopped at the Estes Park Pie Shop and had that pie after all.

40pie2Photo credit: Sam Howzit, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/5953100136/

For my 40th birthday, I got a hike, a surprise adventure, and a slice of cherry apple pie—and what more could a girl want, anyway?

Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 2

Originally written 6/16/15.

For part 1, click here: http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/26/adventure-13-my-40th-birthday-part-1/

All Pixabay photos used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

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The trail continued around the side of Nymph Lake, and we followed it as it ducked back among the trees. At this point, the path was level, and the snow had melted from the half of the path closest to the water. That meant that you had a choice: you could walk on top of the slippery packed snow, or you could slog along through the gooey brown mud created by the mixture of snowmelt and dirt path.

I don’t like getting muddy, so I chose the snow. Ray sort of alternated between mud and snow like a man trying to choose the lesser of two evils, only to find that they’re both equally horrible.

The path curved around the far side of the lake and then rose sharply. We climbed up the first incline, paused for a drink where the trail leveled off for a bit, and then splashed through a little stream that cut through the snowpack. Ahead of us, we could see that the trail turned to the left, but whatever lay beyond the bend was hidden by trees.

Well, what lay beyond the bend was the next incline (cue scary foreshadowing music!). This hill had several charming features:

  1. It was the steepest part of the trail so far.
  2. It was also the narrowest part of the trail, being only about two feet wide.
  3. To your left, as you climbed the hill, there was a drop-off. It wasn’t sheer, but if you slipped going up the trail it was going to be a long and painful time before you came to a stop.
  4. The trail was several feet deep in snow.
  5. To make matters worse, there were no trees on this hill, so the path was completely exposed to the sun. That might sound like a good thing (you know, the sun melts the snow so that it isn’t snowpacked anymore), but right then the melting process was at a dangerous stage: the snow was soft, unstable, and slippery.

It didn’t occur to me that going up this hill might be a bad idea. I viewed it more as a fun challenge. That probably doesn’t say good things about my sanity.

40snow2Photo credit: Ushi-Sama, “Snow Times Adventure,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/ushi-sama/8391380103/

This is what the hill looked like to me.

Ray, however, thought that the hill was unsafe, and climbing it didn’t change his opinion. He decided on the way up to tell me, once we stopped, that we should turn around and go back. He sort of wished he’d told me that BEFORE we climbed the hill.

matterhornhttps://pixabay.com/en/matterhorn-zermatt-mountains-alpine-944/

This is what the hill looked like to Ray.

Now, you’re probably imagining that one of us slipped and fell down the mountainside while hiking up this incline. But we didn’t. We both made it safely to the top, where the path leveled off again.

I was in front and made it to the top first, and I saw that there was a big rock outcropping off to the left with a gorgeous view of Nymph Lake a couple hundred feet below. I made a beeline for this rock, and I stood on top of it taking pictures while Ray finished toiling up the hill.

It was spectacular up there. The dark green oval of Nymph Lake, looking small and jewel-like, lay nestled among the pine trees, framed by the snow-capped gray peaks of the Rockies. Above me was a dramatic mix of blue sky and white clouds, with the sun shining warm on my face. For a moment, I was alone on the rock, and I breathed in a deep breath and felt incredibly happy.

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The fateful view

But the trail was busy that day, and I wasn’t alone for long. Two young women joined me on the rock, talking as they looked out at the amazing view.

“And I was like, ‘It’s not OK to just cancel on me at the last minute.’”

“Oh my God! I know!”

I had a brief fantasy of being a Donald Trump-style millionaire so that I could buy my own mountain that I could have all to myself. One where I wouldn’t have to share my transcendent moments with other people.

Suddenly, my fantasy was interrupted by a loud noise behind me, like an enormous thud. One of the other women on the rock said, “Oh my God! Are you all right?”

I turned around. Ray was sprawled on his back on the rock, his arms and legs flung out and the backpack stuck awkwardly underneath him.

Later, he told me that he’d just taken a step onto the rock to join me. The rock was relatively flat compared to the slope we’d just hiked up, and nothing turned under him or slid or anything like that. But as he stepped he heard a pop, and then his knee gave out and he fell down.

kneeCredit: https://openclipart.org/user-detail/evilestmark

This wasn’t completely out of the blue. Ray’s had some issues with his knee for the last five years or so, dating back to a martial arts class where one of the other students hit him full force in the knee and it swelled up like a balloon. The orthopedic specialist he saw at the time said that he’d probably partially torn the meniscus, and he went through some intense physical therapy for several months to see if they could strengthen it without having to do surgery. Things seemed to go well with the PT, so they thought that the meniscus was healing on its own, but every now and then he’d have trouble with the knee giving out during exercise.

40karatePhoto credit: Mikhail Esteves, “Karate Kids,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/jackol/56830172/

You see, doctor, I was in the middle of a martial arts demonstration when this guy drove over my legs on a motorcycle…

Now it seems likely (say the doctors) that the hit actually tore Ray’s ACL as well as damaging the meniscus, but Ray’s leg muscles were keeping the knee stable enough that they couldn’t tell. Apparently, this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds; three of Ray’s friends have also torn their ACLs but not found out about it until much later. Over time, Ray’s meniscus started buckling, and every time his knee gave out it got a little worse.

That day in the Park, the weakened meniscus tore again. The doctor said that the meniscus was so damaged by then that it could have torn anytime; it was just a fluke—and our bad luck—that it happened when it did.

Of course, we didn’t find out the specifics until several days later. Right then, all Ray knew was that his knee had given out, and he was in a lot—A LOT—of pain.

The other women and I stood looking down at Ray where he lay sprawled on the rock.

40sprawlPhoto credit: Quinn Dombrowski, “Meanwhile, on the couch…”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/14174698214/

Like this, only not as furry and cute.

“Are you all right?” one of the women asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you want us to help you up?”

“No,” he said again. “I think I’m going to sit here for a few minutes and then I’ll see if I can stand.”

The woman looked doubtful. “We could help you back down the trail.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll be OK.”

“All right,” she said, still doubtfully, and the two women continued on the path.

I squatted down next to him. “What happened?”

“My knee gave out.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m going to lie here for a while until the pain gets a little better, and then I’ll stand up.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You might as well finish your hike. I’m done for the day, obviously, but since I have to sit here for a few minutes anyway, you should go on. When I feel better I’ll start back for the car on my own.”

It felt wrong to just leave him like that. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he said, brusquely. “I really want to be alone right now.”

So I went. He had food, water, and his cell phone in the backpack, so he wasn’t helpless, and it was clear that he wanted to suffer in solitude for a while without me hovering. But it still felt wrong.

I went another ten minutes or so up the trail, but all the fun had gone out of the day for me. I was miserably worried about Ray, guilty for leaving him, and concerned, in a more practical way, about splitting up our little group, since he not only had all our food but also the keys to the car.

When I reached a pretty little waterfall at a bend in the path, I took a picture automatically, but my heart wasn’t in it. I turned around and went back.

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I found Ray sitting on a rock about fifteen feet from where he’d fallen. He had decided, as soon as I’d left, to go ahead and hike back to the car, but, in the twenty minutes I’d been gone, he’d only made it as far as the rock.

“It’s bad,” he said, when I asked how his knee felt. He didn’t just mean the pain, which he told me was excruciating (and, being a tough guy, if was admitting to hurting at all it must really be bad). He meant that he knew the injury was serious.

We were in trouble. Ray is not a small man: 5’10” and 250 pounds. I’m 5’3” and 115 pounds and, while I’m at least averagely strong, there was no way I could carry or support a person twice my size—even on a smooth, level trail.

Spc. Leah R. Burton Capt. Charles Moore, commander, Company C, 202nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, performs the fireman's carry of a "casualty" during the nuclear, biological and chemical portion of the Expert Field Medical Badge training and testing here Sept. 14.
Spc. Leah R. Burton
Capt. Charles Moore, commander, Company C, 202nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, performs the fireman’s carry of a “casualty” during the nuclear, biological and chemical portion of the Expert Field Medical Badge training and testing here Sept. 14.

Photo credit: Army Medicine, https://www.flickr.com/photos/armymedicine/6104337716/

If only!

And the trail we were faced with was anything but level. The snow-covered hill below us was as steep as a slide and about the same width, with a serious drop-off on the right. Added to that was the fact that a steady stream of people was climbing up the hill, clogging up the already narrow passage.

Both of us are good problem solvers, but it was hard to imagine how anyone was going to get Ray down from here.

However, we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. “I’m going to go get the rangers,” I said.

Taking some food from the backpack for sustenance, I hiked down the incline. In the half hour since we’d first come up the hill, the snow had gotten softer and softer, and now the surface of the path was pitted with craters like the moon. Great. I navigated the slope safely enough, but it was one more challenge for anyone trying to move Ray.

I reached the bottom of the hill and splashed through the stream that cut through the snowbank there. It was then that my worry-clouded brain finally cleared a little. I realized belatedly that this wasn’t a novel from the 1800’s, where the concerned but stalwart heroine would have to hike all the way back down to civilization to summon the cavalry.

40heroinePhoto credit: Davidd, “Dad-Blamed Flappin’ Varmints,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/puuikibeach/17405639984/

Although, if I got to ride a horse and be chased by pterodactyls…

This was 2015, and I had a cell phone. Duh.

I sat down on a handy rock and pulled out my phone. There was a signal. Thank God! I looked up the Rocky Mountain National Park website, found a contact phone number, and called it. A friendly operator listened to my story and forwarded me on to the emergency dispatcher, who took my name and phone number and the details, such as they were, about my location.

“Will your husband need to be carried out on a litter?” the dispatcher asked. “Or do you think he can make it out with a pair of crutches?”

I was visited with a sudden image of Ray—or anyone, honestly—trying to go down that slope on a pair of crutches. Then I imagined two people trying to carry Ray on a stretcher down the slope. I might have laughed hysterically. I can’t really remember.

40stretcherPhoto credit: Dan Zen, “Will the Happy Stretcher Bearers Save the Queasy Darth Vader!?”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/danzen/2288626158/

“The trail is snowpacked and very narrow,” I said. “I really don’t know how they’re going to get my husband out.”

“I have to tell the rangers what equipment to bring with them,” the dispatcher said, somewhat stiffly.

I think I might have offended her. I hastily explained that I wasn’t trying to be unhelpful; I just didn’t know what was going to work given the conditions. I thanked her very much for all her help, and she said in a friendlier voice that the search and rescue team would be heading up to us, and she would give them my phone number so they could call me if they needed to.

While I was on the phone, a largish group of teenagers came by and stopped on the rocks where I was sitting. They started chasing each other and screaming. “Josh! Tell Charlie to stop poking me!” “I just stepped in the stream and got water all inside my boot!”

I had to stuff a finger in my ear so that I could hear the dispatcher on the other end. It was a reminder to me that the rest of the world doesn’t stop for my personal emergencies.

40murderPhoto credit: Joseph Vasquez, “No Escape,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/joe3po/5115925583/

It also might possibly have led to some homicidal fantasies…

When the dispatcher hung up, I headed back up the hill, wishing that I’d remembered about my cell phone before I’d come down the dang thing. We couldn’t afford to have anything to happen to me. But I reached the top just fine and told Ray that search and rescue was on its way.

And then we waited.

I hadn’t ever really thought of the logistics of search and rescue in a national park before. It had taken Ray and me about half an hour to hike from the trailhead to the top of the hill. Even if the rangers were at the Bear Creek station near the parking lot, it was going to take them half an hour to reach us. If they were somewhere else in the Park, they’d have to reach the trailhead and then hike in. There weren’t any shortcuts. They couldn’t drive up to us. I didn’t even think, if Ray had been more seriously injured, that a helicopter could have made it up to where we were. There just wasn’t anyplace to land. So rescue was going to be a slow process.

That gave us lots of time for contemplation.

For a while, I sat on the rock overlooking Nymph Lake, trying not to cry. A chipmunk, used to handouts from tourists charmed by its cuteness, came over to see if I would give it some of my almonds. I didn’t, but I took some pictures. A girl from the loud group of teenagers (now at the top of the slope) tried to catch the chipmunk so she could pick it up and pet it, probably not realizing that chipmunks can be carriers of both rabies and bubonic plague.

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“Katie, what are you doing? You’re going to bump into that woman and knock her off the rock!”

“Sshh! You’re scaring off the chipmunk!”

I hoped that the chipmunk would bite Katie’s finger and give her plague, but no such luck. It ran off into the bushes and Katie never caught up to it.

plaguePhoto credit: Tim Evanson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/23165290@N00/7283938624/

Aww! This model of the bubonic plague bacterium is so cute!

After a bit, I went and sat with Ray on a rock overlooking the slope. The pain in his knee, though still bad, was more manageable now that he’d been sitting still, and we talked about what we were going to do once the rangers got there. Both of us realized the difficulties involved in getting Ray down the hill. We also both realized that the injury was probably serious, and there might very well be surgery in Ray’s future.

“I’m worried that the rangers will force me to go to the emergency room in Estes Park today,” Ray said. “I really don’t want to do that. There’s not much they can do tonight if it’s an ACL tear, and then we’d have to pay for an ambulance ride and an ER visit. What I’d rather do is see if my own doctor can get me in tomorrow.”

I said that we could talk it over with the rangers once they got there. I also preferred having Ray see his own doctor in Denver, but it would depend on what the search and rescue team’s guidelines were.

“Once we get back to the car,” Ray went on, “all I want to do is go straight home.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking sadly of my birthday pie. It didn’t sound like we were going to be stopping for lunch after all.

nopiePhoto credit: Roger Ahlbrand, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rogersview/4965301361/

Someone from the search and rescue office called me once while we were waiting, just to make sure Ray was still OK. He asked if I was OK, too, which almost made me start crying again. He reassured me that the rangers were on their way; they’d had to drive to the trailhead, but they were on the trail now and heading up to us. I was extremely grateful to him, and said so.

I also got a couple texts from friends, wishing me a happy birthday. I wanted to write back, but my phone’s battery had been acting up (Ray had actually given me a new one that morning), and I didn’t want to waste it, just in case. And also, it felt a little surreal to be reading “Hope you have a great day!” texts while sitting on a mountain waiting for search and rescue.

So we sat there, watching people struggling up the slope. Some people fell. Some people stepped in unstable soft spots and sank up to their knees in snow. Ray said that he thought the rangers should close the trail. I thought privately that if people wanted to hike in these conditions, why not? We hadn’t seen anyone get hurt. Even Ray (in the crowning irony of the morning) had made it to the top of the hill, only to have his knee give out on a flat rock.

Some of the hikers coming up the slope now had the strangest backpacks I’d ever seen. They were hooked over their shoulders with straps like a regular backpack, but the back part was like a giant crash pad folded in half. The pad stuck out over the hikers’ heads, looking extremely awkward.

We overheard one of these hikers telling someone else that they were, in fact, giant crash pads, called bouldering pads. Rock climbers put them at the bottom of rock faces as a safety precaution in case they fall. I personally thought that the safety provided was probably mostly psychological, since I didn’t think a pad that you could carry on your back was going to keep you from breaking something if you fell onto it from three stories up. Besides, it was only maybe five feet across. How could you be sure you were going to land right in those five feet?

boulderpadPhoto credit: Clay Junell, “Fancy Foot Work!”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/slopjop/233402654/

Yeah, that just doesn’t look very helpful to me.

It’s funny, the things you think when you’re in the middle of an emergency. Two young men passed us, talking to each other in German, and when they were gone, Ray turned to me and said, “I wonder what wooing sounds like in German?”

On my side, I spent a lot of time thinking about how much better the situation would have been if I’d been the one to get hurt, since Ray could have carried me down the hillside if he’d had to.

40carry2Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newtown_grafitti/8835265727/

Like this!

I also realized, a few minutes into our vigil, that I really, really needed to pee. Oh, well.

After about an hour, we saw three people round the corner at the bottom of the slope: two women in khaki uniforms that reminded me of Boy Scouts, and a man in a bright yellow jacket. These had to be the Rangers, I thought. Who else would be up here in uniform?

All three wore sunglasses, stout hiking boots, and enormous backpacks with various bits of gear hanging off them. They were obviously prepared for whatever might happen, even on an easy, well-traveled trail. Climbing up the snow-covered incline didn’t seem to faze them. They’d probably been through much worse.

“Hello!” the lead woman said as she reached the top of the hill. “Did you call for the Rangers?”

I had to restrain myself from flinging my arms around her neck and weeping with relief. The cavalry had arrived.

40cavalryPhoto credit: The U.S. Army, https://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/3419250126/

To be continued…

Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 1

Originally written 6/15/15

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

13Photo credit: Ryan Vaarsi, “Lucky 13, Los Feliz,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/77799978@N00/8424223789/

Rocky Mountain National Park–http://rockymountainnationalpark.com/

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’ve done a bunch of fun things with my friends and family over the last couple weeks, some of which I’ll be writing about as adventures. Also, some people gave me adventures as birthday presents, which I am really excited about—it’s like two presents in one, since anything that gives me an excuse to blog is a gift in itself.

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For the actual day of my birthday, however, I decided to go hiking in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park with just my husband. I’ve been going hiking in RMNP since I could walk, so, while I was greatly looking forward to the trip (I don’t get up there nearly as much as I’d like to), I wasn’t going to be able to use it as an adventure for my blog. Instead, I was planning on writing a kind of reflective, introspective post about turning forty, finding my first gray hairs, trying to ignore the wrinkles, etc.

Fate had other ideas.

I got my first hint that Fate was planning a blogworthy day for me on our way up to the Park. We were driving on Interstate 36 south of Boulder, where they’re doing some construction to install express lanes. It was Sunday, so there wasn’t any construction actually going on, and it looked like the project was very close to being completed. Almost no orange cones or lanes blocked off or anything like that. There were signs saying that it was a construction zone, but that was really it.

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The outside of my birthday card from my husband. I love pickles.

My husband moved into the left lane and sped up to pass some slower vehicles, and just at that moment, a police car that neither of us had noticed turned on its lights and pulled in front of us from the shoulder. Uh-oh. It moved around behind us and motioned us to stop.

“Good morning,” the officer said, when he had gotten out of his car and come over to talk to us through the window. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Ray, who has the greatest respect for law-enforcement officers and wanted to go to the police academy at one point in his life, didn’t fib or try to make excuses. “When I looked down, it said seventy-five, sir.”

“That’s right. And do you know what the speed limit is through here?”

“Sixty-five, sir.”

“No. It’s fifty-five.”

The officer paused to let that knowledge sink in, and my heart sank with it. We’d been going twenty miles per hour over the limit in a construction zone. This ticket was really going to hurt.

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The inside of the card! Hee hee!

Ray gave the officer his license, registration, and proof of insurance, and the officer took it with him back to his car.

“I’m sorry I just ruined your birthday,” Ray said unhappily.

Neither of us knew it right then, but that was not going to be the last time Ray said that particular sentence that day.

The officer came back a few minutes later and returned Ray’s license. “Raymond, do you know what the fine is for going twenty miles an hour over the limit? $300 and 6 points off your license. In a construction zone, all fines are doubled. That’s $600 and 12 points.”

Oh, no. I knew (because Ray had been something of a speed demon back when we first started dating) that in Colorado, if you accumulate 12 points in violations in 12 months, you can lose your license. That was even worse than the $600, which was bad enough. What were we going to do if Ray couldn’t drive?

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Sorry about the reflection from my flash in the middle of this picture. I’m definitely no Ansel Adams.

“But I see that you haven’t had a ticket since 2008,” the officer went on, “so I am going to cut you a break this one time and let you off with a warning.”

I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped breathing until I suddenly started again. He was letting us off with a warning? It was like a ray of sunshine breaking through some very, very dark clouds.

“Don’t speed through here again, all right?” the officer said, and handed Ray a business card with his name and address on it. Ray handed it to me along with his registration and proof of insurance. I put the paperwork back in the glove box and the officer’s card reverently in my purse. That man was getting a thank-you note!

It’s always interesting to me to see the different ways people react after a stressful situation is over. For the next twenty minutes, Ray kept saying things like, “I wasn’t the only one speeding,” and, “There isn’t even any construction going on!”

I, on the other hand, was so happy that I could have sung and turned cartwheels.

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This is the adorable gift bag that Ray gave me my presents in after breakfast on my birthday. It looks like a muppet. Best gift bag ever!

We reached Rocky Mountain National Park about 9:30 a.m., early enough to have beaten most of the summer crowds. The trail we had decided to hike, the Emerald Lake Trail, was at the south end of the main road that led from the Fall River Entrance where we’d come in, so we spent about twenty minutes driving through the Park on the way to our destination.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and all the trees and grass were vibrantly green after a very wet spring. We saw a heard of elk in a meadow, and one or two deer picking their way through the trees by the side of the road. At one point, traffic in front of us came to a complete stop, and we leaned out the windows to see a wild tom turkey, his tail fanned out like a brown peacock, herding a group of hens across the road.

That was worth the trip to me, right there.

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Sadly, I didn’t get a good picture of the turkey with his tail fanned out, but here is a different wild turkey (also cool).

At the end of the lovely drive, we found that we had timed our trip perfectly, and there was still plenty of parking at the busy and popular Bear Lake Trailhead. We parked, loaded our backpack with food and water, and made a pit stop at the glorified outhouses near the ranger station. Then we were off toward Emerald Lake, on a 3-mile-round-trip hike that was labeled “Easy” on the Park’s website.

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Right away, we hit a snag. The trail might be easy in mid-July, but at the end of a wet May, it was still mostly hidden by snow. Patches of the paved trail stuck out from underneath the thick, dirty white blanket (melting spring snow is not pretty), only to disappear again where the trees shaded the track from the sun.

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I wasn’t too worried. When I was in college, I used to go hiking in the backwoods of rural Tennessee pretty much every weekend, and while I’d never hiked in snow there, I’d hiked in just about every other condition. Walking on top of packed snow didn’t seem too bad. Besides, plenty of other people were on the trail, including kids in crocs and grandparents in shorts, so how hard could it be?

It didn’t occur to me that Ray, not as fond of hiking as I am, might not be excited about trekking across the snow. He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but since it was my birthday (and we’d driven two hours to get there), he just hitched the backpack a little higher on his shoulder and didn’t say anything.

Almost immediately, the trail began to climb up a hill, winding through rocks and evergreen trees. I was so enchanted by the scenery—the little running streams by the side of the path; the small, dark gray squirrels peering at us from the branches; the spicy scent of the pines—that I hardly noticed how steep the ascent was.

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If you look carefully, you can see a squirrel in the middle of this picture

Ray, on the other hand, was painfully aware of the climb, and every ten minutes or so he would step to the side of the path for a quick water break. It was just as well that he did, because otherwise I probably would have forgotten to drink myself. Getting dehydrated when you’re at 8000 feet above sea level is a really bad idea.

Every time we stopped, we talked about this and that, including our plans for the rest of the day. There’s a little café called the Estes Park Pie Shop where we always eat after hiking; we started going there a year or two ago after seeing a truck parked outside their shop that said YOU NEED PIE! in giant red letters across the side. Since the pie (and the rest of their food) turned out to be as good as their advertising, we go back whenever we’re in the area.

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I don’t eat pie (or any other kind of dessert) very often anymore, but this was a very special occasion. So, as soon as we were done hiking, we planned on driving back into Estes Park to have lunch, followed by pie, before heading home so I could take a nap (also very important). As far as I was concerned, it was the perfect birthday plan.

Whenever we paused for a drink, this one particular family would pass us. There were six of them: a mom, an older couple who I guessed were her parents, a toddler, and two red-headed older kids who might have been eleven or twelve. The first four of them were going pretty slowly, just like we were; neither the toddler nor the older couple moved very fast. The older kids, however, seemed athletic and adventurous, and they hiked much faster. We only caught up with them when they stopped to climb a rock or wade in a stream.

They got so far ahead of the rest of the family that I actually wasn’t sure at first that they were part of the same group. There wasn’t much that I was sure about with them. I think they were twins (they were the same height and build and had very similar faces), but I never was certain whether they were both boys, both girls, or one of each. Their red hair was cut in matching mops like Raggedy Ann and Andy, and both of them had long, skinny bodies dressed in t-shirts and jeans.

raggedyannPhoto credit: Joe Haupt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/51764518@N02/17172505419/

In case you’re too young to know who Raggedy Ann and Andy are…

After watching them clamber up on some rocks and stand looking down at the forest below them, I decided that they were kids after my own heart. When I was little (like four or five), my parents used to put a whistle around my neck when we went hiking because I enjoyed running ahead and exploring so much. The deal was that I could explore, but I had to stay on the trail, and I had to blow my whistle every few minutes so that my parents knew where I was.

During the first part of my birthday hike with Ray, we played a kind of leapfrog with the adults in this other family: they would pass us when we stopped for a drink, and we would pass them when the grandparents stopped to adjust their hiking poles, or when the mom stopped to put the toddler in a baby carrier (which was basically a special backpack. The mom then did the same hike we were doing with a 25-pound 2-year-old on her back—she must have been in incredible shape).

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Every time we leapfrogged, we would smile and say hello to each other. There’s a camaraderie in the Park that I love, a sense that you’re sharing this beautiful experience with everyone else on the trail. We said hello to all the people who passed us going the other way, and they all smiled and said hello back. That just doesn’t happen when you’re out walking down the street in Denver. You’re much more likely to drop your eyes and pretend you don’t notice the person you’re passing—you know, in case they’re a pervert or a psycho. But out on the trail, everyone is friendly. It’s part of the magic of the Park.

A little less than a mile from the trailhead, the path flattened out, and all of a sudden we found ourselves on the shore of a lake. We thought at first it was Emerald Lake (it certainly was a gorgeous, deep green color, the water reflecting all the trees on the hillside to our left), but we realized that we hadn’t gone far enough for it to be Emerald. Later, we found out that it was called Nymph Lake, and it was the first of a series of lakes on the trail.

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Nymph Lake

Standing on the shore, it felt like we were watching some kind of seasonal changing of the guard. The water was completely clear of ice, and ducks were floating on the surface, but most of the shoreline was still several feet deep in snow. The mountains had apparently not gotten the message that it was supposed to be summer.

After we’d stood looking at the lake for a while, Ray asked if I wanted to keep going or if I wanted to turn around and go back. I said that I wanted to keep going. We’d only been hiking for about twenty minutes at that point, and I wasn’t ready to go home. Besides, we hadn’t reached Emerald Lake yet.

This (unbeknownst to us) was one of those decision-making crossroads that you look back on later with regret. But, of course, you never know at the time what you’re in for, which is probably a good thing.

Dramatic music should be playing here! To be continued…. Continue reading Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 1