Thursday, December 17, 2015

The weight of gratitude

It's just a random Thursday in December.  It's not an anniversary of anything joyous or tragic.  Perhaps it's the joy that my kids brought to our activities this evening, or the successes at work today, or the excellent playlist I put together on Spotify, or the family I'm missing, but my heart is really full.  And I felt like writing about it.

After work I took my student out for a beer to celebrate the submission of his first manuscript.  It's a big accomplishment in a graduate student's career, and I wanted to mark it with a social outing.  We were joined by our collaborators after we had all bashed some code in a 2-hour bioinformatics sesh.  Everyone was feeling accomplished and merry.

Before the beers arrived, my colleague, S., started a conversation with me by saying, so, how's everything going?  This is always a loaded question for me because I never know if the person is asking about normal things or cancer things.  People often want to know about cancer things but don't know how to ask about them directly, so I have to infer from the way they ask if they're inquiring about my holiday shopping achievements or my PET scan results.  You can imagine the difference:  "How are things going?" in a light, skippy tone, vs. "How are things going?" with emphasis and gravity.  I don't see S. very often, so it was hard to distinguish what type of "how's it going" she meant.  I opted for a response of, "Really great, thanks!  I have treatment tomorrow, but last year it fell on the day after Christmas so tomorrow's a pretty good deal...".  I felt ridiculous and wished I had gone the route of discussing what Santa is bringing my kids.  Fortunately she's great and saved my lousy conversationalist self by diverting the conversation elsewhere.  I suppose the positive spin on this is that my cancer is a normal part of my upbeat existence, but I do feel badly for all of the innocent friends, family, and colleagues who fall under my cancer-accepting bus during normal conversations.  Please know that it's something I'm working on.

This brought to mind the news that I had yet another clean PET scan in November, on the Monday after Thanksgiving.  I've lost track now--is that three or four clean ones in a row?  Perhaps five?  It's a small mountain of clean PET scans.  You should know that I do not take any of them for granted, although the result of each one is a bit surreal.  In my mind I have stage 4 breast cancer, but the scans seem to be taunting, "no you don't".  Then my treatments say, "yes, you do".  Then the scans say, "no, you don't."  This argument can go on for the next decade as far as I'm concerned.  Whatevs.

Speaking of 10 years, my Medical Oncologist was on the radio a week or so ago because her research study made the popular press.  She was the principal investigator on an analysis of data from women who had stage 4 breast cancer between 1988-2011.  The part that I keep hearing on the news is that of these stage 4 patients, the 10-year survival rate for those who had surgery to remove their primary cancer was almost 10%.  The survival rate of those who did not have surgery was only 2.9%.  This news got me all excited because I of course chose to have surgery, so I have the potential to fall in with the 10%-ers.  My decision to have surgery was a big deal because none of the medical professionals could advise me on whether or not to keep or remove the breast.  All four surgical oncologists at the fancy hospital discussed my case at Tumor Board said that my case was a medical gray area, and so the decision was mine.  It was clear to me and my gut feelings that the breast had to go, and these new data seem to validate my decision.  10%!  That's a fantastic number.  As I have sometimes complained about when it comes to experiencing a rare side effect, I've rarely fallen in with the majority in my activities, so this is one time I'll be elated to be a part of the minority.  #bethe10%    

All of these thoughts were in my mind tonight as I was running the sewing machine on Calvin's Christmas present in between dance breaks with my daughters.  Azalea was choreographing an elaborate duet in the kitchen, sketching diagrams on the whiteboard for Eleanor and I to follow.  I sewed while she drew the next position, then she'd call me in to run through the dance with Eleanor.  Eleanor was my sewing buddy, pushing the pedal on the sewing machine at my instruction.  We finished both the gift and the dance, leaving all of us feeling full of creativity and productivity in equal measure.

They are such treasures, my daughters.  I am so grateful to be here to dance and sew with them.
Then Bruno Mars starting crooning over the bluetooth speaker, "You can count on me like 1, 2, 3, and I'll be there..."  I started thinking about all of the people who have been "there" for me.  I started to worry that I haven't been "there" for all of my loved ones in this year of recovery.  Have I been too selfish?  Have I spent enough time tending to the needs of others?  I don't think so.  So many people are in my heart to reach out to.  Hopefully I can improve the balance as I continue to survive.  
In the meantime, I have a few more nights with the sewing machine in my future as the Christmas holiday approaches, and hopefully the dance parties will continue in tandem. My heart is filled with gratitude for this life.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Enchanted Valley

This is the third post describing my hiking adventure with my brother, Ryan, in the Olympic National Park last summer (June 2015).  The first post described my first day in Seattle, and the second post described my first day of hiking toward the Enchanted Valley.  The current post describes my second day in the backcountry, when we made it to the Enchanted Valley.  

After a deep, unbroken sleep in the backcountry, we awoke a little after 7 am to the sun beginning to warm our tent.  We each crawled out of Big Agnes from our own personal door, our feet sinking in to the cool gray sand.  It didn't take us long to get busy doing some camp chores.

Ryan used the single camp stove to brew us some coffee. He has an adorable little percolator coffee contraption that is made out of some sort of metal that is entirely too heavy, but my brother isn't bothered by the extra weight in his pack.  After the coffee was brewed, he put on a pot of steel-cut oatmeal, loaded up with plump organic raisins and a scoop of brown sugar.  
This is our little cooking area in the morning light.  You can see the two-piece coffee pot with a black handle, sitting on the rock, to the left of the red fuel canister.

Our boots, warming and drying in the sunshine.  In the background you can see me down in the creek.
While he tended to breakfast, I sat on a stone in the creek and pumped water through the filter.  The sun warmed my back while the water rushed by my feet.  As Ryan had shown me, I faced downstream so that I could pump the water from a small clear pool rather than the stirred-up rapids.  We had vessels for carrying almost 10 liters of water, and we decided to fill them all up for our big day of exploring so that we wouldn't have to pump water again for awhile.  It takes awhile to pump 10 liters of water.  I still wasn't done when Ryan brought my coffee and oatmeal to the creek, so I asked him to take some photos of me pumping water, so that I could show my kids how it was done.

Here I am in Pyrites Creek, pumping creek water through a filter to make it potable.

This is the end of the tube, resting in a clear pool of water with very few visible particulates.

The thing with the red top is the pump + filter.  You work the handle up and down, sucking water out of the creek through the tube and into a water storage vessel (shown here in green + duct tape).
And that concludes the water filtering lesson because that is when Ryan fell into Pyrites Creek and broke my camera.  Since I did not bring my cell phone into the backcountry, I did not have further means for taking photographs.  Ryan had his phone, but it was less than 20% charged so we had to use it sparingly.  Thus, I have no further photos of this day (unless my brother supplies them to me...).  

We left our tent and the majority of our supplies at Pyrites Creek, just carrying water and snacks for a day hike into the Enchanted Valley.  It was about 3 miles from camp to the valley, and the forest looked much like it had yesterday but with more meadows.  The meadows were remarkably dry and a bit brown from what had been one of the hottest and driest Junes on record.  The trees, however, did not disappoint:  tall, wide, old, and fragrant.

After a quick little hike we came upon the entrance to the Valley.  It was marked by a tall wooden gate across the trail, unconnected to a fence or any further barrier.  We opened the gate to pass, and dutifully closed it behind ourselves despite its unclear purpose.  We crossed the creek on a huge log that had been carved into a bridge, with a handrail on only the left side.  The other side of the log was completely open to the water tumbling over rocks at least a story below us.  This was the most exciting creek crossing and my favorite one of the trip.  The day was warming up considerably, and I was a bit hot from the hike, so it felt good to cool off in the moist air above the creek.

Around another bend or three we had views of the chalet in the valley that is on all of the photos and postcards.
Image result for enchanted valley chalet
From google images of the Enchanted Valley
Unfortunately, the Valley looked nothing like this on my Valley day.  It was hotter than a dickens and dry as a bone.  Most of the greens were browns, and all of the breathtaking waterfalls were dried up save for a tiny trickle of white over there, maybe, or it could have been a long white rock.  The good news is that the hot and dry version of the Enchanted Valley was still beautiful in its own special way, with its majestic trees and broad meadows.  We hiked maybe a half-mile past the chalet, and considered hiking up to the pass, but I was threatening to get overheated.  After exploring the valley for a little while and munching on some lunch, we decided to head back to camp.

We made it to camp by 2pm, and I was HOT.  I was trembling as I raced to remove my boots, put on shorts and a t-shirt, and throw myself into Pyrites Creek to cool off.  The water took my breath away and quickly brought down my core temperature.  The water was too cold to stay submerged for long, so we alternated swimming and sunning for about an hour.

Now it was only 3pm, and this presented a problem.  It was far too early to start the evening and dinner routines, but we had already achieved our Enchanted Valley goals.  What should we do with our afternoon?  After weighing our options, we decided to break camp and hike out to O'Neil's camp.  O'Neil's was three miles from our current location, and 1/3 of the way back to the car.  This was therefore a reasonable plan to give us an activity for the rest of our day, and also to put us closer to the car for our hike out of the woods on the next day.  It didn't take us long to pack up and hit the trail.

We were less than a mile from O'Neil's camp when it happened.  We saw a bear!  We may have even seen two bears. The bear was working on a project in the middle of the trail about 30 yards in front of us.  It was perched on a little dirt mound alongside the trail, tearing strips of wood from a stump.  Our view was poor due to trees blocking our view, and the bear kept re-positioning, so it was unclear if the bear was working alone or if it had a cub working with it, too.  We backed up, way up, so that we could still hear and see the bear but felt more comfortable with the distance.  We kept talking to each other so that the bear knew where we were.  We considered returning to Pyrites Creek, but I was tired.  I had walked 6 miles to and from the Enchanted Valley, plus another 3 miles to this here bear.  I was not in the mood to add mileage to both today and tomorrow's hikes out of fear of a bear.  We alternated moments of waiting and retreating, waiting and retreating, until we unanimously decided to walk around the bear.

The trail containing the bear happened to be at a location favorable for circumnavigation.  The mountain gently sloped on either side of the trail, and we knew that the trail was heading down and to the left.  So, we went off-trail and cut across the mountain down and to the left, with Ryan leading the way.  The ground was so littered with evergreen needles, sticks, and logs in various stages of decay that it didn't even seem like I was walking on earth anymore.  Instead I was sprint-hiking across the springy ground, trying to keep up with Ryan as he navigated us to the trail as far away from the bear as reasonable.   All the while we tried to talk to each other so that the bear knew where we were, but in a situation like that it's hard to think of things to say.  I ended up singing Dory's song from Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming."

Eventually we reunited with the trail.  I wanted to run down the trail, to improve the distance between me and the bear or bears, but I had to settle for speed-hiking due to my pack and the fatigue.  As I settled down from the bear scare I realized that walking around the bear was a metaphor for a lot of challenges that I've had in this life.  I couldn't move the bear, and retreating wasn't a good option, so I had to find a way to proceed with the bear.  I kept walking, and I walked around the bear.  I didn't let the bear interfere with my plans.  Luckily my brother was a good partner for this decision, as he has been for so many of my difficult decisions.

Shortly after the bear we arrived at O’Neil’s and set up camp.  This campsite was nestled in the woods a bit more, but nonetheless had excellent creek access.  We placed Big Agnes under a tree and next to a fallen log, then began our evening routines of cooking and water-pumping.  This night's feast was bowtie pesto pasta with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.  I'm telling you, you've never tasted food so good as that prepared by my brother in the backcountry.

Unlike Pyrites Creek, this campsite had an established privy.  I felt obligated to use the privy despite my proficiency at peeing in the woods, in part because there was another tenter nearby.  Unfortunately, the privy was super creepy to get to.  It was easily 200 steps from camp (judging by the step data below) at the end of a narrow trail through thick green underbrush that was as tall as I am.  Thus, going to the bathroom was an exercise in bravery, particularly after seeing a bear so near to the camp.  I ended up singing loudly to myself for each step of the harrowing journey to the privy, until I could lock myself inside.  I'd start singing again right before I unlocked the door.  This time my song of choice was the Beatles', "Hey Jude", but I always replace "Jude" with "June" because that is my niece's name.  If my rendition of "Hey June" didn't scare the bears away, nothing would--Nah, nah nah, nah-nah nah nah.

After dinner and chores we headed down to the creek to relax.  I thought it'd be nice to stay up a little later than the night before to see some stars.  We found some ideally shaped stones and fashioned them into recliners in the creek.  We kept our bodies dry on the stones while the water trekked downstream.  We had great conversations, my brother and I.  We discovered that we live by some of the same rules.  My number one rule is: optimize.  Ryan’s rule #1 of the backcountry is:  don’t make a decision until you have to.  Rule #2, for both of us:  feels better when you earn it.

Sometime after 10pm it still wasn't very dark and we could only see four stars.  We realized that it was high summer in the Pacific Northwest, so it wouldn't get truly dark until much later.  We said goodnight to the creek, goodnight to our recliners, and turned in to Big Agnes.

Day 2. 28,802 steps. I think the bear scare is represented by the shortest orange bar between 4 and 6 pm.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's all there

Two hours.  Yesterday I found myself with two unscheduled hours, just for me.  I was unexpectedly released from work two hours early, the kids were still in school, and my husband was working.  I cradled these two golden hours in the palm of my hand, not wanting to let them slip through my fingers.  I thought of many things I could do with these two hours that would serve the progress of something--dinner, or shopping, or cleaning, or planning.  I thought about calling a friend for some spontaneous and always needed friend time.  Instead, I decided to walk.  Yet another gorgeous day in what has been an autumn full of gorgeous days beckoned to me.  I stopped by the house long enough to put on my walking shoes, then I drove to my favorite park.

Walking might not seem like much exercise, but it's my favorite thing to do.  The other day I was playing bat-and-ball with my daughters, and Azalea was getting frustrated with me for one too many poor pitches.  I laughed and told her that instead she should be delighted with the surprising quantity of good pitches that I hurled her way.  I explained that her mom is not what you'd call an "athlete".  Perhaps this lack of innate athleticism is what draws me to walking.  Perhaps it's being outside.  For whatever reason, I love it.

The park I walked at yesterday has a 3-mile paved trail around a lake, which is enjoyed by walkers, joggers, and cyclists.  After walking this trail for about a quarter-mile, there is an option to split off onto a gravel trail that winds up a hill, around a marsh, and through a prairie.  Far fewer people take this trail.  It is my favorite trail.  Without hesitation, I struck out from the car toward the unpaved trail.

The clouds formed a high and discontinuous ceiling over the prairie, blocking most of the sunlight while allowing glimpses of blue sky.  I had to force myself to take my eyes off the big sky to keep from tripping.  I had the trail all to myself, and I must have been the only passerby for some time because I startled several wild things.  Occasionally a creature wiggled the grass, or splashed the water, or rustled the leaves as it scrambled to get away from me.  I even saw a waterborne mammal, probably a muskrat.  A rare sighting to be sure.

At the top of a hill is a remarkable overlook where the prairie spills over the hillside without the obstruction of trees or structures.  I gazed over the prairie as I walked, marveling at the vastness of plant life that has all gone dormant but will grow anew in a few months.  Suddenly my eyes caught sight of a solitary leaf, twisting as it fell from nowhere in particular.  I was at the top of a treeless hill, looking down on grasses, with nothing but clouds above, so where did this leaf come from?  I distracted myself from these musings by switching my focus to catching the leaf.  It became tangled in a gust of wind and sped toward me, and my athleticism meter inched up a notch as I caught the leaf with one hand.  I examined the leaf, feeling certain that it would be remarkable in someway.  But it wasn't.  It was a dry, brown, crumbly leaf, even a bit on the smallish side, with a few holes in it.  I smiled at its ordinary appearance despite its magical entrance.  I made a wish, because that seemed like the appropriate thing to do with a maybe-magical leaf, and released it back onto the wind.  It lifted out of my hands for a moment before nose-diving into the grass across the trail.

I breathed deeply and allowed myself to be filled with gratitude for this day, for my life, for these two hours, for a maybe-magical leaf.  It's all there for me, to support me.  It's all there for me no matter what.  It's all there for you, too.  And it doesn't even require two hours.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Open letter to a new cancer patient

I've been contacted by an organization called Cure Forward and invited to participate in a campaign. They are asking cancer survivors to write a letter to new cancer patients discussing their experiences and presenting advice.  I don't know much about Cure Forward (beyond a press release that dubbed it "Tinder for clinical trials"), but it looks like it's going to be a powerful resource for cancer patients.  At any rate, I have decided to write a letter, not to recap my experiences but to note the survival techniques that have worked for me thus far.  Who knows, perhaps I'll address this letter to myself when my cancer flares up again.

Dear newly diagnosed cancer patient,

You've got this.  You really do.  I know that you're scared, and that every hour of uncertainty feels like a day without sleep, but you can do this.

The cancer isn't your enemy.  It's a part of you.  Sure, you'll live longer if the doctors can find a way to get it out of you, but until they do it is a part of the beautiful whole that is you.  Your biggest enemy right now is fear.  Fear of the cancer, fear of being sick, fear of feeling pain, fear of dying, fear of bringing sorrow to loved ones, fear of not being there for your children, fear of letting down your spouse.

I know these fears.  At times I have lived with these fears daily.  The key to success, the key to survival, is releasing your fear.  I release my fear by breathing deeply, spending time in nature, exercising, hugging, meditating, and reading fiction.  These activities help me to release my fear to the wind, which carries it far far from here across the plains.  Find some activities that release your fear, and imagine a few cancer cells being carried along with it.

Sometimes you will feel weak, especially if chemotherapy is part of your treatment regime.  I found that weakness was an open door to fear.  When I physically felt weak, my mental fortitude broke down and the fearful thoughts creeped in.  Find ways to turn your weakness into strength.  Even when I was at my sickest, I took a walk every day.  Some days I could only shuffle across the street and back, but I savored reminding my bones that I still needed them and impressing myself with my resilience.

See, cancer, you can't make me stop walking.    

Sometimes you will feel bored with healing.  You will cross a threshold between feeling sick and well, spending days at a time in a wellness purgatory.  This period is difficult because you feel so much improved from your worst that your mind thinks you can walk around the block, or cook dinner, or play a game with your kids, but your actual capacity is to sit on your couch rather than lay in your bed.  These days will drag out.  Spice them up by listening to music, or inviting a friend over to visit you for a bit, or sitting outside.

I remember one particular boring, nauseous healing day during chemotherapy treatments for my second occurrence of breast cancer.  My brother was visiting, to keep me company and support my family.  He was working on his laptop at the table, and I was lying on the couch, feeling too crummy to watch TV or read but too good to fall asleep.  My brother wanted to help, so he put some salsa music on the internet radio.  I gradually let go of my whiny crumminess and started imaging dancing to live music outdoors in the summer.  Soon I'd be out there dancing in the summer again.  

See, cancer, you can't make me stop dancing.

Sometimes you will feel disappointed in yourself for not being able to do everything that you think you need to do.  That's okay, but let it go.  Indulge yourself, and immerse yourself in your own healing powers.  Let your friends and family help you in the ways that they can.

Sometimes you will need to be even braver than you were yesterday.  You might have things installed or injected in your body before you fully understand what they are or how they work.  You might receive news that is worse than the worst news you thought you could get.  But that's okay.  Because it's within your power to be braver than you were yesterday.

One of my best ways of being brave is to find humor in the situation.  A week after one particular chemotherapy treatment, I had terribly low numbers of cells in my blood.  This was causing me to feel dreadful.  My oncologist prescribed a blood transfusion, and as the transfusion was taking place I was filled with gratitude for the other human who donated his or her blood to me.  I was overcome with appreciation for those cells entering my body and what they were going to do for me.  I decided to write a letter.  To the cells.  From the other human.  I welcomed them to my body and presented them with some House Rules.  In addition to posting the letter on this blog, I also shared it with the doctors and nurses at my cancer center.  We all had a good laugh.

See, cancer, you can't make me stop laughing.

Newly diagnosed cancer patient, please feel free to email me if you want to chat (30carnations (at) gmail (dot) com).  I'm sure that I have much more to say, some of which I've already said in 5 years of blog posts during my cancer journey.  I'd be privileged to help you, if I can.

To your health and mine,


Friday, October 2, 2015

Flattopper pride

I have two offerings from the internet in honor of breast cancer awareness month.  First, my sister found this website by a woman who, like me, chose no reconstruction and does not wear a prosthesis.  I've written about my choices previously, which can be found here and here.  The writings and the images on the Flattopper Pride website are pretty incredible.  I love that so many of us are rocking the flatness that is our new, original self.

Also, a friend of mine sent me a recent article from the Washington Post on having hidden cancer.  Like me, the author of the piece is living with a terminal diagnosis but outwardly appears to be a healthy human.  She has brain cancer, I have lung cancer.  She was given 2-18 years to live, my prognosis is "optimistic" with continued treatment indefinitely.  She and I both live each day to its fullest potential with infrequent thoughts of our disease, until the quarterly scans remind us of our precarious position between sickness and health, inflicting doubt about our ability to live.  It's a lovely article.

Tomorrow I am going to walk in the Race for the Cure with my family.  I walked it for the first time last year only three weeks after my mastectomy.  I'm excited to be a part of the excitement again this year, and this time with a clean bill of health.  Maybe I'll see you down there!  :)

Friday, September 25, 2015


I'm going to interrupt my Olympic hiking posts to interject a Washington D.C. post.  Last week I traveled to D.C. to receive an early career scientist award, and several members of my supportive and loving family joined me.  It was an overwhelming experience because I kept feeling the gravity of good fortune:  to be successful, to be supported, to be alive.  Also, I had to give a 5-minute acceptance speech, and I was a bit nervous about that.  Despite the weighty emotions, it was such a wonderful experience!  My grandparents rode a subway for the first time.  My daughters visited the national monuments on the Mall.  We visited the National Zoo and caught a glimpse of the newborn panda on the PandaCam.  It was spectacular.    

Below is a copy of my speech, which can also be viewed at minute 33 by following this link.  Don't be alarmed by the login.  Just type in your info and login.    

Heather's acceptance speech:

Thank you very much, Joon.  I am so very honored to be here today accepting this award from ARS.  I am especially honored to be here among the many outstanding ARS employees who are also being honored today.  Perhaps the other honorees will resonate with the strange feeling I have of receiving an honor for what has most certainly been a team effort.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have contributed to this achievement, starting with my husband Ian and my loving and supportive family, some of whom have traveled from Iowa to be here today, including my grandparents.  Thank you for being here to share this moment with me, as you have time and again throughout my career.  My team also includes the fantastic doctors, nurses, friends, co-workers, and even acquaintances who navigated me through two diagnoses of breast cancer in the past 5 years, and whose support was critical to my survival. 

I want also to thank the wonderful support staff and scientific colleagues at my location in the beautiful Ames, Iowa who facilitate my research and outreach endeavors.  It is impossible to name all of the mentors and collaborators who are in my heart to thank, but I would like to name those whose guidance and intellect have been critical throughout my career:  Jo Handelsman, Thad Stanton, Al Klingelhutz, Shawn Bearson, Torey Looft, Karen-Cloud-Hansen, and John Bunge.  Thank you for paving the way, or for helping me to pave the way when the way could not be found. 

My scientific impacts have been in the field of microbial ecology, in particular regarding antibiotic resistance gene diversity.  You are perhaps familiar with antibiotic resistance in terms of “Superbugs”, which is a word for pathogenic bacteria that have become so resistant to antibiotics that we can no longer treat them with antibiotics.  I don’t study Superbugs, but I’m interested in the reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment, how resistance genes move among bacteria, and in alternatives to antibiotics that might prevent the emergence of new Superbugs.  My research has helped to define resistance gene diversity in both pristine and antibiotic-impacted ecosystems, from Alaska to the pig gut.  I hope that the data my collaborators and I generate will inform scientifically sound policies to reduce the risk of making more Superbugs, thus improving health and food safety.         

I’d like to conclude by making two comments to my daughters.  In high school I took an AP chemistry class taught by a first-rate teacher, Mr. Ferrell.  One day following an exam, Mr. Ferrell tried to comfort the lesser-achieving students by assuring us that we’d all hit our wall someday.  “Everyone hits their wall,” he said.  Ever since that day, I have been fearful of my wall, wondering how high it would be, how wide it would be, would it hurt when I hit it?   Daughters, I am happy to report that there are no walls, only doors, and it is up to you to walk through them.

 Second, in 2005 I was representing the Graduate Women in Science organization at the University of Wisconsin’s Committee on Women.  I was attending this committee meeting because graduate students in Madison were not entitled to maternity leave of any kind, even if it was unpaid.  I had researched several other universities who had mechanisms for maternity leave for graduate students and was presenting my case to the committee.  Afterwards the one male member of the Committee said, “Women think they can have it all!”  Daughters, I am happy to report that with the right support and some hard work, yes, you can have it all.

I am humbled by this award, and I am grateful to ARS for being a door and for being a part of my having it all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pyrites Creek

Ryan parked the car at Grave's Creek right next to his vehicle's twin: a green Subaru Outback with Washington plates.  I put on my SmartWool socks, carefully laced up my hiking boots, and settled into my pack.  At this moment when embarking on a journey, I often feel a moment's hesitation:  Did I pack enough socks?  Will the kids be okay while I'm gone?  Did I stow my keys where I'll find them again but not lose them along the way?  This time, however, was different.  This time there was no hesitation.  I knew that I had everything I needed:  my boots, my brother, and the woods.  Nothing else mattered.

Our boots crunched on the gravel behind the row of cars, then stomped over a wooden footbridge into the woods.  Into the woods.

This was the first of many creek crossings.
The path was fairly wide for the first two miles.  Too narrow for two people to walk together, but wide enough to pass oncoming hikers without difficulty.  The first two miles see many day-hikers of folks who hike in to Pony Ridge.  Pony Ridge is a beautiful place where the river has cut through the rock and a large wooden bridge carries the trail over it.  We didn't linger with the day-hikers, though.  We plunged ahead, eager to keep pounding the trail.

Soon after Pony Ridge, the trail became more narrow and less traveled.  Ryan and I spread out a little bit, each lost in our own thoughts.  We were always in each others' sight, but sometimes you don't need to talk in order to enjoy the company of another human.  Especially on the trail.  The rhythm of my own footsteps on the remote soil sent me into a meditative state.  My mind quit chewing on the various problems that had inhabited it for weeks.  I released the problems into Mother Nature's capable hands.  I just walked.
My two feet, carrying me over.

This odd little ptarmigan was hiking alongside us at one point.  I could have picked it up!  
That's a big tree!
 We reached the first backcountry campsite 6 miles from the start.  Ryan and I were both feeling great, so we decided to go another 3 miles to the next campsite at Pyrite's Creek.  I didn't know for sure if I could make it, but I thought I could.  So I did.  When we got there, Ryan gave me a big hug and said that I killed it.  I know I did.  I knew I could.  We arrived at 6:07, and his projected arrival time was 6:30.  We beat his projection by 23 minutes!  I felt rather accomplished.

I also felt rather spent.  After all, I had just hiked 9 miles, mostly uphill, with a pack.  I sat on the sandy bank while he set up the tent and filtered some water.  Soon I was feeling refreshed and able to participate in camp life.  

Ryan filtering some water for us at Pyrites Creek

Our tent, Big Agnes, at Pyrites Creek
This is most of our food in the bear can, with a view of our campsite on the banks of Pyrites Creek.

Ryan made haystacks (deconstructed tacos) for dinner.  Best meal I've ever had! 

We took shots of Herdez salsa from a can to avoid spilling any on the ground and attracting vermin.  Pass the Herdez!

After dinner we were both ready for bed, so we turned into Big Agnes.  It was still light out.  I was asleep by 8:30.

Ryan's girlfriend, A, loaned me her FitBit for our hiking trip.  Afterwards she hooked me up with the data, which shows how intense this first day of hiking was.  I walked 24,935 steps that day.  And I loved every one of them.