Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Six: The Swell, The Peaks, Things Gained and Lost

Today was the last day of my trip through the canyons of Arizona and Utah. But my 5-hour drive from Moab to the Salt Lake City airport wasn't going to be boring--just the opposite, as Utah still had more in store for me before our time together was up.

Cut through the San Rafael Reef
The roughly 150-mile stretch of I-70 between Green River and Salina, Utah contains some of the most breathtaking scenery you'll ever see. Around mile marker 129 you'll find something called the San Rafael swell, where hundreds of millions of years ago, geological forces pushed up a great mass of earth. Over the eons, parts of the earth came crashing back down onto the salt flats and created these canyons and buttes and outcroppings.

In that area there is also a 30 mile-long wall called the San Rafael Reef. From what I was able to read at one of the scenic overlooks, Spanish explorers took great care to go around this wall because it was just impassable. Then finally in 1970, with the help of generous amounts of TNT, civil engineers were able to blast a narrow passage through the reef for I-70 to pass through. Just on the other side of that passage, I was able to get a decent photo of the Swell.

San Rafael Swell
Salt Flats in UT western desert
Although I wasn't able to get off the paved/beaten track to see them, I was driving right through the middle of dinosaur territory. There are petrified dinosaur tracks all over the place in this area, as well as petroglyphs created by the Fremont indian tribes and the Snake Clans. Even more scenic were the Coal Cliffs to the north, striped in shades of copper, pink, and tan.

As I approached Salina and the turn to the north, I entered Fishlake National Forest and another abrupt change of scenery and weather. I was surrounded by pine forests and snow-covered mountains--many well over 11,000 feet in elevation, and the mist was releasing a fine drizzle. All of this lifted on the other side of the range when I turned to the north in Salina. The sun came out and I was treated to views of the valley: snow-blanketed open fields to my left, low foothills to the west, and majestic mountains to the east (the San Pitch range) and north--my first hint of the upcoming Wasatch Range outside of Salt Lake City.

View of Mt Nebo from I-15
It's fitting that Mt Nebo--the highest peak in the Wasatch Mountains at just under 12,000 feet--was my send-off, reminding me of how small I am, and how small we all are, in the grand scheme of things. During a five-hour drive and a four-hour flight, you have a LOT of time to reflect, think, and process. What started out as a bucket-list trip ended up being in large part a spiritual journey. I gained so much understanding and peace being out in the middle of nowhere by myself, and I left a lot of things behind. I left my guilt in a darkened room filled with sage smoke in Sedona. I literally buried my sadness--and hope--in the depths of Monument Valley and prayed the giants above and around me would keep their watch over me. I broke off a piece of my heart and left it peacefully in Moab, knowing I would be okay if it stayed there forever.

Six days, four states, 432 pictures, 1132 miles of driving, and one electric scooter. There were times when I went almost an hour without seeing another vehicle, and even though I've never been so physically isolated in my life, I never once felt alone or lonely. I was never scared or worried. Some people will call me reckless for embarking on this trip by myself when I can barely walk, let alone physically manage in a major crisis. Others will think I'm brave for even attempting this journey. I felt neither of those things.

What I did feel was joy, peace, and contentment. Many tears flowed during this trip, but not from sadness. It was from the release that comes from true healing, and letting go of toxic emotions and things in your life that make you unhappy. I'm not saying you need to crawl into a cave for a week to do this--hell, my idea of "roughing it" is a night in a Motel 6--but there's a lot to be said for immersing yourself, and only yourself, among some of the most overwhelming things the Earth has to offer and pondering just where you fit into all of it. I'm so lucky that having MS didn't prevent me from having this experience. And if *I* can do this alone, so can any able-bodied person. You have no freakin' clue how much time you have left. Figure out what you need to let go, where you need to be to do it, and just. Freaking. Do it. There's no time like the present ;).

Canyonlands Adventure Day Four: Four on Four, Motoring to Moab

My last Monument Valley sunrise
This morning after breakfast, I said one last goodbye to Monument Valley before heading out to my next destination. The sunrise and ensuing morning light was even more glorious than yesterday, if that's even possible. One of the biggest lessons I've learned on this trip so far is that the best things may have actually passed you by, so I'm always looking behind me (as safely as possible) to examine the new view. Once again, Monument Valley didn't disappoint. It's stupefying to see the most gorgeous panoramas of your life through both your windshield and your rear view mirror at the same time.

Wash at VotG's entrance
Fortunately yesterday's brutal winds died down and the temperature rose a bit to make things much more comfortable. My plan after leaving Monument Valley was to visit Valley of the Gods about 30 miles to the northeast, which is supposedly a mini/compact version of the former. Unfortunately, as soon as I pulled into the packed-clay loop off the highway, I read a sign that said "Wet roads are impassable," or something along those lines. Then I looked in front of me at the wash that was...wet. Honestly, it was only a couple of puddles, but I had no idea how deep they were. And I was in a rental sedan. Nonononononono.

The view from Four Corners
So on I went towards Four Corners monument. I had read in some online guide that the area surrounding the monument was isolated and bleak. It is definitely isolated, but I actually enjoyed the scenery; definitely a change from what I had been seeing the previous two days. Lots of rolling grassy hills, with scattered rock outcroppings and the snow-capped La Sal mountains in the distance to the north.

Four Corners Monument, AZ/NM/CO/UT
Feet in four states!
I knew the monument itself wasn't going to be much to behold, but it was actually quite nice. It was a small concrete plaza with the metal circular marker in the center. There were about four rows of circular amphitheater-style seating, for what is anyone's guess. This place is in the middle of nowhere and I can't imagine what would draw so many people there that those benches would be filled. But, whatever. There were about a dozen or so people milling around, which is a dozen more people than I expected to be out here in November. This is NOT a destination attraction, lol...people come here like me because it's sort of on the way to...somewhere else :). Anyway, I went to the marker and took the requisite photo of my feet in four states at once. I bought a little souvenir from one of the 40 or so vendor stalls that was actually occupied, and then I was on my way to Moab.

La Sal mountains and canyons
Wilson's Arch
The roughly 2 ½ hour jaunt between Four Corners and Moab started out pretty blah. However, after an hour I was rewarded with one of those surprise-over-the-summit moments. One of the strangest juxtapositions I've ever seen was laid out before me--red rock canyons in the foreground, and huge snow-capped mountains with pine forest creeping up the sides in the background. I didn't take this photo (once again, no safe place to stop for a photo, but it will give you an idea of my view for the next hour until I pulled into Moab. I was also able to pull over and take a picture of this gorgeous arch.

Uranium Reduction Co. mill, c. 1960
I'll admit, I knew very little about Moab, Utah before arriving here today. I only knew it was located in the Utah canyonlands, was very scenic, and was a mecca for mountain bikers. Wanting to learn everything I could about each place I visited, I discovered that Moab was actually considered the "uranium capital of the world" in the 1950s after the mineral was discovered flourishing in mines here. Due to the "popularity" of nuclear weapons at the time and the Cold War, the town boomed and the population grew by 500 percent in a very short time. After the uranium mines closed in the 1980s, everyone left and much of the town shuttered up. Now it makes most of its money from tourism.

I got to my hotel relatively early, so I plan to just relax tonight. I've been fighting altitude headaches since I got here, but it's a weird conundrum; I can help myself by drinking a lot of water, but I'm spending my days driving for many hours at a time with no bathrooms en route. So, I suffer in silence and self-medicate with ibuprofen and caffeine. Now, time to write up an article for Breitbart Texas, finish reading Childhood's End (the miniseries on SyFy starts on Dec. 14!!), and fall asleep while watching HGTV. Bliss...;)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Two: Spirits, Snow, and Surprises

I started out today a bit anxious and nervous. Not exactly the way to feel on vacation, right? But I have my reasons. I'll tackle one at a time.

As some of you may know from a recent blog post, I've been through the emotional ringer in the last year. I came through it in one piece, and a better person for it. But the healing process that has to take place doesn't happen overnight. I'd like to think I'm a fairly self-aware and introspective person, but I never turn down the opportunity to bring in an outside perspective or explore an alternative method for self-discovery and healing. So, I decided to do a one-hour energy realignment session (and a massage afterwards) at my hotel spa before checking out.

I was anxious going into it because (a) I had never done it before and didn't know what to expect, and (b) I had no idea what condition I was going to be in when I finished. My therapist/healer was a native Apache with Mexican heritage, and she was AMAZING; it was honestly one of the most profound experiences of my life. I won't go into what she did or how it went because, well...I really don't want to. But I will say that I think it's important for people to open their minds to things that explore the spirit. She was Catholic just like I am, and religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. This was one of the reasons I came back to Sedona, and I'll never forget this visit.
One of my last views of Sedona

So now comes the nervousness. It's snowy and windy today--which I totally expected and was prepared for, but now I have to drive for five hours in it through very remote parts of northern Arizona. After my massage, I checked out, loaded up the car, and...the sun came out!! So of course I had to take advantage and take a few more pictures in Sedona before heading north ;).

Oak Creek Canyon
After that, I had to make the decision of playing it safe by taking the interstate, or hoping the snow would stay light and fluffy (i.e. not slippery/icy) and take scenic route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon. I took a chance and decided on the latter; and BOY, and I ever glad I did. That was frankly the most awe-inspiring 20 miles I've ever driven. Oak Creek is a long, windy, and narrow canyon with a river at the bottom, a pine forest in the middle, and towering red rock cliffs climbing to the top. Because of the snow and fog, the cliffs were partly shrouded and I felt like I was being watched by gargantuan ghosts the whole way. Fall just came to Sedona, so at least half of the trees were a very bright golden yellow, forming a canopy over my car. I wish I had taken the picture you see to the left, but I had to steal it to give you an idea of what I saw, since there was no safe place to stop and take a picture.

Painted Desert
Northern Arizona badlands (Mars)
By the time I topped out at the end of the canyon, the snow was falling more heavily and the roads were very wet. Fortunately, I made it to Flagstaff without incident, where...the sun came out. Again. Yay!!! The first hour north was pretty boring, but soon the surprises began. It was one of those situations where every 15 minutes I would crest a large hill and see a completely different landscape than the one I just left...along with a different form of precipitation. First I was reintroduced to the Painted Desert, which I first visited during my solo Grand Canyon trip in 2000. The colors are pastels and much more subdued than the bright, deep reds and greens of Sedona, but gorgeous and inspiring nonetheless. Again, I stole this photo because I couldn't stop anywhere. After that, I crested a hill and saw the place where they had to have filmed 'The Martian,' I kid you not. For a solid 20 minutes you would have had to work VERY hard to convince me I wasn't on Mars. It was completely surreal, and I deeply regret not being able to stop and photograph it.

Entrance to Monument Valley
Entrance to Monument Valley
But at last, after sun, snow, rain, snow, sun, snow, and rain came...Monument Valley. And as luck would have it, I was arriving about half an hour before sunset. I promise you there are a LOT of people cursing the woman in the silver Nissan Altima because I pulled over at least every ten minutes to take another photo. #sorrynotsorry. There were a few puffy clouds in the sky and the angle of the setting sun made the scattered spires before the entrance to the actual Navajo Park look exactly like they do in the movies...but better. Then add the fine layer of snow and...well, here are some pictures :).

Entrance to Monument Valley
Tomorrow my plan is to hire a Navajo guide with a 4x4 vehicle and let him educate me while driving me around the park to get some great photos. Technically, anyone can drive the 17-mile loop through the park, but it's packed dirt and tends to get nasty when it's wet. We picked up a couple of inches of snow tonight, and that crap is going to be melting all morning--yuck :(. My Altima will be toast in that mess, and my guide will be pleased that I won't even want to get out of the car. I'm also excited to be woken up by the sun. I'm staying at the View Inn--the only hotel inside the park (Navajo run, of course) and aptly named because every single room has its sliding doors and patio facing the park...with three huge spires only a few hundred yards away. Yeah...it's going to be an epic sunrise :).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day One: Sedona, Sprinkles, and a Scooter

Red Rocks State Park
Welcome to the first installment of my trip diary! More or less on a whim, I decided about two weeks ago to knock yet another item off my bucket list: Monument Valley, AZ/UT. I've wanted to visit Monument Valley for at least 15 years, if not longer, but it's not exactly the most convenient park in the country to visit. I knew if I wanted to see it, I'd need to make a longer trip out of it, so that's exactly what I did! Over the next six days, I'll start my journey in Phoenix, work my way through northern and northeastern Arizona, then scoot up eastern Utah to see some of the most incredible geology and topography this country...no, this PLANET...has to offer.

View from Airport Mesa
This isn't my first solo trip to this area. About 15 years ago, I went to Sedona and the Grand Canyon on a solo trip and had a blast. However, I was very able-bodied back then. For this trip, I had to plan more carefully, and not just when it came to reserving handicap accessible rooms. I'll be driving through very remote areas on my own, so safety precautions are a must. My first accoutrement was a Spot GPS device and extra batteries. These are used mostly by hikers and bikers who travel into canyons and places with no cell phone reception. It allows the user to send an "I'm OK" message to cell phones and emails, and can also request emergency assistance using GPS satellites.

View from Boynton Canyon
My flight out of Orlando this morning was early, but fortunately uneventful. My scooter made it in one piece, and I had no trouble getting to the car rental place on Hertz's accessible bus/shuttle. My "horse" for the week? A sleek-looking Nissan Altima, which is bound to get a few bumps and bruises on the undercarriage in the next several days, is my trusty steed and will hopefully keep me safe the whole way to Salt Lake City on Friday.

I knew the weather was going to be spotty today, but I was hoping for at least a little bit of sun. I got ten minutes worth all in all, but it was better then nothing. The endless on-and-off rain started on my way to Sedona, but there was enough dry time for me to get some good photos from the car. My first destination was the Upper Loop Road through Red Rocks State Park. It's not long, but offers spectacular views of the red rock formations Sedona is so well-known for. And the leaves!! The fall color change is happening everywhere here, which you wouldn't expect since the assumption is Sedona is just as dry a desert as the rest of Arizona (which is another misconception). Because it takes longer for things to turn colder here, the trees are really in peak color right now and almost exclusively yellow. It's gorgeous!

Cathedral Rock
Then it was off to Sedona proper, and drives to some of the famous rock formations that are said to be vortexes (Sedonans don't call them vortices, so I'm not flaking on my grammar) for energies rising up from the earth. If you've never heard of Sedona or been here, it's an ENORMOUS enclave and attraction for the more spiritually minded. I was able to see Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Chimney Rock. Sadly, Airport Mesa--the best sunset view in town--was mostly a bust due to the rain. However, I was soon rewarded during my final loop visit through Boynton Canyon. The sun actually came out for ten minutes! And I got a rainbow! Very cool indeed.
The result of a 10-minute window of sun!

The sun sets around 5pm now, so it was time to head to my hotel for dinner at the bar, some blogging, and an early bedtime. Tomorrow is going to be an even yuckier weather day, with temperatures dropping and maybe some snow in the morning. Which is why I'm getting pampered at the hotel spa before driving through all that crap to get to Monument Valley ;).

More to come tomorrow on Day Two!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Five: Sights Above and Below

Today was "Explore Moab" day--or at least the general Moab area. My plan was to hit two national parks and one state park before sunset, and since all three are within 30 miles of each other, this turned out to be pretty easy.

View from Dead Horse Point
First up was Dead Horse Point State Park, a recommendation from a friend who used to live near Salt Lake City and is familiar with all things Utah. The park itself is pretty small, and is only a few miles before you get to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park--my second destination, so it was already on the way. There are a few camping sites there, but the main draw of the park (from what I can gather) is the AMAZING view of the canyon at the end of the road. It was only a few miles' drive to get there, and the entire large viewing area had a lot of paved sidewalks that covered roughly 180˚ of viewing area.

View from Dead Horse Point
I really hate getting out of my car because taking the scooter out, putting it together, then taking it apart and putting it back into a sedan trunk with a lip (as opposed to my crossover with a flat trunk entry) can be a real pain in the butt. But canyons are a different animal when it comes to a "windshield tour" that I was engaged in. Unlike Monument Valley where all the sights shoot up a thousand feet above the ground, canyons are, well...sunk. If I wanted to enjoy the view, I needed to get out of the car. And OMG was it worth it...

I visited the Grand Canyon about 15 years ago, and I had never (obviously) seen anything so overwhelming. This canyon came pretty darn close, if only because of the snow-capped mountains in the background that presented such a strange and sharp contrast. The Colorado River snaked very slowly along the bottom, which gave the impression that this canyon was the Grand's little brother.

Canyonlands National Park
From Dead Horse Point I drove next door to Canyonlands National Park--which is basically a much larger version of the state park. Canyonlands actually has four different sectors, but they're not connected so you have to enter each part of the park through entrances that are dozens of miles apart. The entrance I was using, called Islands in the Sky, has the longest driving loop (I think two entrances are only for campers and serious hikers). Fortunately, the lookout points and vehicle pullouts were abundant, and the views were clear enough of the canyons below that I didn't have to get out of my car--which is really saying something because my selfie stick/monopod that I was using to elevate my phone for pictures died shortly after I entered the park.

The road that goes through Canyonlands is almost like an island (thus the name, I suppose) surrounded on three sides by terraced canyons as far as the eye can see. The colors range from brown and deep red to light orange and tan. The tops of the canyons, like the road I was on, does not betray what lies below. It's all straw-colored grasses and green shrubs, with the occasional juniper tree dotting the landscape. There are some rocky outcroppings here and there, but the surface-level landscape is more or less unremarkable. That's what makes the canyon views, in my opinion, so jarring and breathtaking.

Canyonlands National Park
Arches National Park
Arches National Park
From there it was a 24-mile drive to Route 191, and a short 4-mile jaunt to Arches National Park. Let me start off by saying Arches was NOT what I expected. I got the park guide while going through the entrance gate, and I learned that it's one of the world's largest collections of natural arches. These arches are formed in sandstone sitting on top of a huge shifting salt flat. Over the millenia, rain and wind and ice have done their work with the porous sandstone to form these arches. I expected to see a lot of them, given that the guides say there are plenty which are visible from the road. Two words, people: False and Advertising. I think I saw maybe five arches, and I drove every inch of that park that was drivable. It turns out you have to take hikes/walks of varying lengths and difficulty to see most of the arches.

Arches National Park
Arches National Park
But you know what? It didn't matter one bit. Because Arches gave me even more surprises--the biggest variety of geological formations, terrain, and scenery that I've ever seen in the span of a short 15-mile drive. The spires and buttes are made of two different types of sandstone, so the color is split between the typical deep red and a light tan. Some of them looked like Monument Valley-type formations, and others looked like gigantic versions of my kids' playdoh creations. The park has petrified sand dunes. Huh??? It has gray/brown/boring salt flats across the street from huge red spires in the forefront with the La Sal mountains in the background. Whaaa??? Disconcerting to say the least, and my head--and steering wheel--were on a swivel trying to capture it all in my brain's and iPhone's memory.

Tomorrow is my last day in Utah, but my adventures aren't over yet. I'll be pulling out of Moab in the morning on my way to Salt Lake City airport for my early evening flight. But I'll be stopping along the way--once again, on the recommendation of a friend--at the San Rafael Swell. Based on the photos, it looks like it'll be a gorgeous stop to break up the five-hour drive!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Three: Wandering Among Giants

Even though I think sleeping is a huge waste of time that could be spent doing something productive, I love to do it. And while I can be ready to go within 15 minutes of waking up, that doesn't mean I'm happy about it; I'd be okay just lounging in bed until lunchtime, telling myself the whole time I should really get up and do something...productive.

But vacations are designed for sleeping in, right? I'm all for that, but last night I intentionally left the curtains wide open so I could wake up at first light. Why on earth would I do something so insane, you ask?? For this view right here...

Panoramic view of sunrise from my hotel room balcony

Somehow I lucked out and got a room reservation for two nights at the most in-demand hotel anywhere near Monument Valley. I suspect the demand isn't only a result of it being the only hotel in the Park and the only one for 23 miles. Anyway, I sat on my balcony for probably 20 minutes just taking a photo of the view that changed every 2-3 minutes, freezing my behind off (my weather app said 26˚ with a "feels like" of 7˚) the whole time. There were about 20 people chattering and oooh-ing and ahhh-ing on the restaurant terrace while hopping about to stay warm, aiming their cameras and phones at the awe-inspiring scenery. This was a completely apropos start to my day.

The view from my table at breakfast
I wandered over to the attached restaurant for breakfast, and for the second meal in a row I found myself wondering, Where are all the Americans?? Last night I was in Korea and this morning I was in France. Well, as I was watching a CBS documentary today during lunch about Monument Valley, I learned that of the roughly 480,000 annual visitors to Monument Valley, 70 percent of them are from foreign countries. My jaw just dropped when I heard that statistic. There have been like three dozen westerns and a gazillion more movies filmed here; I figured this would be a huge attraction for Americans over foreigners, especially those doing an Arizona-Utah canyon route like myself. But nope; I feel like I'm in Europe again, perking up whenever I hear someone speaking English. Weird.

Monument Valley, UT
The Three Sisters
Anyway, after breakfast I bundled up (the 20 mph winds make it [insert expletive here] cold) and headed to the back of the parking lot to find myself a Navajo guide. Not only was I nervous about braving wet clay roads--I wanted to see every square inch of the park that I could, and you can only do that with a paid guide. I explained my situation to Matthew--I just needed space for my electric scooter in his trunk and help getting into his Chevy Suburban. I wouldn't be getting out for any reason, but I would want to stop many times to take photos. I also would be asking an annoying amount of questions because I wanted to know everything he could tell me about the Valley's history, people, plants, animals, weather, geology...you get the picture. He was down with it, so off we went.

Anasazi petroglyphs
Honestly, of all the places I've been in the United States and around the world, Monument Valley is easily the most impressive thing I've ever seen. You don't realize how ginormous the spires and buttes and mesas are until you see the birds flying next to them like gnats or the cars driving below them like ants. They're made of sandstone, which has cleaved away and been worn down by water (hundreds of millions of years ago) and wind, which results in red sand dunes (and clay mud) towards the back of the valley. The Anasazi lived here from about 200-1300AD, so I was able to see a panel of their markings. That was chilling, since no one really knows for sure why the Anasazi pretty much just up and left in 1300AD.

Ear of the Wind formation
I knew from pictures and movies that Monument Valley was known for its spires and buttes. But I had NO idea what was waiting for me on the other side of the Valley--much of it only accessible with a Navajo guide. We saw natural arches and "windows" in the huge sandstone formations, running water that emerges from springs ATOP the cliffs, sand dunes, and even a small pack of coyotes making a rare appearance in full daylight. There are even a few Navajo families who call the Park home, and we drove by their very modest dwellings a couple of times--some trailers, many modern and traditional hogans, and even sweat lodges. There is no electricity or running water to supply these homes, so they have outhouses and have to haul in fresh water since the natural springs don't provide enough to supply them.
The view from my "office"

After three hours of driving (in some cases, wrestling with the road), we headed back. I had a nice lunch, did some shopping in the gift shop, and spent some time on my laptop working on this post and checking in on the world while enjoying the very dynamic view through the hotel lobby windows. At around 4pm, the hour-long daily spectacle known as "sunset" in the valley began, which of course meant it was time for me to bundle up once again and stare slack-jawed at some ancient rock formations.

Fortunately I was able to get some great shots from my hotel room balcony once again because I did NOT want to go outside. I did, and if it wasn't for the spectacular sunset I was rewarded with, I would have regretted it. The temperature itself wasn't that bad; maybe low 40s. But the wind was punishing, roughly around 20mph with at least 30mph gusts. Wind chill anyone?? But that didn't stop a throng of people (mostly speaking languages I didn't understand) from heading to the terrace for photos. Because then you get winners like this...

Post sunset in Monument Valley
But after about ten minutes, I just couldn't take the cold and had to go inside. The buttes behind the hotel were already fully in shadow, so I figured the show was over anyway. I started taking the lenses off my iPhone, taking off my jacket, charging my selfie stick, and editing my photos from the day. I exchanged a few messages with my best friend, and sent a few emails. I happened to look up in the direction of the balcony only because a bird flew by and caught my attention. Then I nearly peed my pants when I saw the view and started panicking to get my phone camera ready. Monument Valley wasn't done with me yet. In about the span of 20 minutes, the view went from the cobalt blue sky and copper oranges you see above to baby blues, pinks, and lavenders. Purely. Amazing.

So tonight it's an early dinner, a long hot shower, comfy pajamas, a book, and an early bedtime. Tomorrow I head east, stopping first at Valley of the Gods (kind of a compact version of Monument Valley) en route to Four Corners. I just gotta get a photo of my feet on that plaque :). From there it's north to Moab, where I'll settle into my hotel to prep for Canyonlands and Arches parks. To the east!!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Veterans Day Musings on MS and My Medical Retirement

I had been on active duty in the Air Force eight years almost to the day when I got my official diagnosis that I had multiple sclerosis. I knew that day was coming, too. What I didn't know was what my future held. At all.

Celebrating after my commissioning!
When I went on active duty in February 1997, I was only 22 years old and didn't have much figured out. Years later, I still loved my job as a Special Agent and started getting my career trajectory more or less in order, thanks to some great mentoring. At the time I didn't really want to get married and I didn't really want kids, so I figured I could milk the Air Force for 20 years, retire, and become a civilian contractor like most of my colleagues did. Of course, that changed when I met my then-husband, who got commissioned and went on active duty himself around the time of my diagnosis. For months we had been worried about how and if/when we would get stationed together, and the eventual need for one of us to likely separate if we wanted to live together for any reasonable length of time. Now it became the worry of, what in the hell am I going to do for the rest of my life??

Target practice as a cadet training officer
After the diagnosis, I couldn't decide what I wanted--try to convince my agency to let me stay on at headquarters where I wouldn't have to deploy, or gamble that the Air Force medical board would decide on a medical retirement? The decision was ultimately made for me, and five months later I was medically retired from the Air Force on June 1, 2005. I was living in Alexandria, VA at the time, and since my then-husband was living in San Angelo, TX, that was my destination. But then what??

Well, I needed to find a job. I would only be living there for five months before he finished his training and we would be moving somewhere else. Who would employ me for that short a time period, knowing I would be quitting five months later? It appears God was looking out for me yet again; I got hired as the Assistant Director of Human Resources for Tom Green County; making roughly ¼ of the salary I had just left as an active duty captain living in the capital region, but at least I was gainfully employed. I was also just happy that I wouldn't be sitting at home alone all day for months.

Deployed to Paraguay as a Special Agent
It's really strange how your brain tries to create order out of chaos. When I arrived in San Angelo, not only was I out of a job; I was out of the FREAKING MILITARY somewhat unexpectedly with a very promising career ahead of me, sure to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel with an impressive resume. I was also saddled with this whole incurable disease thing, for which I now had to give MYSELF weekly injections with a 1 ¼" needle. In the muscle. Yeah...good times, I tell you. Probably 95% of my household goods went into storage, and I had mostly my clothes and a few personal items and necessities sent to Texas (my ex was living in a one-bedroom loft, and he definitely didn't think I'd become his roommate while he was there). When the movers brought my stuff, they emptied the contents of all the boxes onto the living and dining room floor and all over the kitchen counters. There wasn't an inch of empty space. Total. Chaos.

Getting promoted to captain!
After the movers left, I lost it. Just tears and tears...tears for my ruined career, tears for having an incurable disease, tears for not being able to control my own future, and tears for saddling my new husband with a broken wife only three months after he married her. I HATE crying. I completely despise it, and I'm extraordinarily uncomfortable around other people who are crying because I don't know how to "fix it." I was taught indirectly at a young age that crying is a sign of weakness, and it's completely useless when you're in a profession almost completely dominated by men. So here I am, alone in Texas while my then-husband was in class, surrounded by a few meager belongings and an uncertain future. And sobbing like a three year-old girl who just had her favorite Cabbage Patch doll taken away and run over by a garbage truck.

So I did what any typical OCD-prone person would do--I picked the closest and easiest thing I could put into some kind of order. In this particular moment, it was the spice rack.

If my ex is reading this right now, I know he's having a good belly laugh because he's told this story a million times. He came home from class that afternoon to find his then-wife with a tear-streaked face, surrounded by piles of God-knows-what everywhere, and putting together...a spice rack. But you know what? It made me feel better. Because it was my first real step towards getting my shit together after my world-turned-upside-down medical retirement.

Wearing the uniform as a retiree
I'm crying as I type this, and it's pissing me off because I'm going out in an hour and I don't want to screw up my makeup, dammit! Sigh. But I need to get this out. This was one of the most difficult times of my life, and if you don't give yourself a pass to get emotional when thinking or writing about something like this, then I think you're destined to spontaneously combust at some point. Anyway, I think retirement or separation from the military is a mixed emotional bag for most veterans. Some people can't wait to get out, while some go reluctantly or because they have no choice (like me). Some may have a job waiting for them when they get out, but some may be undergoing a TON of stress not knowing where their first civilian paycheck is going to come from. I was REALLY lucky that my medical insurance would be taken care of for life, but veterans who separate either have to deal with the VA or very unpredictable civilian insurance. Add to that uncertainty a medical condition like MS or a psychological condition like PTSD and all of a sudden you have a gazillion new variables.

So what happens when I have a deer-in-the-headlights moment in life? Like, the completely life-altering ones that involve questions like, How am I going to live/survive for the next 20 years? Well...I find a spice rack. My closest friends (and even some of my more casual acquaintances) know I'm a complete control freak, so it calms me down if I can just find the tiniest thing to help me create some order in the chaos. It could be as simple as making a things-to-do list. Or making an appointment. Or helping my son with a puzzle. Or doing something routine or work-related that reminds me that I can still function. Then after the "spice rack" is done, I move on to the next thing that needs to be put together and put away. Pretty soon I'm Miss America, a Nobel Prize winner, and living in Fiji with a cabana boy. OK, not really (I hear Fiji isn't particularly handicap accessible), but at least I'll maintain my sanity by doing things one baby step at a time.

So... my biggest life lesson on Veterans Day 2015 that I can hand down to you from the experience of my MS diagnosis and subsequent medical retirement? When your life goes to shit and you have no freaking clue what to do next...find your spice rack :).