Postcard: Rainforest dreaming

Long winter stretches of high pressure and sun in the mountains must do wonders for tropical tourism. All I find myself thinking about when the snow is subpar are scenes like this from last fall, hiking through a lush forest high above the beach and ocean, in tank tops and flip flops. Please, snow, return soon, so I can stop thinking about faraway lands and return to the season at hand.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Why I am not a Landscape Painter

Recently I stopped by Olana, home of the renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. Olana is a modest castle overlooking the Hudson River. From the verandah you can see the Catskill Mountains rising in the blue faraway preferred by romantics. Back in the day, Mark Twain enjoyed visiting Olana. He called it “the exalted hill of art.” Today it’s a State Historic Site.

I made the journey to Olana to attend a presentation at which I hoped to learn a little something about the nature of art. I took a seat and waited for the presentation to begin. I considered the place in history of this place Olana and the place of history in history and how complicated everything becomes as soon as you start trying to define art or anything or even try thinking about anything, much less try to attach words to the whole unbeautiful mess. Then I looked at my boot and thought: “Now there’s a picture!”

Exercising Demons

What happens when a hockey player with an injured groin heads into the depths of hot yoga? By Mark D. Miller

 

The instructor actually convinced me that leaving was an option.

“It’s your first time? Just get a spot in the back and sit out some of the poses if you need to. Make your goal just staying in the room.”

I already knew that Bikram’s Yoga was like a Merry Prankster’s bus mentality, ‘you’re either on the bus or you’re off’, but instead of an acid trip, it was a sweat-induced mind-and-body altering transcendence. From what I had learned from friends that no longer go, once class starts, no one leaves, ever. It seemed that walking out of the 90 minute 105 degree session was akin to jumping off the bus barreling down the interstate. But psychologically, I needed an escape plan for my first hot yoga class and it was simple; I would just march right out of there, ignoring everyone and everything. No worries. I even brought my old truck in anticipation of a slippery, sweaty and disgusting retreat. The problem now though was that I knew the instructor. She was an old neighbor of mine. My plan was strictly under the pretense of anonymity.

My fear and flight mode was now off the radar. With my escape plan shot and nervous about whether I could stay in a sauna for an hour and a half, I decided I needed an edge. Instead of paying fifteen dollars for one class, I signed up for a thirty dollar, one month unlimited trial period offered to first timers.  The advantage to this, more than any mental resolve, is that I am a cheapskate; they would have to drag my dehydrated, mummified body out of there before I quit without getting my money’s worth.

I refocused my mind, deciding that three dollars a class would make me feel better about the suffering and vowed to come 10 times over the next month. With renewed purpose, I found the last spot in the back corner of the studio, a perfect hiding place for me. When I saw the other men were not wearing shirts, I pulled mine off and lay down on my mat and towel, the moist heat filling my lungs. Maybe I jinxed myself, but I remember thinking, it’s not that hot.

The instructor entered the room, turned on the lights and we all stood. The room was completely full with 30 students staring forward into a mirror spanning the entirety of the front wall. Skimpy would be modest to describe the lack of clothing being worn in the room. Between us all, we could have made one good outfit. For the most part, it was like a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot was taking a yoga break and the mirror only doubled my sensory overload of sexy, toned skin.

Even the guys, a few in snug fitting short shorts, looked like chiseled underwear models. A quick scan of the room would unconsciously result in a game of who does not belong here: the chubby guy near me, the chubby at the other side of the room, the 70 year old lady and me, a novice yogi at best, perpetual beginner at worst.

After straining my groin in a beer league hockey game at the beginning of the winter I vowed to come back stronger and more flexible. Hockey was my last competitive outlet and approaching middle aged I just wanted a few more years at a shot of glory while playing the highest level of mediocre beer-league hockey that I could, one last chance of being able to keep up, one more opportunity at winning an adult rec league championship with my buddies and one more chance of roping some sweet goals.  Hot yoga, I hoped, was going to be my fountain of youth.

With my hockey mentality, I decided to break the yoga class down into three manageable periods, thirty minutes each. Through the mirror, I could see a clock on the wall near the opposite corner of the room and could barely make out the minute hand. We started with a breathing routine. “Hands interlocked and all eight knuckles touching your chin and thumbs on your throat. Breathe in and let your elbows rise up, head looking back, fill your lungs, deeper, deeper, inhale and then exhale….”

As soon as the instructor said the word ‘exhale’, the class collectively turned into the world’s largest tire letting its air out. I was slightly startled and could not help smiling a little bit as the hissing reverberated through the room, just as the first bead of sweat ran down my flushed forehead.

As we went through the first series of poses, I concentrated on looking in the mirror at myself, focusing on my body positioning and trying to ignore the beautiful and increasingly glistening skin illuminating from my peripheral vision. The mirror did not lie and I forlornly realized that my poses sucked. This was nothing like I imagined myself looking when I did yoga on a rug in my basement. Instead of straight, elegant, smooth lines, I was discombobulated, clumsy and rough-edged. Every joint in my body was angled awkwardly at dozens of different angles. My hips had the grace of an anvil, my shoulders were never parallel to the ground and my jaw jammed uncomfortably into my chest creating a fold of chins. For all of my struggling though, the bald dude in the front was nailing it. He looked to be a least fifty but was built like a Greek god, sculpted from head to toe and holding the poses with power and grace while wearing some sort of European bathing suit. I could not help but hate him like I hated the popular kids in high school.

Just four poses of the twenty six that make up the class and I was dripping freely now. Half of my shorts were completely soaked and my cheeks were rosy red. It was here that I first noticed a pungent smell steaming up. It was fleeting and I could not be sure what it was or where, exactly, it had come from. Although it was disconcerting, my focus was on my racing heart and laboring breath. A few poses later, I looked at the clock just briefly enough to see that the minute hand was straight down. It had been thirty minutes, one period over.

As the second period began, every pore in my body was engage in the extraction of sweat. Beads that had dripped singularly now came off in bunches, then in long steady steams, landing on my towel or splattering on the rubber floor beside me. I could see everyone was steadily dripping and pools of sweat formed on each side and the in front of towels, picture exercising in a steam room using a bucket full of sweat to pour over the hot rocks. But I could not worry about that, my heart was racing out of control from trying to hold difficult postures for a minute at a time. I had to stay focused, conserve energy as much as possible. I knew I should sit some poses out, but I’ll be damned if a couple of chubby guys were going to outstretch me in a hot room.

About half way through class, we were then instructed to lie on our backs in shavasana, which is the rest phase or alternatively and appropriately to my case, the corpse pose. It is the first time we actually lie down on our mats and towels. I realized immediately the nasty smell wafting around was coming directly from my towel, which was spread on top of my mat. I concluded that it had not been washed and there was also a high probability that it had spent some time in my hockey bag, which is more disgusting than a room full of adults freely dripping sweat into puddles on the floor. When we stood up again, there was no doubt that each drop, stream and barrage rolling off my body  and onto the towel, are causing rank stink particles to exploded and radiated in the air from my corner position. I glanced at my neighbor and gave her my best sorry-about-the-smell look, but she ignored me.

When I looked back to the mirror, my face was candy apple red, while the pale skin of my chest and shoulders were now tinted a bright pink. My heart felt like it was beating on the outside of my chest and spiraling out of control. We went into more standing poses and when I dipped my head low below my waist, my eye sockets would fill with sweat. When I tucked my head to my knee, streams would rush down the small of my back, over my shoulders, falling to the floor and bombing stink from my towel, which held in the stale air like a pungent inversion.

When we stood up again, I glanced at the clock and the hand was pointing up. I was into the third period. My face was now plum red and I was wet like I was taking a shower and had just turned the water off. I could count my heart beats through the throbbing in my brain. I should have taken a break, but I am too competitive. I had gone into survival mode, using my breath to keep my brain from imploding. I could not tell you what happened most of the last 30 minutes, but I was very near to heaven or hell. When I finally left the room, I felt like a spiny puffer fish had been shoved inside my throbbing brain and  I also noticed while walking out that the clock I had used to keep time only had a second hand on it.

I was told that it is best to return in the next 48 hours to reduce the amount of soreness. Two days later I came back with a clean towel and mat. It was more of the same, a walk through hell. At one point, with maybe twenty minutes left in class, an overweight guy started to crack. It was his second class too.  I knew he had been suffering greatly but that was part of it, right? I was freaking dying myself.

Suddenly he stood up, looked pleadingly at the instructor and pointed to the door. She told him to lie down on his back and he would feel better. A few minutes later he stood again and looked at the door. “You need to concentrate,” the instructor told him. “Don’t be selfish. Think about the other people in class. You are disturbing the other students that have come to class today and are working towards a goal.” Humiliated, and seemingly to fulfill the ultimate irony, he got back into corpse pose.

A female student stood up, then took the guy by the arm, apologizing to the instructor as she led him out of the studio. He was fine and this was the only time out of 30 classes over the winter that I ever saw anyone leave or a teacher treat a student that way.  After class, another chubby male who seemed totally unbothered by the heat, claimed that not everyone has the mind power and will to make it through. My head throbbed for the rest of the day again, enough so that I believed I had discovered something vitally wrong with my brain, maybe a tumor or something.

I vowed to never return but after a few days, it kept eating at me; thirty dollars for two classes is full price and I was not raised like that. I had to suck it up and literally, that is what I did. I drank liters of water before my third class, convinced that this would solve my headache problem, but it did not. The thing I most learned on this third day of practice is that there is fine line between being well hydrated and peeing yourself.

My fourth session was about one goal, not getting a headache. In class, when I felt my heart racing, I sat out poses and concentrated on my breath pushing oxygen to my brain. I was still soaked head to toe by the end of class, but for the first time, my head did not feel as if it would pop right off my shoulders.

On my fifth trip to the studio, it was starting to seem more underground, more like a fight club. In the reception area and in the locker rooms, there was not much talk, we just acknowledged each other with a glance and a look that said ‘let’s fucking do this’.  On the sixth day, I realized I could judge how much I would suffer by when my toes started sweating. During class seven, I witnessed a student whose super power must have been sweating. By the end of class, he is almost swimming in puddles around him. When he rolls his towel up and walks out, sweat comes out as if it was being poured from a pitcher.

You want your pee to be clear, but mine is a little yellow before class eight. No worries, I remember thinking, I got this hot yoga down. The reality though, I get my ass handed to me. I barely make half way through class before having to lie down on my mat. I try several times to join back in the poses but finally give up, finishing the class on my back. At some point, I either fell asleep or passed out for a few moments. At the next class, my ninth, I pee clear beforehand and enjoy just the normal sufferings, not the mortal ones. After class, I learn, as powder snow bonds skiers and guns bond cops, electrolytes bond hot yogis.

For my final class of the thirty day trail period, I felt strong, body and mind, even slightly pliable. I now enjoyed seeing the newbies suffer and sticking it to some of the seasoned students in one of the balance poses that I was surprisingly really good at, Standing Bow. I had also found some self-control that was demanded in this yoga, exploring and expanding my boundaries carefully

After that month, I finally made it back on the ice. I got a break away in the first game and was grateful my groin held up as I sprinted down the ice surprised by my slightly above-average beer-league speed towards the goalie. I faked a forehand shot, pulled it to my backhand and put a shot that any rec hockey player would have been proud of over the goalie’s shoulder and into the upper corner of the goal. It’s a shot I practice in my two-bay garage where I skate on roller blades while shooting pucks into a mattress with a goal spray painted on it because I am competitive and I love scoring sweet goals. So I could not give all the credit to hot yoga, but for the first game back in a month, I was feeling as good as I ever had on the ice.

As I continued through the season playing hockey and doing hot yoga twice a week, it brought my fitness to a new level. My teammates even commented that I was faster than I ever have been. It was true; I had gained a step, one of two or three that I had lost over the decades. I also noticed that I recovered faster, was fresher in the third periods, had better mental sharpness and was even more conscious about eating a healthier diet. I was taking care of myself and felt great. Ponce de Leon may not have agreed, but I had taken a sip from the fountain youth. And then I promptly sweated it out of every pore of my body.

Postcard: Still standing

Just when you think you know your local backcountry ski zone, you stumble onto a relic like this. I have no idea when it was built or if it ever hosted a keg party, but I like its style, perched on a knoll at the base of a powdery tree run. I think I’ll go back in the summer and have a picnic inside it.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Passing Through

Walking in this morning’s crepuscular light, I heard the hoot owl calling far off in the DeLong woods. Later I learn from the almanac: “An owl’s flight noise is about 1 KHz; mice can’t hear much below 3 KHz and so they don’t hear the owl coming.” When my father died, that night I was driving my mother home through a dark stretch of woods. Out of nowhere a large owl swooped down over the road in front of the car, the pale silence of its flight illumined by our headlights. The great bird flew directly over us, and was gone. We had not been expecting this coming out of nowhere, or its going.

Mountain Passages: The Heart of the Matter

Sometimes we get signals about our mortality. By Alan Stark.

Every once in a while the Mountain Gods give a warning. The warning can be subtle such as a glimpse of white puffy clouds over a peak at 10a.m.

The curious thing about getting these warning is our manner of dealing with the warning. We start with complete denial, continues on with an actual or planned change, then we feel growing discomfort, followed by flat-out fear, some deal-making, an action of some sort, and a resolution.

So you were late to the trailhead, and by the time you get above treeline, those white puffy clouds are morphing into a grey thunderstorm cell.

“Thunderboomers are not a big deal. I’ve been around plenty of storms in the mountains. This one looks like it will pass way to the south. No worries.”

“Hmmm. It’s not tracking south as much as I thought. So maybe if I hike a little more to the north above treeline—just in case.”

“Damn. That cell is headed right for me. Gotta get out of here.”

“Holy shit! Fricking lightning just hit below me.”

“Pleeease Lightning God, if you get me out this one, I’ll never start late again.”

Sure.

Sooner or later we’ll all ignore warnings from the Mountain Gods. If we don’t get caught-up in the natural selection process for our stupidity, we’ll go through the same routine again and again.

I did just that—ignoring a Mountain God warning right after Thanksgiving. I was awake in the middle of the night and felt pressure under my sternum. It was nothing, just enough discomfort to wake me up. As a borderline hypochondriac and since I’m no longer 40 anymore, I’ve learned to ignore all sorts of signals from my body, as they are just part of the process toward geezerhood. I went back to sleep.

The same thing happened several nights later and again the next night. Now I was slightly concerned. Chest pain is one of several key symptoms of a heart attack, along with shortness of breath, pains in arms and jaw, nausea, and sweating. After 40, we all learn the drill. Truth be told, I was really concerned and began to feel the pressure at odd times during the day.

But I’m moderately fit, I work at altitude in the backcountry twice a week in the winter. I’ve run about a million miles of trails and have my share of century-ride caps. I’ve never had any chest pain other than from broken ribs. How could this be that my chest hurt?

So to prove that my imagination had run wild, I went for a long run. There was no pressure in my chest. Proof that I didn’t have a problem. All fine and good until later in the afternoon when the pressure came back. Now I knew I had a problem. What to do? I couldn’t bring myself to show up at the ER because I was afraid of what they were going to find. Better to tough it out. Maybe try another run the next day. Maybe the pain will just go away.

So let me stop here for a moment. Is any of this familiar to you? Have you done this sort of thing before? Is this denial something you are experiencing today and feeling one level of fear or another?

Nope, the pain didn’t go away. I suppose that the pressure I felt was about the same, but as I drifted through the next week, my imagination took over and the pressure seemed to increase. I got more and more worried. I could have cared less about the Holidays, because I was by now convinced that I was going to die of a heart attack. It was just a matter of time. Absolute fear set in.

But maybe I could make a deal with the Mountain God in charge of health. Maybe if I ate better and gave up my evening cocktail. I didn’t have a drink or a beer, and I ate about half as much as I usually do. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel any pressure in my chest that night.

Terrific.

But later the next day, while sitting at my desk, I felt the pressure again. Fear and dread rolled back into my life.

The fear I felt stayed with me all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about dying of a heart attack. I was essentially frozen by the fear of my impending death.

Blue Eyes looked up from her soup and said, “Are you okay? You look terrible.”

“I feel terrible.”

There it was out.

“How?”

“My chest hurts.”

“Call Kaiser now.”

We were headed out to cut a Christmas tree on friend’s property. I was imagining having a heart attack while dragging a tree back to the Highlander. I had to smile at the irony, but I simply couldn’t do that to my best friend.

An RN at Kaiser calmly went through a series of basic heart attack questions over the phone and told me to come in. At Kaiser an LPN asked more heart attack questions and then put me on an EKG. At this point, while I’m sure I’m still dying, I’m also immensely relieved to be getting checked out. A doc, who I had never seen before, comes in and asks even more in-depth heart attack questions. She finds out that I had gone out for a symptom-free run two days ago.

“Smooth move.” she says, “Essentially giving yourself your own stress test, were you?”

I nodded in agreement and Blue Eyes made her frowny face, something I had occasionally seen before.

After looking at the EKG she said,” Your heart is fine.”

“You can do one of two things. You can either go home and make an appointment with your PCP to get to the bottom of this or you can go through the heart attack routine of a blood test to see if there has been any recent damage to your heart, a chest x-ray to take a look at the size of your heart, and probably another EKG.”

We elected to do the heart attack routine.

Five hours later, nothing. No heart damage, my heart size was normal, my lungs were clear, and the protein test for heart damage was negative.

The next week, David, my PCP suggested that I had a wicked case of ongoing acid reflux.

So what did I learn from this experience? Probably nothing.

Know two things about asking for medical help. If you talk to your PCP about how she makes decisions, there is a good chance that she will eventually mention Occam’s Razor, which loosely means, “always go for the simplest answer.” In my case, eating spicy food and age caused chest pain; all exacerbated by an overactive imagination. And if you ask her more questions about her work, she will probably tell you that 50% of the complaints from patients are nothing or go away quickly, 45% of the complaints require routine medical intervention (mostly non-invasive) and only 5% of what she sees are dangerous and possibly life-threatening. In other words if you visit your doctor, there is a 95% chance you won’t get an awful diagnosis.

Alan Stark is a backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives with this Blue-Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Postcard: Tucson, Arizona

“Watch out for the jumping cactus,” reigning national cross-country champion Howard Grotts told me before we set out for a ride on the 50-Year Trail in Tucson, Arizona last week. Maybe that was the problem: I was too busy watching out for a jumping cactus. Shortly before this photo was taken, I washed out my front wheel and landed hard on a rock, which opened a deep gash in my forearm the size of a steak fry. I never did see a jumping cactus.

Photo by Devon O’Neil