Friday, April 10, 2015

Shapeshifting in the Desert and Riding the Solitude Trail

I had a dream before I left for the desert.  I was sitting at my beautiful antique upright piano, hands poised, ready to play.  I was suspended in time because I knew that I could only play one note; but I didn't know what that note should be.  Lifting the front panel of the piano, I looked inside or guidance.  There was nothing inside the piano except a single silver rose.

The week before my trip was a teeny bit awful.  I felt pummeled by the universe on every front.  The harder I tried, the worse things got.  Finally I threw up my hands in surrender.  And when it was time to leave I couldn't get the hell out of town fast enough.

I was craving solitude, sunshine, time on my bike, and an early spring.  A road trip to visit a good friend in Arizona was the remedy for what felt like a long Wyoming winter.

Later at my friend's house in Arizona on the spring equinox, I drew the card of Shapeshifter.


Coyote. Raven. Mountain Lion. Eagle. Badger.

Shift, pedal, climb, shift, descend, and......  coast.

I fairly coasted my way south, cocooned in the cab of my truck, lost in my thoughts and surrounded by the beauty of the landscape.  I took whatever back roads called to me.  I stopped and biked.  I sat in the bed of my pickup and watched the sun set over Monument Valley.  I had ice cream in Mexican Hat, Utah.

Riptide. This is Mary's Trail near Fruita.   It was my first dirt trail of the season after a winter of riding fat bikes in the snow... glorious dirt and silly, goofy happiness. 

Solitude Trail outside of Moab was a son-of-a-bitch.  It is volcanic rock and sand pits chewed up by the dirt biker crowd.  It was a blast.  I left a little blood on the trail, which made me finally buy pro for my beat up knees and shins.  

I was on some random backroad that skirts Natural Bridges National Park and suddenly the road turned to one-lane dirt with a hellish drop off with no side rails, just orange cones marking where the road  falls into the abyss.   This is the view from the top looking into Monument Valley.

It was off-season in the desert southwest so there were no traders on the reservation selling their wares.  And the bike trails?  I didn't see any other riders on the Utah and Colorado trails and only a few in Arizona.

Weird things that you do while solo.  Smear pink mud on face Indian-war-style, tuck feathers behind ears; ride bike down hotel hallways.  Listen to Waylon Jenning's Greatest Hits more times in a row than you care to admit.

Tried to find a certain trail in Sedona but was apparently bounced off The Vortex and could not find the trailhead even with a GPS and map, probably a good thing.  I ended up on Adobe Jack and other miscellaneous trails.  Adobe Jack was like the Disneyland of trails, a purpose-built track that was yeehaw fun.  

I hit a drug dealer's truck the night before in the motel parking lot and was super sleep deprived on this day - as if riding in Sedona didn't feel other-worldly enough. 

My friend Rita and I went hiking in the Cococino National Forest, near the Cedar Bench Wilderness where I worked on a bald eagle study when I was 23.  I was psyched to be back, in part because it remained so beautiful and unchanged after all these years.  Here I am standing in my dreaming spot - the place where I lived in my tent.   I feel like the same person but not at all like the same person.  It seems like a lifetime ago.  And while my eyes couldn't pick out the faint trails that I used to follow every day, my heart and my feet remembered.

This was a great time in my life, when everything I owned fit in the back of my truck. So simple. It was here that I found my very own Walden.

Chasm Creek - which leads into the Verde River where the eagles nest high above in the cliffs.  The creek flows underground and intermittently above ground.  It's a magical place. I've seen javelina and beautiful lizards and tree frogs in the chasm.  There are rare plants growing from the dripping springs in the cliffs.  There is probably no one I'd rather share this place with than my friend Rita, a kindred spirit.

Another view of my camp.  I spent many cold and wet nights in my tent here from January to March for two field seasons.  I worked 10 days on and had 4 days off.  On my days off I'd explore southern Arizona, way down on the Mexican border -- mostly to warm up and dry off.  The two years I did the study were monsoon-like years with occasional flooding.  Sometimes I'd visit my grandpa Kramer who lived on the Arizona/California border.  On one visit he gave me a mason jar of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in his yard, which I took on a solo backpack trip into Joshua Tree.  

The mountain lion was ever-present in my life here.  But I never saw one and so it was that the mountain lion sometimes felt like a spirit animal to me.  Once a lion killed and cached a deer just yards from my tent.  She came and fed on it every night.  Another time I was so close on her trail that I came across her steaming scat in the early morning light.  While hiking with Rita we saw big lion prints and tons of scat, old and new, on the road to my camp.  It was like a mountain lion highway.  I'm glad to see that it hasn't changed.  

I had the privilege of living in this beautiful area and shared it with one other wildlife biologist.  (There were two of us for safety reasons and also to split the long workdays.)

On my way home to Wyoming, I rode my bike in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  There was an old townsite here, which was later used as a movie set for westerns.  All that is left now is the old cemetery.

Dashboard altar.  My friend Rita put this flower and the flicker feathers in a vase in my bedroom at her house.  The canvas was found at my old tent site.  One year we had an old canvas tent that we used for cooking, etc. and then our separate tents for sleeping.  It was funny, as I was wondering if I had left anything from 22 years ago, I stumbled across this piece of canvas from our old tent.  

On the trail of Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy Draw, Bryce Canyon National Park (hiking not biking - there was too much snow at this altitude.)

At the end of my trip I felt a little sad when I unloaded my bike from my truck and hung up my hat.  I missed my family while on the road but then back at home I started missing my Self, the person that I had 'rediscovered' on my trip.  The person I used to be so many years ago and that I felt I had found again in the desert.  I was struck by how much I felt like a shapeshifter.

Desert Rat.  Conservationist.  Nomad.  Mother of three.  Colleague.  Sister.  Daughter.  Wife.  Friend.

I called Rita a few days after I got home and was lamenting about how hard it was to get back into the swing of things and also not get sucked into the daily drama of life - those tiny dust devils spinning around.  

Rita basically said, "let the desert spirits guide you."  And when the storms of life are brewing, try to be the owl holding tight onto a branch in the storm; the coyote warily watching and waiting; the eagle soaring above.

Many thanks to Rita and her husband Kenneth, and also to the coyote, the lion, the eagles and owls, and the song of the canyon wren that I so longed to hear.  Thanks for the beauty, insight and peace.

And the silver rose in my dream?  Well, the Rose, according to my friend Rita, is love.  The only note.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Being Hearing Impaired - My Rant

Hearing impaired people use 50% of their daily energy on communications, people that can hear use 5%.  No wonder I'm so tired after work, it's a constant struggle to track what is going on in conversations.  Not only in meetings with crappy speaker phones, but in hallway conversations.  I feel like I miss a lot of nuance that is often key to a conversation.  I also miss other important snippets, like when meetings are scheduled, and often write things down wrong.

My hearing loss is mostly in the range of human speech.  At this point I think I can hear the voices of about 15 to 20% of people that I talk to on a daily basis.  I should correct that.  I can "hear" most everyone but I typically can't understand what is being said.  Along with hearing loss comes impaired speech discrimination.  Even with today's technology, hearing aids are not like eyeglasses, they don't 'correct' hearing as such, they just amplify sounds and don't make speech more understandable.  It's like having the car radio on a station that has a lot of static.  You can turn it up but you can't understand it any better - it's just louder static.  

I was on a solo road trip recently which was heavenly because it was a break from my constant struggle to hear and understand. I was either cocooned in my truck cab or out alone in the desert on my bike.  I truly needed that break.

Here in our little town of Lander, Wyoming I have a set world.  I know which people I will likely avoid because I can't hear them, depending on the day and whether I feel up to it or not.   I often wonder if people think I'm snooty...

Often times in social situations, I don't ask people to repeat something that I've missed, simply because the moment has passed. And I miss a lot, especially when people are joking around or say something to the side.  But - I try to smile and nod like I actually know what's going on.   I know, faking it is not the best plan, but I am just completely burned out lately.   And embarrassed that I have to ask five times or more before I get something.

My hearing impairment started when I was young with multiple ear infections.  I had tubes put in my ears in grade school and was amazed after the procedure when I could hear sounds such as the water running from the faucet.   But even after the tubes were put in, I still flunked the standardized hearing tests, year after year - all through grade school.  

About three years ago I had my hearing tested and bought hearing aids. The audiologist said that it would be life changing for me.  It's funny but with hearing loss, you just don't realize how bad it is until it gets really bad.  But now even my hearing aids are not that helpful.  I feel like my hearing loss compounds as each year passes.  My loss could be genetic - my grandma was completely deaf by the time she was in her 60's.  It could be a combination of things: ear infections, rock concerts (front row Billy Idol!), shooting guns without adequate hearing protection, etc.

Until now, I was under the impression that I missed about 10% of what happens at work or in social situations.   But I had an "aha" moment the other day, and realized that I probably have no clue how much I am missing and it's probably a much higher percentage. When I was on my solo bike trip I realized that when I'm not ensconced in my little world of Lander,  I actually can't hear the majority of people than I come across on any given day.  

It made me wonder: How often do I appear socially inept because I respond the wrong way? Or because I can't get the gist of the conversation?  Or I say something that someone has just said - and I get the dreaded "no duh" look from people?  Or I don't respond at all and look like I am ignoring the speaker?  Worst of all, what if people don't think I have a sense of humor?  

Most of the time I don't worry or care about what people think in general, which is a nice thing about being in your 40's.  But I do want my friends and family to know that I want to hear what they have to say.  My husband often acts as interpreter or  will ask me, "you didn't get any of that did you?"  Which can sometimes be annoying so I need to be more patient.  (Thanks for pointing out the obvious, honey!)

I hike and bike a lot with my sweet golden doodle named Daisy.  When I meet people on the trail it's frustrating because I can't even have a short casual conversation.  But since it's just me and one other person or group of people on the trail I have to say something out of common courtesy. And truly I like to connect with people.  But it's generally not a good idea for me to wear my hearing aids outside, it's too risky with expensive equipment that health insurance does not cover.  And so I muddle through a short conversation, and walk away feeling like a retard.  (Yeah, so "retard" is probably not politically correct but it describes how I feel perfectly!)

The worst is that I can't hear Ben very well (my 10 year old son), even with my hearing aids in. I'm trying to get my whole family trained to speak loudly and clearly and NOT while they are running water in the sink or from another room. Talking from another room or with their back to me makes me super cranky.  This past week Ben had a sore throat and so he was whispering. Both of our frustration levels were sky high. 
And don't even get me started about trying to talk on the phone or to support people with shitty headsets. I rue the invention of cell phones.  I can't hear anything when someone calls me on their cell phone, which everyone does of course.  No one seems to have a nice clear land line anymore.  Honestly, I would reach out more to my close friends but dang, it's so frickin' hard.  People leave messages on our answering machine that are complete gunk, and so I have to have my husband interpret and write them down for me.

Personally, I don't carry a cell phone, not because I can't hear - but because I don't like being that connected.  But things like email and Facebook are actually a help to me, because it's easier to communicate by writing.  Except that I don't much like looking at a computer screen after I get home from work.

People that are elderly and have hearing loss have an advantage - people expect them to be hearing impaired and talk loudly and clearly from the get-go.  Sometimes I want to wear a big sign that says, "I'm halfway deaf, speak the HELL up."  When I have to get a new set of hearing aids, they will be bright orange or blue, as my sign to the hearing world.

But I try to do what I can.  I want to proactive.  I am getting better (a little) about telling people that I'm hearing impaired.  But I get sick of reminding people that know me.  They probably don't realize how deaf I am.  I can no longer hear much with my left ear at all so I try to strategically place myself with my right ear towards the person speaking.

We just bought a TV (after not having one for 20 years!)  I watch everything with closed captioning, which sometimes bums me out because I'm not really watching the movie.  Movies in the theatre are a drag but I try to relax and enjoy the images on the big screen.  I've asked my husband to do all the ordering when we eat out because something as simple as ordering sandwiches for the kids at Subway is more frustrating than the average person can begin to imagine.

I could always hear my mom's voice but she passed away just over a year ago.  My closest living relatives, my brother and dad, are impossible to hear on the phone, and in person for that matter.  My dad has Parkinson's which means his speech is much more quiet than it used to be, especially when he's tired.   My brother only has a cell phone and it's also hard for me to hear/understand him in person.  My brother has a wicked sense of humor that I love so I really want to hear him, without asking him to repeat something a zillion times.

Sometimes it makes me sad.  There are probably rich friendships that I would have had but I tend to avoid people I can't hear.  I also avoid a lot of social situations, parties and things.  I'm an introvert by nature, but still.  Milling around with a room full of people making small talk makes me want to crawl under a chair.  So, yeah, I'm probably just a bit socially inept by nature.   Maybe my poor hearing steered me toward the introvert part of the spectrum.

I'm lucky, my close group of friends are understanding and I tend not to stray outside of my core group.  It's just too much work and too frustrating.   But hearing aids do help in social situations where there is background noise and being in a restaurant with friends was impossible before I had them.  But it's not ideal, and I always go away feeling tired and deflated.  I have to really amp myself up and be in the mood to go out and socialize.  The main thing is this: I need to be selective where and when and with whom I spend my energy.

Often when I get home from work I feel like I don't have any patience left to try to hear and understand my family.  And I'm not the most patient person in the world anyway.

I can't hear elk bugling, or sandhill cranes or the sound of rain on the roof.  But I can hear meadowlarks and chickadees.  I'm too stubborn to quit with some things, and I'm still trying to learn Spanish.  At times, it feels like my world is shrinking.  And the less I can hear the more frustrated I get; and the more I tune out and the more I miss, etc.  It's a vicious cycle.

But like anything, there are gifts.  I like solitude and I am comfortable with silence.  I have had wonderful, amazing experiences and jobs in the outdoors that I wouldn't have had without these personality traits.  Whether or not they are due to my hearing loss and the resultant feeling of being a little distant from society, I don't honestly know. Probably I'm just a tad quirky anyway.

Other benefits: when my kids are fighting in the car, I just take my hearing aids out.  The noises that bother other people, like generators in campgrounds, don't affect me.  I can't tell that my piano is wildly out of tune when I play. And I give myself a pass when something isn't worth the effort to try to hear/understand.

When I was first fitted for hearing aids, it was close to a miracle - I was amazed by all of the things that I could hear again.  But I could only wear them for a few hours at a time in the beginning.  My brain couldn't process that much noise and information.  I am still relieved when I take them out at the end of the day.  It's kind of like taking off your safety helmet or something at the end of a workday.  Done. Finished. Rest.

So, what does the future bring?  I'm going to look into cochlear implants but I'm not sure if I'm a candidate yet, and while they won't approximate human speech they might be an improvement.  I joined an online hearing loss support group a few days ago, which already makes me feel less alone, and its nice to commiserate with others, especially those who have a sense of humor about all of this.

I know that we all have our trials and tribulations and our stories to share, ALL of us, so truly -- thanks for listening.