Traveling & Hiking in the US SW #6:  The Perils (Spring 2011)



Snakes are something I really, really don’t like: dead or alive; in pictures or in an glass box; venomous or not. Encountering one in the wild gives me the willies for weeks afterwards and I am fastidious about not watching TV nature shows featuring snakes at bedtime.  Learning that our SW adventure was beginning about when the rattlesnakes should be emerging from their winter hibernation was not good news for me. But at least the unseasonably cold weather had slowed their arrival and gave me time to adjust to the idea.

Being polite isn’t always enough to prevent an attack.

I grew up with some exposure to rattlesnake territory but only saw a few as a child. But taking care to not put your hand or foot where you cannot see was ingrained in me very, very early. I knew they were nocturnal, that they really didn’t want to mess with people, that they only bit when surprised or provoked, and that a bite could be fatal. As adults, we had learned that drunk males taunting snakes accounted for the bulk of the incidents of rattlesnake bites in the US, but I was still worried.

So the first 2 weeks of our trip I scrounged for behavioral information about snakes: I read bulletin boards, searched online, and talked to anyone I could for information.  My reading reminded us of the often mentioned, absurdly impractical  instruction: if bitten, get a precise description of snake that inflicted the wound so that you can request the correct anti-venom treatment, if one was available. I can’t begin to imagine having the presence of mind to note the subtle feature differences between types of snakes if Bill or I had just been nailed by one. Even as a biology major in college, I have trouble sorting out those nuances when in the wild.

But what I really wanted to know was hard to find out, which was “What do rattlesnakes do in their spare time?” If they aren’t hunting, do they rest coiled up or stretched out? I wanted to know if I should be scanning the trails for a big lump or a branch-like image.  And how does this work....they are nocturnal but plenty of stories are of rattlers seen sunning themselves in the middle of the road or on a big rock. And the new-to-us Mojave Green’s were described as being the most aggressive of the couple of dozen types of rattlers but were they really out for a fight or just stubbornly defensive?

“Quick, get a description before he bites!”

The gaping holes in the information we were collecting about rattlers eroded our confidence, which in turn had us declining to take after-dark walks on the lovely evenings to avoid stepping on a venomous snake. We’d heard reports in 2 different areas of rattlers warming themselves on asphalt roads at night, which had me spooked. We also always took our flashlights to scan the ground when we made our last trip of the day to the campground toilets--trips I’d normally take without the benefit of my own light. I fantasized about having a tub of water for a door mat to create a snake-free zone to step into as we exited our RV after dark.

Disappointingly, the information at the national park visitor’s centers didn’t add much to our defensive strategy, so I pressed every local I could for their snake story. Everyone who had spent much time in the area had a story to tell though many people had never seen a rattler themselves.

Based on the bits and pieces we had learned while in the region, our mid-hike lunch stops began with searching for the most wide-open area we could find so we could see any marauding snakes heading our way. Next, we’d carefully select a spot to sit where there were no holes in the ground or rocks from which a snake would emerge. And while eating, we’d periodically scan for snakes around us.

Our Phoenix friend Iva had the very best tip of all, which was that the rattlesnakes would become active shortly after the lizards reappeared for the season because lizards are one of their favorite foods (and no doubt they have similar thermal needs). So I fretted less about the details of rattlers daily lives and shifted into ‘lizard watch’ mode when we hiked.

On each of our first hikes, I’d laughingly remind Bill that if he heard me say “snnnnaaaaaa” that he should whip out his camera and snap a photo of a snake as I headed the other way. The lizards weren’t out yet and after 2 weeks of high alert for snake information, I was calming down about the whole thing but then it became more complicated. We were getting accustomed to staring at the ground before us with each step, day and night, when suddenly it became important to spilt our attention to above us as well because we had migrated into mountain lion country.

Mountain Lions & Other Hazards

Multiple sightings of mountain lions had been made in the Saguaro National Park East on the periphery of Tucson and we knew to take those warnings seriously: we knew that big cats had attacked and killed mountain bikers and joggers elsewhere in the southwest over the years. We carefully studied the recommendations which involved being confrontational and aggressive to demonstrate to the mountain lion that he or she had made a mistake, that you were not suitable as prey.

A hint of shade in hopefully a snake-free zone.

At Saguaro and other hiking venues in the SW with similar cougar sighting notices, we became head-bobbers: constantly looking down for snakes and scanning above us for cougars. We stayed closer together than we might otherwise to create a larger collective presence to intimidate the cougars and always began a pause for a photo or a drink with a more careful check for stalking cats.

Just to spice things up, rabid fox, bobcats, and skunks were also a threat in Saguaro Park. Elsewhere we were advised as to the risk of picking up the plague, which was spread by fleas feeding on dead animals that then jump to hikers or their dogs.

Our collection of things to fear and list of safety advice grew as the weeks went by, prompting us to develop a behavioral continuum as a memory aid. Grizzly bears, which weren’t in our current area, were added to our list for completeness, and they topped the scales for danger and aggressiveness. Basically, if you encounter a hostile grizzly, you’re dead meat--though playing dead meat may help.

Cougars, also called mountain lions, were top on our list of regional threats and required the most aggressive response.  “Make yourself big; don’t bend down which makes you look like prey; and be aggressive and fight back if attacked” were the main themes.  Mountain lions and snakes warranted direct eye contact, though the slow retreat recommended from a snake is ill-advised with a cougar which will accept the movement as invitation to pounce.

We were advised not to make eye contact with the local bears, but to instead chatter so that they’d identify us as humans by the sounds of our voices. Kind of like with dogs where intermittent but relatively submissive eye contact de-escalates the situation, with bears you also wait for the opportunity to sort of nonchalantly drift away.

We were sorting out proper behavior in the face of wildlife threats when we heard the stories from the NY Times journalists who were held captive by Gadhafi’s troops around the same time. One of the journalists who had also been a hostage in Iraq and in Afghanistan said that it was critical to avoid turning your back to captors because that created an irresistible invitation to shoot you. So we put “human captors” in the middle of our list, where survival is optimized by relatively submissive behavior but with maintaining a frontal position and eye contact.  You just never know....

They call them “jumping cholla’s”--they jump out of nowhere.

Stickers Abounded

Fortunately we didn’t have a single encounter with anything that thought we were dinner or a threat, but dozens of spiny bits of flora hitched rides on us, usually on our feet or footwear. Some days we pried-loose a half dozen small but penetrating goat’s head spines from soles and a couple of times we picked them up on our barefeet, usually while indoors.

The handsome Teddy Bear Cholla earned our respect because their long spines would penetration the Vibram soles of our 5 Fingers minimalist shoes. The spines never punctured our skin but the sharp prick and accompanying shriek always triggered a stop to extract the spine. Even a couple of withered spines clinging together could still be painful enough to demand attention. We quickly learned to carry Bill’s Leatherman multi-tool with fold-up pliers on every hike so as to easily extract the prickly invaders.

An Indoor Medical Emergency

The challenges of seeking help to treat minor medical emergencies while traveling overseas on bicycles were overwhelming and we ended up treating all but one of them ourselves over the course of 10 years. Surprisingly, the same was true while tucked-in at an RV park on the edge of Tucson at bedtime on a Saturday night.

While getting ready for bed, Bill unexpectedly murmured in agony. It was an oddly mixed message behind me while I read: the voice was quiet but the few words clearly communicated incapacitating pain.  There was no blood, no signs of falling objects, no hand over his heart, but Bill was gripped in pain and could hardly speak as he stood crumpled with his toothbrush in his hand.

The handsome cholla seemed innocent enough.

”Pain,” “mouth” were the few words that he spoke. Feeling woefully inadequate, I did what I could by taking the toothbrush from his hand and began coaching him on breathing deeply and relaxing. When in doubt, deep breathing is good for pain, a good first step that buys you time, kind of like boiling water in the cowboy movies.

I quickly ran through the challenges of me driving and navigating the RV to an ER in some unknown location in the dark and then reparking it in our very narrow slot hours later vs fixing this problem ourselves, and I became highly motivated to make this another DIY medical intervention like when overseas. We had been sharing the task of driving the RV but neither of us yet felt safe driving it alone because of a serious blind spot on the right side.

The deep breathing ploy worked and in a minute Bill was calm enough that he could answer questions and respond to directions. He laid down on the nearby bed and concurred when I suggested that I read about TMJ (jaw) dislocations online. A lucky first guess and a lucky first hit.

Colgate had a clear and concise description of the various kinds of jaw dislocations. I read each short paragraph aloud and then paused as Bill grunted in agreement as to my assessment of which symptoms were a match. In minutes we had a firm diagnosis of an anterior TMJ dislocation--the best and most likely kind to have.

The treatments of course involved going to a professional, which at that time of night meant an ER, and having his jaw shoved back into place. We both thought that was a horrible idea, each for our own reasons, and I offered to search “TMJ dislocation self-treatment.”  Seemingly our luck had run out as the new search yielded no hits for the specific topic. We were on our own again.

But having a diagnosis calmed us both and it gave me direction as the interventionist. Being no stranger to TMJ pain, other dislocations, and musculo-skeletal and other joint problems, I now felt like I had a chance of dodging driving our hulky rig to the ER without a navigator. At least for a few minutes, I felt like I could take charge of the situation.

But none of my techniques learned over the decades for calming my more garden-variety TMJ pain were of any use to Bill. But the clarity of the diagnosis and the fear of having someone “fix it” motivated him to experiment with gentle manipulations on his own.

It didn’t take long after all of my other suggestions failed before I had our bag of frozen breakfast berries on his face. It’s counter intuitive for most of us, but ice is magic for muscles that are in spasm, which was a sure thing with any dislocation. In mere minutes the combination of Bill’s gentle jaw movements and the ice on those very shallow muscles allowed him to re-seat his jaw so he could both close his mouth again and speak. Whew! Just like that and the crisis was over.

As we debriefed, we shared our previously unspoken, dreaded images. Mine were of trying to find an ER and drive us there or get a taxi; his were of some inexperienced person in the ER actually damaging him from an unskilled effort of realigning his jaw. He was horrified that I’d figured it was worth waiting an hour for his jaw to reseat on its own before seeking help but he also was in no hurry for a potentially clumsy quick fix despite the unremitting pain. 

We’d gained tremendous confidence in our self-treatment abilities over the years and we both knew that the least intervention is often the best. Luckily Bill didn’t have to suffer for the hour I was willing to give it.

As we had expected and hoped, exercising care the next few days when eating and cleaning his teeth was sufficient follow-up treatment for the short term. As a precaution, Bill streamlined his jaw gyrations while chewing and performing his oral hygiene to keep his jaw moving in the straightest and tightest line possible. As the weeks went by, the residual ‘awarenesses’ that something had gone very wrong faded into the background and his jaw was almost completely normal by the time we flew home.

Heavy Weather:  Near-Peril Class

The weather was unseasonably cold for our entire SW trip and yet we felt incredibly lucky considering what we missed. Nearby California was hammered mercilessly by storm after storm early in our travels, dumping rain and snow and causing landslides and flooding. We safely watched the reports on the news and felt lucky to only be chilled by the harsh weather.

There were 3 nasty cold snaps for us, but we missed the brunt of 2 of them. Our first days in our RV at Red Rock, NV had us enduring freezing temperatures inside our rig but at the same time, Tucson and other areas we’d later visit, felt their temp’s drop into the teen’s from the same system. We arrived in Tucson later to see the substantial damage the freeze caused to the palm trees and other vegetation and more deeply understood how lucky we had been.

Again around April 1, we had another spate of freezing nights which were accompanied by high wind advisories. We were lucky however, as this was all we felt from the storms that clobbered half the nation as the jet stream took a serious dive south. Tornados, golf-ball sized hail, and high winds were deadly and expensive just to the east of us.

None of these systems were crisis material for us but all of the events warranted watching and underscored the importance for us in having frequent internet access or TV news to keep us safe and on track. Like when shopping for lodging in Europe, Bill had to carefully select our RV parks in order to keep us in near-daily contact with the outside world. When in State and Federal campgrounds we had neither internet or TV access and often had no cell phone reception, which was a little worrisome for more than a night or 2.

Our last weekend on the road perfectly illustrated the importance of keeping tabs on the news and the weather. Being ‘away from it all’ can be nice, but it can also quickly become dangerous.

Bill had planned 3 nights in Sedona, Arizona bracketed by a night in Flagstaff. When we arrived in the area, we cruised through the only National Forest campground open near Sedona. The primitive nature with only pit toilets and totable water was OK but I found it too dreary for 3 nights. The skies were mostly overcast, it had been threatening rain, and the campground was situated in the narrow base of a deep canyon with tall trees--lovely on a hot day, gloomy on a cold day.

Whew! We moved to a place with hook-ups just before the snow.

At my request, we went on to Sedona to a campground with hook-ups, which was full for the night by lunch time. I reserved a space for our 2nd and 3rd nights in the area and we returned to the National Park campground to spend the first night in the wilderness, which was fine for a single night. The next day, as we got settled in for our first night in the private campground for night #2, I flipped to the Weather Channel and discovered that all hell was going to break loose.

We had below freezing temperatures and inches of snow on the ground for 2 days in Sedona, which prompted us to spend an extra night there. If we’d gone on to Flagstaff as planned--and were encouraged to do by the hosts at Flagstaff--we’d have been surrounded by over a foot of snow and endured a recording breaking 7˚ night.  It was the ability to watch the evolving forecasts on the Weather Channel, and checking online until the internet service was knocked out by the falling trees, that allowed us to stay safe and comfortable through this severe storm.

We didn’t have as complete of information as we would have liked, but the independent access to the details allowed us to make better decisions. If we’d stayed at the National Forest campground, the deep-freeze weather would have caught us without warning because we had no cell phone, TV, or internet access there. We would have had too little propane and electricity to sit it out comfortably and would not have known how long it would have lasted. We considered ourselves very lucky because it had only been by chance that we were warm, comfortable, and safe through the severe weather event.

As we were preparing to leave Flagstaff after roads were clear, we were even more grateful we’d made our own cautious decisions rather than take the recommendations of the locals: had we gone on as scheduled and as encouraged to do, we would have been trapped on the freeway for the better part of a day and a night because of jacket-knifed trucks strewn on the icy road.

We barely missed being on the icy road with the jack-knifing trucks.

You Don’t Always Know to Ask

And it wasn’t just the heavy weather that underscored the importance for us as travelers to have contact with the outside world. The weekend we were bracing for one of the brutal storm systems to roll through our area coincided with when the SW Airlines passenger jet developed an open-air skylight in the fuselage at 36,000’.

We were scheduled to ride on 2 SW Air flights in 2 weeks and followed the news carefully to determine the odds of them having any jets in the air by then. Fortunately, they had all but a half dozen planes back in service within days of the crisis and presumably the backlog from the delayed flights cleared fairly quickly.

A few days after the aviation ‘event’, Bill heard that the pending Congressional deadlock over the federal budget could result in the National Parks being closed at the end of the week. National Parks and Monuments had been the highlights of our trip, so losing access to them would be a huge disappointment. The eleventh hour negotiations spared us the inconvenience of park closures but served to remind us that one can hardly imagine all of the questions you need to ask to avoid being caught unawares--better to have your own access to the news.

My habit of reading everything in sight when bored paid-off on while in our Albuquerque campground laundromat and highlighted both the hazards of being a traveler and of never being able to anticipate all the questions one should ask. Buried on the bulletin board with the church announcements was a notice indicating that our potable campground tap water had 3 times the accepted level of arsenic in it. Hummm....

The only mention of the high arsenic levels was in the laundry.

Nuisances: Drying Out

Being from the Pacific NW, we are accustomed to almost constantly high humidity because the next rain cloud is never far away. But in the SW 15% humidity often accompanied the forecasted “abundant sunshine” which we enjoyed but it was murder on our usually soggy skin.

A medication I take makes my face oily, but not while in the SW. Apparently the oil incessantly bubbling up from my pores was slurped up by the upper layers of skin before it broke the surface as I never saw that too-familiar sheen.

Nivea, a lard-like heavy cream that I reserve for use around my eyes and on my lips, became my nightly salve. First, it was just on my lower legs; then my legs and arms. And after a couple of weeks, it was an all-body lotion for me. Half way through our 2 month stay, I was using it 2-3 times a day and Bill was starting to dip into the the trough too for a little relief for his hands and feet.

I went to bed with my tin of Nivea next to my pillow because every night I’d wake up at least once with my skin itching and burning and I’d need to reapply the gloppy stuff to the latest hot spot. In the morning, I’d pre-treat a chronically irritated patch over one collar bone. “How do the locals survive???” was all I could think. I even resorted to wearing my synthetic knit T-shirts inside out to avoid having the seam allowance rub against my skin, especially on the collar bones, because the tissue was so sore. On the scale of perils, the dry skin was a small thing but it was an almost constant distraction--until the snow storm hit--that is. Nothing like a storm to raise the humidity.

And So It Goes

Just like when at home, when we traveled in the SW the things we knew to worry about didn’t present themselves as problems, like the snakes and the cougars; and the most unexpected challenges, like Bill’s dislocated jaw and my maddeningly itchy dry skin, did rear their ugly heads. Oh well....

Up Next: Our last piece regarding our RV adventure in the US southwest is about the assorted culture surprises of being in the region and in an RV.

The first group of photos below are from hiking in Bandelier National Monument, NM.

     Human presence in the area is dated to about 10,000 bp.

     The Ancestral Pueblo People, who built the remaining structures, were most active from 1150-1600 ce.

Below: Favorite images plus the Petrified Forest & Painted Desert Monuments.