Pleasant but not exactly fascinating scenery.
Joshua Tree National Park, California (February & March 2012)

A Change In Plans
Divergent Experiences
Unlike most National Park visits, Bill and I will be replaying very different mental videos of our 2012 experiences in Joshua Tree. Bill will recall taking hikes alone day after day and initially being disappointed in the lack of scenic drama of this much anticipated stay. He will remember the early hiking outings to lauded vista points at the north end and wondering what the buzz was when he arrived. During evening debriefings of his first hiking week, we finally concluded that we were really mountain people who were in the desert not because we loved the desert but because it was too cold or too lacking in snow to be in the mountains.

Joshua Tree will also be remembered as the place where Bill bonded with our newest digital camera, luxuriating in the extra time to learn the mindset of an unfamiliar brand and reconciling himself to a different mix of performance strengths and weaknesses than with previous selections. The new camera forced us to revisit our prior observations that no camera is perfect, that the next better choice was usually bigger than would comfortably fit in his shirt pocket, and that 'capturing the experience' vs 'perfectly replicating the sights' was the ultimate goal of our photo taking. His side-by-side comparisons of shots within the Park taken with the new camera and with the old one that had acquired a permanent smudge finalized his satisfaction with his new purchase.

I, on the other hand, will remember the Joshua Tree area for its mostly pleasantly warm afternoons that I spent alone in our camper off-loaded in an RV resort catching up on my electronic paperwork. Several times a day I'd hobble over to the public restrooms for the exercise and once a day I'd slowly make the journey to swim in the too-cool covered pool, to soak in the indoor hot tub, and then bathe. The vivid memories will slowly fade of screaming from brief but intense pain 3 different times which was caused by unidentifiable knee twinges and the ongoing secondary distress from being clueless as to what was amiss. It was where I learned to use our latex-free exercise bands to strap 4 frozen gel packs and occasionally a frozen salmon fillet on my leg every 2 hours rather than using the bands for muscle building. It was where we decided to stay in an RV resort outside of the National Park instead of dry camping within the Park until I could reliably walk to more distance toilets in rustic campgrounds, a process that took far longer than expected.

A new trick: icing with the help of exercise bands.
"Joshua Knee"
We were totally baffled by my knee pain and inability to walk but quickly concluded that it wasn't a specific injury but more of 'symptom complex'. And since it wasn't convincingly tied to a triggering event, we decided it was likely an overuse response. Anticipating that we would need a way to reference the mysterious malady that didn't appear in the books, it was quickly dubbed "Joshua Knee."

In January my right leg had indulged in a similar though less debilitating tantrum, raging from my hip to my outer ankle bone. Bit by bit we unraveled the layers of problems to an end point. Bill began with adjusting my sacroiliac joint to get me squared-up from the top of the pain cascade. Then we worked on my highly irritated ITB--that sometimes bone-hard fascia layer that defines the lateral surface of one's outer thigh. Finally we understood that the lingering culprit was at the other end, at the ankle, with a nasty case of buried peroneal tendonitis. Once we'd peeled the onion enough to spot the intractable final source of muscle shortening, the healing course became much more straightforward--slow, but straightforward. And like most overuse injuries, waiting without doing too much was an important part of the recovery process.

Shortly after the right leg had calmed, quieted, and rejoined the team, the left-side seemed to decide it was pay-back time for taking more of the load and it set-off this even more painful domino effect from the hip to the upper calf, only occasionally flickering around the ankle. Initially my spasming hip-flexors at the front of the hip wouldn't allow me to sit upright so I could only tolerate riding in the truck if I slid way down in the seat to flatten out as best I could. Stretching the psoas muscle that crosses the hip helped but didn't prevent it from awakening me in the night in pain if I curled up too much. The knee hurt if I slept on the opposite side, so I got boxed into a single sleeping position for night after night for more than a week.

"Tailgating" in Death Valley & Joshua Tree kept the curry aromas out of the linens.
When my left knee complaints initially stopped me in my tracks we thought an old Baker's Cyst behind the knee had ruptured and was causing the sense of fullness that prevented bending it but we eventually decided it had only leaked a little fluid, if any. The Cyst had been enlarging recently but there is nothing to do with it but notice its comings and goings, which is what I had done. The Baker's Cyst was either a cause or a result, but it clearly wasn't the central figure in the ongoing mystery. Like everything else we noticed nothing was a tight fit, no single observation explained why I hurt in so many places on my left leg and had so much trouble walking, sitting, or sleeping. Unlike the challenges with my right leg, the left leg malady didn't hold much promise of a clear end point.

Almost a week after it all began at the end of a morning run in Death Valley, I thought I might have turned the corner. Bill went off for a first hike inside Joshua Tree National Park while I stayed 'home.' Cautiously optimistic that I was healing well, I settled into the small fitness room at the RV resort to do some upper body strength work and exploratory low body stretching. I was seated on the floor and twisted into a favorite stretch only to hear a nasty "snap" in my sore knee and dropped the short distance to the floor in severe pain. It wasn't as excruciating as my shoulder dislocation but it was about half way up that scale. "A tendon rolled over a bone" was my first thought as I lay alone on the floor unwilling to move.

After a few minutes I managed to reach a nearby weight stand and pull myself to standing without the use of my left leg. I hobbled back to the camper to swathe my knee in ice packs and eat my belated lunch. Only then did it occur to me that I might have torn a meniscus or joint ligament. Our marginal internet connection was good enough to fairly quickly reassure myself that indeed it probably was something like a rolling tendon and not a knee joint tear because I had no swelling or persisting pain inside the knee joint itself.

The next night I had another brief screaming event when straightening my knee in bed. It was baffling because the intense, deep massage work Bill was doing made it clear that I had a raft of irritated and knotted muscles in my lateral thigh, but we couldn't find anything dire going on in or around the knee. The findings and the symptoms didn't make sense to us with our level of understanding. All I knew was that despite the second painful bite, I was gradually getting better. Like with the right leg, the "peeling the onion" approach of "search and destroy" muscle and fascia knots would slowly make me better.

My best guess was that I'd ramped up my running and jump rope regime too fast, that both legs were suffering from somewhat similar overuse injuries but that the left side had the additional pain and drama from the irritated Baker's Cyst. Almost every day one of us took another stab at an online diagnosis, folding into our searches the latest new symptom or nuance of understanding. Bill's earliest diagnosis gained weight as the days rolled by, which was some variant of Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS). It wasn't a perfect fit, but playing the Baker's Cyst wild card allowed us to excuse some of the most glaring inconsistencies, but only for a while.

One thing was clear from the way I felt and from our reading: rest was the most important remedy. RICE was also highly recommended, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation but folks with ITBS need to hear REST--in cap's. "It's an overuse injury dummy," so unravel the overuse by underusing. Not being comfortable in any position drove the message home that there would be no bullying or cheating on the orders.

Bill massaged my pile of knotted muscles for a total of 1-2 hours a day for days after my first screaming-in-pain episode. He felt totally out of his league but I had the utmost confidence in him. I knew if he got in there and dug around until he found the places that hurt and then pressed on them, that I would get better. It didn't matter if we never had an accurate diagnosis--it was clearly a muscle tantrum issue by now and the muscles needed to be coaxed out of their rage. Leaving them be wouldn't do it. As he gained confidence, I gained relief. He dug in deep and with each session I regained a little more mobility. Thirty-six hours after the first shriek I was able to sit with my knee slightly bent instead of propping it straight out and I could take some steps without locking my knee joint. I wanted a sudden recovery but I was thrilled to have any measurable progress.

At that point we decided to extend our stay at the RV resort for an additional week: Bill could entertain himself with daily hikes and by staying at home I wouldn't be tempted to do anything more than RICE and REST. Of course the challenge would be getting the right amount of rest because immobilization impedes healing whereas judicious stimulation of injured tissues and joints enhances their recovery and results in better long-term outcomes.

Time Marches On
In The Park
As the days of my healing journey turned to weeks, our parallel but different experiences at Joshua Tree continued, with Bill's being within the Park and mine occurring outside its gates in the RV resort.

At the 10-day point in Joshua Tree, Bill's luck turned and he started finding more pleasing hikes, hikes with more variation in the terrain, the vegetation, and the views. Joshua Tree National Park isn't as overtly diverse a place as Death Valley, so drumming up enough variety on his hikes had been a challenge. One new favorite route scored high marks for its steep slopes because it delivered an intense CV workout in short order. Another snappy hike had a palm oasis at its terminus, providing a sense of having arrived somewhere instead of just turning around, plus a pleasing place to sit for lunch. And several longer hikes at higher elevations proved to have more complex assortments of plant life and rock formations to engage his mind while he walked.
The distant oasis didn't look like much, but up close it was a different matter.

Like Death Valley, most of his hikes involved a 30-40 minute drive to the trailhead, which skewed the driving time/hiking time ratio more heavily towards driving than either of us prefer. But unlike Death Valley which had many slot canyons with significant obstacles, at Joshua Tree he could "just go." At Death Valley we often had to turn around because the dry falls were beyond our technical ability to safely ascend and descend but Joshua Tree's routes were always passable so he never had to totally abandon a route.

Bill always feels more at ease when hiking with "Gar" (his GPS).
Our long and uncertain length of stay near Joshua Tree had Bill focusing on the details during his hikes, like when in Death Valley, to stay fascinated. Bill noted that if he wanted to see the lizards, he should look towards his feet. If it was the birds he wanted to observe, his gaze should lift to about 100' ahead of him to see them scurrying by. And if he hoped to catch sight of ground squirrels, he needed to be looking about 200' ahead. Of course, rattlesnakes were always on his mind, so he was also scanning each foot and hand placement to be certain the space wasn't already occupied or overseen. And the aggressive spines of both the dead and alive cholla cactus had him giving them a wide berth on every trail.

Bill's longer hikes often had disappearing spans of trail, giving him sometimes-tense opportunities to learn more about the nuances of his new, improved Garmin GPS device. The larger screen and enhanced map details gave him reassuring overviews of the trail that had been hard or impossible to get on his older model. After several of these briefly unsettling experiences out alone on the trails he felt much better about what had been a difficult purchase decision--there was no longer any question as to whether the newer device was "worth the money". And like with his GPS, his varied trail experiences helped him form clearer opinions under which conditions he preferred which of his minimalist shoes. The favorites, the Vibram 5 Fingers Komodos, were still #1 for dancing up or down steep, rocky slopes but the more shoe-like Merrell's provided a better protective barrier on cholla cactus lined paths.

Eye-catching chollas seemed to say "Come closer my darling....."
At The RV Resort
While Bill was busy giving the chollas a wide berth on the trails, RV park neighbors told me tales of what to do if we should have a serious encounter with a cholla or other nasty cactus, especially if we should happen to fall into one. Duct tape is the hiking first-responder's product of choice for treating a patch of spines in skin. Apparently you pull out the spines as best you can and then apply tape over the top of the remaining spines. After the tape has had enough time to adhere well, you give it a yank hoping the hooked spines don't tear too much flesh on their way out. A trip to the ER for a bigger affected area still results in another bit of handyman-inspired therapy: there they use Elmer's Glue. The do-it-yourselfer could probably replicate the technique: apply a coating of glue to the impaled skin, let it dry, and yank as you pull the sheet of glue off of the skin. Fortunately our handful of cholla encounters over the last year have been painlessly remedied by removing the offending spine or 2 from our footwear with the pliers on our multitool, a tool that now always accompanies us on desert hikes.

Aside from the "how to" advice about removing cactus spines from flesh, my journeys while Bill hiked were mostly inner ones that guided my healing. "Being fascinated with the details" for me entailed employing the physical environment in and around the RV resort to its best advantage to obtain the optimal amount of stimulation for remedying my challenges without causing additional injury.

The new Aqua Jogger bouyancy belt added varity to my hyreo therapy.
The covered swimming pool and I became buddies. I have no fondness for swimming because for me swimming = being cold but I do have high regard for it as a rehab exercise. Given that any position was uncomfortable for the first week or so, being in the pool was a relief. I began as a one-legged swimmer with most strokes and used my knee's increasing receptivity to particular leg actions as a way to monitor my progress. Once I cautiously rejoined the 2-legged crowd and discovered the warmth a diver's cap afforded, I eventually began swimming with enough vigor to refine the healing of my 3-year old shoulder injury as well. I also tapped amazon.com for an Aqua Jogger purchase to add variety to my pool workout. (See "Aqua Jogger" under Fitness Focus).

The RV resort's hot tub was a welcome resource for my recovery. It was what enabled me to get back into the too-cool pool water everyday because I knew that I could break my chill from swimming with a 5 to 10 minute soak before making the wind-chilled outdoor walk to the ladies shower room. I wished that the hot tub had been warmer too, but it was warm enough to sooth me. I welcomed the initial relaxation that stepping--OK, hobbling--into the hot tub gave me because I assumed that my lopsided body needed all the invitation to relax that it could get.

And like with the swimming strokes in the pool, being in the hot tub gave me a unique way to understand my injury and to monitor my progress. It was only in the hot tub where I could sit, be relaxed, and have the benefit of the buoyancy that I was repeatedly convinced that I did not have a knee joint injury. Only in the hot tub could I reaffirm the painless, full range of motion with my knee. I needed water supporting almost all of the weight of my entire leg in order to freely move my knee, which seemed perfectly healthy when there was little load on it.

The RV resort's fitness room was my other refuge. There I could use the open space to carefully stretch any part of my body I could access without annoying my knee. Many days I spent 1-2 hours leisurely discovering what I could and could not do. As I improved, I used the elliptical CV machine for a few minutes at a time to replicate the hip and knee flexion of walking without fully lifting my feet off of the platforms. That slow, controlled, confined motion informed my floor stretches because they quickly revealed compensatory tightness in my opposite hip which I immediately tended to.

The large mirror in the fitness room gave me feed back on the lingering asymmetry in my shoulders when I approximated swimming arm strokes in standing. The refinements I made on land with the mirror were sufficient to cause sore muscles in the affected shoulder after the next swim, confirming the benefit of the stroke analysis. I used the exercise ball, weight machines, and other fitness room accessories in unconventional ways to help me explore my disability and advance my healing.

Early on it was a long walk to the public toilets from our camper.
Once I could manage more than a straight-legged hobble to the fitness room and pool, the outdoor resources of the RV resort were in my sights. My first "walks" were the couple of minutes it took to limp to the dumpster each day. Then I graduated to a 10 minute walk around the grounds, being very careful to avoid having an inch-high deviation in the pavement trigger knee pain. Once I became more capable on pavement, I ventured out to the adjacent low sand dunes to test my leg on uneven footing.

After a few days of gaining confidence on a variety of firm and soft surfaces in the low dunes, I tackled a bit of steep grade, both up and down. All of those varied challenges helped advance my recovery and further clarify that I probably didn't have a specific injury but instead a cascade of muscle spasms that pulled on the weakest link in the system: my knee. The knee was the source of the pain but it didn't seem to be the source of the problem--a classic case of Joshua Knee.

Three and a half weeks from my first 'incident', I was suspicious that it might have been chronic shortening of some low back muscles that had cinched up a notch too much for the leg muscles to continue covering for them and that shortening is what had triggered all of my pain. And while Bill was massaging the back muscles and I was doing deep daily stretching of those tissues, the annoyance of peroneal calf tendons on the left side became apparent too. Tracking down the chorus of complaining muscles from this 'injury' had been a fairly thorough study of almost all the muscles in the leg and hip, 1 or 2 muscles at a time.
Yeah! After weeks of lagging, my grumpy left leg took the lead for the first time on a step.
Two and half weeks after arriving at Joshua Tree, almost 3 and a half weeks since my initial pain and limping episode, I was cautiously back on the hiking trail with Bill. I was clumsy on the first 1.5 mile hike and quite weary afterwards, but no worse for wear. The next day we did about 3.5 miles, with the same reaction by my body. We kept increasing the distances and elevation gain and my performance met the challenges. On Day 5 of my resumed activities, I felt confident enough to do some trail running. I returned to the pool after each hike, hoping that the now-familiar rhythms would sooth my jangled nervous system and help the stressed tissues reorganize. By the time we left the RV park, a month after we had arrived, I still had residual movement restrictions but at least I felt sturdy and strong again. Quickly being able to reclaim my hiking competency once I could walk without limping reaffirmed my belief that it wasn't a classic "injury" that needed to heal but instead I had a truck-load of muscles that needed to calm down.

Intersecting Communities
29 Palms RV Resort
Home for the last month, especially for me, had been the 29 Palms RV Resort. As we learned last year, there is a big difference between an RV park and a resort and a resort is a better place to be for a long stay. With this resort came the covered lap pool and indoor hot tub, a reasonably well-equipped fitness room, a game room (for pool and cards), and daily activities. The pool and fitness room were really winners for my rehab but it was the daily activities, like bingo and dancing, that were the bigger draw for the over-the-winter snowbirds. (Amazingly, shifting to the monthly rate put our nightly charge at the resort at $16, down from the daily rate of $37).

With too much time on my hands and too much of it spent on the RV resort grounds, I couldn't help but notice the seductive hazards for the snowbirds that parked there every winter for 3 or more months, which were the lack of vigor, both intellectual and physical. The pancake flat grounds, the warming sun, and the little need to go anywhere had its toxic side. Several people took 1-2 dips a day in the pool, but for almost all, that meant standing the the water and moving their arms around. A couple of people would do 'water walking' and a few would stand with air-filled milk cartons under their arms for floatation devices, but there weren't many calories being burned by any of them.

I spent 1-2 hours a day on the floor of the fitness room doing my strength and flexibility routines as I was able and was stunned how under-utilized the space was. Five to 10 minutes was the average length of stay by others, with a few folks walking 20 minutes on the tread mill. The universally pitched-forward posture of almost everyone, but especially severe in the men, underscored that others should have been warming the floor with me to lengthen their muscles. The rituals involved with the nearby 9-hole golf course and TV seemed to be taking their toll on the minds and bodies of the contented snowbirds.

Aghast at the hazards of the pleasant lifestyle, I briefly imagined how I'd make the routines healthier if I was their activities director. It wasn't hard to dream-up substitutes for the bacon and eggs Sunday breakfasts and the hot dog/hamburger night. It took a little longer to work out the details of offering bi-lingual bingo. I settled on a different language each month with a short lesson at the beginning of the game each week and always giving the English translation immediately after the foreign words. In addition, there could be discussion groups on hot topics, like comparing the spec's on the newest models of trucks, trailer winterizing/summerizing tricks, and favorite websites for travelers. Stretching classes might draw those reluctant males if they had a golf-injury-prevention focus. Coaxing these snowbirds into picking up their RPM's a bit didn't seem like it would be all that hard and it was a shame someone wasn't giving it a whirl.

Apparently I am the only one on the planet that didn't know that there is a HUGE Marine base at 29 Palms, but I know it now. First it was the low-flying choppers briefly filling the night air and then it was the heavy artillery shaking the ground at breakfast that drove home the point. One of those hits had us wide-eyed and holding our breath as we waited for the next one: "Too close!" we both said. The presumed error was punctuated by a long break in the shelling. Fortunately these were episodic, not daily events, but it reminded us of who our neighbors were, as did the speeding motorcycles on the straight road flanking our RV park.

The retail shop closest to our RV resort, which was on the way into town from the Marine base.
I finally gave up looking online for a sports massage therapist in 29 Palms to help with my leg/knee issue because any search I did for therapeutic massage yielded the same onslaught of exotic Thai massage options. I was "not their target market" was all I could conclude. I relented and we drove an hour to Palm Springs to escape the local image of massage to obtain some help.

And of course, much of the other retail in 29 Palms reflected the military presence. "Stud Cuts" was the name of the nearby barber shop and the next place up the road offering "Marine Cuts" was a club at night. Tattoo shops were probably second only to barber shops on our shared road into town. Places like Denny's had big signs in the window advertising their hours for military discounts and many a merchant had a military-themed tag line if not business name, with "HQ, Command, Combat, and Bunker" being favorite inclusions.

The winds escalated during the field trip part of the nerd class.
Desert Institute
The weekend before we left the area, we found 'our people' as my mother would say, at the Desert Institute associated with the National Park. We felt so at home: good little nerds sitting in a classroom with a well-traveled, rumpled-T-shirt professor talking about dew points, thrust faults, and clinkers in "Volcanoes in Joshua Tree National Park". Ahh....heavenly. Had our timing been right, we could have chosen from other classes such as GPS navigation, compass usage, rock art, wildflowers, watercolor painting, birds, the night sky, lichens, and biological soil crusts. (www.joshuatree.org).

Bill recognized a woman across the room he knew-of from work over 10 years ago. Next to him was a Chicago attorney who had recently retired early after 2 years of representing Goldman Sachs during the meltdown and was reacquainting himself with photography and nature to center himself. Farther back in the room wearing a rainbow-colored knit cap was the "plant guy" who later kneeled in the desert grit as though on a prayer rug to examine 1/8" long white blooms on the tiniest of a plant and freely shared his body of knowledge as we walked in the desert during the wind storm. The strong winds resulted in the all-day event being shortened by hours but we were thrilled to have discovered a way to connect with our crowd while being active outdoors and learning new things as travelers.

Weather Alert: High Wind Warning!
While not exactly blasé about the wind warnings, we were starting to understand why the locals didn't react much: it's a common occurrence, or so it seems, in much of the SW. While in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks this late winter, these wind events were a near-weekly experience for us. We still took note, followed the progression of the forecasts, and modified our plans for the day or week based on them but we weren't so concerned. We'd close all of our vents and usually plan on spending most of the storm interval inside our little camper, which was sometimes 18 hours

Handsome wall murals were more durable than decorative landscaping in the wind-ravaged town of 29 Palms.
The worst was the dust storm at Death Valley, which was because its high winds carried piles of sand and grit. Our RV park outside of Joshua Tree was spared from much of the dust during the storms because the scant bit of vegetation coverage there and in the surrounding area kept the particles from becoming airborne, though we felt some blowing sand and saw the dust clouds in the distance. We had been told that 35mph winds are what it takes to carry enough grit to feel like a dust storm if there is sufficient material to lift. The gusts at Joshua Tree were predicted at 60-70mph during one storm though there was a fraction of the grit in the winds compared to what we experienced in Death Valley. The gusts one night were so strong that we both awoke wondering if we were being lifted up by a tornado but fortunately it wasn't a tornado-prone area.

I'd been swimming every afternoon while we lingered at Joshua Tree so I could recover from my leg injury but on the first wind storm day I hopped in the pool in the late morning in deference to the anticipated winds. Towards the end of my swim when the rippling fabric roof over the pool roared like a freight train in the winds, a sweet young thing parked herself on an outdoor lounge chair to sunbathe: she seemed undeterred by the fierce winds that were being allowed to shape my day.

But even a few minutes out in the winds that didn't seem to be carrying much dust was enough to tell the tale on my wash cloth that night when I washed my face. And a bit of the fine sand did find its way into our camper as evidenced by the gritty sounds when a Corelle dish was set upon the kitchen counter top. Our laptops were left unplugged most of the time during the winds because of the risk of power surge and we kept our camper's slide pulled in most of the way to prevent damage to it.

By the end of our stay in Joshua Tree when our scheduled geology outing coincided with yet another wind event, we shrugged our shoulders and carried on. We wouldn't be driving our high-profile vehicle (the camper), so we weren't really at risk of being flipped over and we 'battened down the hatches' on our parked camper to let it ride out the early part of the storm alone. We did however postpone our much delayed departure from the RV park for a couple of more days: no reason to go dry camping in a rustic campground when the temperature had plunged 30º and the winds were howling.

Cottonwood Springs & Campground
The focus of our Joshua Tree National Park visit had been to hike from the primitive campgrounds within the Park, which is where we finally stayed for a mere 2 nights after a month on its periphery. It was a small gesture towards reclaiming what had been the vision for the visit. We'd begun the process of merging our divergence Joshua Tree experiences with Bill taking me on some of his favorite, shorter hikes at the north end as we tested my trail-worthiness. We took the shared-experience process a step further by camping at Cottonwood Campground at the southern end of the Park to make a couple of hikes before journeying on to Arizona weeks later than originally planned.

The premier hike from Cottonwood Springs is the Lost Palms Canyon hike, which was almost 10 miles for us with a few add-on's. Lucky me: Bill rated it as his top hike for the entire park for its scenic interest. The trip to the Lost Palms had a bonus: because we'd been way-laid so long some of the desert flowers were in bloom after the rain that accompanied our most recent 3-day wind storm. With the many blooms came the spotting of a single hummingbird and perhaps had contributed to fellow hikers sighting of a huge swarm of bees relocating their hive. We saw chuckwalla lizards for the first time, 3 on our first big loop and 2 the following day when we repeated a smaller loop on some of the same trails. The stay at Cottonwood was a stunning finale to our unusual stay in Joshua Tree National Park.