Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two Reluctant Farewells


Little Spanish Ariel was named from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” because he was found under a bush, starving, covered with oil, and near death. This tiny young cat had been abandoned and was not making it. Cats have a way of knowing humans whom they might trust. He called to Deborah. His fear still took hold and Deborah’s initial reward for gathering him up to help him were bites and scratches. She nursed him back to health and a true friendship was born. When Deborah brought him home from Spain, he met his forced siblings, Kira and Merlin. A fast friendship in the new family was not exactly what happened, but tolerance and some comfort in each other's company finally came to pass. 

I first met Ariel not long after. He was a bit nervous about new people, but he could see in me someone that was not a worry. Deborah told me he did not like being picked up. That is the wrong thing to say to me. I moved carefully toward him, introducing myself. He was happy with that, so up he came into my arms. My first real greeting with this fine, loving cat was to have him throw his paws around my neck and put his head under my chin, purring happily. And so, another new friendship was born. 

Ariel was a heat seeker. He loved his heated bed, but he loved the lesser in temperature human warmth more. He would, usually, politely check to see if we would accept his nuzzling. Sometimes, he would just assume and take his place next to us in bed. Like all strong friendships, there were ups and downs. He could be annoying at times, and he could get grumpy if we did not do just want he wanted on occasion. But, forgiveness would immediately follow, as if we really could do no wrong. In full health, Ariel, I called him Rurr Rurr, walked like a tiny bulldog. His countenance was regal. He loved us and when not sleeping, he would show us every chance he got.

Deborah worried a bit that Ariel’s traumatic youth might take him from us early. Perhaps she was right. At 14 years old, Ariel’s kidneys started to fail. With care and the right food, it looked like he might have years. Such would not be the case. Cats instinctually hide how they are feeling when they are sick. Ariel was a pro at that. When Deborah and I left for Death Valley for my training session in July, he appeared well and we were content to leave him in the capable hands of our long time cat sitter. He likely stayed in his bed the times she visited, so she had no reason to worry, either. When we returned five days later, an Ariel made up of little more than skin and bones greeted us. His kidney function had declined drastically. We knew the end would come much sooner than we wanted. We would make his last months or weeks good ones. We finished preparations for Death Valley and we left believing we would find Ariel greeting us as always, if not the muscled kitty he once had been.

The call came Monday evening, as I headed toward Stovepipe Wells. Somehow Deborah had cellular connectively where we had never seen it before. The call was weak. She did not want to tell me what the call was about, but I read it on her face. While we were somewhere on the road to Stovepipe Wells, Ariel with dignity and compassion would be sent to cross the Rainbow Bridge. His time had come. I headed into the setting sun with a heavy heart, and determination in my eyes. The hot breeze quickly dried the tears.

“You will never leave me.
nor shall anything part us
You are my cat and
I am your human –
Now and onwards
Into the fullness of peace”
        -- Hilaire Belloc

Ariel in his beloved heated bed the day before we left for the Death Valley Express II

Done too soon

It was a grand day in the desert. The air was clear and hot. The start at Badwater Basin was shaded by the adjacent hills. The rising sun was brilliant and the distant mountains shown in glorious purple. While my crew did what they needed to get ready, I wandered out onto the salt flat feeling joy and wonder that I had once again made it to the start of a wondrous adventure. I was happy and comfortable. I was ready.

The start of a solo adventure is very much different than the nervous, almost chaotic rushing around of a race. There is no one there to tell you where to be and when. There was the usual discussion about where the start is exactly, as if a few feet really matter, but I told them where it was so that the cameras would be in place. When I was ready, I quietly walked to the start line and began.

And on we go ....

I felt fabulous!

Everything was working. The concern over my blood pressure dropping too low was soon found to not be a problem. I was staying hydrated. There was little doubt I would make it to Stovepipe Wells if I continued to be careful and stayed within myself. It got hot – about 118 degrees F near the Beatty turnoff. My urine darkened too much at one point and I stopped until I went again a much lighter color. For a period of time I was “third spacing” fluid and bloating, but that would decrease, too. It appeared the only issue was I had triggered a quick gag reflex with my very first intake of electrolyte capsules. They went in, and rapidly reappeared with that tell tale noise. My newest crewmember reacted and the others and I said, “Better get used to that!” I got them down with a Coke. That issue continued for some reason. Once it started, it did not stop and I had to take all the supplements with a Coke. At one point when climbing the hill to Sea Level at about 40 miles, my throat dried a bit and I coughed. That set me off and I left a gallon of good fluid and food on the side of the road. It did not worry me too much, but I did take a few minutes to replenish. My legs, my feet, my attitude were all great. 

Then I learned about Rurr Rurr.

Though I was sad and I felt a bit guilty Deborah and I had not been there for him, I was not going to let that stop me. I just needed to work it out in my head and keep my feet moving. I did that. It is what I had to do.

Because I had been extra careful to take care of watching my blood pressure and hydration, I was a little later getting into Stovepipe Wells than I had planned, but that was OK. I was looking forward to heading up Towne Pass in the night. I love Death Valley in the dark. The night would start with a waxing gibbous moon, giving way around midnight to full darkness, dominated by the Milky Way. That was going to be fantastic.

Near the Dunes I started to feel sick. Initially, I believed the nausea was a continuation of my sensitive gag reflex. I would rest at Stovepipe Wells and get some food, and things would settle down.

That is not what happened.

As the Sun set behind the hills, my brother-in-law joined us with his car. The crewmember that was rotating off was having too much fun and followed along, too. There was also Deborah in the Jeep, and the prime crew vehicle. In the darkness it looked like a caravan ahead of me. It was not what I wanted. The peace was broken. I was annoyed, but they all were there for me, and I did not want to say anything, so I did not. I would be alone again soon enough. I now expect the annoyance was not so much for the broken peace, but that I was feeling really sick. I threw up in the desert, but forgot to say anything in the confusion of the moment. I was starting to feel weak from not using the calories I had taken. I did not want to eat. I would wait until Stovepipe Wells. The spiral had begun.

I was happy when I got to Stovepipe. A major goal met strongly and well done. I sat at the bench outside the store as Deborah checked over my feet – good. Just a couple of little, easily handled blisters. Another major goal met. Food of all sorts was laid out for me. But, all I could get down was some Coke. It settled my stomach a bit, and it does have some calories, not the kind I needed, but something. The nausea only worsened. The idea of any other food just set me off. I went to a room for a couple hours of rest in hopes that would help.

In the room were two crewmembers getting rest for their time on later. I had a cot. It appeared like a scene out of the Keystone Cops as I watched everyone try to make room and get the cot set up. It did not happen, and I ended up in a bed while the others shared the other bed.

It took more than a couple hours, but I was headed up Towne Pass at about 3:30 am. It was beautiful. Perfect. It was a dream scene and I loved it. But, I was weak and still not eating well. Then started the diarrhea. Rich Benyo wrote of having the same during his double crossing. He had fun with it by using the parts that hang down as gun sights and shooting at small bushes.  I amused myself by doing the same and looking forward to telling him about it. OK, I know what you are thinking. But, you do what you can with what you have out there. Amusement aside, I was now losing it in both directions.

I was barely moving forward at this point.

Another mile, and all that careful intake of food and liquid – pudding, Gatorade, Pedialyte, Cytomax, water – all found its way to the roadside again. Just the thought of bringing my bottle up to my mouth for a drink was now enough to set me off.

I had to stop again. We recorded to location and staked out. I hoped a few more hours might help, but I was ready for the alternative too. It had to get better, or I was done. I was in major energy depletion mode. Forward motion was becoming more than difficult.

After 1.5 hours, I was awakened. I looked at the food next to me, and the Gatorade, and headed for the bathroom. It was not happening. A couple hours later I was not as violently ill, so I took a shower. No help. I waited for Deborah to come from Furnace Creek. I needed her. I needed to talk with her. I was going to drop, and I needed support, someone to lean on. The crew was doing everything in their power. There just was nothing they could do.

When Deborah arrived I was outside the gift shop. I saw her and I cried. I wanted to go on. I could not. I missed our cat. I would never see him again.

We had a team meeting and discussed options. I was hoping to not spew right then and there. The options were limited. I confessed that the biggest barrier at that point was that some six miles up the road, I had mentally dropped.

And so the Death Valley Express II came to an end as it started, quietly.

We had all had lunch together in the Badwater Saloon. My sister and brother-in-law joined us. A bit before, not fully understanding the situation, my sister hoped I could go again. She said she would not be here next year. I told her that I knew that. With tears in her eyes she said, “I do not want you to do it again for me.” I said, “Then I won’t do it for you.”

I hate cancer. I hate it so much.

My brother and sister-in-law showed up in the Saloon, having expected to find me somewhere close to Panament Springs by that point. With all the tact of a bulldozer accidentally driving over your car, he said, “So, you quit.” I thanked him for using that word, and headed off to lie down for a few minutes. He apologized later. If he had not, I would have forgiven him anyway. But, it was none-the-less like a spike to my heart.

This much I know – I did not quit. You cannot know without being in my body and mind, so you have to trust me – I gave it my best try. I know these things are true. That is all that matters. I know that there is no failure in that.

“There is peace in the desert, if you have it inside.” – Lisa Bliss told me that. I have it inside. I have it because I am proud of a good 50 miles in very severe conditions. We saw problems and we fixed them. My training was good, and I had fun.

My only sadness comes from the part of the adventure missed. For that I am very sad. It is like losing something loved – the three climbs, the long road through Owens Valley, pausing at Fr. Crowley Point would all have to wait for another time. As Deborah and I drove up Towne Pass, we stopped to pick up the stake. I hesitated. Then I grabbed it with certainty.

As I type this, I feel very proud. I feel pride for having done one good and difficult crossing last year. I feel pride for getting past a difficult period with my bad back this year and completing the training for another attempt. I feel pride for not giving up then. I feel pride for not giving up when giving up would have been easy. I feel pride for my crew, who gave everything they could. Michael told me that they came prepared for 135 miles, but they also came prepared for a lot less if that was what was to be. But, really, how can I, someone who should not even be doing this thing, not feel pride in just making it to the starting line, much less get past it by 50 miles.

To my crew, Bernhard, Nancy, Yi, Michael, I thank you. You helped make the event fun and successful. You gave generously, and I knew it every step.

Jenny, thank you for so well capturing in words so well what was happening. I read them with real emotion. Your contribution is lasting.

To Deborah, there are no words. You reluctantly took on the duties as crew chief last year, even though you where not fully on board with the idea of what I wanted to do. Then you did it again this year. Your organization and your care were obvious. I cherish you and everything you do. I look forward to the rest of our lives together.

To my MD, Jeff Denham, I thank you for all that you have done. I would not be out there if it were not for your expert and generous care.

To Lisa, Danny, Willy, Tim, Meredith, Kristen, Dave, Ian, Marshall and so many more, thank you for your inspiration, support, and kind words.

To Dick, Rich, and Rhonda, thank you for your years of inspiration and support. You gave me Death Valley to do with as I wished. Thank you for that.

The countdown clock at the right side of this page says emphatically what my plans are for next summer.

I will be back!!  I will be back once again, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” – Tennyson

I can't wait!

Dreams do come true.


“Badwater” Bill
Tujunga, CA

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