Planning for fear

Last week I entered a time capsule. It was dark, damp, and cold as we prepared dinner after hiking into a fog so dense that I was shocked when we came to the fork at the base of Sam’s Knob, left to the creek and right to the summit. We had crossed the entire field in front of the mountain without once seeing its mighty figure in front of us. We headed left towards the creekside campsites that I remembered from many years and times before. In fact, I camped beside Flat Laurel Creek during my first ever backpacking trip. That trip, maybe ten years earlier, had started much the same way – with a rainstorm forcing us to pile on every layer we had brought within the first few hours. This time, turning off the parkway and into the parking area for Sam’s Knob, we were the only car save for one. The two guys in the other car were milling about while we worked with raincoats and pack covers to protect ourselves from the intermittent rain showers that threatened to soak us and our gear before we began. They, young, clean, and looking a little lost, wandered over and asked, “Hey, would this be a good time for a hike?” It was chilly and windy, nearly 6 pm, raining lightly, and there was surely standing water in the trails. “Absolutely not,” I said. “This would be a miserable time for a hike,” as my hiking buddy continued to layer and arrange our supplies. “You should come back tomorrow,” I concluded, as we hoisted our packs. “It will be beautiful then.”

That’s what we were banking on anyway. We’d delayed the trip by one day, hard for me once I have my mind set on the woods, but it promised to be a better plan. While it had been raining for the previous day and night, sun and clear skies was forecasted. All we had to do was stay mildly warm and somewhat dry until morning.

I started this blog years ago, inspired by the lessons I learned about diabetes management and myself while backpacking. It diverged, first into kayaking and other outdoor adventures with diabetes, then into topics like acceptance and identity transformation. As I’ve gained experience and had successes problem-solving around unexpected moments with diabetes, like a malfunctioning pod moments before boarding a plane, insulin that overheated in another country, low blood sugars alone, and other occurrences that throw the brakes on every other priority you thought you had, these same moments become less noteworthy. It’s been more likely in recent years for diabetes to surprise me in a philosophical way. So, when I stuck a test strip into my meter to check my blood sugar while simultaneously tending the pan of lentils and rice heating on my little MSR camp stove, I didn’t just see the message, “WARNING – Temperature too cold. Out of operating range. See Owner’s Booklet,” I also saw my younger self; imagined her sitting by the creek ten years ago, overwhelmed by a shock of fear.

There she was, running through a script in her head of everything that could go wrong, of everything that she had to pack in order to survive in the woods. Should the list be so long for one night? Should the consequences be so grave? And then, to be foiled by something you could have never predicted so early in the diabetes game – a meter too cold to function. I felt like hugging her now, as I sat calmly contemplating the crane fly who had been drawn to the screen’s bright glow.

It occurred to me in that moment that sometimes you have to go back to the diabetes basics. It’s not all about the esoteric details of acceptance. Sometimes it’s about snuggling your meter in your sleeping bag as if it were hypothermic until works again. Of course, I gently removed the bug first. This time, I felt confident that my meter would resume functionality because I’d been through similar, though not exact, situations before. I also knew that I had packed an extra meter that was buried deep within the pack, likely in a warmer spot. I had reached for my meter preventively, not waiting until so much time had passed that I had no sense of what my blood sugar was. In short, I was prepared enough to be confident instead of afraid while addressing the issue. I don’t say this in an arrogant way. I fully anticipate moments of fear arising in the future – am planning on it. But zooming out on this small experience was a powerful reminder of how much I’ve learned and grown with this condition.

I was recently talking to my backpacking buddy about the process of learning to do things that I had loved before diagnosis, like camping and kayaking, and new things like backpacking, with diabetes. That process was never just about learning the details of management during different activities; it was equally a process of letting the fear subside. I likened it to what I’ve heard some people say parenting the second child is like. With the first child, you’re on guard for everything. Danger abounds. But by the second child, you’ve gotten through emergencies and been ok enough times to realize that you have more wiggle room than you thought. As I was journaling about this trip though, I realized that it’s also about what those experiences teach you in terms of preparation. I remember being so disturbed when I was first diagnosed that I could no longer run off into the woods and survive “on my own.” That I was dependent not just on two types of insulin, but on meters and batteries and test strips and ketone strips and glucagon kits and glucose tabs and carbs and lancets and alcohol swabs and lancet devices and pen needles and frio packs© and backup of all those things – and that’s just diabetes. All these details and what to do with them and when. It wasn’t really that I was learning how to backpack with diabetes, but more like I was learning how to diabetes through backpacking. Of course, not just through backpacking. I’ve learned the most about diabetes by stepping out my comfort zone. Now, the woods have always been a comfortable zone for me, but the only truly comfortable diabetes zone is near the kitchen with all your supplies and an omniscient level of knowledge about what’s going on in your body. So, traveling, camping, or any other significant change to your routine presents the opportunity for a loss of control and subsequently, inevitable fear. My moments of fear with diabetes have taught me the most about how to handle it, what my margin of error is, and what it takes to be prepared in various situations, known and unknown.

When we reached Flat Laurel Creek, we found it had become a swirling, copper-colored river. I was overcome by its transformation; still beautiful, but ominous in its power. Part of why backpacking has felt like more of an escape even than usual during this pandemic time, is that being outside reminds me that our expectations for constancy are not mirrored by the Earth. Because, as I discussed last post I cannot predict the future, being prepared becomes a process of planning for things to look differently than the ideal. With backpacking, this is a fine line, because weight really does matter and discomfort and danger are two very different things. Sometimes, I find that because my mind is so preoccupied with packing everything I need for diabetes, I forget the importance of all the other gear. I over-emphasize diabetes preparedness as if it were isolated from the rest of me, but as previously mentioned, diabetes is just a bonus on top of all the other processes of survival, like staying warm, fed, and hydrated. So, recently, as I considered whether I could cut some of the weight that I add with diabetes supplies by just being dirtier, aka packing less clothes, I thought about dropping my customary backup pair of socks. I mean, if they get wet I can just dry them out, right? After splashing through several puddles in my decade-old hiking boots that were once waterproof, I was thankful that I had not yet enacted that plan. My feet were wet and I knew they would be cold soon if I didn’t act. For me this feels scary. Once my feet get cold, they just won’t warm back up on their own, which usually leads the rest of me to chill. I didn’t want to become like my meter, too cold to operate. The clouds hung heavy overhead and the wind was picking up, making the little stove work extra hard as I fumbled around in my pack to find the smaller bag that contained my clothes. My hiking companion was off searching for firewood as an exercise in optimism that we gave up on shortly after. Unzipping the smaller bag, I sorted through the layers I had brought – booties, long underwear, and then, just as I began to worry that I had left my spare pair in the car, my teal wool socks appeared. I layered my down booties over them and curled my feet under my body as much as possible. After a (finally) hot dinner I was feeling, if not toasty, warm enough.

Right before curling into the tent, after scraping the last bit of dinner from the pan and tidying our food and toothpaste into the bear canister, the clouds broke and the deep night sky emerged into view. The nearly full moon shone a spotlight on my yellow tent pitched in the middle of a small clearing by the little fork of Flat Laurel. I can’t say I slept warmly, but rested peacefully, nevertheless. The next morning was perfectly cloudless – not even the lightest dappling of shadows. Our solitude at Sam’s Knob quietly evaporated and was replaced by the voices of hikers ringing out as they passed by. After a breakfast of strong instant coffee and sweet instant oatmeal nestled amongst the Mountain Angelica and Ash, we were off.

A case for pencils

Well, now that we’ve accepted that uncertainty is foundational, I feel relieved. It’s kind of a burden to pretend like you could possibly know anything for sure, from what is going to happen, to who you will be tomorrow. This pandemic period has been a time of forced and uncomfortable introspection for me; seeing parts of myself that I could ignore or hide when things were in a more predictable system, like fear and selfishness and loneliness, all the emotions (or are these emotional concepts?) I find myself seeking to control, if not stamp out completely.

In this battle with self to control, I have relied on planners. I would even call myself a planner. I have three virtual calendars, one personal, one for each of two jobs. And then, on top of that, I keep a paper planner. I love my paper planner. It’s a little notebook with calendar pages and blocks for each day where you can write details. I don’t actually write in it nearly as much as I used to, but I use it to visualize the map of my month.

This year’s calendar was full of plans written in pen. Things that were solidified because the tickets were booked, the arrangements were made. I’ve crossed through them all, but I still see them and am reminded of the shadow year running parallel to this actual reality that I find myself in. It’s like my expectations, which had become almost a script, are there, hovering in some liminal space.

This morning, as I was doing some planning, I stopped myself (in the nick of time) as I reached for a pen. Have I learned nothing?! I opened the nightstand drawer and grabbed a pencil, reassuring in its impermanence. Something strangely comforting in embracing, instead of the script, the fact that in truth I had no idea what would happen.

This past week, carrying the weight of a backpack once again, I started thinking about maps. The broad outline that illustrates what trail you are to follow, but tells you little about what you might encounter along the way. For us, that was sunshine and a little fog, a few joyful people passing by, wild ponies, and the layers of Blue Ridge Mountains that provided us refuge. It was a fuel canister that I thought wouldn’t light, a campsite that we hoped would appear before it finally did, an evening windstorm to fall asleep to. It was a reminder that as I spin around in little circles, the mountains go on being mountains.

And I think to myself, isn’t it strange that we draw the map of our lives as we go? We draw it to fit and then act like we were following some predetermined path, imagining that we are in control of our direction. I think this is beautiful, really, that we are able to pivot and then convince ourselves that we knew where we were going all along. I think about this in light of diabetes and where it continues to lead me – on to new stages and challenges. My newest challenge with diabetes is that I forget about it. It’s not that I forget to take care of it, rather, whereas once I resisted it and later I embraced it, now I just sort of do it. It’s always there, keeping me on my toes, but running in the background. Chronic conditions become just another weight in the backpack that we carry (have I mentioned that I love trail and river metaphors). And yesterday, as I wondered why I felt so mentally tired after what was otherwise not a very difficult day, in the middle of a global pandemic in which I am aware to a greater extent than ever of just how privileged and lucky I am, I remembered – oh, I have a chronic condition. And if I’m being honest, I have multiple, because diabetes is never just diabetes. And that was comforting too. To know, to have an explanation. To feel justified in my exhaustion at the end of the day, yet no less certain that I would pick up the pack tomorrow.

When I started writing this I got stuck here. Because I like to have at least a small glimmer of a point, you know, when I write. And I wasn’t sure what it was. Partly, I think I’m just really into planning in pencil right now, as if it were a creative act. I’m into the idea that I won’t be done in this process of knowing myself with diabetes, of knowing myself at all. I’m into the idea that I can set down some of the need to control, because my pack already feels a little heavy some days. And then I started thinking about some of the media that I’ve been consuming during the past few months, particularly after listening to Brené Brown’s recent ‘Unlocking Us,’ podcast, On My Mind: RBG, Surge Capacity and the Play as an Energy Source. For me the most salient point was the first that she made, being that if something was on her mind, she had found that likely it was on our collective mind as well; it’s just we don’t always share the things we feel troubled or embarrassed by. That and the part about Surge Capacity, in which she referenced the work of Tara Haelle, Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted – It’s Why You Feel Awful. I admit, I haven’t yet read the article yet, but in listening to Brown describe her takeaway, I was reminded of a conversation that I had recently with a friend about this process of creating a ‘new normal,’ around Coronavirus and whether or not that struck me, as someone who has created a ‘new normal’ around a chronic condition, as an apt way to describe what we were doing. I really appreciated the insightful question, because it’s easy to forget even as a person with diabetes all of the work that goes into the creation of normalcy every day, so for someone else to draw the connection was validating. And thinking about it, yes, I do think that Coronavirus has presented us as a society with both the fear of an acute crisis and, basically, management tasks that are very like living with a chronic condition. It’s also introduced the sort of uncertainty that I’ve tried to conquer related to diabetes for years – the kind that makes you feel like if you could just plan everything out enough, you could know what was going to happen with your blood sugar and you would know that you would be safe and able to do what you feel like you should be able to do in this body. Hmm.

So, the world has a chronic condition with clear and not so clear management tasks, and like any chronic condition, people are managing it in a host of different ways. And, like I’m experiencing with diabetes, the process of finding normalcy tricks us into thinking things are normal, and we forget about all of the work that we’re doing to get there. Two other things come to mind here – one being a part of Celeste Ng’s book, Little Fires Everywhere, right after Lexie has an abortion and Mia tells her (something like) that she’ll get through it, but it will be something that she always carries with her, informing who she is/her future. I’m also watching Call the Midwife right now, Season 9. In Episode 2, Sister Julienne says something along the lines of (paraphrasing), “So, I have to accept the world the way it is, rather than the way I wish it to be.” Take from these connections what you will. For me, it reminds me that I have accepted diabetes as one of those things that I can’t put down. A good reminder, because it’s easy to forget what we and others are carrying into any new situation – the layers that begin to stack up when we’re all under collective stress. And in this situation, I think, also hearkening to diabetes management, that it’s just about making the next best decision with the information that I have in this moment. Maybe this tiring time is a good reminder, since there are certain things I can’t let go of, to shed some of the burdens that I’ve wrapped diabetes up in, like a need for absolute control or a need to function at a higher capacity, as if it wasn’t any work at all, or shame about the negative emotions that sometimes come along with it. And to remember that while it may be a little heavy at times, carrying it along with me is necessary to get to wherever (and who knows where that is, really) I’m headed next.

The Best Thing About Backpacking: Part 2

A light breeze was rustling the rainfly when we awoke the next morning, but the downpour was over and waves of sunlight rolled past, lighting up our little orange home. I flipped from side to side a couple of times on the hard ground, trying to keep myself from tumbling down the slope. More sleep being evasive, I was eager to start the water heating for the first cup of coffee in the woods – a unique pleasure that combines two of my favorite things into one. I sat up and put on my old pair of backpacking glasses, found my meter case safely stashed in a plastic bag, and checked my blood sugar. 160 mg/dl – a little high. This was, I thought, to be expected, since I was 137 when I went to bed and I’d cut my Lantus dose by half in preparation for the day of hiking. Better than fighting lows all day, I thought. I unzipped the soaked rainfly which now clung to the tent after its stick stake had crumbled and given way overnight. I managed to haul myself and my pack out from under it and stumble into the bramble patch that we’d appropriated in the night. Ahead of me, a few short oak trees canopied blueberry bushes and huge ferns. Further, at the border where the land turned steeper, big Balsam fir trees spread their evergreen branches into regal teepees. To the right, mountain after soft mountain, rolling in the Virginia way. Behind me, a taller peak with a bright green bald was dotted with what could have been nothing else but a herd of wild ponies.

Unbeknownst to us, we had set up our camp in paradise. I ran back to the tent and crawled into the deflated vestibule. “It’s so beautiful out here!” I shouted to my slowly stirring companions. “Really?” “Oh yeah?” I had already run back outside. The Navigator unzipped the trail side door of the tent, just in time to say hello to a pair of early morning hikers. Also unbeknownst, we had set up our camp at most 10 feet from the Appalachian Trail. In the night, in the rain, it had felt like we were far from the pedestrian thoroughfare. This was an accident of minor importance though. We set up our first breakfast on a small rock to enjoy the views of ponies and passersby. I took about half my normal dose of Novolog to go with a higher carb breakfast than usual and halved my morning Lantus dose (I’m on a split Lantus regimen right now) once again, to set myself up for a day with less lows.

From there the skies just got bluer, in every way. After we’d retrieved our wet clothes from the branches we’d decorated with them, we set off again, this time North on the AT, to begin our ‘loop.’ Within moments we stumbled upon this scene:

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Unlike my last eager venture to Grayson Highlands, I decided that this time I would allow the ponies to come to me if they wanted, but I would not approach them first. Luckily this worked out just fine. They were very friendly. They also seemed intrigued by my hiking poles (just another reason among the many to carry hiking poles).

Sometime later, we said goodbye to the ponies and continued on our way. Light clouds dappled the sky and the colors around us shone in response – bright greens, sunset oranges from the just-past blossoms of the wild, fire azalea bushes. It was slow going because we had to keep stopping to greet and photograph every pony in the area. We could probably provide a pony census to Virginia if it was ever needed. And just when we thought ponies had come to rule the Highlands’ ecosystem, we happened upon…

 

these lovely (and somewhat intimidating) ladies. They were lunching on a high mountain pasture, so we decided to as well. For the first few minutes of lunch I fed the low blood sugar that had crept over me as I gazed out over the 360 degree views in a partial daze. It seems like for those first few hours of backpacking I can’t ever eat enough to keep my blood sugar up. I slowly came back to our beautiful reality while Raindancer, who had quickly become comfortable with the herd, fell asleep for a 15-minute nap.

Somewhere before or after lunch the trail took us over a little stream and we stopped to refill our Nalgenes. Hiking/life in general with diabetes requires a lot of water. I recently learned (remember this for your next trivia night) that diabetes comes from the Latin for: “It has to flow” (I know that clinically this is not a good thing, but philosophically I really dig that slogan). So anyway we got out our Aquamira and engaged in the process of readying our water. In life, I’m not always patient with the process, but there’s something about the process of purifying water with Aquamira that I love. Maybe this is part of ‘the best thing’ about backpacking – engaging deeply with the process of getting where you want to go.

Sometime around 7 pm we made it to a crossroads, literally and figuratively. We needed more water, we had reached a large boulder that supposedly offered good views, and we were tired. We decided to set up camp and go in search of water, rumored to be just around the bend, after eating dinner. Prior to eating dinner though, we ascended the curved face of the boulder and were met with a literally breathtaking view. You hear people say things like, “she looked breathtaking,” or “wow, this sunset is breathtaking,” but if something is really breathtaking you can’t speak because you are gasping. And that’s how this view was – like, “Ahh!” So beautiful, so unexpected. The sea of clouds had parted and the mountains were everywhere. Although I’ve grown to love the Piedmont of NC, views like this remind me that there’s just nothing like having your breath seized by the mountains. Could this be the best thing about backpacking?

Minutes later, I had wondered if perhaps tearing into a tortilla bowl of beans, tofu, cheese, and avocado as you stretch your tired legs out on the bare ground was perhaps the best thing. There’s nothing like eating dinner in the woods when you’re really tired after a day of hiking. Also, here’s where I’ll make my plug for never going backpacking without hot sauce – it’s worth the weight. I carry mine in a small Tupperware given to me by none other than the Navigator, who understands my love of sauces. It’s very lightweight and a huge improvement over the whole glass bottle of Cholula I carried last time I was in Grayson Highlands.

The day was perfect – magical in every way, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that the night sky would have been perfectly clear, illuminated only by the pinpricks of a million tiny blazes of light. Why should we have been shocked that the ground flickered with the slow awakening of mountain fireflies, who move with more direction and purpose than the rapidly flitting lowlanders? And yet still, with stars above and around us, we stood mesmerized. I’m all about favorites, ultimates, zeniths, etc., and so I could say that if there was a thing that was best about backpacking, it had to be this mountain field under the cover of darkness – air the definition of fresh, a comforting silence filling the space in between the calls of katydids and click-click of bat wings.

But, I just can’t say that. In fact, no one of the miracles of the day could take the title of ‘best thing.’ To categorize our time would have been to leave out the process, the parts of sum; to forget that each moment was a combination of feeling connected to the Earth and to each other. Perhaps, if I want to answer my friend’s question, I’ll land on connection as the best thing about backpacking. It’s different every time, but it happens, somewhere in between bailing water out of the tent with your bandana, spotting a speckled salamander under an old log, and helping each other find the trail.

A quick acknowledgement and plug for the amazing blog of Hiking Bill. He provides in-depth descriptions of many hikes in the Southern Appalachians and includes helpful ‘hike planners’ at the end. 

You can find his description of the Pine Mtn/AT Loop that we used to plan our route here.

The Best Thing About Backpacking: Part 1

Last night, as we were standing in the kitchen, my roommate and friend asked me what it is about backpacking that I love so much – “You know, like what’s the best thing about it.” It was a good question; I had been talking about how usually, the day after a weekend of hiking and sleeping in the woods, I get back and feel elated for the first half of a day and then grumpy and disoriented for the second. It’s like I’m coming down from the extra endorphins my body makes when I’m frolicking in the mountains. I thought back over the past weekend, starting with the first moment, in order to answer her question.

It was around 9:40 pm this past Friday night when two of my dearest friends and I started our weekend hike. This is by far the latest I’ve ever started a backpacking trip, and I both do and don’t recommend it. I don’t recommend it because navigating in the dark, even with headlamps, is a little trickier, and I do because experiencing the woods at night and getting in touch with the feeling of the ground under your feet so quickly, immerses you immediately in the experience. We planned to hike about 2 miles, half of that headed South on the AT, before resting for the night. Along the way, as I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months and who now I could only see via the narrow light of my headlamp, a moth flew down my throat. If you’ve ever been around anyone who this has happened to and you think their coughing seems a little excessive, as if they are just trying to be dramatic, I beg you to think again. This is one of those unique experiences of discomfort that can’t really be compared to anything else. In fact, I couldn’t shake the physio- or psychological trauma of swallowing that little bug until the next morning, its memory eclipsed by the pounding rainstorm we weathered overnight.

It was around 10:20 pm, perhaps five minutes after the swallowing and two minutes after one of my friends made a comment about how glad she was that it wasn’t raining, that the droplets began to lightly fall. At first it felt nice – even though we’d driven North and the air had cooled some from our sticky Triangle, NC climate, hiking had heated us up fast. After the light sprinkle turned steady though, we remembered that there was every chance that the campsites we were searching for weren’t going to be marked with neon signs. At that point we started looking for shelter. We had passed a couple of grassy clearings a few yards back, so we turned around. I headed down a narrow deer (or pony) trail to look for a spot, my friends following. We came to nothing, at least nothing good for sleeping, and I pivoted to head back to whence we’d came. Promptly, one of my friends who I’ll call ‘the Navigator’, alerted me that I was headed off in some random direction that was most certainly not the one we’d come from. This would happen at least 8 more times over the course of barely two days. No one would ever call me the Navigator, nor should they, which is one of the many reasons why I consider backpacking a team sport.

Back on the AT, another deer trail caught my eye, this time leading to a scrubby little oak tree, its branches spreading into an umbrella-like canopy. “Here’s a spot,” I shouted. My friends followed, but when they saw the tiny clearing surrounded by blackberry brambles, they looked skeptical. It was not the best spot ever, but the ground was flat-ish, the tree offered some protection but was not by any means taller than the rest, and it was now pouring. We quickly threw down the tarp and set up the tent, just to realize that the tent stakes were missing.

After finding some sufficiently dry sticks and jamming them into the ground to keep the rainfly off of the tent, we crawled inside. The Navigator was hastily bailing water from her side of the tent which had turned into a puddle over the past three minutes. We realized that the rainfly was sitting on the tent and causing water to pool up and drip inside, so the Navigator suggested that we tie a ‘sky hook’ to keep it off, which basically means tying a rope from the rainfly to a neighboring tree to create a canopy. While the Navigator bailed, my other friend, who I’ll call ‘Raindancer’ and I, leapt outside to tie the hook. At this point we were completely soaked and thoroughly scratched by the bramble we had pitched our tent in, but we reentered the tent victorious to find that Navigator had mostly dried the floor with her bandana.

That evening, as our bodies held the tent down, the long arms of Hurricane Cindy swept gales around us. The rain thumped down and the wind rattled our little tarpaulin home. I closed my eyes, smiled, and fell into an intermittent sleep.

Was the best thing about backpacking swallowing a bug? No, I thought. Was it getting lost down a deer trail within less than an hour of starting the trip? No, I thought. How about sleeping in damp socks, on a slight slope, in the pounding rain? Surely, this couldn’t be it. I’d have to keep retracing our tracks to figure it out.

To be continued…DSCN3619.JPG