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:

DSCN3642

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.

Wild Adventures with Diabetes

Today diabetes took me on a walk. I’ve been a little resentful of diabetes lately. Sometimes it feels like my blood sugar controls every move I make. It decides what I will eat, if I’ll give myself a shot and how much insulin I will take, if I’ll exercise and for how long and how hard, and sometimes even how I feel about myself.

The last few weeks have been so busy and I’m longing for a little break, just a weekend away from everything, blood sugar included. But you know what, there really is no taking a vacation from diabetes. Checking my blood sugar less and loosening some restrictions in my diet might mean that diabetes takes up less of my time for a day or two, but pretty soon, not feeling as good as I could if I was sticking tighter to my ideal range doesn’t feel very luxurious at all.

So today, around 3 pm, when I was supposed to be working on my manuscript and doing other computer-based tasks, I checked my blood sugar and it was 180 mg/dl. I don’t like sitting when my blood sugar is over 150 – it agitates me to know that I could go on a walk or run to bring it down. It also agitates me when I think about how often blood sugar interrupts my plans. I’ve gotten better at choosing my plans over my perfect blood sugar in the past few years, but it’s a Sunday, and despite my agitation, I decided to let diabetes take the reins.

Immediately, driving off into the countryside around Chapel Hill, I was glad that I did. The sun was bright on budding green fields edged by thick stands of trees waving in the breeze. The trail I found was soft, dirt and gravel, easy on the feet. A muddy Piedmont creek ran alongside it. Towering strong-armed beech trees lined the path. And just when I was almost back to my car, I look up ahead on the trail and saw…

photo 1.JPG
My poor photography skills do not do her justice. Also, I was not going to get any closer.

a six foot long Black snake. I was mesmerized. My mind left diabetes and everything else behind, and as she slithered away I felt some real freedom from all of it for the first time in awhile.

 

Choices

On my first day of grad school, my pod alarmed in the middle of an orientation session and I had to rush home, still unsure if the bus I’d chosen was the right one to get me to my apartment. On the way, my iPhone 4 and I struggled with the spotty internet to email my advisor and let her know I wouldn’t be able to meet her – technical difficulties. That’s not really what I told her of course. I explained it all – because you can’t just explain a little bit of diabetes once you get going. It’s hard to just say “My blood sugar was low” or “My insulin pump malfunctioned.” I always feel like I sort of have to justify that statement with, “Oh and I have Type 1 diabetes. And I’m ok – I’ve just got to handle this.” The good-hearted people of the world want to know that you’re ok, which is touching. It can be really hard to give people who want to help and be there for you some reliable protocol to follow, because so much of diabetes is adapting to the moment. So much of it is being in-tune with your own body and responding in what might seem, to an outside audience, like a contradictory way from how you responded before. Sometimes I eat cake, sometimes I don’t. That doesn’t mean that in one situation I’m thinking about diabetes and in the other I’m not. It’s always there, presenting choices or at least weighing in on them.

This post is meandering because my thoughts are meandering right now. If there could be a central theme here, it’s choices and how they fit into our otherwise unpredictable lives. Diabetes reminds me that I make many choices in the day, from how I treat my body to how I communicate my identity, positionality and needs to others. It also reminds me that no matter how fixated we become on one choice or path or reality, our pod could always alarm right in the middle of it and we’d have to respond. This is another diabetes metaphor, but please don’t let that prohibit you from translating it to your own life if you are a person without diabetes (or not, maybe you don’t like metaphors). I’m just grappling with this – the contradiction between writing and reading our lives, both of which (I’m gently arguing), are quite necessary.

Everything in life I ever needed to know…

“I decided many years ago that a high blood sugar does not define me any more than a great blood sugar defines me. For 42 years I have been chasing the perfect blood sugar. It has never happened for more than a minute just the same as the really high ones do not last any longer.”

– Rick Phillips

I want to give a shout out to change. Year after year, change has stood by me. More than that, change even visits me day to day and moment to moment. So here’s to change: a truly dedicated friend.

Obviously, I also want to give a shout out to Rick Phillips, whose response to last week’s question is today’s featured quote. A big thanks to everyone who responded and added to our conversation around high-blood sugar blues and how to pick yourself up from them. Rick’s quote jumped out at me because of its utility for maintaining perspective as we manage (versus ‘control’) blood sugar and also as we manage (versus ‘control’) life. Last week I was talking to a fellow graduate student, job seeker and swimmer in the sea of uncertainty at a social for public healthers in my program. She mentioned that it’s taken her a year and a half to feel like she’s truly gotten her footing here and now it may be time to shift everything once again, perhaps even in a totally new place. I thought of Rick’s quote – how many ladders of learning and accomplishments and life experiences do we climb up, only to reach the end and realize we’ve moved not to a new plateau of constancy, but simply on to the next challenge? That sounds a little pessimistic I think, but it’s not intended to. Blood sugar management from the accept and let go perspective can sound a little pessimistic to – like, no matter how hard I try, even if I check my blood sugar and get that magic 90 mg/dl, it’s already changing, I can’t hold on to it. But! BUT! In truth, this is a comfort too. This wisdom of letting go is so helpful in diabetes and in life, because it directs us back to the process, not the product.

I think I’d like to make one of those posters like you see on the wall of dentist’s offices: ‘Everything in life I need to know I learned in kindergarten,’ except it would say: ‘Everything in life I need to know I learned from diabetes.’ That’s a little over-simplified though. In truth, not knowing has led me towards these conversations with friends and others that help me to break free from dichotomous thinking and see that there are ways of seeing and thinking about challenges that I have not even considered yet, which is itself a comforting thought.

So change, you may be a wildcard, the guest who comes to the party in sequins, carrying a jello-cake and two days early – but, you might as well come in.

My New Favorite Diabetes “Free Food”

I want to start off by saying that I’ve never liked the term “free food,” whether that refers to an edible’s effect on diabetes management, weight, or anything else one might be concerned with. That disclaimer aside, I use the term to mean a food I can eat without immediately and involuntarily thinking about how it will eventually raise my blood glucose, even if only slightly. The list contains beverages such as water, tea, and coffee (although some people say caffeine has a noticeable effect on their bg, it does not seem to raise mine). I do not add anything to my coffee and put only a splash of unsweetened almond milk in my tea.

Which leads me to my newest craze, and revolution, inspired by a friend of mine who does not have diabetes, but who calls this his, “bedtime drink.”

Whole Foods Brand Unsweetened Almond Milk, heated.

It’s just that simple.

I heat it until it’s almost boiling, like as hot as I would drink tea. If it’s right before bed I have it plain. If it’s earlier in the day I’ll stir in a little bit of unsweetened cocoa (antioxidants!) and then sprinkle, carefully, a dash of cayenne on top.

It’s not a sweet drink, and the carbs are minimal: 2 – 3 grams max. My favorite thing to pair it with, depending on my blood sugar, is 2 blocks of any number of varieties of dark chocolate.

I don’t do the cocoa and cayenne at night because they keep me awake. Also, for people who are sensitive to spice, cayenne can be hard on the stomach. After working at an Indian restaurant for two years and learning to enjoy vindaloo sauce, I learned to love spicy.

Lest you be concerned that I’m promo’ing Whole Foods arbitrarily, this brand in particular is my jam because it does not contain carrageenan, which is an additive derived from seaweed that has been linked to cancer in some studies.

Please note (aka Disclaimer #2): I am not a dietician/nutritionist/or otherwise medical expert. My posts are not meant to advise, but rather to simply share my experiences.