Giving Thanks for Places Like Heaven and Hell

This has been my home for the past two weeks. I am surrounded by some of the most beautiful views of bluffs, mesas, striated rock of all the colors in an artist palette that change hourly with the angle of the sun. I have only visited places like this in the past while on vacation, usually paying $100 per night for the privilege of “A Room with a View.” So to be able to call a place such as this “home” for the past two weeks has just been a little slice of heaven. I have much to be thankful for on this day!boondocking spot IMG_2498 IMG_2503

I am also feeling a great sense of appreciation for the friendships I have made this year. As a self-proclaimed “loner” and an introvert, this traveling community has been the greatest surprise about this lifestyle. I have come to appreciate the types of friendships that develop among fellow full and part timers. Because of the nomadic lifestyle, there is no time for formalities. No expectations or conditions to meet. Just coming together with like minded people for pure, unadulterated fun for however long it lasts, knowing the course of our lives can be altered as little or as much as the desire dictates. This to me is the true sense of “freedom” that I have longed for all my life.

I have been accused of being a “Pollyanna” in the past, only talking about the positive aspects of this stripped down, simplified, nomadic lifestyle. But I join the ranks of so many in saying, “My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.” However, as one who started at 58, I will also say, I am grateful I started when I did, as the past two years have been among the most rewarding in my life this far.

And while on the subject of “Giving Thanks,” this is an every day practice for me, as Mom instilled at a very young age, “Health is Wealth!” I have friends and family who are less fortunate, and I trust their bodies are well on the mend, and life will taste even sweeter as a result.

As one who enjoys being alone, I have spent the past 10 Thanksgiving holidays in solitude. The four day weekend has always been a blessed relief from clients, bosses, co-workers, and the mayhem that came with a very “high voltage” job. However, on the heels of my recent retirement, those elements have been removed from my life, so I seem to be enjoying “community” more than I ever have before.

I have been invited to the “Thanksgiving Feast” by my hiking buddies, Mark and Bobbie, and the Souva family, John Jr, Ellen, and John III. I have graciously accepted their invite, and am looking forward to the fellowship. And the pie. ;-)

I wish you all a wonderful day full of heavenly smells from the kitchen, laughter from those you love, and the promise of freedom to live your life in the way that makes your heart sing.

And now, some pictures of a heavenly hike from a place called “Hell Hole.” Which turned out to be anything but…

“Hell Hole” Hike, near St. George, Utah

Forward March to Hell Hole!

Forward March to Hell Hole!

Mark picks out his favorite tee shirt colors from the sage bushes...

Mark picks out his favorite tee shirt colors from the sage bushes…

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John and Ellen Souva, our hiking companions.

John and Ellen Souva, our hiking companions.

Reflections from Hell Hole

Reflections from Hell Hole

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That Bobbie is relentless!

That Bobbie is relentless!

A Precarious Position

As much as I enjoy hiking solo, you would also think I would enjoy being out front during some of the group hikes.  After all, how does the saying go?  “Unless you are the lead dog, the scenery never changes?”   But instead, I always gravitate toward the rear.  This has not only to do with still struggling to reach the same fitness level as my fellow hikers, but I often times feel leery to step out front and lead because of my lack of confidence in my navigation skills. I have reason enough to doubt myself…

Tripod Rock, Exhibit 1

Tripod Rock, Exhibit 1

Tripod Rock, Exhibit 2

Tripod Rock, Exhibit 2

It is the summer of 1996, and I am on my third trip down to the Florida aquifer to dive in the miles of underground water-filled labyrinth of a cave system that is the source for most of Florida’s fresh water.  I have completed my NSSCDS certification (National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section) as a certified Cave Diver, which is about the most rigorous training I have ever undergone in my life! Despite the fact that I am very close friends with my dive instructor, he cut me no slack.   I now have about 100 cave dives under my belt, considered to be a fairly experienced cave diver.

I am on this trip with a group – two instructors, and two other experienced cave divers, one of which is an instructor in training. We have all been diving together on numerous dives, and are comfortable with each others skill level, dive the same equipment for redundancy, and are in synch with our underwater communications.

The two instructors are teaching a class today, so it will be Barney (instructor in training) JD (least experienced of the three,) and yours truly on a pleasure dive.

There are many hard and fast rules in the sport of cave diving, where your ability to problem-solve underwater is vital, otherwise it can mean certain death. Everything is redundant in threes – three lights, three reels, and we dive the “rule of thirds.” A third of your air used in, a third out, and a third saved for emergencies. Half a mile underground, you cannot bolt to the surface for help.

The first of these rules is “Always run a continuous guideline to the cave opening.” But today, we are diving Cow Spring. It is one of the more pristine caves in the area, and considered “advanced.” For this reason, there is no guideline to the surface to discourage the less experienced from entering. Instead, the continuous guideline begins 100 feet inside the cave passage, not visible from the cave opening. This is the only exception to the rule I have ever seen. The premise is that the divers should carry a “jump reel” and tie off to the main line, running a jump line to temporarily connect the cave entrance/exit to the permanent line. We discuss this before the dive, and agree that since we can see the ambient light of the exit from the end of the permanent line, we will not run the jump reel. (An arrogant violation of Rule #1.)

When you dive with more than two divers into a cave system, the least experienced diver, in this case, JD, takes the middle position. The most experienced, Barney, will lead the dive. As the second most experienced diver, I will take the rear position. When it is time to turn the dive, everyone just does an “about face” to avoid disturbing the cake-flour like silt on the floor of the cave, and the position on the line is reversed. I will be leading the dive out of the cave, something I have done dozens of times. Just never in Cow Spring.

The dive has gone very well, and we have reached our turning point. The first person to reach a third of their air turns the dive, and JD has signaled time to turn. I am now in the lead, and we are nearing the exit.

We reach the point where the permanent line ends, and I start the unguided exit. There is a small alcove right near the mouth of the cave. A “pocket” in the rock wall, if you will. Without a guideline, I stray too far off course toward this alcove, and the others follow me. I quickly realize that I am off course within a couple of fin strokes. I reverse my position and signal to turn around by circling my upright index finger. But it is too late. JD and Barney have followed me into the small alcove. At this point, JD begins to panic, and in trying to turn around, he thrashes about and silts up the entire alcove. Within 3 seconds, we have gone from gin-clear water to being submersed in whole milk. I can’t even see my gauges, let alone the other two divers.

At this point, I hear my breath quicken. My throat tightens, as I try to read my gauge. I can now hear my heart pounding in my ears. If we can just get calm and not panic, we have enough air to wait for 5 minutes until the silt clears. But JD begins thrashing about, and he has wedged himself between me and the exit. I am trapped, and cannot even communicate with either he or Barney. As I strain to steady my rapid, raspy, shallow breathing, I have that thought flash through my head…”So this is how it ends, huh? I always wondered…I am so sorry, Mom!”

Eventually, Barney finds the exit and is able to signal with his light through the milky white silt-out for JD to follow toward the opening. I am then able to leave the small alcove and follow the light to the opening. We exit the cave and drop our regulators from our mouths while removing our masks. No one says anything for a good 5 minutes after we exit the water. We are all too scared shitless to speak.

Once we get back to the hotel and my dear friend Fitz, my instructor hears what has happened, I get the ass-chewing of a lifetime. I can still see his red face as he yells at me. “Never. NEVER! Break the rules! And NEVER lead others into uncertainty!”

I learned a lot of lessons on this dive. Rules in a cave where one mistake can mean certain death are NEVER to be broken, no matter what the experience level. Never lose sight of the permanent line. Turn around and look behind you frequently as the cave looks much different going the opposite direction. And first and foremost? “Never lead others into uncertainty.”

Not only did I come close to sealing my own fate that day, I also endangered the lives of two loving friends, simply by leading myself…and others…into uncertainty.

With “the gang’s” impending departure date looming on the calendar, I will soon once again be a solo act.  Therefore I have decided it is time to purchase a hand-held GPS…Any recommendations?

Trail to Tripod Rocks, Zion National Park

Mark's podium

Mark’s podium

Getting into Postcard Position

Getting into Postcard Position

White sandstone looks like we are skiing down snow!

White sandstone looks like we are skiing down snow!

Heard frequently along the trail, "Bobbie!?  My shoe's untied!"

Heard frequently along the trail, “Bobbie!? My shoe’s untied!”

What goes down, must go back up!

What goes down, must go back up!

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Bobbie and Peterman...waiting for the rock to fall.

Bobbie and Peterman…waiting for the rock to fall.

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I think she looks like Katharine from "The English Patient" here.

I think she looks like Katharine from “The English Patient” here.

Who's King of the Hill now, boyz?

Who’s King of the Hill now, boyz?

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A Narrow Fit

Imagine if you will the high anxiety that surrounds hiking Zion’s Narrows Canyon.  It is one of the most highly sought after hikes in the park, second only to the steeper, higher Angel’s Landing.    One must brave wading through a flowing, 46 degree river of varying depths, maintain balance across bowling-ball-shaped rocks, all while protecting precious cargo like cameras and vital organs. Continue reading

Exploring Many Pools….and Beyond

I have been wondering lately, what is the driving force behind the impulse to explore? Curiosity? Restlessness? Risk Taking? What is behind that urge to leave the creature comforts of a warm rig and comfortable lounge chair to go to such remote places for the sake of exploration? And why do some feel the call, and not others? What prompts that primal urge to push beyond the boundaries for the sake of seeing what is there? Why is finding the end of an unmarked trail as challenging yet satisfying for some as getting the last bit of peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar is for others? Continue reading

A Day in the Life – Doing the Wash

Coalpits Wash, that is!  Here’s how it goes down while hiking with the Red Rocks gang:

A little after dark, an email pops up from one of the members of “the gang.” There is an informal distribution list, but the email most typically comes from Gayle, Mark, or Bobbie (by proxy from Mark) because they are the “ring leaders” by default. Some might say the “pushers” to those of us neophytes who have just become hooked on their drug of choice, Red Rock Dust. “Who’s up for a hike tomorrow?” (“Candy, little girl??”) Continue reading

Reunited and it Feels So Good…

I must be candid in saying my world has felt a bit more “wobbly” than I expected after retirement.   Some say this is to be expected, but I personally didn’t expect it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am having the time of my life.  But I just keep having this looming feeling over me, like “Vacation is gonna be over soon, Suzanne…and THEN what?”   I trust it will pass.  ;-)

After my restoration and rejuvenation at the lovely little Snow Canyon and Red Mountain Day Spa, the axis of my universe is steadied once more, and I am eager to meet up with the Red Rocks Gang once again, now in Zion National Park.   Continue reading

Snow Canyon, Thou Restoreth My Soul…

We all have that “go to” place when our soul needs nourishing.  A place where we can seek solace.  Regain our center.   Connect to whatever form of source that makes our heart sing.  For some, it may be a favorite chair with a cup of tea.  For others, a building with a steeple on top.  And for yet others, the majestic mountains of Zion National Park.

Since I first visited Snow Canyon State Park outside of St George, UT back in 2006, it felt like nourishment for my soul.  Continue reading

And Now! The Star of Our Show…

No question about it, there is a “star attraction” in Arches National Park. In fact, it has achieved downright rock star status. Not only does it have its own dedicated trail, but two overlooks as well! It graces the Utah license plate, was once featured on a postage stamp, and was a milestone on the 2002 Olympic torch route. Rock star, indeed! Continue reading