Thigh High City, Colorado 4/20/09

Dear loyal blog readers,

As life reaches stability since Ana’s second transplant, this blog is ending up to be a travel journal documenting our continuing book touring. Thank God, that’s all we have to write about!

Well, we did it again. Ana and I just returned from another trip to give a talk about our book, in Denver, Colorado. We left after Ana’s work on Wednesday, arrived late and rented a… God-forgive… SUV! It was the same cost as an economy car. With the weather report, we knew we needed back up for our determined goal to go to Rocky Mountain National Park.

On Thursday, amidst cold rain, we met up with two good friends from the Transplant Games, both CF double lungers, both medal winners. We tested our CF appetites at a local burger joint. I think I consumed a 4000 calorie buffalo burger. We laughed and chatted about our medical histories, our goals, our day to day life. J.W. is buying a home, thinking about marriage and writing a book; M.P. is considering work and training again after a tough year last year. There’s also dating.  Oh, how transplants allow us to keep on living, ordinary, good stuff, but just plain ol’ living. Like how Ana and I then went to a mall afterwards and wandered for 2 hours, looking for the right bargain outfits, to no avail.

We arrived at the monumental Children’s Hospital of Denver, which looks like a combo between a Vegas casino or a Dubai four-star hotel. This massive structure stood out from the freeway and ended up being 9 stories of exclusively pediatric care. This makes every colorful, clean, welcoming children’s hospital we’ve been to look like a sand castle! We nervously prepared for our talk, not sure what kind of crowd we’d draw on this cloudy, rainy, cold evening. Fortunately, JW and MP attended, so at least we knew two would be there! Gradually, a crowd of 50-60 developed outside the auditorium, enjoying yummy BJ’s pizza dinner provided by a drug rep sponsor (oh, the benefits of drug company money!).

 At 7pm, Ana and I gave our usual one hour talk. The amazing Dr. Frank Accurso, extremely famous in the CF community, introduced us, and we felt very small but honored. This time we didn’t bicker beforehand, we felt grounded in what we wanted to say with anecdotes and humor. We transitioned smoothly and the audience reacted- with nods, laughter and tears. Tears make us feel successful, because we let the audience express the raw emotion of CF that comes out by listening to other CF stories. It is a powerful feeling. The only sadness was the lack of CF patients present due to cross infection rules. I hate this part of this disease. After the talk, we received kind positive comments and in exchange gave signed books for each family, thanks to a grant we secured. We spread out the evening, and MP, JW, Ana, me, and another staffer with CF hung out in the lobby, not wanting to say goodbye. We were all 30-something, happy, excited, ambitious, diabetic, with many stories to share. The bond was immediate and made me feel so grateful to have CF.

Ana and I went to Village Inn for a second dinner, feeling hungry after only one piece of pizza prior to our talk. Our waitress had missing teeth and her scratchy voice screamed ’smoker’. Nonetheless, we gobbled up our omelette and pancakes, head back to our cheap hotel in the rain and went to bed.

On Friday, we woke up to a blanket of white outside. We grabbed two extra bagels from the low end breakfast buffet and made tuna sandwiches in our room, before driving the tank -like car in the snow to the Rockies. We were so excited but cautiously drove 40mph on the I-25 to Longmont, then head northwest to the park. The snow was coming down fast and furiously. Deep snow started to blanket the shoulders and eventually we were in a winter wonderland. I turned the SUV knob to 4WD and felt confidence- oh, the right car at the right time, no matter how much gas it uses…. As we drove towards the entrance in good time, we saw the sign to “Rocky Mountain National Park”. We squealed with delight at a chance to relive a Stenzel tradition of taking a photo in front of the sign. I pulled the Suburban to the side of the road, and then… shit. We went a little too deep in the snow and the wheels spun. We got stuck. Damn! California drivers! Nonetheless, we ran out to the sign, took pictures in the flurry, looking happy and eager. Then we went back to the car, donned our gloves and crawled under the car and began digging furiously with our hands to make a path for the car. Ana worked on the right side; I worked on the left, watching for cars, of which there were none, because what idiots would come to the National Park in a blizzard? Well, as a team, we worked efficiently, and in no time, I plopped into the driver’s seat, floored the gas, and pulled the tank out of the deep snow. As we like to say, “With God, and a twin, all things are possible.”

We soon learned the park was closed because of worsening snow conditions. Bummer! Instead, I got my national park passport stamped at the Visitor’s Center, then we rented snowshoes, checked into a Comfort Inn in Estes Park, piled on every layer of warmth possible, and then snowshoed around the adjacent Estes Park. After about 100 feet, we decided it was easier to walk the snowy path, so that’s what we did, for the next 3 hours. We walked about 4 miles around the lake, with minor detours as the snow blocked the path. It was unimaginable now, here in California where today was 80 degrees, but in Estes Park it was 30 degrees with a constant flow of beautiful white snowflakes. Parts of the lake were frozen over, with ambitious Canadian geese flying around the water. We saw one sturdy fisherman standing, waist-deep, near the shore, casting his rod with a hypnotic rhythm. My heart swelled; I admire the solitary man on a mission. 

We returned to the warm hotel with red cheeks and tired legs, refreshed by the cold.   I dared get back into the SUV and drive on worsened roads to grab dinner at one of the few restaurants open. The downtown Estes Park was abandoned, except for one jewelry store. Ana and I had to shop; it’s in our genes; so we spent 1 hour in there as it darkened outside. We got cheap jewelry, probably made in China, that will hopefully make us look our age or older. We wanted to go to a bar down the road playing live bluegrass, but after a little drive in the dark, totally white, slippery roads, I gave up and head back to the hotel.

On Saturday, Ana and I woke up again, to lighter but steady snow. We donned our winter gear again, made tuna sandwiches, and checked out of the hotel. If the park was closed again, we’d head south to Boulder. But luckily, the roads had been plowed, and we entered the park! We head down the road, passing a totally white, flat meadow. Dad and I had walked across this meadow, Moraine Park, in September ‘08, and I remembered tall grass, sporadic wildflowers, a flowing creek, and fly fishermen all over. Now, the silent meadow was brought to life only by the herds of elk huddled around pine trees and willow bushes.  We parked the car at a Park and Ride, where the road was no longer plowed. There were about 4 cars and out came male after male. We all donned our snowshoes. At 11AM, Ana and I were the second ones on the trail. We followed two guys who seemed to know where they were going. The trail was 1.5 miles to Bierstadt Lake, and soon we found it was straight uphill. Luckily the guys ahead of us broke the trail, but it was breathlessly brutal. The elevation at the parking lot was 8600, and I swear we went higher and higher. I peeled one layer after another, and soon was sweating, as Andrew would say, ’like a whore in church.’ As we climbed straight uphill, we saw orange tags on the trees, marking the trail. Eventually, we lost sight of those tags, but followed the path of the guys ahead of us.  After about 1 1/2 hours, the trail looped and came back to the old tracks. It seemed our trusty guys ahead didn’t know where they were going! We hemmed and hawed, debated with the fellows about where they’d go, and then decided to hike back down to the last orange tag and look for the next one more carefully. The two guys parted on their own, and Ana and I enjoyed a respite of downhill. The trouble came when we found the orange tag, spotted a subtle one on a tree in the distance, and then had to break our own trail through the 36 inches of snow that had fallen the night before. Each time we stepped with the snowshoe, we sank about 2 feet, and the snow came up to our thighs. Walking in this soft snow was like lunges, thigh-master, and stadium stairs, all with the breathlessness of CF lung disease. It was soooo hard! We stepped five or six paces at a time, rested to breathe, then continued. I wondered what our 02 saturations were. There were plenty of ‘holy shits’ and ‘oh my god’s’ along the way. Soon our panting was the only sound in the forest except for our spatters on the snow. The trail lead uphill, over a ridge. The snow was melting quickly, and every now and then a shower of snow from the trees above would fall on us. The warmer it got, the deeper the snow. Meanwhile, a light snow continued to fall, on and off. We could not conversate, just march. Finally, I broke the silence.

 ”Three words.” Pant. Pant.

“Leg cramp tonight.”

Ana responded, “Two words.” Breath. Breath.

“Ass kicker.”

We laughed. I loved Ana’s feistiness. That’s what got her from her breathlessness from end-stage rejection to her breathlessness from snowshoeing in the Rockies.

But with Ana, we were ‘mutch’ or mutual. there was no whining, no dissonance, no awkwardness, no disagreement about what to do next, just complete and total compatibility. There was unspoken agreement that we had to keep going. Of course, Ana compared that I was stronger. Yeah, maybe, but I wondered what other double-double lung transplantee could do this.

Eventually our breaking trail led to a broken trail, so we think we met up with the trail of the guys from before.  It was indeed easier to walk in someone else’s trail, except this trail just kept going and going and going, uphill. It was tortuous. “How much longer?” went over and over in my head. Ana said she was losing it. This sucked. It neared misery. But what should we do? Give up? Where’s that damn lake anyway? How long is 1.5 miles anyway? I swore it was just around the corner. But with pouring sweat for 3 hours, no breaks for food, we were depleted. Instead of “I can’t”, we bargained, “Let’s just take a break.” I patted a flat area of snow with my snowshoes, laid down my gortex rainjacket, and sat down with an “Ahhhhh.” I was hoping someone would come down the trail to tell us how much further… but noone did.  I gobbled up the best tasting tuna sandwich and granola bar I ever tasted as I started to shiver. Within ten minutes, we had to get up and keep moving. Sweat and snow don’t go well together.

We made a deal to go 15 more minutes. I swore the lake was around the corner, but as usual, the trail just kept going and going, with a steady incline. If only we had a GPS… oh, but that’s so unnatural. Besides, the thrill is the process not the product. Or do you say the thrill is the journey and not the destination… You know what I mean, but the thrill had diminished 3 hours ago. Finally, finally, finally, I say, (well, within 15 minutes), we heard voices in the distance and saw a clearing in the forest. We saw a group of about ten, including the two guys we had followed earlier. They greeted us with ‘You made it’! and gave us a hard time for not trusting them. We got even by asking them to take our photos.  The vast frozen Bierstadt Lake was peaceful and still. The white table top seemed to welcome risk-taking snowshoers over the illusion of a meadow. The closer we approached to the flat of the lake, the deeper the snow. Instead, we admired from a distance. The snow had stopped, the mist was lifting, and for the first time since we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park, we saw a mountain sillouette in the distance. Hallelujah.

We eagerly marched back down the mountain, and arrived at the car by 4pm. A five hour snowshoe expedition! (Watch, we come back in the summer and this hike will take less than an hour). God seems to always be on our side, and with the warming weather the roads had been opened and plowed. We drove to Bear Lake, 8900 feet, where Dad and I had started our backcountry hiking last September. Now, the signs were deep in snow and nothing looked familiar. We left the snowshoes in the car, and walked in thigh-deep snow towards the vicinity of the lake. Again, we saw a meadow of white flatness- completely lifeless compared to the summer, when it was sprawling with tourists. We climbed back into the monster truck and head to Sprague Lake for more site-seeing. I was eager to snowshoe again but my muscles were not, nor was Ana. We climbed over a fence to walk toward Sprague Lake. This manicured, handicapped accessible trail was totally hidden in deep snow. We snapped photos and head back to town. With soaking cold feet, we barely stopped to shop, except for the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. We knew it was a tourist trap but “we have to, it’s the original…” Yeah, right. We bought our obligatory caramel apple, a vacation treat, and shopped briefly. I could take the numb toes no longer and begged to take out pizza. We rushed to our hotel, checked in again, and tore off our wet socks as soon as we entered our room. We gobbled up hot, melted pizza, and lay lifeless on the beds by 9pm. Then we got drawn in by the last episode of “Little House on the Prairie”, a real edge-of-the-seat drama. There was no way- NO WAY- our men would have tolerated a day like today. Especially the ending.

Little House kept us up til 11am, whereby we were too tired to sleep. We tossed and turned, giggling and loving each other until we drifted asleep as much as our achiness would allow.

On Sunday morning, we awoke to a sliver of sunshine coming through the shades. It was 6:45am and we jumped out of bed, wobbled, and got ready to hit the snow. By 8:35AM, we arrived at the highest point of Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the park at its highest point, 12,000 feet (Dad and I were there last summer), but this time it was closed off around 9000 feet. We broke trail again in the thick snow. One leg after another, we walked higher and higher up the road. After 15 minutes, my mind repeated, “How much longer? How much longer?” as we both panted heavily. We’d take turns breaking the trail, because it was such hard work. Thank God for having a trail assistant! Again, the layers came off, the sweat dripped into the eyes. But this time, we were afforded stunning views of perfectly white mountaintops, endless white and green trees in the distance against a backdrop of bright blue sky. We saw the meadows below that looked like clean sheets on a bed, with only a black snake squirming through it- the road. The sun on the snow was blinding, but the snow glistened like sparkly diamonds. What eye candy for Californians!

After 45 minutes, we turned back regretfully, but our muscles were relieved. We rushed back to return the snowshoes, stop at the visitor center again for some souvenirs and toilet, and then made one more 20 minute stop at the shops where Ana got some (dry) socks. At 11:45 AM, I drove out of a perfect park on finally a perfect day, wishing it didn’t have to end. 

The anticipated ski traffic was no where to be found. I stopped leisurely to take photos and to buy a homemade cherry pie at a tourist trap.  In less than 2 hours we were close to Denver. Since we couldn’t imagine waiting aimlessly at the airport for our 5pm flight, we took a detour and drove to Boulder. We went to Chautauqua Park and spent only 15 minutes walking up to the Flatirons, an interesting rock formation in the mountains. The hills were covered in thin snow, but it was warm and people walked around in short sleeves. What a brief cold spell- welcome to Spring. Again, I remembered this location fondly as I had been here last summer with a good friend.

We rushed to the airport, filled the enormous tank of this gas-guzzler ($50 for 3/4 tank!), and met up with our brother, who had come to Colorado to ski at Vail this weekend.   I carried on my pie, and made it home to the loving arms of my husband, in time to watch his college friend Victor at 8pm on “The Amazing Race”. From snowshoeing at 9500 feet to cuddling on the couch, with Rupie and Andrew at my side, I ask myself again, why am I so lucky and blessed?

Anyway, this was a very long post. Thank you for your patience. Brevity is my weakness, but with adventures in nature comes a keen awareness to every detail. I aim to pay this close attention to my every day. Now, I’m home resting until Wednesday. I leave on Thursday to Santa Fe for more hiking… but no more snowshoeing, please!

I hope you all are healthy, and dreaming of snow during this West-coast heat wave. Please save water; despite the snow even the Rockies is in a drought. I wish I could share some of my good life with you. Well, only in words for now. Thanks for your friendship.

Keep climbing YOUR mountains, in any season.

Love, Isa

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