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Arthritis and the great outdoors: a Southwestern sojourn.

At one time, I was no stranger to river running, or to most other forms of wilderness travel ... but that was before rheumatoid arthritis squelched both my leisure-time joys and my hopes for an active career with the National Park Service. For the next six years, there were long periods when I could barely walk to the mailbox.

It took time, but eventually the right combination of medication and exercise brought my arthritis under control. I was left with a legacy of lingering pain and some permanent handicaps, but I was in charge again. And I was ready to see what I could still do ! Traditional travel counselors often assume that people with disabilities are content to on cruises or to metropolitan areas. That wasn't for me, however, so I decided to design my own trip.

Although I wasn't ready to try camping, I wanted to spend my vacation outdoors, exploring new places and experiencing the special joys of wilderness solitude. Was that possible for me, a single woman with arthritis? I did know, but I wanted to find out.

I decided to visit the Southwest to see the Grand Canyon, the desert, and the area's variety of national parks and monuments. As my plans for a two-week sojourn solidified, I felt excitement mingled with apprehension. Off to a slow start

The trip got off to an inauspicious beginning. Lost luggage and a delay with the rental car kept me from arriving at the Grand Canyon until after dark. Tired and frustrated, I found the lights and crowds of the lodge overwhelming.

I passed a line of people registering for a trail ride into the canyon, something I dreamed of but didn't dare try. And then my fingers were too stiff to turn the room key in the lock! When I finally crawled into bed, I wondered if I'd made a mistake.

Dawn brought pearly skies and brighter spirits. I got up early enough to leave the crowds behind, rode a special shuttle bus to a remote spot, and spent two solitary hours just ambling along a trail at the rim of the canyon. There were plenty of convenient rocks and fallen trees to rest on when I needed to, and I took great pleasure in just sitting and looking at the delicately shaded gorge spreading before me.

The sun seeped through to my bones as I sat enfolded in the eternal beauty of the panorama. Deep inside I felt the first stirrings of some intense emotions, too long dormant and almost forgotten. Later that morning I purchased a tiny pair of needle-nosed pliers to help me turn the room key, and once more felt ready to face the challenges of solitary travel.

Rising to the challenge

As I visited other park sites in the Southwest, I carefully studied park brochures and trail guides. By choosing trails wisely and making sure to pace myself, I was able to gradually increase the lengths of my walks.

It quickly became obvious that trails marked "easy" were likely to be crowded, and that if I wanted solitude, a short walk on a steeper trail was the best answer. I wandered among cactus and lizards, marveled over magnificent arches and color-banded cliffs, splashed in crystalline creeks, lingered over ancient Indian rock carvings, and listened to the songs and calls of new birds.

By the time I reached Zion National Park, I was feeling confident enough to try what I had bypassed at the Grand Canyon - a trail ride. A park-sanctioned concession company operates horseback trips of varying lengths, and after learning about the rides and what they entailed, I decided to sign up for a three-hour trip.

At the corral, the cowboys asked about each rider's experience with horses. I announced that I had never ridden before and, as I had hoped, was given a placid mare. I was concerned about heaving myself into the saddle, but the cowboy helping me mount was happy to lengthen the stirrup first, so the step up was not so high. He was obviously accustomed to helping greenhorns, and gave me a welcome boost up.

The ride took us on an upward trail that gradually emerged from the canyon's tree line and afforded spectacular views of the walls and formations that had moved early Mormon pioneers to name the area "Zion." A feeling of elation grew within me as I settled into this wonderful mode of wilderness travel.

After so many years of staying indoors - to be out in the sunshine, climbing high and looking across and down at whole worlds! It seemed like a miracle. My mare stumbled once, jarring my knees a bit, but otherwise the pace was sedate and steady. I decided that as long as my bottom hurt worse than any thing else, I was doing just fine ! I can do it ! I have always loved rivers. Certain rivers have a timeless quality that particularly sings to my senses. I knew instinctively that the Colorado would be one of these, and I couldn't leave the Southwest without giving a one-day raft trip a try. Since I knew I wouldn't be able to paddle all day, I carefully studied brochures from several outfitters until I found one that offered non-motorized, guide-powered trips. I signed up for the mildest trip available - described as "splashy." Even so, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get around in a raft, that my stiff fingers wouldn't be able to hold onto anything in the turbulence of rapids, or that I would get wet and chilled and achy half-way through with no way to turn back. None of these happened.

Mild rapids punctuated long stretches of peaceful water. There was lots of time to relax and inhale the spacious, stark beauty of Utah. I listened to our guide talk about the river, about rock formations, and about one-armed John Wesley Powell, the first person ever to lead a boat trip through the unknown chasms of the Grand Canyon.

The sun was hot and eventually the others in my raft decided to go for a swim. For awhile I resisted their invitations to join them. "Warm" is a relative term to a person with arthritis, and I didn't want my joints to lock up in chilling water. I also had real doubts about my ability to haul myself back into the raft afterward.

Finally I succumbed, however, and spent a wonderful half-hour embraced by the river. Lying back on my life jacket, my body was comfortable in the cool water while the sun beat down upon my face and the red cliffs flowed past. Then the good-hearted guide and a couple of my new friends pulled me back into the raft. I had about as much grace as a beached whale, but no one - myself included seemed to mind.

One thing that really made a difference on my raft trip (and at other times during my vacation) was the careful physical conditioning I underwent before leaving home. Working diligently for several months to build up my endurance really made a difference in my mobility and stamina.

In addition to doing my regular exercises, I joined a local Arthritis Foundation exercise class four months before my trip. When I started, I could barely drag myself through the class. By the time I left, I was able to swim six laps. Quite an accomplishment ! A final challenge

Throughout my wandering I had been intrigued by the visible remnants of prehistoric Indian cultures, and one of my last stops was at Mesa Verde National Park. Preserved there are scores of cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi Indians who once populated the area.

The Park Service has done a good job of providing information about sites that can be reached easily, but some of the tours require going up steps or climbing ladders. Had I stopped at Mesa Verde first, I probably would have passed these by. I realized with great pleasure, however, that my self-confidence had grown so much during the trip that I was determined to give them a try.

Steps are among my biggest challenges anytime, so I wasn't sure how I would handle a ladder. As I stood at the bottom, gazing up at 30 feet of rungs and the tantalizing ruins beyond, I wondered again what I had gotten myself into. But I took it slow and steady, gripping the wide rungs easily. I used my strongest knee to lead, and although my knees were a little shaky when I reached the summit, I did so without mishap.

Once within the crumbling walls, I felt the breath of centuries as the cliff's history came alive in my imagination. It was a wondrous moment, one I was glad I hadn't missed.

That afternoon I was wise enough to give my knees a rest, and enjoyed the panoramic view unfolding before my room's balcony That was followed by a celebratory meal at the lodge's restaurant. I hadn't felt better in six years. I had taken the risk - and I had learned that my physical capabilities were broader than I thought. In the process, I got back certain precious things that I thought were gone forever.

About the author: Kathleen Ernst is an outdoor travel enthusiast from Whitewater, Wis., who has had rheumatoid arthritis for six years.
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Author:Ernst, Kathleen
Publication:Arthritis Today
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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