I love the desert. No, this is not a timely column post about Burning Man. Sorry to disappoint. I’ve really only been to the desert twice. The general inconvenience of traveling with pulmonary hypertension (PH) limited me before, and my doctor advised me to avoid high altitudes. My first introduction to the desert was six months after my transplant, when I celebrated fewer travel restrictions with a trip to Arizona. I fell in love with Sedona and (no surprise here) the Grand Canyon.
There’s something supernatural about the desert. A self-proclaimed art history nerd, I am not a Georgia O’Keeffe fan (like, not at all). But when I am in the desert, I get it. I’m inspired. In the desert, survivors surround me — rocks that have endured tests of time. Cacti and thistles that withstand harsh extremes. Plants that survive with very little water. And among them, the carcasses of those that didn’t make it, laid bare.
After visiting Salt Lake City for the Transplant Games of America, my travel companions and I drove to Zion National Park. None of us had ever been before, and we’d heard it was … rockin’.
The first night, I was feeling some altitude sickness. Queasy from the drive, and a bit short of breath, too. So, naturally, I decided to go on a 4-mile walk. I hadn’t planned to go so far, but it was a beautiful night, and I felt better the more I walked.
Up the road from our cabin in Springdale, Utah, were signs for Observation Point. I followed them, expecting the point to be no more than a mile away. As I walked, I admired the blooming thistles, colorful rocks, and sunflowers teeming with fire ants. I knew I was running out of daylight, but I didn’t want to turn back. I had no idea how far away it was, and kept thinking it could be just around the corner.
Finally, as my Apple Watch indicated I’d reached the 2-mile mark on my ”workout,” I arrived at (wait for it) the trailhead for Observation Point. An official Zion National Park map indicated Observation Point was another 3.3 miles away. Womp womp. I hightailed it to the cabin to make it back before darkness and my travel companions’ worry had settled.
The following day was our big day in the park. We got a late start, so we did most of our hiking in the sweltering 100-something-degree heat. Between the heat and the altitude, I was pretty miserable. My heart was pounding so hard hiking up one of the hills that I had to sit down. It turns out altitude is a really good PH simulator! If you’re talking to a friend who has experienced altitude sickness, you might tell them, “That’s pretty much how I feel all day every day.” I don’t miss it.
On our way back from hiking in the park, my friend, Brad, and I stopped at the trailhead I’d walked to the night before. From there, the trail to Observation Point was mostly flat. But again, we were racing against the sun. Several times, we discussed heading back. We’d seen some pretty cool vistas just off the main trail and figured it couldn’t get much better. When we finally reached the point, our perseverance was rewarded. It did get better. The view from Observation Point was breathtaking. Fortunately, our organ donors gifted us with plenty of breath to spare (Brad had a double-lung transplant in January 2017 and writes for Cystic Fibrosis News Today).
I’m so glad I went back to do this hike after a failed attempt the first night. The adversity Brad and I faced getting there made the accomplishment even more spectacular than the view. I’m not just talking about the 3.3 miles we hiked after several more miles in the heat. We’ve both battled disease for the past 25 years, but we’re still standing. Actually, we’re doing quite a bit better than that. This is our super bloom.
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