The Sacrifice of Hobbit Hollow

The morning following one of our infrequent snowstorms last winter, I wandered through an area of forest near home which had become one of my favorite hiking spots due to its peacefulness.  There was one hidden section of single-track about a hundred yards long which connected two forest service roads.  It snaked through a thick growth of conifers that blocked nearly all sunlight, creating a dark, yet cozy, under-story where moss carpeted much of the damp ground and fallen trees.  Along one particular spot near the middle, the path jagged left then right and was so inviting you might close your eyes and imagine a village of miniature hobbits living there.  I nicknamed it Hobbit Hollow.

That winter morning three or four inches of snow blanketed everything, making it extra quiet but for the sound of my boots.  Mine were the only human prints amid what was an astonishing number and variety of tracks crisscrossing the roads and paths, all obviously made since the snow ended that previous evening.  It was a revelation to realize the number of  critters that lived there, the fact made known only by the fresh snow.  It surprised me greatly how many bobcat tracks there were, going this way and that.  I knew those who made them were hiding and watching as I passed, and I contemplated renaming Hobbit Hollow to Kitty Corner, or something silly like that.

Yesterday morning I looped up through that area once again, only to find that Hobbit Hollow had been obliterated by the Forest Service.  Worse yet, I couldn’t even find the single-track that lead through it.  Though most of the trees were still standing, all the  lower branches and undergrowth had been cleared for the purpose of slowing any wildfire that might occur there.  Even sadder was the thought that all the critter homes and hiding spots had been destroyed as well, except for maybe those high in the trees.

Yet another nasty ripple of climate change.  While people on the US’s east side are dealing with the increased number and strength of hurricanes, those in the west are suffering an increase in the number and size of wildfires.  The rising global temperature is fueling both. Thus east-coasters build dunes and breakwaters that block their once-spectacular ocean views while westerners strip their own forests to protect themselves.

Goodbye Hobbit Hollow.

-Russ

(The photos above are actually of the place I called Hobbit Hollow, the ‘before’ shot taken a couple years ago from the east, the ‘after’ shot taken yesterday from the south.)

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She Just Scared Us

A small cougar was tracked by dogs, hunted down, and shot this week in the forest near our home.  Simply for being who she was – a confident, young cougar.  She scared us, so we killed her.

The forests of Oregon have a healthy cougar population. That’s nothing new.  There are bears, too, and elk and deer and turkey and squirrels and all of the other critters that call the forest home.  They are all part of Nature’s balance.  Normally they are smart and stay out of our way.

But this thin, young, 75-lb female didn’t.  The officials who took her life said she was only 1-2 years old and had not yet had kittens, so she was not protecting young.  Most likely she was just acting on her basic instincts to chase prey if hungry, or to stake out her own territory, when she chased a lone man who was out for a run.  She got close enough that he kicked her, and then he sprinted away.  She gave chase, as years of evolution instructed her to do. Luckily, two hikers with a dog showed up at just the right time and she ran off.  No one was hurt, and maybe by being kicked she would learn not to approach people again.  Certainly the runner was lucky.

But she scared us, so instead of just using the encounter to encourage people to take the proper precautions when in the forest, like carrying bear spray or not hiking alone, we stalked and killed her. The officials say she was aggressive, which is why they had to put her down rather than to relocate.  But isn’t every animal aggressive when hunger tells them it’s time to eat?  Or to protect their home? It’s how we all survive.  And she was young, so maybe she hadn’t yet learned to stay away from people.

Looking at the big picture, wasn’t it us who ended up being most aggressive?  We weren’t hungry – she just scared us.  And since we typically no longer have any natural predators (besides ourselves), we no longer feel a part of Nature. That’s more than obvious these days.  We destroy it as we please, even if it just scares us.

-Russ

Another Perspective

Since retiring and moving to Oregon I’ve taken up hiking, and I’m out there a lot.  Sometimes even when it rains.  I enjoy it immensely.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest are amazingly peaceful, and it’s not uncommon to hike for hours and miles without hearing, seeing, or smelling anything related to humanity, other than the path you’re on or the stuff you’re wearing.  In many respects it’s quite freeing to not be bothered by the details of daily life for a while.  It allows one time to think and ponder uninterrupted. About anything.

Not surprising, I frequently think about forest life. Even when you can’t see it, it knows you’re there.  The forest is it’s home, plants and animals alike, and I try to respect what that means, including that I am the intruder and am considered dangerous by those who hide in the shadows or keep their distance.  For some of nature’s residents, I might also be seen as food.  I try not to forget that.

For the great majority of life, survival is continually demanding.  While many of us humans spend much of the time in climate-controlled environments with a snack no further than the fridge, the rest of life are out there, day and night, in the rain, in the cold, doing the best they can. I sometimes imagine what it might be like, every minute worrying about the next meal, keeping warm, and the need to stay safe.  It’s always a quick reminder of how fortunate we are. I also believe they are WAY tougher than us.  They need to be.

One morning a short time ago I explored a section of undeveloped land that is bordered on three sides by town. Even so, it is large enough that I managed to wander four miles while only seeing two other people.  In one area I was surprised to come across two small sites where some homeless folks must spend their nights.  The shelters consisted only of small patched-up tents and tarps slung over tree branches.  Once again, I felt like an intruder, and I thought about that existence. How hard it must be, constantly worrying about food, shelter, and safety.  And regardless of what we may think about the homeless or how they got there, it dawned on me that in many respects those people need to be way tougher than the rest of us, and they just might deserve some respect for that.

-Russ

Left to Right Coast, 2018 Style

The alarm, ugh. It’s dark. The cat has my feet pinned under the covers. I reach to turn off the noise.  Don’t fall back to sleep. Only an hour to get out the door. My toes hit the carpet and I fumble to don a sweatshirt and pants.

The house is cold as I lower myself down the stairs. Through the windows the cars look frozen. I tap the thermostat to awaken the furnace. The screen says it’s thirty outside. Was a cloudless night.

I try to be quiet.  Breakfast on autopilot. I hear my wife in the bathroom upstairs. The cat shows his face. What the heck, dude?  He’s not happy about the suitcases.

Ten minutes to go. Start the car to clear the windows. Load the bags. Check stuff. Lock up. Gone. On time.

The interstate is moving fine. Not for long. Will hit the city at rush hour. Pit stop. Back on the highway, then stop. Go. Stop. We crawl along. Did we leave enough time?

Lot nearly full. The entry system doesn’t work right. Why can’t people park in the lines? Full shuttle bus. Luggage everywhere.

Check in is easy. TSA decides we are harmless. Whew. The gate is peaceful. We wait.

One last pee and then into the first metal tube. On time. Yay.

Easy gate change. Grab a sandwich.  More waiting.  Some people dress so oddly. You pee first, I’ll watch the stuff. Into the next metal tube. It’s full. Of course. We back away on time. Yay.

Why did we parked over here? We wait. Twenty minutes.  Engines cease.  Uh oh. “Sorry folks, computer issues. Have to reboot. Be on our way soon.” Engines start.

Twenty minutes.  Engines cease.  Uh oh, part two. “Sorry folks. One more test requested. Will be on our way soon.” Engines start.

Twenty minutes more. “Looks good folks. Almost done with the paperwork.” Did these seats get harder and smaller?  The ground falls away.

Seven hours is forever trapped in a plastic seat designed with comfort as the last priority. At least we both downloaded movies. What do you mean your movie disappeared? Who knows? We can watch mine. It won’t start. Bad download.

I’ll take a nap.  …  But my light won’t turn off. Seriously. I’ll have orange juice, thanks.

More waiting.

The thrill is gone. No wonder I’ve grown to love hikes in the forest.

-Russ

Sharing the Trail

It was a pleasant morning, as winter mornings go in this part of Oregon. A good day for a solo trek.  The air was cool, damp, and fresh and there was only the slightest breeze. Given it was mid-week I expected to see few other people, and though I’m usually an afternoon hiker, rain was forecast for later in the day.

Forest Peak was a new destination for me and the southeast side seemed like a decent route. The round trip should be doable in about two hours or so. The path up would be mostly single track and the return would be on forest service roads. Nearly the entire distance would be through typical northwest evergreen forest, with moss clinging to and lichen dripping from nearly every tree.

The first acquaintance I made, barely a quarter mile in, was a very sluggish rough-skinned newt who refused to budge, even with the nudge of my boot.  Too chilly, I guessed.  Still pondering the newt, I nearly stepped on a five-inch-long banana slug, lengthening my stride just in time to miss it. Gotta keep my eyes open, I mused.

I love hiking single-track. Even when it’s drizzling there’s so much to take in as the path curves, dips, and climbs through the underbrush and across creeks.  It doesn’t even feel like exercise.  Only another rare hiker or the occasional mountain biker might break the solitude.  I passed under a large tree that had fallen against its neighbors, picking up my pace just a little.  It was still propped up at a 45 degree angle and I wondered how long it had been like that, or how long it would stay.

The path got just a bit steeper and muddier and I put more attention to where my feet were going. Glancing a couple yards ahead my eyes caught something that caused an immediate chill to run up my spine. It’s funny, I’ve heard about that happening but can’t ever recall it happening to me before.  Until that moment, when my eyes scanned a very large, very distinct, and very fresh set of tracks that had passed in the opposite direction, most likely earlier that morning.

I know they live in this part of Oregon and I’ve probably even been watched by one a time or two, but seeing those tracks and realizing I had shared the trail that morning with a Cougar took that awareness to the next level of ‘Yikes!’, if you know what I mean. Picture a 150-200 pound house cat with an attitude. I took some photos for confirmation, including the one above, using the toe of my boot as reference. The prints were about 3.5 to 4 inches across.

Mustering the remainder of my manhood I did manage to finish the hike, but I admit it was not the relaxed trip intended. Way more time than usual was spent scanning the forest in all directions – and making scary noises.  Yeah, that would help.

Later in the afternoon I confirmed my suspicions with a savvy local resident regarding the maker of the tracks. I also did some online research.  There was no doubt.  It was not a very large dog, which would have been the only reasonable second guess. So there it was, my first sighting of cougar tracks in the wild.  It was certainly exciting, but it gave me a bit more perspective on how brave I actually am.  Yup.

-Russ

My Lyme

Upon seeing this blog entry my wife is likely to sigh and roll her eyes, not that I blame her.  As both she and our son have also had Lyme disease, it has hijacked a significant portion of our lives.  We just want it to go away, but it won’t.  I’m not looking for sympathy, though it is a bit cathartic getting this out there.  I am writing because similar stories by others have helped me cope.  They confirm that others are dealing with the same symptoms and frustrations and I’m not just the complaining nut case I sometimes feel like. Those stories also help me better understand the disease so I can best manage my own treatment.  Maybe my story will help others.

*******

It was a sunny and brisk Sunday afternoon in mid-September about eight years ago. I was out with my camera at our community’s sports fields when I first noticed feeling a bit off. “Oh great”, I thought, “I’m getting sick”.  Sure enough, Monday morning I woke up with aches and chills. The dreaded swine flu had arrived in the U.S. and I figured it had found me. News reports said healthy adults had little to worry about and just needed to ride it out.

The following Thursday around 2:00 AM I woke my wife and asked her to drive me to the hospital. Something was seriously wrong.  After two nights of drenching sweats I felt like someone was driving a giant screw through my head.  It couldn’t be just the flu. Forty five minutes later we were at the emergency room and a doctor saw me quickly.  He drew some blood and disappeared.  Upon returning he simply looked at me and said, “You’re not going home.  Your liver enzymes are off the chart.”

So began my fight with Lyme disease.  You won’t hear this from many Lyme patients, but I consider myself somewhat fortunate.  During the three days I spent in the hospital that week I was under the care of an infectious disease doctor who had seen this before.  That next morning she told me she didn’t know what I had but was almost sure it was tick borne. She immediately started me on intravenous Rocephen, a powerful antibiotic that has been effective against Lyme and many of its co-infections.  After a battery of tests, they sent me home with a thirty day supply of oral doxycycline as a follow-up to the Rocephen. I was already feeling much better and assumed that was the end of it.

Of all the tests, only one came back positive.  It showed slightly positive for Borreliosis (Lyme disease), but with low confidence.  Years later, based on a comparison of my symptoms with the continuously-growing body of clinical data, I realized I’d probably contracted both Lyme and Babesiosis. It wasn’t a surprise I’d been bitten by a tick, as we lived in southeastern Pennsylvania (or ‘Lyme Central’ as I now sometimes call it) in a suburban neighborhood surrounded by fields and hedgerows. Deer ticks were everywhere and I’d pulled more than a few off myself over the years.

What was a surprise was getting sick again eight months later while on a business trip, this time complete with a red rash over one-third of my body. My primary care physician listened to my new symptoms and thought I probably had Lyme again. Whether or not I had gotten another bite (likely, given where we lived) or it was a resurgence of my initial infection (also likely) doesn’t really matter. This news marked the beginning of my never-ending roller coaster ride that is chronic Lyme, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), or whatever else they might be calling it.

There’s no denying that Lyme sucks.  It’s an insidious disease that is reaching epidemic levels around the world, and we have just barely scratched the surface in its understanding.  Hard to diagnose in time to treat it effectively, its symptoms can mimic so many other diseases that victims feel like full-blown hypochondriacs.  These thoughts also pass through the minds of family and friends.

Since existing tests for Lyme are woefully inaccurate and inconclusive, and may not show positive until months after contracting the disease, the diagnosis is largely a clinical one.  It is very much a diagnosis of omission – if you’ve checked everything else that might be causing a symptom, it might be Lyme.  Do this for enough of the myriad of odd symptoms, and the probability increases. I’ve personally consulted neurologists, rheumatologists, orthopedists, audiologists, and optometrists for symptoms that ultimately came down to Lyme.  People have been diagnosed with MS, ALS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Alzheimer’s to find out – sometimes years later – that it was Lyme. Sometimes they never know for sure, and that may be its worst aspect. Even when you know you have Lyme, you’re always wondering if any given symptom might be caused by something worse you don’t yet know about.

Though there are many similarities, Lyme affects everyone differently.  It depends on their overall health, genetics, how long it has gone undiagnosed, and what co-infections they might have also contracted.   My personal list of symptoms attributable to or exacerbated by Lyme over the years includes:

  • Flu-like fever, chills and aches (Yup, just like that).
  • General feeling of malaise (Didn’t want to do anything).
  • Fatigue (So bad I could barely get out of bed).
  • Red rash covering one-third of my torso (That was pretty).
  • Tendinopathy in both shoulders.
  • Finger joint pain (To the point I could barely hold my camera).
  • Joint crepitus, mostly in the neck and shoulders (Everything creaked and cracked).
  • Brain fog (Also called Lyme brain – cognitively ‘slow’ with difficulty concentrating).
  • Tripping over words (Not being able to find the right words or get them out).
  • Tinnitus and hyperacusis (Painful sensitivity to sound).
  • ‘Odd’ body odor (Yeah, this is a strange one, but real).
  • Jitteriness and decreased fine motor coordination.
  • Vertigo and dizziness (What it sounds like).

These symptoms have continuously waxed and waned depending on my treatment and who knows why else.

I regularly research what’s new in Lyme knowledge and treatment, hoping for that ‘ah ha!’ moment, but based on the current understanding of the disease I don’t expect to be ‘cured’ anytime soon.  It is still an ongoing battle.  I am, with the help of a good doctor, doing a pretty good job of managing it, though.  I feel about 85-90% most days, am able to function, am very active, and am not spending a fortune on my treatment.  Thus I do consider myself one of the luckier ones.  I basically knew what I had when I first got sick and have been able to control it.  There are many, many people out there who are not as fortunate.  In the worst shape are people who have traveled from doctor to doctor with their long list of seemingly unrelated symptoms, and yet go undiagnosed for years.  Some of these doctors are simply not familiar with Lyme, and some still hold the outdated belief that there’s no such thing as a chronic form of the disease.

My own treatment includes oral antibiotics (and try to keep those to a minimum), supplements to support my immune system and overall nutrition, eating as healthy a diet as possible (which includes severely limiting – if not eliminating – sugar and all other simple carbohydrates), and exercising daily (especially aerobic exercise).  Note that the last two on this list are good advice for everyone, not just sick people.  The research indicates that the borrelia bacteria loves sugar and hates oxygen.

The good news, if it can be called that, is that the increase in reported cases and the associated publicity is resulting in an increase in research for better tests and improved treatments.  We all hope these will be found sooner than later.  In the meantime, in the words of Kathleen Spreen, DO, we should “Never give up.”

-Russ

A Hole Left by a Cat

To be honest, I never really wanted a cat. I was a dog person. Cats were too independent and just convinced you to feed and pamper them without giving much back. But our daughter had recently left for her first year at college and my wife was suffering a bit from empty nest syndrome. Even our old retriever, Jessie, wasn’t scratching that itch. So I relented, and Tina and our son, Steve, headed off to the animal shelter. They returned with a handsome, buff-colored male that was a ‘teenager’ in cat years, maybe about nine months old. Ironically, Andrea had always wanted a cat, and never lets us forget that we got one as soon as she left for school.

We don’t completely agree on who named him. Tina says it was the name of a character in a book she was reading, and I contend I thought of it, as it rhymed with another word that was fitting if he didn’t work out well. Either way, neither of us wanted another pet name that ended in ‘-ie’. So we named him Tucker, and it seemed perfect. We kept him inside for a few weeks, where he quickly took to curling up in our bathroom sink, but we eventually let him become an inside/outside cat and he allowed us to open the doors for him as he chose.

We lived in cat heaven – a Pennsylvania neighborhood of 3/4 acre lots surrounded by fields and hedge rows, with no shortage of mice, snakes, hiding spots, and other cats to make Tucker’s life quite the adventure. And it didn’t take him too long to settle into the role of ‘property guard’ and would walk the grounds frequently, keeping us safe from all things. The only down side to this was taking our little soldier to the vet four to five times a year to get him patched up from his most recent scrap with whatever dared cross our perimeter, including a fox.

Tucker never became the cuddly cat Tina wanted but would make five-to-ten minute visits to our laps before getting antsy and jumping down. He would also consent to being held for a bit, so long as we didn’t overdo it. A minute was long enough. He preferred to curl up near us on the couch, on a night stand when we slept, or under the tree at Christmas, his all-time favorite place.

Twice over the years he just disappeared. Once for three agonizing days when we had resigned ourselves we’d never see him again, and once for twenty four hours shortly after we’d moved to Oregon. We’re pretty convinced he’d gotten himself locked in someone’s garage or shed during the three-day stint, and maybe gotten lost in the new neighborhood the other time. Both times he returned home famished, had a meal, and curled up on the couch to sleep like nothing happened. We took days to recover.

A couple years after getting Tucker, a small, sickly, and recently pregnant young female wandered onto our deck and adopted us. Somehow she knew we would save her and we obliged. Tucker and Leah never became best friends, but humorously tolerated each other. Leah, being smaller than Tucker, was the only thing he was afraid of, and he gave her a wide berth to avoid the frequent playful ambushes she became famous for.

In the ensuing years, Jessie passed on and we adopted yet another kitty, this time Steve’s black cat, Pepper, when Steve moved to Oregon.  Andrea had moved there years earlier for graduate school, and he wanted to see why she liked it so much. Pepper was a young, strong, large male. Tucker immediately saw him as competition, and Leah was happy to have yet another boy to pester. They semi-peacefully coexisted and provided significant entertainment for us. They were our retirement kids.

During the end of summer last year we finally followed our real kids to Oregon and successfully transported our feline gang cross-country to our new home. They survived the trip amazingly well, surprising us all with their ability to adapt to life on the road. Tucker got the prize for best traveler, though, simply hunkering down in his open carrier, peacefully waiting for car purgatory to end, and curling up under hotel night stands.

It is now fifteen months later and only Pepper remains with us.  While Tina and I were away last December Leah suffered a sudden blood clot in her hind legs.  Thank heavens Steve was there checking on the gang when it happened or she would have suffered horribly.  He rushed her to the vet but there was nothing they could do.  She was thirteen.

And now I sit here with tears streaming down my face again. We had to give Tucker the final ‘gift’ from us a few days ago.  He was sixteen. His age began leaving its mark last year, when his kidneys and thyroid started acting up. We were able to control those problems for him until a couple months ago when we learned he had cancer.

All pets leave a void when they depart, and it’s no different for us.  We miss Leah terribly, our little goofball. While the boys slept, she would follow us around all day long, getting into whatever we were doing.

But losing Tucker has left this huge gaping hole in our hearts.  He was our first. Mister independent. Our handsome little soldier.  … The one who turned us into cat people.

The house seems so empty.  I guess I’m still not done crying.

-Russ