Our grocery shopping trip by bike included stopping to use our new 'chin-up assist.'
PALM SPRINGS, CA   (December 2014/January 2015)
Weird But Wonderful
The Pull To Stay
There are no stunning red rock formations in Palms Springs, no lotteries to enter for the privilege of being 2 of a few on an exceptional national park trail, and not even very many pretty views to be had. But being ensconced in a little urban Palm Springs RV park at the base of the towering San Jacinto Mountains for 2 months in the dead of winter is a stellar fitness opportunity. 

From the bulging RV park we can walk to 2 different trail heads and ride our bikes to our favorite markets, which is a “to die for” combination for us. "Exercise-Eat, Exercise-Eat, Exercise-Eat” has aptly described our best days for a number of years and the mostly warm, dry, winter weather in Palm Springs supports our mantra exceptionally well. 

Each morning we unrolled our exercise mats on the tired club house carpet and gazed out the huge patio doors to watch the sun rise over the palm trees. Even though we bundled-up on the chilliest mornings, the expansive space stretched our 1 hour routines to 2 hours many days. Staying put for two months in Palm Springs instead of being on the road encouraged a heavy indulgence in both intense conditioning and focused recovery activities—it had quickly become our peak fitness focus interval of the year.

Life In The Park
But as the weeks rolled by in Palm Springs, the weirder it felt to be living in a city in a tiny rig rather than being in a national park campground. We learned more than we wanted to know about the rising crime rate that coincided with the expanding homeless community.  The longer we stayed, the more we sought green parks for lunch on our shopping days for relief from the spare desert views. And it felt fitting to participate in a public area clean-up project one Saturday morning. 

We thought it was too cold this January for the rattlesnakes, but not so (Cathedral Canyon).
Though the Palm Springs scenery is generally dull, we reminded ourselves that the cramped RV park with hedges around each rig is overall a pleasant place to be. The social environment is welcoming with a dozen of the 140 spaces occupied by rarely seen folks who live there year round; probably about half the spaces accommodate people there for the 5 month season; and the rest stay for a night to a couple of months like we do. The manager maintains that 80% of the guests are Canadians; others comment that “the place is filled with retired cops”; and it’s the only place we’ve been where we have pondered if we were a sexual preference minority group. 

Consuming alcohol and working on their tans by the pool or next to their rig is enough to occupy some while others slip out in the coolness of dawn to run, hike, or play golf. One couple from Seattle, WA exemplifies the mix: she has hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail and hikes and bird watches while in the desert; he likes to play tennis in the morning and spends the entire afternoon in the hot tub. A few people are employed but most are retired. Being an “Adults Only” establishment, there are no children living there and the few that visit are in their 30’s and 40’s.

Contradictions in Coachella Valley
And talk about weird: Coachella Valley contains 9 borderless cities, including Palm Springs and Palm Desert, and seemingly has no hiking or climbing gear store. I looked online and asked in stores for somewhere to buy hiking pants in this sprawl of a half million people and found none for women. One sporting goods chain the staffer said “We are in California so we have surf boards.” I responded with “But there are big mountains out your door and the ocean is far, far away.” To which he replied: “Tell that to headquarters in Pennsylvania—we are in California so we have surf boards”. 

No hiking pants for sale in the valley but plenty of trails.
There is even a book called “140 Great Hikes in and near Palm Springs” and yet there was no proper outdoor store to be seen. I finally asked a serious hiker/office receptionist where she shopped and once again heard “On the other side of the mountain--at Joshua Tree.” That is more than an hour's drive from Palm Springs and once there, you discover that your destination is a single, small store in a town of 7,500. Palm Springs sits under the shadow of an 11,000’ peak that draws hikers training to climb Mt Whitney and yet there is no outfitter for them. Weird.

“In Residence”
High Return
We quickly settled into an “in residence” routine while in Palm Springs this winter rather than being in "tourist mode" like we were last year, our first year in Coachella Valley. Our dislike of driving was a motivating force for our decision.

Maintaining our fitness level is our first priority and chores, which always got top billing in the past, forever tug at us. We looked at the modest, 1 hour round trip drive time that would take us to a dozen or more suitable trailheads and then, like dogs with that cocked head that gestures up towards the cookie jar or door knob, we looked up to our neighborhood mountain trails. By hiking them, we’d transfer that hour from driving time to time for our bottomless pile of desk work.

Some of the palms of Palm Springs flanking a hiking trail.
The scenery in the Coachella Valley isn’t grand and we’d already become acclimated to the local novelties. We’d seen enough of the small palm oases for them to no longer be startling. We'd done the peculiar “Ladder’s Trail” where aluminum extension ladders replaced the former wooden ones used to scale tall dry falls on the route. And last year we’d also been privileged to see big horn sheep on the trails a few times. It had only taken us the prior 2 month stay to develop some of the complacency of locals who have lost their curiosity for their region. 

Our attention this second winter shifted from discovery to using the handy North and South Lykken trails 3 times a week for our exercise. We did these same 2 nearby trails over and over again and celebrated our good fortune every time we trod upon them.  Given that the big panoramas from any trail in the area weren’t particularly interesting and our neighborhood trails were an outstanding workout, we happily kept them on our weekly calendar. 

Steep with tricky footing and changing vegetation the higher we went, we were never bored on the 2 Lykken trails. They both delivered intermittently mind-riveting footing challenges, brief straight stretches to break the tension, and great CV workouts. And we enjoyed the social nature of the trails on which many other hikers, few local, were also keen for the reliable workout. 

The spines on this tiny barrel cactus turned this brilliant red in the rain.
Hiking and running on our neighborhood trails were the backbone of our weekly schedule. But lucky us: new friends from last year dragged us out on several other trails during our overlapping 6 weeks at Happy Traveler.

Becoming a Part of the Community
Last year our week’s stay at the Happy Traveler RV Park finally came to an end after 2 months when we bumped up against the peak of high season. This year we booked for 2 months a year in advance and made a point to develop our social connections beginning on our arrival day. Our posting of an open invitation to others to join us on our first big training hike ultimately yielded 3 new hiking partners. We only hiked with them twice a month, but there was pleasant hiking chit-chat between outings. 

We made a point to write guest names on the site map as we learned them to slowly work our way a layer deeper into the passerby, greetings routine. And I joined the lettering writing campaign to the mayor regarding the sudden up-tick in bike thefts (not ours, however). I felt much less of an outsider this season and was pleased when the host started greeting us by our names.

Long Enough to Problem Solve
Emphasizing efficiency was a win-win this year. We hiked and ran harder on our active days this season than last year and we dug deeper into our piles of chores on the dedicated rest days. The emphasis on efficient training days over going for new or distant hikes gave us the time we needed to do those B List chores that kept getting shoved to the back. And it gave a sense of spaciousness that made it easier to initiate otherwise daunting projects, like Bill’s installation of a made-for-cars back-up camera on our camper. The long stay gave us a good window of time to receive online orders and delve into some maintenance issues.

Bill was so pleased with his hand splint that he ordered a second one.
I hit the jackpot when I sought the services of a Palm Desert chiropractor for help with my aching sacroiliac joints. A bit on the hyperactive side, it was overwhelming being in this chiropractor’s presence, but he had a simple yet profound strategy for helping my joints heal. I’m sure I’ll look back on the series of appointments that our 2 month stay afforded as a high point of the healing aspect of the year. 

Bill put the problem of his ever-sore thumb joints into what we call Project Mode, which is essentially “I can’t take it any more and I’m going to do something about it.” Professional help over the years had been insufficient. Committing the time to researching his problem more thoroughly yielded results in days. He became much more clear as to the nuances of his problem and was able to select the right splint for his chronic injury to finally help it heal. He felt relief in hours of putting on the online-ordered splint.

Winter Training Camp
You, like many at our Palm Springs RV park, may think we are absolutely crazed to exercise so intensely but there is a growing  body of medical research motivating us. The widely held belief, including among too many healthcare professionals, that aging dooms us all to being weak and immobile is being dismantled. It’s actually the other way around: it is being sedentary or merely “active” that leads to much of the baggage of aging. 

The research is in its infancy and there are no answers yet as to the minimum quantities and intensities of exercise needed to derail the usual physical decline. But selecting athletic seniors as study subjects instead of sedentary ones allowed researchers to establish that the athletes indeed were beating the odds, that they weren’t experiencing the presumed inevitable age-related loss in vigor. Now that the old paradigm of doom and demise has been disproven, the next step is establishing just how much is enough. So many of us would like to know.

OK, so we wore out Ann & Evan (new hiking friends from last year) on our tram training route.
Our commitment to vigorous exercise was heightened several years ago by an article in AARP magazine in which researchers were studying people who were examples of “exceptionally successful aging”. They were all exercising hard with some even becoming competitive athletes for the first time in their 70’s and 80’s. It was putting in the time doing intense exercise that was separating them from the pack. 

Gretchen Reynolds has had several articles in the NY Times about exercise blunting the effects of aging. The research subjects featured in one of her articles were cycling for hours: 5.5 hours for the women and 6.5 for the men was what it took to meet the study criteria. We were impressed that they had 79 year-olds cycling hard for so long and it validated for us that our hikes that take up to 7 hours weren’t excessive. Both theirs and our durations are far cry from the often-recommended 30 minutes a day. We both feel like we are the most fit we’ve ever been in our lives, which is outstanding given that we are in our early-mid 60’s. Here are 2 links if you’d like to read more about exceptionally successful aging:

Peak Event
We would leave Palm Springs without having had a memorable new sightseeing or event experience, but like last year, our fitness level reached a new high while there. Last year we made 3 training hikes of 4,200-4,500’ elevation gain to match the demands of the Italian mountain run we hoped to participant in in July (which we completed). Then, at the last minute, the unusually low snow pack on the mountain pushed us to do the iconic 8,300’ gain hike from the valley floor to the top of the Palm Springs tram.  We were thrilled to complete the hike in 7 hours and arrived at the tram station well before dark and in time to ride it down to the valley floor.

We’d barely checked in at the Happy Traveler RV park in December of 2014 when a retired Canadian cop we recognized said “I’m going to hike to the tram like you did last year." And a day later, someone we didn’t know revealed that he too had aspirations to hike to the top of the tram. Having made the hike once, we were suddenly the experts and I posted an open invitation for tram aspirants to join us on our training hikes. 

Our core hiking group (all mountaineers but us) on the last training day together.
Our hike-at-your-own speed-and-distance group was a loose association. Nine showed up the first day, 2 with little or no water for the proposed 14 mile hike. After the second training event a week later, 2 men decided that descending was too hard so they bailed on any further training involving more than 1000’ but said would join us for the hike to the tram station. 

Our remaining group of 5 continued doing weekly training hikes of 4,000-5,500’ gain, though not always together. And the more times that we did the trail, the more we all worried for the 2 men that had decided “If you’ve hiked half way, you might as well go all the way". The logic is appealing but there are altitude and endurance issues that loom large from 5,000’-8,600’.

Monte, our new neighbor and a member of our core group, was slightly slower than us on the uphill but significantly faster than us on the downhill, so hiking with him was like having a downhill coach. I had to exchange my minimalist sandals for higher traction trail running shoes at the turn-around point to keep up with Monte on the descents. His wife, Karen, struck an intermediate pace that fit with her preference for listening to audio books while hiking.

We were delighted to complete our 6 weekly training hikes without injuring ourselves.  Two snowfalls while in Palm Springs, one 6 days before our trek to the tram, were inconveniences. The 2500’ snow level from the first storm had us traversing stretches of snow a few inches deep for 2 training hikes though the 2nd storm probably only reached to the 7,000’ level with the white stuff. But that was enough to have us rethinking our gear because the last 1500’ of the hike is on the forested north face.

Ice Walkers instep cleats drying the next day.
Event Day
Our core group of 5 made the hike to the tram on the same day with 6 am and 7am starting times (we were the late starters). The 2 men that declined to train on the steep slopes didn’t join us, deciding to make their assault at a later date. 

We were delighted with our performance. Our weekly training hikes held us in good stead. And as expected, the actual hike was easier on our bodies than the training hikes with their brutal descents: the final training hike was 5600’ of gain and over 17 miles whereas the finale hike to the tram was 8250’ of elevation gain and 11 miles. We completed the hike in about 7 hours, which was the same as last year, but this year's starting point added about 2 miles and then there was that tedious last hour spent traversing ice and snow.

Our friends managed the icy areas using their trekking poles and we resorted to our instep cleats. It sounds like they had an easier time of it on the snow than we did. Our progress would have been much, much slower at the end if we hadn’t had our Ice Walkers with us.

Bill was thrilled that our 9 month-old ketogenic diet totally eliminated his former altitude intolerance issues that plagued him last year on this hike and for all of our previous years of hiking and biking above 6,000'. We both clearly remembered stopping every few minutes a year ago once past the critical 6000’ mark so he could recover enough to go on a little bit farther. The “eat when it’s convenient" aspect of the diet also shone through again when we ate lunch 6 hours after breakfast--with no snacking on the way—truly amazing on this high-output day. 

Taking It To The Next Level
While stretching and evaluating the minimal strain on our bodies the morning after our finale hike to the tram, the question of  our next goal, our next motivating twist, arose. Completing this monster hike for the second time underscored that it was well within our ability and that we could top-off the conditioning for doing it a third time when we were in Palm Springs next winter.

Last winter we had begun jogging again and met our goal of running 30 minutes of the July 2014 Italian mountain run. We’d succeeded in keeping the pressure on our newly revived skills since the event and had recently become comfortable with a 90” weekly long run. 

Running more minutes of the 2.5 hour mountain run had been our next goal but in beginning his trip planning for our summer of biking and hiking in Europe, Bill discovered that the mountain run no longer fit with our itinerary: the mid-July date was moved to early June for 2015. The new date would necessitate us being in the Alps in mid-May to begin our altitude acclimation—the ‘no season’ interval between the skiing season and hiking season—which was a loser for us. 

We'd made it through the worst of the snow.
So, with no suitable mountain run in our future and having our running competency sufficient for cross-training purposes, running was out for a new goal. Doing more elevation gain than the 8300’ to the tram was impractical. Hiking longer distances was in our sights, but the short winter days would limit our undertakings. 

We longed for a new goal, a new skill to master, something that would entertain and distract us while we lifted our athleticism to the next level. Speed was the only thing that we could think of, but “go faster” was a little hard to rally around and for us, worked better as a secondary goal.

“Poles, start hiking with trekking poles” popped into my mind while we stretched. We’d dismissed them years ago as more appropriate for backpackers and those hiking with injuries than for us and had pushed ourselves to become swift and nimble on difficult terrain without them. But over the last 10 years of hiking, mainly abroad, we’d witnessed a half dozen hikers who were truly masterful with poles. One young man’s quick, controlled descent down an almost vertical, sometimes moving, morainal face in the Italian Alps still stuck in our minds as a stunning example of what could only be done with the aid of poles. For us, his deft triumph was a “not in this lifetime” accomplishment.

But with this European man’s exhibition of trekking pole skill in mind, and that of the few other experts we’d observed, we’d buy ourselves the lightest, most collapsable poles available so we could stash them during “hands only” situations, like the cable-assisted via ferreta trails in Italy. We’d do our best to increase our speed, both up and especially down the mountains, as is said to be possible. We’d strive to be among the few that use poles as highly effective extension of their bodies instead of joining the masses that mindlessly dragging them behind themselves towards the end of the day.

A little online research during breakfast reassured us that there was enough to learn about hiking with poles to occupy us and that their mastery would be our new goal for the year--unless something more exciting presented itself. We’d do the research to select from the dozens of choices during our remaining 3 months on the road and expect to tackle the Alps this summer equipped for our new sport.

On The Road
We left Palm Springs in early February feeling the tugs to both stay longer and to be more adventurous. Our several day drive to the Grand Canyon would include a visit with our friend Iva in Phoenix, who has the spirit of a tiger coursing through her being. 

After staying with Iva, we’d then hope for the best of the late winter weather at the Grand Canyon and for our second hike down to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River. We had reservations for 1 night and would send food down on a mule for 3 days hoping against hope to extend our stay with the aid of last minute cancellations. 

It was a bit unnerving however to be looking at swapping overnight lows for daytime highs: the lows in Palm Springs were now in the 50’s, which was where the highs at the  rim of the Grand Canyon had been hanging out. But it was time to move on and we braced ourselves for being cold most of the time and hoped the adventure would be worth the trade-off.

PS: If you wondered where your hummingbirds have gone, they are fat, sassy, and happy in Palm Springs. Unlike us, however, they wisely decided it was too early to head north.