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Hiking for health and spiritual renewal; Vistas section editor updates readers on his continuing recovery and return to one of his favorite activities — nature hikes

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The well-maintained train at McKittrick Canyon begins is a desert ecosystem at around 5,000 feet above sea level. The steep, towering walls of canyon protect a rich riparian oasis in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

With improvements in my health since I was hospitalized a little more than a year ago, I’ve gotten back into fitness.

I used to be much thinner and in great shape. From 2008 to 2012, I competed in a lot of long-distance running events, such as 5Ks and 10Ks, and sometimes won a medal in my age class. For two years while living in the Tampa Bay area, I was in a mixed-martial arts class and loved to box.

Then I fell off the wagon and gained a lot of weight.

Along with a brain abscess, I also was diagnosed last year as hypertensive and morbidly obese.

The 6.8 mile out-and-back trail leads to this shady cove that looks more like Vermont than West Texas. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

When I first came home from Covenant Medical Center just after Memorial Day last year, I was doing what I called “self-directed” physical therapy to help build my strength and regain my balance. I was going to the gym three days a week with a friend and doing exercises at home on the off days.

Some of you may recall I wrote about the first few months of my recovery in a column that was published in the Vistas section. What many of you might not know is I have had two setbacks since returning from my 10-week hospitalization in Lubbock.

For quite some time, I had a belly-button hernia but never did anything about it because it never bothered me. Since I had met the deductible and out-of-pocket expenses on my health insurance, I figured this would be a good time to get the surgery. On Nov. 29, I had the surgery and was planning to go back to work the next Monday. However, on the Friday after the surgery I became ill.

By 2 a.m. Saturday, I decided that something was terribly wrong and called 911. I was transported to the ER at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center. Unlike the first time I was there on March 16, 2017, I was conscious.

It turned out that the hernia surgery caused a bowel constriction. I was hospitalized for 3 ½ days and did not eat or drink anything until the last day. After that, I spent two weeks at home recovering.

Yuccas are one of the most common plants in the desert portion of the canyon. There also are
cacti and succulents. Further into the canyon are pines, oaks and maples. McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe
Mountains National Park in Texas is a popular hiking spot during autumn when the leaves are changing colors. It is about a 130-mile drive south of Roswell. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

Then, just when I was starting to feel healthy enough to go back to the gym, I was hit with my second setback. On the Thursday before Christmas, I would get terrible cramps after walking relatively a short distance. I could barely walk from my front door to my car without getting cramps. It hit me like a brick wall.

At first, my doctor thought it might be low electrolyte levels causing the muscle cramps. I started taking more potassium and magnesium and drinking a cup of salt water everyday. Yuck. I hate the taste of salt — except on popcorn and potato chips. My sister also gets muscle cramps.

Boosting my electrolytes did not seem to help. While awaiting my next doctor’s appointment on Jan. 4, I looked on the internet for other possible causes to my cramps besides low electrolytes and hit pay dirt.

On both the Mayo Clinic website and WebMD, two sources that I trust, I read about claudication, in which muscles in the legs will cramp while walking because the muscles are consuming oxygen faster than the blood vessels can deliver the oxygen.

Claudication is a symptom of peripheral artery disease. I discussed this with my doctor, and he wrote an order for me to get an ultrasound. I went to the hospital directly from my doctor’s office and was immediately scheduled for a test because the radiology department was concerned I may have a clot.

The test discovered a blockage in the artery of my left leg. While waiting for an appointment with a cardiologist on March 12, I decided to take the advice of articles on the internet that said one can fight back peripheral artery disease, or PAD, with diet and exercise.

I had been losing weight, but put an even stronger focus on my diet. The web articles advised to walk until you felt the cramps, sit down and rest, walk some more, sit down and rest, etc. I would do this on the west straightaway on the cinder track that encircled the soccer field across from the Wool Bowl, where there are small bleachers to sit. If I went to the gym, I would apply a similar pattern of exercise, rest, exercise, rest on the treadmill or elliptical. Little by little, I increased my walking distance and can now walk up to 7 or 8 miles without a break.

I decided to cancel the follow up appointment with the cardiologist, opting to heal myself the natural way instead of possibly getting a stent and/or being prescribed blood thinners or statins.

Last weekend, I walked 5 or 6 miles at the Walk for Hope. I walked on the ENMMC team, figuring that was the least I could for them after being on their ER room’s “frequent flyer” list in 2017.

The next morning I walked 6.2 miles (10K) in the Race for Spring River Zoo. That’s a total of around 11 or 12 miles in less than 24 hours.

I am very pleased with my progress and encourage others to exercise as a way to fight back at cardiovascular issues — but do not divert from a traditional medical treatment unless you get a green light from your doctor.

When the claudication first hit, I worried that I may have to give up something for the rest of my life that I really love — nature hikes.

On the last Sunday in April, I hiked around 7 or 8 miles on the Grindstone Lake trails in Ruidoso. I was planning to do the 3.8 mile Mesa Trail Loop, but somehow got lost. I wasn’t too worried because I had two mobile phones and reception is good all over this part of the Lincoln National Forest. Also, the trails never get too far away from the parking area — the tricky part is figuring out which trail takes you back to the parking lot instead of over the next ridge.

I ran into other hikers walking in the opposite direction and asked, “Is this the way back to the parking lot?” and they responded, “We were going to ask you the same question.” Not a good sign.

I made my way back, it little less for wear and tear, and headed to the San Patricio Retreat Center, where I gathered information and photos for a Vistas story. I love hiking in the mountains. To me, the sound of the breeze blowing through the ponderosa pines is God whispering. There’s no other sound like it.

On May 5, I hiked McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is about 30 miles across the New Mexico/Texas state. I had hiked there in May 2014 not long after I moved to Roswell. But two weeks ago, the hike was much more enjoyable because it wasn’t as hot and I was in better shape. The hike is 6.8 miles out and back.

If you want a real hiking challenge and don’t mind roasting in the sun for at least 8 hours, then do the 8.4-mile hike to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8,751 feet above sea level, is the highest point in Texas. The trail head begins at the main visitor center. This jaunt is probably more like mountain climbing than hiking, because there is a 2,900 ascent in elevation from the parking lot to the summit.

Getting back to McKittrick Canyon, many people call it “the most beautiful spot in Texas.” Of course, one could argue that — unlike New Mexico — there ain’t a whole lot of pretty places in Texas.

Following is an extolment about McKittrick Canyon from the National Park Service website:

“While the towering walls of McKittrick Canyon protect the riches of diversity, its precious secrets are hidden in riparian oasis. But for all its magical power that delights thousands of people each year, its fragility reminds us that our enjoyment cannot compromise its necessity for survival. It must survive — not for us, but for all that lives within.

“Thousands of visitors come to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to visit McKittrick Canyon each year, especially during the latter part of October or early November for the sensational fall colors. In this tiny part of West Texas, the foliage (brilliant reds, subtle yellows and deep browns) contrasts dramatically with the flavor of the arid Chihuahuan Desert that includes century plants, prickly pear cacti, blacktail rattlers, steep canyon walls and crystal clear blue skies. Whether you come for the fall show, or plan your trip for another season, the beauty of McKittrick Canyon is always breathtaking.”

Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or vistas@rdrnews.com.