One Woman, One Pry Bar and Determination

Today’s post is a “What I did this summer,” story. But the truth is it began over five years ago.

We have a small home in the Arizona mountains. Like much of the land in Strawberry it is on a steep hillside as it backs up to the Mogollon Rim. When the house was built we had to have fill dirt and rock brought in to give us a somewhat level foundation. From the back to the front of the house it’s still a three foot drop, but it was workable. As you can imagine where the bulldozer stopped leveling the ground there was a steep drop off with this fill dirt. In my eyes it wasn’t a very pretty sight. But it also wasn’t a priority.

Until the summer five years ago when I looked around and decided to make good use of the natural sandstone found everywhere on the property and build a stone wall up the hillside. The sandstone was so plentiful it seemed an easy job to level and stack. But it was not. The pry bar immediately gave a resounding thump as it bounced off a big rock. It was so heavy that after less than fifteen minutes I was ready to cry in frustration. Of course, Bob ran over to help (that’s how he is) which only irritated me more. This was to be my project but I couldn’t even move one single stone. There was a big ‘woe is me’ pity party, blaming myself for being out of shape and unable to manage the 5000 feet altitude.

You know how hindsight is 20-20? A short month later I had one of those moments. Yes, that’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Ah ha! It was a moment of clarity. Suddenly, the fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of strength made sense. If only it had been recognized sooner…but that’s a story for another day except to say, if you are a woman get your mammogram. My doctor had recommended a baseline study and with no family history of problems my prescription had been sitting on the counter waiting for the opportune time. Because of, well, priorities… Don’t be like me. Make your health a priority.

Fast forward five years to this summer.

100_3225

Planting a little peach tree right in the middle of the wall.

Other projects finished, my attention turned back to the front yard. I dug out the pry bar and headed back over to the hillside. Five years of better health brings with it strength and to my surprise, ability. Ability to pound the pry bar into the ground. Ability to move big rocks. And ability to persevere. I began stacking the sandstone, learning as the project moved along how to make them level and how to lock them together. At first, I would wait on Bob to help move the big rocks and then came realization that one person can do a whole lot using a lever and fulcrum. Learning that the same small stone that keeps a rock wiggling when you stand on it can also be used as a pivot for a much larger rock. Slowly, and some days, ever so slowly, the wall began to take shape. Bob would call and ask what we accomplished that day and I’d tell him, “I moved one rock.” Some days I imagined myself like the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids but thank goodness I wasn’t. Still one rock at a time it was built.

100_3352

The finished product?

As summer ends is my rock wall finished? Maybe. Maybe not. I still haven’t decided. It’s far enough over and close enough to the brambly manzanita bushes that it could be done. Or it might be continued next summer. In the mean time we planted some vines in the cracks and a few lilacs dug up from Mom’s yard. Hopefully they will become well established over the winter.

Before leaving you’ll get a laugh from this picture that comes with an explanation. I asked Bob to take a flattering photo I could share (Rebecca says if I wanted a flattering picture I should have looked at myself in the mirror in those pants…) But I gave Bob my camera, the one he never uses, with instructions to take a panoramic picture, something he has never done. He tried to figure it out but my directions were pretty poor as was my impatience. Ha. As you can see, the picture turned out so terribly that it’s funny.

100_3425And that’s what I did this summer. Just call me the stone stacker.

Advertisements

A Harrowing Experience

Though this story happened years ago I still feel the chills and remember it as though it were yesterday.

To set the stage I must share one key bit of information about myself that I never tell anyone but I’ll disclose to you today. When I was 12 our family relocated to a small town on an island in Southeast Alaska. Sitka was a beautiful area especially when the sun was shining (which did not happen every day since it received over 100 inches of rain a year). Because it was on the edge of the ocean the townspeople decided that all children should know how to swim so they built an Olympic size pool at the junior high which was open for summer swimming and during the school year used for lessons. Fine and dandy, right? Well, except when my family moved there my sister and I thought we were too old for lessons since everyone else knew how to swim. This did not pose a problem to me until the semester before high school graduation. You know, the time period when school officials are reviewing your transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss an important required subject. They looked at my records: Good grades? Check. All required classes? Check. College application turned in? Check. Passed Basic Beginning Swimming? Whoops…where was that? After questioning me, and probably my parents, it was discovered that I had missed that important requirement for graduation and the swim teacher would have to tutor me or I wouldn’t graduate.

Oh the trauma I faced. Like a cat, I did not want to get into the cold pool, hated water up my nose and was scared when my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. But the swim teacher (who deserved a medal) did not let my protests sway him from his work and we practiced and practiced until finally I could jump off the low diving board, swim the length of the pool (without crying) and tread water for what seemed like an eternity.

Whew. I could graduate.

There you have it. I don’t call it a fear, I call it a healthy respect of water…naturally Matthew has the same feeling.

Back to my story.

Years had passed and I was married in Arizona and son Matthew was about five years old. In the mountains of Arizona there are many small manmade lakes. The Mogollon Rim country is idyllic especially in the summer, large puffy clouds skate across the sapphire blue sky. I often romanticized about wafting along leaning back in a small boat with my fingers gently skimming the clear deep water. Yes, I read too many romance stories when I was a teen… but I thought we needed to have a small little boat, big enough that we didn’t have to row but easy to transport to these mountain lakes.

In any case, the more common sense and practical spouse of mine suggested that we first try renting to see whether boating would fit our lifestyle, a smarter choice before running out to buy a craft we might rarely use. And so rent we did. Since Bob, Matthew and I were spending a week’s vacation in the mountains at my parent’s cabin it seemed this would be a great time to hire a boat for a day at one of the closer rim lakes. We picked up a nice 12-footer just a short drive from Blue Ridge Reservoir with plenty of room for the three of us.

The lake is contained in a long, steep and narrow canyon and is extremely deep. Tall Ponderosa Pine trees line it but few are able to grow roots in the bedrock so are only found higher along the ridge. From the boat ramp the reservoir snakes around to the dam. It is spectacularly beautiful. And for reasons that will soon become apparent you will have to be content with this picture from The Payson Roundup.

They changed the name to CC Cragin recently. Don't ask me why. The shoreline doesn't look nearly as steep from this areal view.

They changed the name to CC Cragin recently. Don’t ask me why. The shoreline doesn’t look nearly as steep from this aerial view.

Or you can use your imagination and look at this photo I took last week up there when we discovered the lake has been drained for major maintenance on the pump system.

This is at the head of the lake but very green and low because it's been drained.

This is at the head of the lake but very green and low because it’s been drained. Note those delicate wispy clouds.

The day was everything I imagined: the puffy clouds, the big blue sky, the cool clear water. For a while we putzed around the dam, throwing our fishing lines in but not caring whether we caught anything. The remote location meant it was not a crowded lake but still we saw several other boats and fishermen angling for one of the native Arizona trout but happy to catch a still delicious stocked trout. It was just as peaceful as in my dream.

Until the sun disappeared behind the clouds.

We had lived in Arizona long enough to understand the threat of Monsoon storms but hidden down in this canyon we could see no sign of a significant weather change until the clouds were nearly overhead. Still, we weren’t concerned and just decided it was time pack up our stuff and head back. As we putted along with the little five horsepower motor it soon became apparent that the wind had shifted and now was blowing directly down upon us making forward progress difficult. The idyllic day was rapidly deteriorating, my bright blue sky dotted with cottony clouds of a happy Bob Ross painting was hidden now by dark angry strokes from a tortured Van Gogh scene turning into a full-fledged summer deluge with thunder and lightning bringing with it wind and rain. It happened that I was handling the motor at the time and we decided we needed a more experienced driver so that we could get off the lake as quickly as possible therefore we would need to trade seats.

Matthew was up in the bow of the boat enjoying the bouncy ride. But we knew changing seats in a small boat requires coordination so Bob and I talked about moving as we had done before. Everything went well, I moved to the middle seat and Bob to the rear…

And just as he sat on the bench a ferocious gust of wind pushed the bow of the boat up in to the air with such force that everything changed! In an instant Matthew was thrown out of the boat, our belongings dumped into the lake and the back of the boat rapidly filled with water. A half second later Bob realizing the crisis jumped out of the boat to take the weight out of the back end. He snagged Matthew, who was screaming his head off, but quite safe wearing his life jacket and at the same time with Herculean effort pushed the back end of the boat up out of the water. Where was I? Well, it turns out I was going to take that Basic Beginning Swimmers Certificate down with me to Davey Jones’ locker. Yes, I was hanging on for dear life in a sinking boat.

There we were, a screaming mess, a half sunk boat on the far edge of the lake. Not another boat in sight. Fortunately, our hero Bob still holding onto Matthew and holding the boat from completely submerging somehow managed to swim and pull us to shore. As Matthew and I scrambled onto the steep ledge soaked, covered in mud and crying our hearts out we watched Bob bail water out of the boat. In typical monsoon fashion, nature’s fury was pelting huge rain drops down upon us but the rocky shore was so steep we could not climb to any shelter. There we sat huddled in the cold rain.

And when I say ‘we’ I mean me because Bob did not stop to cry, instead he bailed out the boat and somehow managed to get the motor running. It took him a good amount of time to convince Matthew and me to climb back into the boat if there had been any other way to walk we would have taken it. The rest of the ride was uneventful; by then the storm had died and there was only the chattering of our teeth to be heard above the motor. It didn’t take us long to unload the boat when we got it back on its trailer because everything was left at the bottom of the lake; the camera, our fishing poles, everything. Bob’s company ring, long a source of pride like a fraternity, was gone slipping his finger off as he pushed the boat out of the water.

Even though this happened years and years ago none of us has had a desire to do anything but fish from shore since. So there it is: my most harrowing experience. A day I never ever will repeat because I never ever will get in a small boat again.

Ever.

And So???

I know. I know. Dear gentle readers, who followed us all the way up to the North Country and back, you are right to ask this very question. What happened to us? Did we just disappear? Did we melt in the heat? Well, honestly, time escaped me and until my air card required its monthly renewal I didn’t realize how much had passed.

After our return to the very HOT Valley of the Sun we had only a few days before Rebecca headed back to school. We are learning that medical school programs do not have to follow the same schedule as the regular university. Without Rebecca’s company we decided to let Bob fend for himself and Matthew and I headed up to Strawberry to work on a few projects. . . and that’s where we’ve been since.

My helper.

My helper.

You may remember we have a little place right on the side of the Mogollon Rim. It’s wonderful Ponderosa Pine country and at 6,000 feet it is always much cooler and peaceful than the metropolitan area of Phoenix. Once the monsoon season arrives it brings cooling rains most every afternoon and provides an amazing respite from the valley heat a short two hour drive away.

The monsoon brings welcome rain which is especially fun to watch from the front porch.

The monsoon brings welcome rain which is especially fun to watch from the front porch.

Anyway, there have been a number of items on my priority list begging for attention at the place. Since Matthew and I had no other commitments we thought we’d use this time to start tackling them. As we were working I remembered when last I had attempted to work on some of them. For example, I wanted to take the many sandstone rocks from the lot and build them into a stairway on part of the hill. I remember well heading out with my shovel in hand and trying to dig the dirt so that I could move the rocks around. I remember how quickly I became discouraged when I tired after chipping out what seemed like only a half shovel of dirt.

I blamed the high elevation. . . It takes time to become acclimated and be able to work at such altitudes.

I blamed the rocky soil. . .Who can shovel this hard rock filled caliche?

I blamed my age. . .After all, I was nearing that scary mid-life number.

I blamed everything but I didn’t realize the culprit. Longtime readers and my family know what it was. They know the answer. I discovered it in September four years ago. It was an insidious cancer that was so slow growing in my body that all its symptoms were able to be explained away.

Today I lecture people. I know the caregiver’s life is never her own. But there are times when we must make ourselves the priority. (And even though I had gone to the doctor I had put off getting that screening mammogram because. . . well. . . there were other things needing my attention. . .)

So there. After going through the hell of chemo and radiation therapy I came out on the other end, slightly worse for wear. I still have chemo brain and just hate when I can’t remember the _____.

Before

Before

and After.

and After.

But. Here I am and it is four years later. Matthew and I headed back to the mountains to see what we could accomplish. And this time, I’m pleased to report that I could shovel the dirt. And I could move the rocks. And we were able to trim the trees and use the weed eater—we hauled off three truck and trailer loads of brush. And we even worked on the inside of the house painting.

My rock staircase. A work in progress.

My rock staircase. A work in progress.

You may be asking when or if we will return to the valley. But I know if you are fighting the urge to turn down the air conditioner and sweating instead of sleeping at night you will understand that I am keeping the windows open and sometimes, well sometimes, the fan is just a little too cool. Ha. We’ll come back when the high temp drops under triple digits. Or. . .

100_1848. . . if Matthew’s satellite reception goes out.

And so. . . that is my report. I am happy to say we have been busy. But, never fear, I have been thinking of lots of other things to share, including a couple of product reviews and I promise to post them soon.