Friday, January 20, 2017

Inflamed, Yet Untamed: My Crohn's Story Part II

This is the second in a 3-part series chronicling Justin's journey with Crohn's disease so far. The story gets personal, and may be TMI for some people. Be warned. The first post was focused on J's history of Crohn's from his perspective. This second post is about J's Oct. 18 surgery and the 10 days in the hospital that followed from both of our perspectives. 

On October 18, 2016, at 7:30 am, I (Justin) laid on the gurney and was pretty relaxed, not because of any drugs, but because the Rose Medical Center staff was so nice and informative. The anesthesiologist told me everything she was going to do and promised I wouldn't remember a thing. I wasn't scared or nervous. I then tipped back the cup with some pills and washed them down. The last thing I remember was a kiss from my angel and I was out.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I (Patrice) walked with Justin's mom into the waiting area, leaving my husband alone to be rolled away into surgery. I didn't dare show him how upset or nervous I was. Justin told very few people about the surgery beforehand and our coping mechanism had us playing it off like it was nothing.

I just kept thinking about some of the points a good friend wrote Justin the night before:
  • You ARE destined to climb those mountains
  • You ARE destined to dance at at least 250 more shows
  • You ARE destined to continue to help children learn about nature and how we can live together
I knew these things were true.

Justin's mom, oldest sister and I nervously waited. The 5-hour surgery passed slowly for us. Believe it or not, the anesthesiologist and a nurse texted me updates and we hung onto every word.

"Slow steady progress. Not unexpectedly there is a lot of adhesions from the inflammation of the Crohn's. The procedure has turned out to be involved. He is remarkably stable. All is well."

When his awesome surgeon came out with news around 12:45pm, she was as patient with us as she was during the surgery.

"It was not pretty in there. I had several doctors taking a peek and no one knows how he endured living like that."

She removed about a foot of diseased small intestine (including his appendix), 6 inches of his colon that was also compromised and sent samples of the tissue for testing what type of bacteria was causing his infection and how best to treat it. What she removed was actually the "worst case scenario" she described to Justin and I months ago in her office.

It had a name, or rather a mouthful: a complex ileosigmoid fistula and erosion of sigmoid colon into the sacrum because of Crohn's inflammation causing sacral osteomyelitis.

The hospital liaison allowed only me, but only me, to go back to see him in recovery.

After you wake up from a five-hour operation, it isn't at all like they show on Grey's Anatomy. Justin was disoriented and could barely keep his eyes opened. His lips and throat were so parched from the breathing tube and he was begging for water.

He wasn't allowed to have water, let alone any liquids. The best I could do was swab his lips with a sponge and apply chapstick. It was futile; each letter he mumbled was a chunk of pumice scraping his larynx.

"Did they take out my whole small intestine," he wheezed. "Do I have a bag?"

"Shhhh," I squeezed his hand a little tighter. "Don't talk. Everything is going to be okay."

The "bag" was the biggest source of worry for Justin. His surgeon—not knowing what she was going to find until she cut him open—said a temporary colostomy, or an ileostomy, would be a possibility.

The best way to describe these foreign words in laymen terms would be a "bag for poop." A surgeon essentially telescopes an intestine with an artificial opening out of the stomach and connects it to a bag so it bypasses certain systems. So for Justin, he ended up with a ileostomy, using a piece of his ileum (small intestine) to connect to a bag and bypassing his colon so the abscesses on it could heal.

Justin was so worried about having a bag and only agreed to it if it were temporary. He told his surgeon before the procedure, "if you get in there, and it is so bad that you think it will be a permanent bag, please just sew me back up."

It was temporary, but she really couldn't say on the day of surgery for how long. Intestines have their own timeline for healing.

They settled Justin into his room on the 6th floor around 4pm and his mom could finally see him (she sat in the waiting room pacing and wondering why I was in the recovery room for 45 minutes when they said I could only see him for 5 minutes).
Justin's first time outside wasn't until Day 6!

The fits of misery started right away. There was a deep aching pain and he couldn't find a position that worked. Not to mention that he was still very hooked up: he had a catheter, a drain the right side of his abdomen, the ileostomy on his left side, a 5-inch incision, two IVs, a heart rate monitor and oxygen tubes in his nose. Remarkably, he was still cracking jokes, thanking the doctors and nurses, and apologizing all the time for requesting things.

The first thing I (Justin) remember was being in my room and seeing my mom and Patrice. There was so much stuff hanging off me. I was so drowsy, had a hard time staying awake and was so forgetful and confused. I would dose off, then wake asking the same questions over and over again (Do I have a bag? How much intestine did they remove? What about the infection?)

Justin's mom and I (Patrice) became the super power tag team through his hospitalization. I slept at the hospital every night, and Justin's mom took the days. Neither one of us wanted to leave him alone. It pained us to watch him, but we fed off of each other's strengths so we could be there for his every need.

The first few days following the surgery were a blur for me (Justin). I have pockets of memories, like getting up to walk the first time, wondering why my pee was bright red, feeling my lips on fire, pain everywhere and being hungry.

Justin's recovery plan entailed two things:
1) No eating, not even liquids or water, until his bag had output (for clarification, his bowels had been sleepy because of all the meds and trauma. They needed them to "wake up" and eating would only block him up.)
2) Walk and move from the bed to the chair at least three times/day, and increase that movement as the days went on. Moving not only got bowels moving, but prevented blood clots.
The poor guy had issue after issue. Immediately after the surgery, one of his complaints was about his left eye ... turns out taping his eyes to protect them during surgery resulted in a scratched cornea. He slept in 45-minute increments. His anxiety was at an all-time high. His throat was so dry from the breathing tube (he was only allowed to have hard candies and chew gum). The pain meds made him itchy. His skin was so tight from water retention. His belly was distended. The staples on his scar were painful. Then of course there was the "bag."
An eye injury! Of all things!

Watching the bag became Justin's biggest obsession and source of stress. Output in Justin's bag was not only his ticket to eat, but his ticket to being released. Just as a watched pot never boils, a watched bag never produces. Justin was checking his bag just about every 30 minutes. Asking people to pray for poop was both funny and sad.

By Day 5, Justin was in a dark place of major discouragement.

We tried to keep him positive by pointing out the bright sides--the eye was healed, the catheter came out, no more oxygen needed and there were now 3-hr stretches of sleeping instead of just 45 minutes. Luckily, both J's sisters live in Denver and 2 nephews, so there were lots of people to bring cheer. Plus, Justin had more energy to talk on the phone, so everyone was doing their best to lift his spirits. The doctors and nurses were not too worried, reassuring us that the number of days for output depended on the person. Listless and empty, Justin soldiered on.
Everett said he could make Uncle Justin all better! 

On Day 7, the floodgates opened!

I (Justin) felt like I was winning the lottery, finding gold, striking oil!!!  Ok maybe it wasn't that great, but boy did I feel relief ... in so many ways. The funny thing is I had no one to celebrate with.  Patrice and Mom just stepped out for a well-deserved lunch, but upon their return, they partied with me. Plus every nurse on the 6th floor stopped by with a big congrats!

Even though I was so hungry, eating was tough for me. I was so nervous about blocking things up. I ordered whatever I could on the menu, but only took a few bites here and there.

First solid food in EIGHT days!!!

I (Patrice) left on Day 9. We had committed to caretaking Fenton Ranch in New Mexico knowing the surgery would take place and Justin may have to remain in Denver for IV antibiotics. Justin's mom was happy to take care of her son, and although I hated leaving him, I knew he was in the best of hands.

On Day 10, I (Justin) was being released! My buddy, Brad, flew in from New Jersey, which was perfect timing as both my mom and I needed some help.  Brad was a lifesaver, even though I could barely function and spent most of his visit sleeping. Little things really do help!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Inflamed, Yet Untamed: My Crohn’s Story Part I

This post will finally bring our blog readers up to date on Justin’s health and recent events. Justin actually tries to stay very private, despite the fact I have a blog! With a little prodding, I told him he had to share his story. It gets personal, and may be TMI for some people. Be warned. This is Part I of a 3-part series. 

As far back as I can remember, I had constant pain in my stomach. I would keel over and wrap myself in a ball, pushing my knees as hard as I could into my stomach.  It was the only way to ease the pain. My mom said I was colicky even as a baby, but little did she know what was to come. 
I was her first, and favorite.

I always had to run, literally run, to the bathroom. Unlike most people, it was very hard for me to hold it.  I would panic and rush like Wiley Coyote to make it to the bowl.  I was lucky because my bedroom was closest to the bathroom.  But living with three females (my 2 sisters and mother), you can imagine the high occupancy of said bathroom. My sisters would pound on our single bathroom door, but it was the only place I felt relief, so I spent hours in there. 
Women have always ruled my life ... 

I tried hiding my pains and problems from my mom.  But moms know best and she was onto me. Months and months of doctors appointments trying to figure out if I was allergic to something, lactose intolerant, sensitive to certain foods … It seemed no one could answer my burning question…

When I was 15 years old and after my umpteenth appointment, a doctor had the answer. 

“You have Crohn’s disease.” 

My mom and I looked at each other and said great, now we know what it is, so lets fix it.  But no, we soon found out this would be a lifelong battle.   

For most of my teenage years, I cycled between prednisone prescriptions (steroid for inflammation) and hospital visits.  I would feel great when on my drugs: high energy, eating better, but than BAM!  It would hit me—a huge flair up.  I think I spent more time in the hospital my junior year of high school than in school.  I was often hooked up to IVs with meds and nutrition.  I was actually awarded “most courageous student.”  At the time, I was embarrassed to receive this in front of all my peers.  Only a small amount of my closest friends actually knew what was going.  But one friend, who still is one my closest, was so proud of me and gave me a huge pat on the back.  Looking back on that award, I did deserve it.  Even when I was down and out with my condition, I worked hard trying to get good grades, participating in sports and keeping a social life.  High school was tough, but I survived.
My friends were a good support through high school ... and still are.

I was psyched to go to college.  I was on my own.  In my own room, hundreds of miles from home, and there were girls everywhere! (FYI: I went to an all-boys high school).  I was still on a variety of Crohn’s meds, but having all this freedom was tempting.  I drank, ate hot wings and just did not take care of myself enough.  Flare ups happened and I would just deal.  I returned back home every couple of months for check ups.  I remember the day after the From Good Homes show at Pingry High School on 5/16/97, I got sick and ended up in the hospital for some time.  In fact, I was pretty sick at the show, but could not miss it.  And of course, I still made it to the Bucknell show the following week!  I think music was my best medication.  During my junior year of college, I moved to Florida for a Disney Internship and worked hard, but also partied hard. Thankfully, I made it though. My 4.5 years of college passed with minor issues, nothing like High School.   
Florida: My days were filled with sun and beer.

Then I moved back to good ol’ NJ and worked at skilled nursing home as a therapist.  I was back with my high school buddies, had a great job and was living with my mom.  I don’t know if it was work stress or my lifestyle, but I started having problems again.  More doctors appointments, changing meds, test after test.  They put me on a new IV treatment called Remicade (it really helped).  For those two years, I was hurting and in and out of the hospital.  But towards the end, I was doing much better and had another life change ahead of me.  

I was going to graduate school!!  I moved to Arizona to get my Masters degree at Arizona State University, wanting to better my education and get a job in the outdoor industry.  No more distractions, no girls and work on “me” time.  But then I met her, the person that would change my life and help me improve my health.  
My angel

Patrice had her head on her shoulders and together we fixed me, well tried. At that time, my health insurance expired and I was running out of my medication. Patrice worked as a medical researcher/writer and was so excited to use her knowledge to help me find alternative methods. I started eating a lot better, drinking a lot less and exercising more. Patrice and I identified my trigger foods (salads, nuts, seeds) and stayed away from them. 

To my surprise, my Crohn’s really started to go into remission and continued into my 30s. I had stopped meds for years. My flare ups were explained, either by eating the wrong foods or drinking too much beer. I even noticed I could eat salads again! I had regular colonoscopies, with my last one in 2011. My doctor advised me that I still showed fistulas on my small intestines, but I was indeed in remission. He knew we were leaving to thru hike the Appalachian Trail and said I could wait 3 years to do another colonoscopy. 

Three years passed and I felt great! We had completed two thru hikes and I hardly had any flare-ups, which was great because we were living a very nomadic life and our health insurance was based out of Virginia, a state we visited once a year, if that. 

In the fall of 2015, I started to feel stomach pains and pressure again. It was a little different than my previous flare-ups, because it felt like it was centralized in my back and legs, like a sciatic nerve problem or something. We were still nomadic, but knew we’d be claiming residency in Colorado starting Jan. 1, 2016, so I decided to wait until then to find a new doctor. I once again resorted to identifying trigger foods and found going dairy-free helped. 

I had my first colonoscopy since 2011 in March 2016. The inflammation was so bad in my intestines, I had to fast for 4 days for it to be effective. My GI doc was displeased with the results and sent me for a CT scan in April to get a closer look. Still displeased and not sure what he was seeing, he ordered an MRI in May.  He was still not sure what this inflammation was, but fairly certain it wasn’t cancer. 

If May 2016 sounds familiar for a big event, it should. It was the month I spent 23 days climbing Denali in Alaska. Just days before I was to leave, my doctor advised me not to go.  In fact, he said if I climbed, there was a good chance I would not come back.  Our motto is “you only live once,” so we both agreed that Denali was worth the risk.  

I felt great on the climb, but knew there was this lingering and unanswered medical issue weighing on my mind. When I returned to Colorado in June, my GI doc said, "wow, you're alive" and then said the inflammation issue was really out of his field and referred me to a spinal surgeon.

The spinal surgeon took some guesses as to what was going on, but still did not have a solution. He thought my small intestine was so inflamed from the Crohn’s that it fused itself to my sacrum. He thought maybe I had a bone infection, or osteomyelitis. He did not think his kind of surgery was the answer, so referred me to an infectious disease doctor. 

Did I mention how hard it is to get in to see new doctors? I finally saw an infectious disease doctor in August, who sat me down and told me that what he saw on paper was very different than who he was seeing in person.

“I was expecting to see a feeble, pale man,” he said. “Are you sure you really just climbed Denali?”

He confirmed there was probably a bone infection, but what type was in question. And he really couldn’t treat the infection with antibiotics until the source of the problem was cut off. He referred me to a colorectal surgeon. 

She finally gave me an answer. 

“I have to cut you open, remove the diseased intestine, then we can see what’s going on in your spine. I really can’t make any promises and speculations until I cut you open.”

Life is funny how all of the sudden you have no choice but to put your complete faith in a complete stranger. 

Surgery was scheduled for Oct. 18, 2016.  Today was my 3 month anniversary.  


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Five Unconventional Money-Saving Tips

J & I have some lofty money-saving goals this year. Much to our parents' chagrin, our money-saving goals usually do not involve saving for retirement or college funds for offspring they want wish we had—rather for the next big adventures.
New Mexico sunsets rank among our top sunsets. 

Pre-2011, when we had full-time, steady employment, saving money was easy. We set aside X amount of our regular paychecks and tucked it away in two accounts called "Travel Dreams" and "Special Savings" that we started together in 2005. One was meant to be for life emergencies and the other for travel. Those accounts still exist, and in fact, have grown instead of shrunk.

This surprises me. Working contract jobs 4-6 months out of the year makes stashing money away regularly very difficult. At the end of our working stints, we usually reassess our finances to budget what we need to live for our non-working time, and part with the rest into savings. Sometimes it is only $100, but other times it is 4 figures. Other than that, we have to be creative in our thriftiness.

I've said this before, but our nomadic lifestyle affords us to spend less money than we would living and working in civilization. We choose jobs that include room (housing, utilities, limited Internet), and sometimes even board. Then, while we are working, we spend very little money, which I attribute to the fact that we usually live in the middle of nowhere with access to virtually no forms of entertainment. I also truly believe that you spend less money when you have a smaller paycheck, but I know no one wants to take the kind of pay cut we've taken in the past 6 years!

The other fact is that we are extremely frugal with our money. Particularly J. If you squeeze him hard enough, quarters will come out his butt. (And then he will pick up those quarters because he ALWAYS looks for change on the ground and picks it up). I cannot overstate his conservative approach to finances enough ... a $5 pizza is $2.75 too expensive. For example, we debated upon accepting this Fenton Ranch caretaking gig about getting DirectTV or DishNetwork, mainly so J could watch football. But instead we stuck to the old-fashioned antenna on the roof and have prayed football airs on Fox (the only reliable network channel we receive) or NBC (which comes in when you sit on the east side of the room). Another extreme: J needs to weigh himself regularly given his Crohn's disease. What does he do instead of buying a scale? Weighs himself in the grocery store every time we go food shopping.

And yes, we pick and choose ways to "treat yo' self," but we also stay on target with the bigger goals in mind.

So while most of these tips, sacrifices and tradeoffs do no apply to the normal person, I still thought it'd be fun to share P & J's most unique money-saving tips. We have many, but here are 5 that are working the best for us these days.

1) Food shop like you live 2 hours from the closest grocery store or Amazon Prime Pantry does not deliver to your area. 
Living remotely will teach you a thing or 2 about using what you have wisely and which fruits and veggies last the longest (FYI, carrots last forever! Or at least 4 months.). When we were caretakers for that private island for 2 months, the island people told us beforehand it is sometimes tricky to get us on and off the island. We took this as a challenge!! Our goal was to buy enough groceries to last us the whole 2 months. And although I've relaxed considerably, my Type A planner personality feeds into this type of food shopping. I literally wrote out 15-20 meal suggestions that we could repeat and repurpose ingredients. Bake a whole chicken as a meal, use the leftovers to make chicken soup to freeze and chicken salad for lunch. You have yourself at least 5 meals. Now, the truth was, we could have easily gotten off the island for groceries. And often times, the incredibly generous islanders either brought us a special treat, or gifted us leftovers (we always take leftovers) when they were closing up their house for the winter. But the point is, we succeeded. The average American spends 8% of their income on groceries. When you stop running to the grocery store 4 times/week, there's extra money in the piggy bank.

2) Respond to offers in your inbox. 
This looks different for J and I. For me, I look for the credit card and customer service surveys that ask me to respond in exchange for a statement credit or coupon. For J, he enters every and all contests. My complaint with his method is that his inbox is way clogged. When he was on Denali for 23 days this summer, I "managed" his inbox. I must have spent 30 minutes a day unsubscribing to junk mail because it drove me crazy!! In his defense though, entering ALLTHECONTESTS translates to him winning a lot! Off the top of my head, in the past 6 months, he's won 2 pairs of shoes, a complete yoga outfit for me, a jacket for himself and several bags of coffee.
These leggings are the best ever! Cost=0

3) When you shop online, take an extra 2 minutes to look for coupon codes.
Before I click "purchase," I do a quick search for product/company-specific online coupon codes and usually always find something, even if it is only 10% off or free shipping. For example, the reason we only send out 30 Holiday Cards anymore is because I don't buy them. I always looks for the "free 10 cards" and stockpile leading up to December. With those deals, you only pay shipping, which is usually $5.99 or so.  If I only end up with 10 cards, so be it. This year I ended up with 30 cards and paid close to $20 for those. (Apologies if you did not receive a card this year, or last year, or the year before ...)

4) Forgo having a car. 
This year we invested in a camper van. We drive around the country a lot. We outgrew our Subaru Baja and found we needed a place to "live" during our off periods. The solution: our 1995 Roadtrek. Now when we make the 8-hour trek from Fenton Ranch to Denver, for example, we don't have to book a hotel to break it up or try to time it to make in one day. Our 2016 summer 10,000-mile road trip across 18 states saved us oodles of money on lodging and even food. A camper van would be terribly inefficient if we were making a daily commute, and in truth, is a little inconvenient when we are in Denver visiting family and going from A to B (J's mom gets the brunt of it as she always offers us to use her car instead and we graciously accept). But, overall, it was a smart move given our lifestyle. As for spending the winter up at Fenton, we toyed with buying a beater car to get us on and off the mountain for our monthly food shopping trip in Albuquerque (2 hours away). But luckily, we find a mutually beneficial agreement with our boss. She and her husband do not necessarily need their second car for the winter, so we are renting it from her!
The Wanderer is resting these days.
5) Sell your stuff.
Oh man, if I had a nickel for every time someone said to us, "I should sell my collection of X that's sitting collecting dust in my basement," I could buy that $5 pizza without hesitation. J is a ninja of eBay, Craigslist and any other online selling forums. His obsession really started when we bought our house in Danville in 2004 that came with 6 refrigerators, 4 clawfoot tubs, 8 stoves and lots of furniture. One person's trash is another person's treasure and J sold every one of those! As we paired down our own possessions over the years and moved to a more nomadic life, it was clear that it was much better to get rid of things than to box them up and keep them in storage. Now, this is definitely still a work in progress and really is a full-time job sometimes—and the juice is not always worth the squeeze for some of the smaller sales—but when your storage unit (or units in our case) is bigger than your living quarters, it is a must.
Justin = King of Selling Our Crap!

Anyone have money-saving tips for us????  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Currently: December

Happy New Year! Forgive me for being 1 day late with this ... 

Currently living/working in: Still property caretaking of Fenton Ranch in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico … and now I have my husband here full time too!!!

Current mood: Unimaginable joy for being reunited permanently with Justin!!!
Currently excited about: 2017! We can all admit 2016 was a train wreck of tragedy and political upheavals. For us personally, it was quite bipolar with a few awesome moments coupled with speed bumps. I am hopeful for 2017. You know us, always something up our sleeves!!

Currently not excited about: Snowblowing, shoveling, chopping wood, repeat. For at least three more months. We asked for pioneer living and we got it!
Bobby, I know you want to critique my form ... 

Currently amazed by: People who live in the woods and are self sufficient! This is our dream—living in a cabin in the snowy mountains—so I cannot complain. But damn! It is hard work and I severely underestimated it. We have a snowblower and that helps with snow removal, but it is still work. As for wood splitting and stocking, it is a constant chore. When we managed Bears Den Hostel and Trail Center in Virginia, we were spoiled by a chainsaw and hydraulic wood splitter! In any case, Justin is here and wants to help with all tasks, but I promised his mom not to let him chop wood (so hopefully she doesn't notice the picture below). 

Currently worried about: Justin is certainly on the road to recovery (and I know we owe you all a full post on everything medical-related), but Crohn’s is a lifelong condition to battle. 

Currently thankful for: Having a human companion in the New Mexico cabin! I really did love my 6 weeks of solo cabin time (plus 3 cats) and I certainly used it wisely. And the truth is, we have wonderful “neighbors” up here at Fenton (they may be 1-3 miles away and not up here full time, but neighbors nonetheless). Still, nothing beats having my honey by my side. 

Currently proud of: Writing a 65,000-word book in less than a year. I officially started writing on Feb. 9, 2016, and finished on Nov. 20, 2016 (although writers are forever editors, so it will never really be done). 2016 was the year I dedicated myself to writing, and I feel very accomplished. I’ve only sent it off to one publisher, but I have lofty goals of sending it to 25 other publishers. Maybe 2017 will be the year I score a publisher!  

Currently regretting: Booking airline tickets to go see J’s dad in Florida 2 days before the price dropped $60 per person. Grrrr … 

Current confession: We have a love-hate relationship with these kittens. The mama is fine and will stay as the Fenton Ranch cat, but the kittens are troublemakers and having 2 humans and 3 cats in a 250-square-foot cabin is a little too tight! If you are interested in adopting the cutest kittens eva, let us know! 

Current guilty pleasure: Omaha Steaks! My parents had given us an order for our 10-year anniversary, then J’s dad gave us an order for Christmas. Nom nom nom. 

Currently reading: I made the rare switch to fiction this month!!! My friend Lindsay Harrel just published her first novel, One More Song To Sing. It was fantastic and I’m very proud of her. It is a cute story about a young country star singer who moves to Nashville to try to make it big, but there is a small twist as she is also trying to track down her long lost mother. Alongside it, I finished Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. I’ve actually only read one of Stephen King’s books (11-22-63, which still stands in my top 5 fiction books), but I’ve seen a lot of his movies. In any case, it was fun to read his take on the writing process and how he grew from a dreamer to a best-selling novelist. 

Currently watching on Netflix: While we were in Denver for Christmas, we started streaming the second season of “The Man in the High Castle” (actually, this is on Amazon Prime, not Netflix), but now that we are back to life with limited Internet, we are back on the Netflix DVD program. If you want a good thriller, rent, “Don’t Breathe.” Creepy!!!!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Traditions

I love Christmas traditions and I love how every family has different ones. Growing up, there are a few key traditions I cherished the most: opening our very awesome Advent calendar everyday, sleeping by the lighted Christmas tree at least one night in December, occasionally going to see the tree in NYC (moreso when I was a teenager with friends), participating in the church pageant, opening up a new pair of pajamas to wear Christmas Eve and waking up Christmas morning to one single present by our beds from Santa that we could open right away. 
Throwback: 1989 NYC Trip with my family

When Justin and I built our life together, we created our own Christmas traditions. We've had to abandon a few of them due to our nomadic life (i.e., decorating--I have four boxes of Christmas decorations sitting in storage in Virginia and it makes me very sad, but I did steal a set of Christmas lights--circa 1980--from my mom to decorate our cabin in New Mexico this year). 
Throwback: Our heavily decorated New Hampshire apartment in 2007.

Still, there are a few traditions we've kept, mainly involving our nephews and niece. For years and years, Justin called Ryan (now 14) and Sarah (now 11) pretending to be Santa. Then our friends had kids and upon request, he calls them. On this year's phone call, our goddaughter Anna (4) said, "I love you Santa!!" and it just about brought tears to all our eyes. This year, he started calling our nephews, Everett (4) and Owen (2+). J's "Santa Calling Program" stemmed from his time as assistant director of parks and recreation in Danville, VA. If you want the full story of it and hear about the funniest phone call ever, check out this post from 2009
Everett says: "Well Santa, don't make your sled too heavy cause the reindeer can't pull it."

When J's mom lived in New Jersey, we used to be able to easily shuffle around and split our holiday time with both families. But now with all of J's family in Colorado and mine still on the East Coast, we have to choose one side! I mentioned in last year's post that we've switched to spending Christmas with J's family, given the young age of our nephews on that side. Christmas with youngins' draws in the true spirit, although I may have to throw my family a bone one of these years, as sister and niece really miss having us there ... But for now, Colorado it is.

A tradition we've kept over the years--even as nomads--has been the Eve reading of "The Night Before Christmas" to the kiddos. Everett and Owen love it just as much as Ryan and Sarah did all those years. 
New traditions are being kept with J's sisters and Mom. Just like last year, we attended the children's mass on the Eve, followed by dinner hosted by my MIL. Christmas morning, we all convene at my SIL's house as early as we can get our butts over there (the kids are up at 7am, ready to open presents). The 15-minute kid-present-opening is followed by a big brunch. We all disperse for afternoon naps and whatnot, then come back to Russ and Julie's to stuff ourselves with more delicious foods. The adults also participate in a "grab bag" gift exchange. J & I stopped exchanging in our nomadic life, so it's kind of fun to have that to look forward to! 

Hope your holiday season was merry and bright. What traditions have been your favorites? 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Te Araroa Book Progress Volume 3: Book Proposal

As I type this, I'm eating Cheerios for breakfast, it is 4 degrees out, and oh, I sent off my book proposal for my Te Araroa travel memoir to the first publisher I am targeting.
Book proposal. Oh boy. If I poured my heart and soul into my book, then I poured someone else's heart and soul into the book proposal.

When I finished writing the book on Dec. 1, I had no idea what I was getting into for this next step.

There is a format for this thing, but it's not as much a paint-by-numbers type of instruction. So of course I overanalyzed every piece of it. Bullets in this section? No bullets? Should this sentence go before this one? Or this one?

Now, 21 pages later, I have a synopsis, competitive market analysis, a marketing platform and chapter outlines.

Along with the book proposal, I sent sample chapters carefully plucked from the book. I read, reread, revised and rewrote these chapters at least 170,000 times. Writer friends (and Justin!) read and gave me feedback--invaluable feedback. I was prepared for a sea of track marks across my pages. But nothing they said stung. In fact, they merely suggested things that I couldn't believe I didn't think of myself.

Writing is such a personal act, especially in works of nonfiction drawn from your own experiences.  During this past month of November, I spent more hours with it than I did with any living soul (unless cats have souls?). And now I've sent my baby off into the publishing world.

Well, only to one publisher so far. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I'm taking a holiday break from my book to be with my husband (yeah!!) and his family. Post-holiday, I have a list of 25 other publishers who will be so excited to receive my book proposal (amiright???). There's still more work to be done, but another step down.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Fenton Ranch Visitors

It used to be, no matter where we lived, we would have a revolving door of visitors.

Nowadays, we live even more in the boondocks than ever, and only a few brave souls follow us where we go.

I'm happy to say, we hosted our first Fenton Ranch visitor: Justin's mom!

This visit was extra special, as J is still recovering in the big city of Denver, so he and his mom took a road trip to visit me at Fenton Ranch!
It's been brrrrr cold up in the mountains of New Mexico, so we mainly hung by the fire. We didn't have our go-to board game of Scrabble, but we did have Risk! I was so, so excited to play the game of world domination. I spent the better part of my freshman year of high school playing with my two best friends every weekend (I already admitted I was a nerd in high school!). I thought for sure this was a game I could beat J and his mom ...
But after three full days of playing, Justin proved himself once again as the champion of all games.

We did get outside and go exploring locally! We took J's mom on our snowy trails, down to the famous Jemez Springs Bath House for a soak and out for grub at the eclectic Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon.

We also took a day to explore Santa Fe, which is really quite beautiful in the evenings with all the luminaries and Christmas lights draped on the abode buildings. Mostly this was a walk-around-the-shops trip, but we made sure to enjoy cuisine at the top-rated restaurants--The Shed and Cafe Pasquals--both excellent!
For everyone else, the invite to Fenton Ranch exists! This is not meant to deter you, just meant to be a warning: we are 2 hours from the Albuquerque airport on a mountainous road with no cell service (although my sister likes to remind me this is no different than the last several places we've lived). We already have two friends with their tickets booked in January, so let's see how many others dare to venture into the unplugged territory ...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Te Araroa Book Progress Volume 2: Writing Complete!

The last time I worked on my travel memoir was May 30, 2016 and when I left off, I had a grand total of 33,620 words.

Drumroll please ...

I have finished!!!!

But wait! Stop the cheering! While it is certainly a big deal that I finished writing the story of our thru hike on New Zealand's Te Araroa, I am actually FAR from done.

So let's start with what being "finished" means.

*I've spent the last month living in a cabin in the woods on my own. No people, no Justin (sadly), just the cats and myself. Here's the thing I discovered though. As much as I miss my husband terribly, I write better in solitude. There's NO way I could have cranked out 20,000 more words in less than 30 days if Justin were here bugging me to play the Bean Game. (I'd like to point out that there is a writer initiative in November called NaNoWriMo, which basically is a challenge to write 50K words in the month of November. After accomplishing only 20K, I find this cra-cra, but more power to them).
*Further, our cabin in the New Mexico mountains could not have been a more perfect setting for writing a book. Studies show that nature stimulates creativity in the brain. Pretty sure I can vouge for that. My creative juices were flowing like the creek in our backyard. 
This is not the same picture as the one below ... 
My view changed from fall to winter last week!
Closeup of my view ... I spy a deer!

*Every time I read a portion of my book, I find a flaw. I believe this is a good thing, because there's usually a sentence missing comma or a word I know I've used 17,000 times. No matter how many times I've read the first chapter of my book (roughly 20 times), I can always find something to fix! Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
*Revisions are also coming from others, too. Justin read my whole book in one day!! Now of course he is biased, but he still has some surprisingly good feedback! I have a few other writer friends reading specific chapters I plan to submit to publishers. While they will also have the story's best interests at heart, they will be less gentle and complimentary (that's actually what I need).

*The dreaded—yet inevitable—self doubt that comes with the territory of book writing has already begun for me. I've already used that overdramatic adjective 17,000 times. Will readers really know what I mean when I write "flamingo-colored alpenglow" and "mountains looming menacingly like a prehistoric monster?" Or is that overkill? Can someone remind me of the difference between dashes and commas in writing? 

*My book is about 54K words, and I'm aiming for 60K. My writing process was chronological (big surprise given my Type A personality) and I just wanted to get the story down on paper. Now, I'm going back and enhancing certain scenes and details. I am in love with writing this story, so this part is fun.

*You know what's not fun? Putting together a book proposal.

Book Proposal 101
I've said this before, but selling myself makes me break into hives. Justin and I have worked together to create our "brand," at least in that we have been sharing our stories and expertise in the outdoor world and thus building trust. This has taken time and consistency. We continue to partner with several gear companies and Backpacker Magazine because of this. But really, Justin deserves all the credit on this. He's the persistent one who isn't afraid to ask. Don't mind me, I'll just be cowering in the corner while he does that.

Now it's my turn to take the reigns and own my awesomeness (I just cringed writing that phrase).

Back in the day, all a writer really had to worry about was writing a book and writing a query letter to a publisher. Like a cover letter, the query letter brags about you and summarizes your book in the most polished 3-4-sentence elevator pitch you can create.

Nowadays, it is a whole lot more. Querying a publisher (or an agent, who will then find you a publisher) involves research on the book's potential competition, market, and publicity ideas. I've really minimized it, but trust me when I say it's laborious and tedious. I'm writing this blog post as a way to procrastinate working on my book proposal ...

After you pour your blood, sweat and tears into your book, query letter and book proposal, then you can send it out into the big bad world of publishing.

But guess what? It's a long shot. Did you know publishers pursue less than 1% of submitted work.

Also, fun fact: anyone remember the NY Times best-selling book, Chicken Soup for the Soul? The authors of the original book endured 140 submissions before getting picked up by a publisher.

Totally reassuring. I have my work cut out for me!

So that's where I'm at. Hoping to finish the book proposal and revisions by the holidays, then it's send, send, send. And wait, wait, wait.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Opt Outside

Thanksgiving is upon us and while the focus is rightfully on quality time with families and friends, you may have noticed another initiative during the past few years: Opt Outside.
Green is the new black. 
The concept was launched by REI in 2015 when the major outdoor retailer announced they would close all 143 shop doors on Black Friday, paying their 12,000 employees not to work and instead go outside and play, with a nudge for customers to do the same. By the time Nov. 27, 2015, rolled around, approximately 150 other companies charged ahead with the same message to their employees, and dozens of other retailers also closed their doors to shoppers.

This year, REI will again close all shop doors (now 149 stores!) and pay all 12,287 employees to play outside on Black Friday. (I'm certain this is one of the reasons REI has made Fortune's 100 Best Companies To Work For during the past 19 years).

The momentum continues to grow, as other employers have followed suite, certain state parks offer free admission and organizations are leading nationwide outdoor events giving people alternative options and creating a new holiday tradition for Friday.

I once was part of the consumeristic chaos, as I worked at Hallmark for 6 years of my life through high school and college. I loved working retail and at that time in my life, I loved Black Friday shopping.

Obviously, I've changed my tune in the last 20 years.

The "Opt Outside" initiative is not new to Justin nor I, as we've actually spend a few Thanksgivings/Black Fridays (and other holidays) in the wilderness.

Our most memorable was on New Zealand's Te Araroa in 2014. Thanksgiving was our first night on the trail and we were half a world away from home.
Our meal was actually dehydrated chicken and noodles, instead of turkey. 

A close second would be in 2011 when we met up with Misti & Chris and went backpacking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. We summited and slept on top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, for Thanksgiving. Hard to believe that was #18 for our highpointing count, now that we are up to 40. 
There is nothing better than getting to experience both the sunset and sunrise! 

When I was in Denver last week, my sister-in-law asked me if I was enjoying being back in civilization, as opposed to the secluded cabin life I've been living in the mountains of New Mexico. The truth is, no, I don't enjoy it. I understand the allure and importance to MOST people to be among the masses and access. But, Justin and I would much prefer being isolated and remote.

This is why we choose places to live and work that allow us to simultaneously play away from all the hustle and bustle. Our caretaking gig here in New Mexico is not the most remote we've been—given we have road access—but to most people, it is way in the boondocks. (When I described the drive we have to make down the curvy mountain to my sister, she responded, "oh, you mean like every other place you've lived?")

We are also lucky the property has a 2-mile trail leading into the Santa Fe National Forest directly in our backyard. We can—and do—microadventure often because it's there.
The Fenton kids call this place "Rock Tokyo" because of all the holes in the rocks. 
We also have a "Rock City," "Rock New York" and "Rock Heaven" on this trail,

With 125 million acres of public lands, 27,625 miles of mountain bike trails, 10,481 miles of whitewater paddling and 13,917 cliffs and boulders to climb (thanks Outdoor Alliance for the stats!), there's no shortage of options for all of us. Some may just have to venture further off the beaten path. Learn about opportunities for you to Opt Outside wherever you live in the country by going here.

Happy Thanksgiving! And go outside!