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An Early COVID tale, part II: More pivoting, and friends in the Desert

Once again I feel a little self-conscious about talking about MY early COVID tale, but again it is a tale that I’ve retold a few times on skin tracks and such, so  -in the spirit of sharing good tales – I’ll go ahead and share it here. 

Before I went to France I found out that the New England Canyoneering Team (the Hanlons) were coming out to Utah for their annual canyoneering fest for their spring break, and I was quite disappointed that I was going to miss them due to the Pierra Menta race that I had already committed to at the same time.  So the benefit of an early departure from France (beyond avoiding the future cluster!) was that I was going to be able to connect with them for their trip.  And once Ashley pointed out that I was persona non grata in SLC and the term “social distancing” was quickly becoming common in our lexicon, the best place I could think of to be socially-distant was the Southern Utah desert.   The Hanlons arrived, with Sawyer remarking that:  “I was surprised; there was no screaming and crying about COVID in the airports!”  With our matching Jeeps (well, theirs was black) we headed south, with me – as potentially-exposed guy from France – driving solo. 

We headed for one of our favorite areas:  Robber’s Roost, which has a plethora of great canyons and remote, sublime campsites with great views of the Henry Mountains rising out of the red desert. 

Getting a bit of a late start we headed for a canyon that had the beta of short, easy, and dry; a good warmup for a week of groveling fun.  We dropped in and found it to be pretty nice, but were surprised to be going through a fair bit of water.  Beta for canyons is always a bit dubious; I’ve done “wet” canyons bone dry and “dry” canyons with deep pools, so dropping into them you need to be prepared, either with the appropriate gear/clothes or the knowledge that you might suffer.  We worked our way through the canyon as quickly as we could, but it was indeed cold.  Sue Hanlon naturally has very little meat on her bones and is typically pretty conscientious about dressing well, but without a wetsuit this time she got COLD.  By the time we were climbing out on the exit she was starting to slur her words and could barely move, and Greg carried her piggy-back back up to the car.  There was a chilly wind at the car and it was just sunset, and Greg made the good call that we could drive 20 mins to a campsite we knew that would be out of the wind, with the added bonus of the car blasting Sue with heat. 

We rolled into the campsite, quickly threw up the gear and made dinner while Sue stayed in the car wrapped in sleeping bags and started to come around.  All seemed good, and we went to bed anticipating the next day would be “normal”. 

Sue in her normal state

Indeed, Sue felt better yet in the morning, but as a bit of a test, she walked down up and down a nearby hillside and we quickly realized that there was “better” and there was “good”; Sue was not good.  When Sue was a kid she had open heart surgery and since then had some issues that generally kept her heart from working at full throttle (but could maintain her inherent ability to go moderately hard forever) and we agreed that the best bet was to head out of the canyon and go to the Moab hospital.  We packed up and headed out, but just as we were leaving I felt compelled to stop at the nearby camp of the people whom we had camped a hundred yards away from to quickly apologize for roaring in at dark and generally making the kind of ruckus that we typically make (Hanlons are not known for their quiet demeanor). 

As I jumped out of the jeep and started walking towards the campers, I heard one of them yell “Tom Diegel!” and lo and behold there were Wendy Ziegler and Jamie Longe, old SLC friends whom I didn’t realize have been getting into canyoneering!  

Not only was it great to see them, but Jamie is a doc, and after hearing the symptoms that Sue was experiencing, agreed that going to the hospital was a good idea and described the likely sequence of tests and events to expect.  Great news, and we were all about to leave, when Greg said “why don’t you stay here with these guys?”  A great idea, and ultimately I spent three days canyoneering and camping with Wendy and Jamie, and was successfully able to avoid a hospital and a busy town, since I was still either draped with COVID or those two places themselves represented COVID factories. 

In the meantime, the Hanlons went to Moab, and indeed the sequence of tests happened as per Jamie’s prediction, but what he didn’t predict was that they said: “Look, you basically had a mild heart attack.  You need to go to a cardiac unit, the closest one is in Grand Junction, and….you are taking a helicopter there!  Wow.  So off Sue went, and the Hanlon jeep headed for Grand Junction for a rendezvous. 

Excited for a free heli ride!
VIP’s get window seats!

While this dramatic turn of events was happening, Wendy and Jamie and I were having fun in the canyons, and I had brief moments of cell reception where I was being kept abreast of the Hanlon developments.  Additionally, I got a message from the captain of the Ohio Canyoneering Team – Mike Elovitz – saying:  “Gus’s school has been cancelled, soccer’s been cancelled, our jobs are suddenly in a weird flux, and we would like to get out to Utah, but we don’t want to fly.”  I sent him a one-word response:  “Drive.”  (easy for me to say; I was already in Utah, not 2000 miles away).  The next day, they were en route. 

I had one day between when Wendy and Jamie left and the Ohio Canyoneering Team was to arrive, so I did a solo canyon day.  All went well until – to prove the point that dry canyons can be wet – I had to go deep into a pool I didn’t expect on a pretty chilly day, and once I got out of the slot I starting running down canyon to warm up.  All was going well until….I leapt over a small spring-fed stream onto a tiny beach that wasn’t quite beach;  it was quicksand.  I crashed fully onto my chest into the gooey, wet sand and basically had to “swim” across it to get out.  All worked out well, though it didn’t help my efforts to warm up! 

Happy to get back to the sun and my little home for the week.

Sue was feeling immensely better and after a day or so was ready to bust out of the confines of the hospital and head back to the desert!

But the doctors were understandably wary of giving her the go ahead to resume full aerobic intensity in one of the most remote parts of the country, so the Team wisely decided that it was time to head for the barn.  They drove back to Salt Lake, dropped off the Jeep, checked in for their flight, went to the gate, got the first call, and were standing in line when…..the terminal suddenly started buckling and waving.  Earthquake!  As Sawyer later told me:  “Oh yeah, this time we got our screaming!”   They continued to try to get on the plane; where’s the best place to be in an earthquake?  Off the earth!  But cops came running down the terminal yelling that it was to be evacuated.  Reluctantly – with their bags safely ensconced in the belly of the plane – they dutifully went back outside the terminal to re-strategize yet again, and made the quick decision to go back to the rental car place.  There Greg told the attendant: “look, we need to re-rent that jeep; my wife had a heart attack, there’s just been an earthquake, and we need to get home!”  The guy looked away, mumbled “you never talked to me” and the Team leapt back into the jeep and drove to Denver. 

As they pulled into the rental agency in Denver the check-in guy there looked at his iPad quizzically and said:  “that’s not our car!”  to which Greg replied “It is now!”, tossed him the keys, and the New England Canyoneering team flew back home. 

Since then Sue has had positive follow ups, and not only is her heart beating strongly, she’s also gotten a new hip and been vaccinated, so she’s rarin’ to go! 

Soon enough the Ohio Canyoneering Team (who are worthy replacements) showed up – as did brother Paul – and we had a great week of dropping intoo and groveling through desert slot canyons. 

By the time they needed to start their long journey home I had been out of France for about 12 days, and thus my “quarantine” period was about up, so I was given the green light to return home. 

I think about the many millions of people essentially trapped in their homes in big cities and am so grateful that we have had the ability to get out and continue to do the things that we love to do, even here in a “big” city for the past year, since most of what we like to do is outside, which has remained the big haven for folks over the last year.   And of course I am grateful to have great friends to not only blast all the way out West to join us (members of both Canyoneering Teams are coming out again this coming weekend for more desert fun) but also have great friends to bump into in obscure places!   

As it turns out, members of both the New England and Ohio Canyoneering Teams are coming out this coming weekend – fresh off their Shots – to do more desert groveling.  Perhaps it won’t be as eventful, but maybe it will! 

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