Category Archives: research

This Year I’m Thankful For…

PERFECT WEATHER!

Hubby and I usually use Thanksgiving as an “us” holiday. We either get together with friends or go out on our own. This year we decided to go camping in Big Bend National Park. This is where both of us did our thesis research, and basically where we lived for 6 years, so we miss it terribly. Last year around the same time, we went to Alpine, Texas for Art Walk and there was a terrible ice storm. There was a thick layer of ice on everything, and it was snowing.

Ice on the False Red Yucca and Lantana
Ice on the False Red Yucca and Purple Lantana
Snow and lights decorate the Yucca
Snow and lights (and duct tape) decorate the Yucca

Normally I like snow and don’t mind ice too much, but all of our friends who still live in the area stayed indoors where it was nice and toasty, so we didn’t get to see a lot of people. And we had planned on going to BBNP for a day, but the roads were closed because of the ice.

The Parade was cancelled because it was so bitter cold, but the floats were still cool to look at!
The Parade was cancelled because it was so bitter cold, but the floats were still cool to look at!
Vendors had bought ice to keep things cold. Obviously it wasn't needed, so when they left, they tossed it out. It only froze to a harder ball of ice in the middle of the night.
Vendors had bought ice to keep things cold. Obviously it wasn’t needed, so when they left, they tossed it out. It only froze to a harder ball of ice in the middle of the night.

So what was there to do? Go to the coffee shop to drink coffee, and go to the bar to drink beer.

Vanilla Latte from Plaine
Vanilla Latte from Plaine

It was a great weekend, but not at all what we had planned.

Fast forward about 6 months, and I was getting pretty bad “city claustrophobia”. Every time I see a new building go up it makes me want to go back out to Far West Texas and never leave. So Hubby and I planned a camping trip for Thanksgiving Weekend in BBNP, in order for me to keep my sanity a little longer. Thanksgiving is the busiest weekend that the park has because the weather is usually fantastic (cold at night but nice during the day) and it’s a 4-day weekend for must of America. Of course, weather can also be terrible, like the year before. We basically had a 50-50 shot, so it was worth taking. And we won the weather jackpot. 40 degrees at night and 70 degrees during the day, with crystal clear skies. It was perfect. We managed to get a back country camp site on Pine Canyon Road and no one else was around. It was perfect. There were a few other campers further down the road, but far enough away that we couldn’t see or hear them. Solitude. Ahhh….

Our view from Camp - Sierra del Carmen Mountain range
Our view from Camp – Sierra del Carmen mountain range

My main goal for the trip was to try out my astro-photography skills that I had acquired recently (with practice and YouTube) and I had a great time and some awesome success, if I do say so myself!

Stars through The Window
Stars through The Window
Stars over Casa Grande
Stars over Casa Grande
Moon and stars over the desert
Moon and stars over the desert
The desert floor was lit up by moonlight
The desert floor was lit up by moonlight
Stars over the Carmens
Star trails over the Carmens

We also made time to do a hike on the Pine Canyon Trail, and head into Terlingua for some culture…

Having fun with saturation and lighting, post-production
Having fun with saturation and lighting, post-production
Early morning sunrise over the Carmens
Early morning sunrise over the Carmens
Always look back when hiking on a trail. Sometimes the best views are behind you.
Always look back when hiking on a trail. Sometimes the best views are behind you.
Pine Canyon pour-off. The maples are golden against a blue sky.
Pine Canyon pour-off. The maples are golden against a blue sky.
Terlingua Cemetery
Terlingua Cemetery

For those of you who have never been to Terlingua, never heard of Terlingua, or couldn’t imagine how people could live in the desolate and harsh desert floor, you need to see it at least once. Terlingua was once a booming town, known for mining quicksilver, also known as Mercury. Unfortunately they no longer needed Mercury (and they discovered that it makes you go crazy) so the mines closed up and the town became a ghost town. Now the Terlingua Ghost Town is a tourist attraction, and people have begun moving back into the formerly vacant buildings. The cemetery is still in use today, but has graves from the 1800s as well.

The people of Terlingua are interesting. The desert provides inspiration for artists and solitude for outlaws, and Terlingua is the crossroads for these people. Basically, if you want to be left to your own devises, this is where you move.

Terlingua Trading Company - The Front Porch of Terlingua
Terlingua Trading Company – The Front Porch of Terlingua. This is usually where you can sit and have a beer while listening to the locals play guitar and sing.
Starlight Theatre - A famous landmark
Starlight Theatre – A famous landmark

After hanging out and listening to the locals play guitar for a little while, we headed back into the park to drive some back roads to Santa Elena Canyon and then back up to the Chisos Basin to do some more star photos. On our drive, we spotted a rattlesnake in the road.

Poor injured rattlesnake
Poor injured rattlesnake

He had been hit by a car (you can see the blood on his head and on the road), but he was still alive. So Hubby got a long pole out of the truck bed, I directed traffic (ok, one car, but they still almost hit the snake!), and Hubby got the snake off the road.

Snake, safely in the grass.
Snake, safely in the grass.

Snakes don’t have to eat very often so hopefully he can heal up and get better before he starves. We tried our best at least! He was clearly not very happy with us, but it was for his own good.

It was a wonderfully successful camping trip and photography trip, and as badly as I wanted to stay and never come back to civilization, I just wasn’t ready to become a permanent desert rat. That just means that we will probably have to make the trek out to BBNP again very, very soon.

Back Pain Update

For those of you who care, and for those of you who are going through the same thing, I thought I should update everyone on my back pain situation.

First of all, I have bad genetics when it comes to my spine. It seems that everyone in my family has some sort of Degenerative Disc Disease. I thought that I was preventing damage to my back by being active and athletic, but it seems that my attempts to prevent back pain may have advanced it faster than anyone else in my family. (This is speculation, since I have not had any type of annual x-rays of my spine; however, it explains a lot, as you shall see).

I have had issues with slipped discs in the past but the worst days I had I just missed a day or two of work or school. Two years ago I had a “flair up” of Sciatica (your disc is out of place and putting pressure on your sciatic nerve, causing pain, numbness, or tingling in the back of your leg and/or buttock). I had x-rays done but no one really told me what the results of the x-rays were. It got better on its own, and doing some Googling I learned a few exercises to do to help out my back. I was fine for 2 years.

Then, April 2014 I did a super intense Cycling class. I was so proud of myself. I had whipped my own butt in class so bad, that I was feeling my sciatic swelling up again. Whoops, I thought. Better ice it down and relax for a couple days.  Except I know that the best way to fix it is to work your abs and back to strengthen your core and push your disc back into place where it isn’t pushing on anything it ins’t supposed to. So I continued to work out, lifting weights that were heavy but being careful not to throw my body around like I see some people do at the gym, that makes my body hurt just watching them, sure that they are going to have a tendon shoot out of their arm and across the gym at any second…too graphic? Sorry. Anyway, I was about to go on vacation to Yellowstone National Park, so I wanted to be as healthy as possible. I was convinced that if I just strengthened everything before I went that my back would be better before we left.

What I should have done was very different. I should have let my back rest. Since you use your back for everything, using it extra while it’s swollen makes things worse. Not better. So while I thought I was doing good for myself, I was preventing it from healing.

I hate going to the doctor. Half the time they tell you what you already know. Other times you get better right after you saw them, and there wasn’t a point to going in the first place. So I avoided going to the doctor until we were 2 weeks away from our vacation. I realized I had to do something, but I didn’t just want a prescription for pain meds like I have gotten in the past – they didn’t help anything. So I went to a chiropractor instead. I had never been before so I thought I would give it a try. I felt great for the first few minutes after my sessions, but then everything felt like it was compressing, and started to hurt again.

I ran out of time before we went on vacation, but I was NOT about to cancel. My back wasn’t THAT bad, I kept telling myself.  Every day on the trip my back got worse and worse. In order to get out of the car, I would open the door, put out my legs, grab the roof of the car, and lift/swing my body out, and then slowly stand up. Each time the process took longer and longer. Until about Day 5 when I couldn’t stand it anymore. While watching wild wolves and talking to fellow photographers, I couldn’t enjoy what I was doing because I was in so much pain. I was practically cross-eyed with pain. I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor’s office in the park and we headed north toward the Mammoth Clinic. I even tried to get out of the car on our way there, to get some pictures of black bears on the side of the road, but I couldn’t handle it. The doctor wrote me a couple prescriptions for muscle relaxers and pain meds, but they didn’t do anything except knock me unconscious for the next 3 days. Our flight home was terribly painful, and stopping at every red light on the drive home was torture. Lovely, huh?

After a few more days of pain meds and rest with icing my back in between, I ended up going to the doctor and having some x-rays done again. While I was there, the doctor looked at my old file from 2 years before when I had x-rays done the first time. She showed me that I had scoliosis. Now, I know this is not an uncommon thing, but I was never told I had scoliosis. She also told me that I had severe arthritis which was causing constriction on my spinal cord. Questions running through my mind at this time: Has my back been crooked the whole time? Is it going to get worse? Am I ever going to be pain free again? Do I need surgery?! Needless to say, I freaked out a bit.

She wrote me another prescription for pain meds that didn’t do anything, and told me to see a specialist. I waited a couple weeks to see if my back would just get better on its own, and it did a little but not much.  He took more x-rays, and had some good news and some bad news. Good news was, my “scoliosis” was nothing to worry about. More than likely it was just caused by my pain – I couldn’t lie straight down on the x-ray table because I was in pain, so that was as straight as I could make my back without crying. Awesome!  Except, his bad news scared me even worse. He showed me my x-ray and said that I have practically no disc left between three of my lower vertebrae. I don’t have a swollen, bulging disc like I thought, I have multiple compressed discs which are pushing on my sciatic. Now, I have never had good luck with doctors and their bedside manner. But this guy seemed to take the cake. He asked me what I do for a living, so instead of telling him my job title because that doesn’t really tell him anything, I started to explain what my job was. “Every day is different. Some days I’m in front of a computer, some days I’m on my feet walking…” He interrupted me to ask his question again, as if I didn’t understand. “I’m an environmental scientist.” So then he asked what that meant. That’s why I started telling you the way I did, jerk! I have gotten that question enough that I know how to answer it! Anyway, so I told him that I carry heavy ladders some days and his response was, “oh, you can’t do that.” I’m sorry, are you telling me that I need to change careers?! Cuz, that’s kind of a big deal… But he didn’t write me any letters to my boss, excusing me from work, so I guess that’s not what he meant. He asked me what I have done to try to let this heal on my own, and when I told him I exercise, he practically laughed when he said, “what kind of exercises? You’re not doing Deadlifts, are you?!” I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t even imagine doing deadlifts without my back hurting and he’s being condescending?

I asked for some different options because going to doctors in the past, they don’t really seem to think of “options” just one thing for you to do. I asked about cortisone injections or anything else that might help, and it was like a light went on in his head when he thought of a solution – nerve pain meds. Not NSAIDS, but actual nerve pain meds – Lyrica. I couldn’t believe that this hadn’t been brought up as an option before. My sciatic nerve was hurting, so why didn’t they try this FIRST?!

Of course like any medicine that has a commercial, the list of side effects is long and scary. But when you are in pain it’s worth a try. I used it as prescribed for a month and did exercises and physical therapy between (not tough exercises, I learned my lesson). I went back for my recheck and the doctor told me that I should use the Lyrica if I need to, and if I need more after the prescription runs out I can either get more, or they can “explore other options” (i.e. injections or surgery). So after my recheck I decided to reduce my doses to see what my back would do, and I haven’t had a single dose for a week. My back feels amazing! The Lyrica took the pain away enough for me to exercise and gain the strength back that I needed to keep my discs where they need to be. I had a couple side effects (weight gain, tired easily, sometimes I felt numb, and didn’t seem to think clearly all the time), but nothing I couldn’t stand and nothing that was permanent (i have already lost the weight and I feel much more alert).

The only thing I still can’t do is run, and I really miss running. I still have degenerating discs, and I will probably need surgery in the future, but hopefully I can hold out for a long, long time. Technology is only getting better, and surgical procedures take a lot of technology.

So, if you are having similar issues here are some things to remember:

1. Doctors are busy. You are probably going to have to do some research on your own, and go prepared with questions and suggestions, because they have a million things going through their heads and probably won’t think of your best solution.

2. Use your insurance. I am always afraid of what things are going to cost, going to the doctor. But you have to remember it’s your health and it’s important. You pay for insurance for a reason, so take advantage of it when you need to.

3. Take it easy, but not too easy. Bed rest is good for your back, but only for a day or 2. After that, your back will start to seize up and will take much, much longer to heal if you don’t move around a little bit.

4. Ice is better than heat. Heat is great for taking out certain aches and pains, but if you use it too much it will increase inflammation and make the pain worse. When in pain, ice it first.

5. Finally, I am not a doctor. I am writing this basically to remember what happened, explain everything to the few people who have asked what happened, and give some advice if you are having a similar problem. But I am not a doctor – this is just a stupid travel blog, so if you take this advice to a T and it doesn’t work for you, don’t blame me, I was just trying to help! 🙂 When I was trying to research sciatica before I went to the doctor, I never found anything even similar to this post, so I’m hoping that I can help people in the future who are trying to learn why they are in so much pain, and what they can do about it.

So cheers to good health!

Living In the Big Bend Region

For many people, living in the Big Bend Region is a dream. They love the area, but the job market doesn’t allow them to live there full time. People take rides out to the desert on the motorcycles or take RVs to live in for a few days of isolation before heading back to the grind of the city. For others, they couldn’t imagine wanting to live in a desert, where so many things either stink, sting, or stick (e.g. skunks, rattlenakes/bees/wasps/other bitey things, and sticker burrs/goat heads/cactus, etc.)  Other people don’t even know that Texas has mountains, and have never even heard of The Big Bend. But, for 6 short years, Hubby and I were able to live in The Big Bend Region while going to college at Sul Ross State University. While we were there we experienced a lot of different things: small town life (i.e. gossip and knowing everyone in town), getting annoyed with tourists for not knowing how to drive their giant rented RVs through town, having javelinas (pronounced ha-va-lee-na) eat rotten bird seed off the ground in my front yard and having the dog go berserk at 3 am because of it, having an epic battle in the backyard with the dog and a skunk at 5 am, ending up with a very disgusting (but proud of himself) dog and a zombie skunk that wouldn’t die. It was a pretty eventful 6 years.

However, our best experiences were outdoors.

During my undergrad career, I had plans to go to vet school so I majored in Animal Science, but developed the realization that veterinary work was NOT what I wanted to do. I was still interested in it, but no longer felt that medicine was my calling. Hubby majored in Biology and through him I was able to meet the Biology Professors and students, and we both decided to get our Master’s Degrees in Biology.

During this time, Hubby worked on his thesis research and I later worked on mine. It was good timing because we could both help each other out while we weren’t working on our own projects. We both researched different aspects of Black bear in Big Bend National Park (yes, there are bears in Texas *eye roll*).  That means that we had a lot of amazing experiences with Black bear and other wildlife while we were looking for the bears. Here is a map of Big Bend that you can use as reference.

My gallery this week consists of photos taken while working on my research, Hubby’s research, and various other trips we took in the Big Bend Region. Each photo has a description of what we were doing at that time. Enjoy. I know I did.