Conquering the Mountain: Humphreys Peak

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Nestled among the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona, Humphreys Peak would be of no consequence to me if I did not regularly pass it enroute to visiting out-of-state relatives. Standing at 12,633 feet, Arizona’s tallest peak is visible for nearly one hundred miles from any direction.

From the time that I first travelled west in 1977 on a tiny motorcycle, I have been fascinated by mountains and made it a point to climb the most prominent of them wherever I lived: Utah, Idaho, California, Colorado and Arizona. Now, at age 61, Humphreys Peak was calling to me. Overweight, out of shape and well beyond my prime, climbing it seemed an impossible dream. Nevertheless, numerous hikes up lesser peaks during the previous months spurred me on, even though the tallest of them paled by comparison.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that our limits are self-imposed. We are capable of achieving much more if only we would apply one thing: grit. Grit has been my favorite term this year as I have tested my limits more than ever. Besides the many interesting and challenging hikes, I traveled 1300 miles through India, a country I never dreamed I would visit and explored Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona for nine days on a solo motorcycle ride. Now, it was time to apply grit once more and conquer Humphreys.

Not only is it unwise to undertake such a challenge alone, it’s more fulfilling to share it with a friend. Therefore, I asked Kaihao to join me. Kaihao and I met in 2016 under unexpected circumstances. Having heard that I was a writer, he stopped by my desk at work one day to ask me for an autographed copy of one of my books.  At the time, he was a newly hired engineer whom I had never met. Subsequently, I invited him to join me on the most grueling hike I had ever attempted. Despite formidable challenges, nothing seemed to rattle Kaihao. I deeply respected his indomitable spirit and surprisingly, our shared misery of that day forged a strong bond. Kaihao accepted without hesitation and we made plans to scale Humphreys on July 30, 2017.

Although I love to hike, it’s difficult to do so in Phoenix from May through September due to the blistering heat. In fact, my last hike of consequence was three months earlier up 2500 foot Maricopa Peak in South Mountain Municipal Park. The trail to Humphreys begins at 9200 feet and then climbs 4.75 miles and 3421 vertical feet. I hoped that the heat would provide a training edge and began walking outdoors in 106 degree temperatures, increasing my distance to four miles a day. As July 30 approached, I added mile-long hills to my route.

I knew from hard lessons learned while climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado thirty years earlier that my worst enemy would be altitude sickness. I had never before climbed above 11,000 feet without succumbing to it. If I managed to scale Humphreys and not get sick, it would be the first time. In recent years, I’ve learned two keys to prevent altitude sickness naturally: super-hydration and managing your heart rate. Those would be my only ammunition against altitude sickness and keys to completing the hike.

As our departure approached, the weather turned ominous. Humphreys has its own peculiar climate and fierce storms can envelop the mountain without warning. After a young man was recently struck by lightning and killed on the peak, it was determined that lightning struck the same location over one hundred times in a single hour. Fearing the worst, Kaihao urged me to reschedule and I reluctantly capitulated.

Postponing crushed me, but Kaihao’s positive attitude kept my hope intact: “It’s okay, we will do it another time when the weather is better.” I studied Flagstaff weather history and noted that the rainy season, which was then at its peak, would subside by mid-September. I rescheduled for October 1.

By the end of September, the relentless Phoenix heat had driven me indoors. My training had dropped to weight lifting and a half-hour on the treadmill or elliptical machine three days a week. Two weeks before the climb, I braved the plus 100 degree temperatures once more, armed with a backpack loaded with seventeen pounds of steel weights—double my expected pack weight. Nevertheless, walking three miles a day, five days a week with a heavy pack and brutal heat paled in comparison to what lay ahead.

At 3 p.m. on September 30th, Kaihao and I left for Flagstaff where we had reserved a hotel room. Upon arrival, we ate dinner and then went to bed early so that we would be well-rested when we reached the trail head at 7AM the following morning. Although both nervous, we felt confident that our undauntable spirits would carry us through.

When we arrived at the trail head, I was surprised by the number of vehicles already there. Many hikers had opted to witness the sunrise from the peak. As we began our hike, we ran into a few of them returning, having started their climb at 3 a.m. I couldn’t imagine hiking for hours in the dark across such rugged terrain, but I am sure that the view was worth it.

For the next two hours, we forged our way through stately pines and aspen groves whose leaves had recently turned golden. Tree roots that laced the steeply sloping switchbacks eventually gave way to boulders and the trees grew more sparse and disfigured as we neared tree-line.

By 11,000 feet, the altitude burned my lungs relentlessly and the least exertion left me breathless. With the trees all but gone, a howling wind with gusts of up to eighty miles per hour struck us full force and numbed our exposed flesh. We hurriedly donned winter jackets, gloves and balaclava ski masks that covered everything but our eyes. From then on, the trail climbed steadily upward through a barren and rock-strewn landscape.

As the route steepened, the altitude began taking its toll. Desperate to prevent dreaded altitude sickness, I stopped every hundred feet, leaning heavily on my trekking poles and taking deep, labored breaths until my heart slowed. As we neared the peak, that distance shrank to thirty feet and I began to wonder if my body would survive the continual abuse.

By the time the peak loomed a quarter-mile away, I had nearly fainted several times from overexerting myself. It was difficult to gauge how hard to press on in such an unfamiliar environment. I had slipped while climbing and been saved from falling backward onto jagged rocks by Kaihao’s quick response. The sole of my left boot—torn almost entirely off—was held on by a grocery sack twisted into a makeshift rope and tied around the toe of the boot. Perhaps it was time to call it: find shelter from the merciless wind behind an outcropping and let Kaihao continue alone.

A year earlier, Kaihao and I had set out on hike that took us straight up a mountainside through a boulder-strewn wash, some as big as a house. After hours of scaling giant boulders and fighting intense heat, we ran out of water and were forced to abandon our final objective. Remembering that failure, a voice eclipsed the doubt seducing my mind and screamed “you can do it!”

Goose bumps raced down my neck and arms and a burst of adrenaline vaporized my uncertainty. The goal: a weathered wooden sign with the words HUMPREYS PEAK 12,633 FT. engraved upon it suddenly seemed much closer. I scrambled across the remaining rock-strewn slope without pausing for breath and collapsed at the verge of unconsciousness behind a hand-built stone wind break next to the sign. Moments later, Kaihao joined me and we gleefully high-fived each other.

As I savored a store-bought sandwich and chugged a bottle of Gatorade, I gazed in awe at the cloudless blue sky and incomparable view, grateful to have once again stepped outside of my comfort zone to explore the limitless capacity that we all share.

Finding the Good in the Bad

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Years ago, I traveled to Oudenaarde, Belgium, to work at a customer site for several months. The opportunity sounded exotic, but the reality was much different than I expected. Most customers made an effort to speak English and befriend me wherever I traveled, but people at that company treated me like a second-class citizen and rarely even acknowledged me. Continue Reading →

Take a Giant Leap

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Are you fed up with feeling anxious, depressed, worried, or tired? Are you ready to take a giant leap and leave those feelings behind? Would it thrill you to instead be filled with energy and enthusiasm?

Scientific studies have found that one of the most affordable and effective ways of improving mental health is exercise. Regular exercise can profoundly reduce depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and more. In addition, it can sharpen memory, increase self-esteem, improve sleep, boost energy and leave you more mentally resilient. And here’s the best part: you don’t need to train like a marathoner or triathlete, hire a fitness guru, or obtain a gym membership, all you have to do is walk.

I once swam and lifted weights regularly and occasionally still do, but lately, I’ve been walking more and more. I started on a treadmill, which was initially quite boring. I’ve seen people walking or even running on treadmills for an hour or more, but twenty minutes was the most that I could stand.

There were advantages to treadmills, however. I could force myself to walk faster and at steeper inclines. By pushing myself increasingly harder, treadmill workouts improved my energy and stamina, reduced anxiety, and made me feel more balanced. In addition; my resting heart rate slowed; my blood pressure dropped; my cholesterol levels improved; and ultrasonic scans showed no plaque buildup in my arteries or thickening of my heart wall—both of which were detected a year earlier. The technician administering the tests even enquired as to what I did to keep my heart and arteries so healthy at age sixty.

Nowadays, I’ve ditched the treadmill for the most part, finding Mother Nature preferable to the gym. I can walk anytime: before work, at lunch-time, or even late at night and take different routes to keep it interesting. I’ve increased my mileage and generally walk more than three miles. I’ve begun hiking more often and found that steep trails that once left me breathless are now easy. The best part is: I look forward to walking and even skip other activities to do it.

I’ve found another benefit of walking: it gives me time to reflect. As I walk I often think of positive aspects of my life: relationships, pets, hobbies, vacations, etc. When was the last time that you intentionally reflected on what’s right in your life?

On a recent three-mile walk, I reminisced about my three dogs for the first mile. By the end of that mile, my face hurt from smiling. I thought about my daughters during the second mile and was fighting back tears of joy by the end. I relived many wonderful moments that my wife and I have shared over the years for the last mile. Those three miles flew by and for the remainder of the day I felt at peace. I could not believe the impact of combining exercise with positive thinking.

I was once mentally ill and was told that I would be medicated for life. I fought that life sentence with diet, exercise, vitamins, supplements, and positive thinking. Subsequently, I have been free of both medication and mental illness for five years. I truly believe that if we take proper care of our bodies and minds, we can live a quality life free of medication and mental suffering.

It can be frightening to take the bull by the horns and begin exercising. Barriers such as injury or illness; lack of endurance; fear of failure; body image issues, or even the weather can stand in your way. However, all it takes is something that you do every day anyway: put one foot in front of the other.

Exercise has improved my life more than anything else, but I am not running marathons or competing in triathlons, I’m simply walking. It’s something that anyone can do—even you. When you do, be sure to reflect on positive memories, so that wherever you walk, it will be the best walk of your life.

I’d love to hear how exercise has improved your mental health. Please leave a comment or contact me through this website’s contact page.

An Engaging and Thought Provoking Listen

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Roughly fifteen years ago, my daughters landed their first acting roles at the Ahwatukee Children’s Theater (ACT) in a “Muppets” version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Talented stage actor Michael Rubino, a co-founder of the theater, played Scrooge in that production. Michael took on other challenging roles during the years that my daughters performed there, always bringing passion, professionalism, and vitality to each.

Months before I finished writing the final manuscript of The Road to Amistad, I invited Michael to narrate the audio book. He had never narrated before, but with a long acting history and a penchant for challenging roles, the offer intrigued him. That brief conversation sparked a fire and in short order, he began producing audio books for Audio Creation Exchange (ACX), an Amazon affiliate. By the time I published The Road to Amistad, he had narrated five books and set his sights on becoming a Platinum Producer, which requires having published twenty-five.

When I first approached Michael, I had no idea his sixth audio book would be so remarkable. Michael brought each character to life with unique quirks, accents, softness, or gruffness, and consistently reproduced those characters chapter after chapter. In addition, he occasionally included unexpected sound effects that always brought a smile.

I’ve read The Road to Amistad countless times, but Michael’s wonderful narration made me laugh, cry, and beg for more. Because I know him personally, he allowed me to listen to each chapter as he finished it. I waited patiently at my computer each night for the next amazing installment, sometimes until well after midnight.

Thank you, Michael, for your incredible creativity, talent, and dedication to producing a quality audio book second to none. It has been an honor working with you and I wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a Platinum Producer.

To learn more about The Road to Amistad audio book and to listen to a sample, click here.

Together or Alone?

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This morning, I pondered the differences between my two novels: Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Joined at the hip in many regards, these novels are nonetheless as different as night and day in a certain respect: one is about being alone and the other is about being together.

In Detour from Normal, I was thrust from normalcy into a life of cold, heartless professionals and the tragically mentally ill. A normal person in my place would feel frightened and alone, and many of the experiences I described are from a solitary perspective. Instead of feeling terrified, I felt at peace, and at times, blissful. A mysterious process had freed me from judgment, expectations, worry and fear.

That mindset allowed me to befriend people who were toothless, foul-smelling, crippled, rude or unable to communicate—people I would never associate with before. My best friend was a drug addict recovering from his eighth relapse who had lost his job, savings, car, home, wife and family because of addiction. Through different eyes, I found these people funny and interesting, and for those among them who felt frightened and alone, I became their guardian angel. It was an immensely freeing experience and I could not help but imagine what the world would be like if everyone could live life as I did then.

The Road to Amistad explores just such a scenario. People from all walks of life were spontaneously freed from their mental prisons and introduced to my world overnight. Unfortunately, their changed mindset more often than not led to heartache as family and friends demanded the return of their absconded loved ones.

A few managed to avoid that struggle and find a unity of spirit with others like themselves. Friendship and trust thrived regardless of former walls that separated them. They were magnets to each other, formed strong friendships and accomplished great feats together. None among them ever felt separate or alone.

Nowadays, it is difficult for me to tread the line between alone and together. I have a wife, children, friends and a full-time job. There are many rules and walls that impede me and I have limited time and resources.  It would be easier to abandon my vision and rejoin my former world, but I don’t want to close doors—I want to open them. I don’t want to be alone—I want to be together. I want to be part of something big.

I hope that you will read both Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad and open your mind to possibilities that are ours for the taking. If my message rings true, press the button; twist the throttle; swing; jump; do whatever it takes to begin your own journey, and as you go forth, spread the word so that you may do it together instead of alone.

Resilience

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What is Resilience? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Resilience can result from severe trauma, like a switch flipping in a person’s mind—a kind of wakeup call that closes a door to their immediate suffering, often opening a new one to latent passions.

That is what happened to me following surgery, adverse reactions to medications and resulting temporary mental illness. Within months, I embarked on a writing career and published my first book, Detour from Normal, just over a year later.

I asked doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors about my experience and was met with blank stares. The best they could offer was a pill to numb my mind and make me forget. Family and friends were no better—they either longed for the day I would fully recover, made fun of me behind my back, or shunned me.

I could have let that hurt my feelings or taken an easier route and pretended to be the old me. Instead, I chose a new path, convincing others even more of my continued lunacy. I desperately needed to understand why I changed so much.

At first, there seemed no answers. Eventually, however, I painstakingly assembled the pieces to the puzzle, one that perhaps only I could solve. Along the way, I discovered that few people in the world understood resilience, a fact that left me feeling isolated and alone.

As time passed and my desire to share my knowledge grew, I decided to write another book. I knew from my experiences that readers would likely be skeptical, so I hatched a brilliant plan: I’d divulge everything I’d learned in the form of an entertaining story, a kind of parable. If readers thought it crazy, I would tell them “It’s just a story.” Who knows, a crazy story might prove more popular than a sane one. On the other hand, suppose that my words changed lives and others became resilient without having to suffer trauma? It seemed a win-win proposition. I began writing.

More than anything, I wanted to live and breathe my story–experience what my characters did first-hand. Over the ensuing years, I traveled from the desolate to the exotic through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho. I hiked down dusty desert roads; four wheeled through rugged wilderness, and gazed upon some of the most beautiful scenery in America. I even joined Toastmaster’s for a year to overcome a fear of public speaking, following the path of my protagonist. Frequently, I carried a notebook. On one road-trip, I pulled to the side of the road repeatedly to record notes–sixteen pages in all.

Although I aspired to be a great writer, I paled in comparison to any number of famous authors. Seeking tutelage, I found a local English teacher. Over the next year, we painstakingly dismantled two years of work and created a new story unlike any other—a story of a formerly mentally ill man’s quest to make sense of his new life; of finding others like himself; of his burning desire to share his gift with the world to end suffering and open doors to endless opportunity; a story that I believe is our destiny.

Thus was born my second book: The Road to Amistad. Soon, I will proudly present it to the world. I hope that you will join me then on an incredible journey into the unknown and test your own convictions about your mind.

UPDATE: The Road to Amistad was published on February 19th, 2016.