"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Bottom Line on Colon Cancer

     There's no way to dress it up, no way to paper it over. I'm scheduled for a colonoscopy next week. I've already started my preparation -- no aspirin or Advil for a week ahead, no raw fruits or vegetables for five days. But I've yet to start in on the heavy stuff.

     B and I have both had a colonoscopies. B is blessed with good genes and a clean alimentary tract, and only has to get tested once every ten years. But I always seem to have a few bits and bumps that the doctor has to remove. I'm on the five-year rotation.

     Now my time is up. (I actually have a close-up photo of my colon from my last test. But don't worry, in the interest of retaining my PG rating, I am not including that photo . . . just a picture of an innocent-looking box).

     So in other preparation for my test  -- getting ready for it emotionally, rather than physically -- I've done a little research into this disease, which according to my gastroenterologist is the second most common cancer killer in America today.

     Colon cancer and cancer of the rectum -- sometimes lumped together as colorectal cancer -- typically begin with the growth of a polyp, small abnormal tissue that can appear on mucus membranes. You can get polyps in your stomach, sinus, uterus, bladder or vocal chords. Or in your colon. Most are benign. Some can eventually progress to cancer, but it's a slow process that usually takes five to ten years.

     The symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits, bleeding, anemia, bloating or unexplained fatigue. But the sneaky thing about colon cancer, as in many forms of cancer, is that the symptoms often don't show up until it's too late. There is one test -- for fecal occult blood -- that can detect bleeding in the colon long before it becomes visible to the naked eye. But the test is not particularly accurate -- the bleeding may not show up, or it could be due to something as simple as hemorrhoids.

     If you test positive for occult blood, or for those of us over age 50, especially if there's any family history of colon cancer, doctors typically recommend going on to the next step, which is a colonoscopy. There are variations on the procedure -- for example, one option is the virtual colonoscopy, done with computer imaging -- but the usual method involves a doctor snaking a thin tube equipped with a camera and cutting instrument up the length of your colon. If there's a polyp . . . snip, snip, and it's gone, long before it turns into cancer. The procedure is done with minimal risk and usually no adverse effects.

     I have undergone four previous colonoscopies. They were always covered by my old insurance, after a $50 copay. Now I'm on Medicare. Honestly, I haven't checked. But I believe Medicare will cover most of the cost. But even if I end up getting billed for a few hundred dollars, I figure it's worth it if it, literally, saves my ass (oops, there goes my PG rating).

     I first heard of this test back when I was 50 years old and went for my usual physical checkup. The doctor asked me if I had a family history of polyps. I didn't know. We didn't talk about such things in my family. When he explained the procedure, I was horrified. I really couldn't believe he'd do that to me!

     I drove home in a panic and called my parents. Did they ever hear of this? Did they ever have polyps? "Oh yeah, sure," they told me offhandedly. "We go in every few years. The doctor usually finds something, but he takes it out, cleans us up, and we're good to go. No problem."

     My parents were never very good at talking about the facts of life. These were the real facts of life.

     I managed to put this indignity off for a while, but eventually I went for the procedure. And now -- proving that human beings can get used to almost anything -- it no longer seems quite so shocking to me. It's become almost routine, like it did for my now dearly departed parents. Okay, the preparation is a little nasty. You do, after all, have to clean out your colon so the doctor can see what he's doing. But, hey, let's be mature about this.

     If you want to know more about colon cancer, the WebMD page on colorectal cancer is a good place to start.

     In the meantime, about ten years ago, I gave up eating red meat, in part because the consumption of red meat, especially processed meats like bacon or lunch meats, supposedly increases your risk of contracting colon cancer. I gave up smoking long ago, and I try to get a decent amount of exercise and keep my weight at close to normal levels (with limited success) -- all of which is supposed to help you avoid the perils of colon cancer, as well as any other kind of cancer.

     If I sound flip about what is really a serious disease, I just don't know how else to approach it. And beyond taking the usual precautions, I guess there's nothing else to do but hope for the best. Wish me luck!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

No News Is Good News

     When we were on vacation traveling the Oregon Trail, my wife and I found that we didn't seem to have much access to the news -- and we weren't particularly interested anyway. Somehow, the facts from 175 years ago seemed more relevant than the gossip and chatter that passes as news these days.

     At home, we get the weekend editions of the New York Times. I occasionally read the local paper and The Wall Street Journal. We subscribe to a couple of magazines. Then I find that the TV is invariably on, for at least a little while almost every day, and we're not even aware that we're listening to Fox News dig up some dirt on the Democrats, or someone on MSNBC getting apoplectic over an outrage they think they've heard from the Republicans.

     Then there's the internet. Yahoo and aol.com both remind me of the old supermarket tabloids. And most other so-called news sites -- from vox to huffington to whatever -- are dishing out nothing but opinions, one more outlandish than the other. And of course we all know about opinions . . . everyone (ahem) has one.

     On vacation we were spared almost all of the blathering that passes for news these days. Yes, we heard about the volcano in Hawaii. But mostly, the only thing we checked was the weather. I hate to admit it, but it was very refreshing.

     But just to make sure I didn't miss anything important, when I got home I spent a few minutes catching up on the last few weeks. There was . . .

     A celebrity wedding in England. A New York attorney ranting in a coffee shop. Some teachers on strike. More back and forth between Mueller and Trump. Roseanne making a racist joke. Elon Musk tweeting something about Tesla. A chef/TV star committing suicide. Bill Clinton and James Paterson collaborating on a political thriller.

     And, as long-advertised, Trump actually met with Kim Jung Un . . . although did anything come of it?

     Did I miss anything else? And (though I feel bad for Anthony Bourdain) does any of it really matter?

     How about you . . . have you found yourself getting sucked into the news more and more in the last couple of years, and then thinking perhaps you've wasted a lot of time and emotional energy on things that don't really matter? Do you think the news has improved your life, or made you more knowledgeable? Or have you tuned out, or consciously gone on a news diet because you've decided too much modern-day news is simply not good for you?

     I'm of two minds. I've certainly enjoyed my news hiatus. But then I wonder, was I shirking my responsibility as a citizen and voter? Is sticking your head in the sand the best way to approach the modern political scene, no matter how nasty it has become?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

End of the Journey

     After driving some 3800 miles, we arrived at the end of the Oregon Trail, located in The Dalles, OR. The emigrants were headed to Oregon City and the Willamette valley, another hundred miles farther on. But the official end-of-trail marker is here because for the last hundred miles there is no trail.

Marker erected in The Dalles, OR, by Ezra Meeker who retraced the trail in 1906

     The emigrants had a choice to make in The Dalles. They had to get over the Cascades, which at times run right down to the river, so they could not follow along the banks. One choice was to load their wagons onto a raft and float down the river. Unfortunately, they often had to leave their oxen behind ... animals they needed to work their farms in the Willamette valley. But with or without the oxen, the river was pretty wild in the 1840s, before all the dams were built, and a lot of the rafts hung up on the rapids and were broken apart. The river route was a dangerous choice.

View today of the Columbia from The Dalles

     The alternative was the Barlow Road, constructed in 1846 by Sam Barlow and some 40-odd men, which skirted around Mount Hood. But this route also proved a rough ride. It took an extra week or ten days and involved a steep and exhausting climb for the already exhausted people and animals.

Brave the Columbia, or trek around Mt. Hood?

     We ourselves couldn't make that choice. There's no way to get our car down the river, and we were told that while some of the old Barlow Road still exists, it's pretty rough, even for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

     Still, we couldn't help but wonder, traveling all this way in a modern four-door sedan, how the emigrants did it. By most estimates, some 30,000 people died on the trail, mostly from cholera and other diseases, others from accidents and a few by Indian attack. But most of them made it -- some 500,000 of them during the 1840s and '50s, all in search of a new life in Oregon, California or Utah.

Two modern-day pioneers
     It was a tough journey -- for them, not for us. But they were up to the challenge. And it made us wonder if we modern Americans are prepared for the challenges we face, which sometimes seem intractable and unsolvable, but which, let's face it, are less daunting than what our forebearers faced on the Oregon Trail.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Trail Weary

     By the time the emigrants had reached what is now present-day Oregon, they were plenty trail weary. So were we. There are about 350 miles left to go. For them it was a couple of weeks. For us, four more days. Then we'll be off the trail -- continuing up to Seattle to see family and friends.

Farewell Bend on the Snake River

     The pioneers said goodbye to the Snake River at Farewell Bend to travel, as the sign says, overland to the Columbia River. They only had a few narrow valleys to ease their way, along the Burnt River, the Powder River, the Grande Ronde River.

Sign at Farewell Bend

     But none of these proved much help when they had to climb over the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We stopped at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center which sits atop on Flagstaff hill, outside Baker City, OR.

The view from Flagstaff hill ... where old wagon ruts scar the hillside

     We stopped again at Hilgard Junction State Park where many of the emigrants made camp along the Grande Ronde. But first they had to get down this hill, one of the many dangerous descents in the Blues.
Emigrants unhitched their oxen and used ropes to lower their wagons down this hill

     We met David and Vicki, a retired couple volunteering to take care of Hilgard for the month of June. David moved to Oregon from New York 12 years ago, and now he and Vicki, from South Dakota, live fulltime in their RV. They summer in eastern Oregon and winter on the coast. 

David and Vicki sell wood for $5 by the cart-full to Hilgard campers

     They seem to like this lifestyle. But I'm a little trail weary. So I don't know if I would. Would you?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hot Springs, Lava Beds and Sand Dunes

     I'd never in my life been to Idaho until four days ago when we followed the old Oregon Trail, crossing over from Wyoming north of Bear Lake, to Montpelier and Soda Springs. According to most reports from the trail, the emigrants were thrilled to be done with the rough and boring landscape of Nebraska and Wyoming, and welcomed the smoother terrain of the Snake River valley.

     Furthermore, after leaving the cholera-ridden Platte River and gasping across the dry high prairie, they were glad to see fresh water in the Snake River, its tributaries, and the fresh springs that bubbled out of the ground.

Hooper Spring

     We stopped at Hooper Springs, outside of Soda Springs, ID.

Potable, but not so great

     We were allowed to sample the water. There were a few bubbles, and it tasted faintly of minerals. Not the best, in our opinion, but to the pioneers it was manna from heaven.

Are they crazy?

     A little farther on, in Lava Hot Springs, there's the cold, clear Portneuf River, which draws a lot of visitors to this day, many from Salt Lake City which is only two hours away. Some people raft the river.

Looking down on the hot baths

     B and I just took advantage of the hot springs. There are four different pools. The water temperature ranges from 105 to 115 degrees.

View across the lava beds

     After Lava Hot Springs we angled north to see Crater of the Moon National Monument. Most of the emigrants kept to the south, along the Snake River. But others followed the Goodale cutoff which skirted the northern edge of the lava beds and rejoined the main trail south of present-day Boise.

Rough going

     The lava beds themselves were almost impassable for the wagons.

Indian cave

     They'd be impassable for modern hikers as well, but for the paths that cut through the beds and lead up the hills and down into the lava caves.

Looking from the bottom

     We stopped at Bruneau Dunes State Park. The dunes were actually not on the path of the pioneers. But we wanted to see them.

Looking down at our car from the top

     Then it was a night in Boise, which got its name from the old mountain men of the early 1800s. Set in the high desert area, the tree lined valley was an oasis dominated by cottonwood trees. They called it la riviere boisee, which means "the wooded river."

Boise River runs through the city

     And now . . . it's on to Oregon!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Rocks and Ruts, Ridges and Bridges

     Again, for those who were dropped by "Networked Blogs" as followers to this blog, you can still follow by scrolling down to Follow in the right-hand column if this page and clicking on "Follow" or you can follow through your own email by submitting your address.

     So anyway . . .  when you follow the Oregon Trail you spend a lot of time and effort looking for the old wagon ruts. Usually they are hard to spot and not so obvious. You're searching for eroded and grown-over swales that look to the untrained eye like any other uneven landscape.

     But sometimes, as in Guernsey, NE, they are much more obvious.

     You also look for landmarks that were noted time and again by the pioneers, such as Independence Rock in Wyoming. It got its name from the pioneers who needed to get this far by Independence Day in order to assure that they could make it over the California or Oregon mountains before the snows fell.

     Below is a closeup of the rock, which many emigrants climbed to view the landscape and sometimes carve their initials. Actually, visitors are still allowed to climb up the rock today. We thought about making the ascent, but decided at our age that discretion was the better part of valor.

     Not too long after Independence Rock comes South Pass, the long shallow rise over the Continental Divide, at 7550 feet above sea level. Here is the view from South Pass, looking east from where the emigrants came.

     Here is the view going west, where they were going.

     And here is the view to the north -- the Wind River peaks that the pioneers were avoiding.

     After traveling down the west side of the Divide, and turning south, we came to Fort Bridger, named after Jim Bridger, a fur trapper who opened a trading post here in 1843. The Fort Bridger State Historic Site has built a replica of his post, which was later, in 1858, turned into a military fort.

     Below is a replica of his store. It served the emigrants who, Bridger said, "In coming out were generally well supplied with money but by the time they get here are in need of all kinds of supplies, horses provisions, smithwork, etc." After the emigrants left Fort Bridger they all split up -- the Mormons heading south to Salt Lake, the miners southwest to California, the farmers northwest to Oregon.

     Meanwhile, we're still picturing those wagon ruts, carved into the stone so many years ago.