Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Injuries Afoot

This pretty scene doesn't LOOK dangerous...

The time has come at last to relate the tale of the injury that has had me on crutches for a month now. Part of why the story has been so long in coming is that it took more than three weeks to determine what the injury was. There was no doubt about how it occurred, however. 

The collie and I pose for a post-swim portrait.

It was the first day of my most recent gig looking after Mr. Gorgeous and the weather was exceptionally fine. His owners informed me that their teenage son was routinely convincing Mr. Gorgeous to swim in the lake for exercise and that I was welcome (though not required) to continue this program. Mr. Gorgeous' lakeside house has its own private beach and dock and is a very pleasant place to hang out, especially on a sunny day, so I put on my bikini, strapped Mr. Gorgeous into his lifejacket (in case his aquatic ambition was greater than his stamina), and we made our way down the steep hill to the lake shore.

The rocks that caused all the trouble.

The shallows of Lake Washington, like most lakes and rivers in this area, are lined with stones, most about the size of the palm of your hand, and usually sport a slippery layer of algae. I waded in with Mr. Gorgeous (he was feeling a bit uncertain about the size of the wind-pushed waves), an activity that required quite a bit of sliding and gripping and constantly readjusting my balance as I attempted to walk into the waves on those slick rocks. Mr. Gorgeous ultimately declined to go beyond where his feet could touch, but since I'd already gotten wet and adapted to the chilly water, I decided to go swimming myself. After splashing around a bit and jumping off the dock, lying in the sun to dry off and then sitting in the shade to admire the view a bit longer, Mr. Gorgeous and I made our way back up the steep hill to his house, where I proceeded to read outside on the chaise lounge for about an hour, and at last went in for a long, lovely shower. I had just come back downstairs, clean and happy and ready for dinner, when I put weight on my left foot and experienced a horribly sharp stabbing sensation in my foot near the ankle. My pain scale runs pretty high--scratching my eyeball and having a migraine so severe I thought I might die top the list--but this pain merited a full 9 out of 10. It made me exclaim and jump involuntarily even if I knew I was going to happen. I found I could hobble on the outside of my foot without causing that stabbing pain, but something was clearly wrong. However, the foot wasn't swollen or discolored and had full range of motion when I didn't have weight on it, so I figured it wasn't fractured. I took some Advil, followed the tenants of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), and decided to see what the morning would bring. When I experimentally put weight on it the next morning, the severe stabbing pain was still present. So I called in the cavalry and the cavalry brought crutches. It was eighteen days before I put full weight on my left foot again.

I've actually had quite a bit of trouble with my feet and legs over the years, but never had an injury that required crutches. I was born with short muscles in my legs, to the point that I was a tiptoe walker until I was about six. When I was eight, I developed inflamed growth plates in my feet. This happens when the bones of the leg grow faster than the muscles, causing the tight Achilles tendon to put tremendous strain on the not-yet-calcified growth plate in the heel. Because of my tight calves and hamstrings, I was already predisposed to this condition and then it didn't help that I grew like a weed: I shot up 10 inches in less than three years. Until I stopped growing and my growth plates hardened in my early teens, walking on hard surfaces, walking moderate distances, or running more than a few yards (the condition became apparent when I joined the school's girls basketball team as a third grader) caused pain severe enough that I was forced to limp or walk on tiptoe. Something as simple as a trip to the mall--requiring lots of walking and standing on hard floors--could become an achy, agonizing experience.

The big toe on my left foot is turned out about 31° and is starting to underlap my second toe.

It was while seeing a foot specialist as an eight year-old that I discovered I had another anatomical anomaly: a bunion. A bunion occurs when the big toe starts angling toward toward the second toe, causing first joint to protrude outward. The bunion can get swollen and painful. My bunion is genetic in origin and has gotten more severe and painful over time, though it's better now than when I was working ten hour days on my feet! I've largely found it to be an amusing abnormality, almost like a party trick, though it does make it difficult to find shoes, especially high heels, that will accommodate the bunion's bulge. The way it is deforming my foot also contributes to the fact that in terms of length, my left foot is a full size smaller than my right!

My knees do not line up over my feet. The left foot turns out at approximately 42° and the right at 28°

Another structural anomaly that has present since I was little is that if my knees are pointing forward, my feet turn out. It's more pronounced on the left side than the right. It makes me ill-suited for activities like riding a bicycle that require the feet to point forward because my knees are then forced to turn in. When I pedal a bicycle, my knees cross over the centerline of my body! Between the way my feet and knees turn and my short leg muscles, I've got a bit of a funny gait, most pronounced, again, on the left--I sort of swing my leg around instead of picking the foot up and putting it down in a straight line. It means I'm not cut out for running and I simply physically cannot properly execute the "frog kick" component when swimming breaststroke! None of these imperfections have been disabling (though they have often been painful and placed limitations on my physical activities and my shoe choices over the years), but over time I've come to regard my legs and feet, especially the left side, as inferior products, only adequate as a means of getting around.

And then there was the SI issue. I tentatively took up snowboarding when I was in my teens and one time, when I was fifteen, I took a hard fall on my tailbone on the infamous "Cascade concrete," a surface more akin to ice than snow. I remember sitting there, slightly shocked, making an assessment of my body, and thinking, "Wow, I think I just really hurt myself." But all the parts worked when I tried them and so I got up and continued to snowboard poorly. (Snowboarding poorly is still a great deal of fun, for the record.) My initial assessment had been correct, however. One, I'm pretty sure in retrospect that I fractured my tailbone. For a couple of months, it was too painful for me to sit on directly, but I was too embarrassed by the injury's location to see a doctor. Two, the jarring of the fall put my sacroiliac joint out. It spent fourteen years locked in a twisted position that, unbeknownst to me, was the source of my constant low back and hip pain. I had so many other unpleasant things going on in my life during those fourteen years that the pain in my hips was never a priority. Another reason I didn't attend to it was that I was quite used to having pain in my lower body by that time and I figured it was another manifestation of my oddly angled feet and unusually tight muscles. By the time my physical therapist diagnosed the problem, the SI position was extreme enough that my left leg was more than an inch shorter than my right! Walking around on legs of different lengths is really hard on the body, especially the back. The SI problem is was also responsible, I just learned, for the fact that my left leg is much skinnier than my right. I first noticed this phenomenon when skinny jeans became fashionable. Pants that were tight on my right thigh were loose on the left, so much so that I was compelled to measure the difference: my right thigh had a circumference one inch greater than that of my left. I've lost muscle mass in my right leg since the migraines have forced me to adapt a sedentary lifestyle, but my right calf muscle, for example, is ¾ of an inch larger in circumference than my left. This left-side weakness is the result of long-term irritation of the sciatic nerve.

What does all this medical history have to do with my recent foot injury? We'll get to that soon!

So there I was, dog-sitting and on crutches. I remember, as a kid, thinking that they looked like fun, and maybe crutches are fun if you're young and spry and full of boundless, squirrelly energy, but I found them to be incredibly hard work. Had I not been building up my arm strength through working with horses, I might not have been strong enough to have used crutches at all. The first few days were especially painful, both under the arms and in the palms of my hand, which is where you are suddenly bearing your body weight. It took some time to figure out the rhythm and I failed to negotiate a step my first day and fell hard, resulting in large, ugly bruises on my knees. (After that I carefully made my way up and down stairs by stepping on the outside of my foot.) Another major inconvenience of crutches is that you can't carry anything! That meant I had to hobble around on my foot in order to fill bowls of dog food or glasses of water until I realized that, thanks to the hardwood floors, I could maneuver around the main level of Mr. Gorgeous' house in a wheeled desk chair. Still, it was hard work to get anything done and I couldn't wait to see my PT so she could assess the foot and start treatment.

One of the bruises I sustained while learning to use crutches!

Unfortunately, while I was en route to my PT appointment, my physical therapist tripped and fell, breaking her collarbone. She waited long enough for me to arrive so she could give me the bad news and then she was off to the ER. She's been out of commission this whole time, so I went to see a different physical therapist. He discovered a new symptom that I hadn't been aware of: my injured foot was shockingly cold. He said that I needed to get it X-rayed to make sure there wasn't more extensive damage, such as a small fracture, than I had suspected. So off I went to my primary care doctor's office. The nurse practitioner was also startled and concerned by how cold my foot was. I had pulses in my foot, so it meant that I was still getting blood flow, but it was a worrisome symptom. X-rays revealed nothing more than a bone spur in the area of the foot that hurt when I put weight on it, but my doctor and my nurse practitioner decided someone with more expertise should take a look at it.

As you can see in this X-ray of my foot, there is a substantial space between the cuneiform bone (the blocky bones that connect to the long metatarsals that go out to the toes) connected to my big toe and the 2nd and 3rd cuneiforms. This because my foot is deformed by my bunion, but the podiatrist thought it might represent a dislocation.

Unfortunately, the podiatrist they sent me to was a quack. He was utterly unqualified to diagnose the injury, though he certainly tried. It would have been better off if he'd simply said that he didn't know what the problem was. He took more X-rays and announced that while perhaps there was a dislocation, it was hard to know because it might just be the way the bones of my foot are aligned because of my bunion and the only way to know for sure would be to compare it to a healthy X-ray of my foot. His recommendation was for me to wear a boot 24/7 and not put any weight on it for the next four weeks and that it should fix itself. For good measure, he would also inject the nerve in my leg with lidocaine, creating temporary paralysis of the foot. My mother was not about to let him inject a nerve (a procedure not without risk) without a full explanation of why there might be a nerve problem in my foot, so we consented to the boot and hustled out of there. In one respect he was right: the foot did warm up when it was immobilized by the boot and I think it was ultimately good for it to be stabilized. But the boot was really hard work. It only weighs a little more than two and a half pounds, but hauling that extra weight around on the end of my leg while on crutches and unable to put any of my weight on it was exhausting. By the time I stopped wearing the boot, I'd been exercising so much just getting myself from place to place that I had lost three pounds!

My heavy boot included air bladders at the back of the heel that I inflated with the clever little blue pump to create a snug fit.

My mother had been leery of sending me to a podiatrist in the first place, but we had trusted my doctor's recommendation. For the next assessment, we decided to go to the experts: the foot and ankle clinic run jointly by the university hospital and the excellent regional trauma hospital, but it was a week before they could see me. I spent several stressful days calling various orthopedists to see if anyone could see me sooner and worrying about the undiagnosed state of my injury, especially if it were indeed a dislocation. Dislocated bones in the foot can present only subtly on X-rays, may only hurt while weight-bearing, and cause coldness in the foot: in other words, I had all the symptoms. The podiatrist's claim that a month in the boot would cause things to straighten out on their own was just plain wrong: dislocated bones need to be put back in place and dislocations in the mid-foot, where I was having my pain, often require surgery to correct. I wanted a definitive diagnosis very badly! My weekend trip to the San Juan Islands helped me relax some and we had set things up in the house to make it easier for me to move around with my boot on, but I was so happy when the day of my appointment at the specialty clinic finally came.

That extra pointed tip on my navicular bone was deemed responsible for my foot pain. 

After a very thorough exam and more X-rays, the diagnosis came back as this: I actually was suffering from two injuries. The pain in my foot was caused by the bone spur and the coldness was being caused by pressure on a nerve because of a back injury. Slipping around and using my feet to stabilize myself on the rocks had caused hyper-extension of my foot and sent the bone spur poking places that it shouldn't and apparently in my efforts to stay balanced, I'd hurt my back, too. I hadn't felt any back pain, but after I started standing on my foot and walking just a little bit, there it was: in my lower back, on the lefthand side, right next to the spine. Because I'd been on crutches since the morning after the injury, I'd never realized it was there. The specialist prescribed physical therapy to address the back issue, which would relieve pressure on the nerve and should alleviate the coldness, the flatness of my arch (it had collapsed), and the occasional burning sensation in the foot. He advised me to stop wearing the boot, since it would likely start causing strain-related problems that would outweigh the benefits, and to carefully begin standing and walking on the foot as much as pain would allow as inflammation around the bone spur died down.

 The muscles supporting my spine are not doing a good job of stabilizing my vertebrae!

To say that I was hugely relieved not to have a serious injury that would require surgery was an understatement! I started PT again where we are working on strengthening the tiny muscles--the multifidi--that should be supporting the spine. Mine aren't, so my vertebrae are moving from side to side much more than they should, which irritates the nerves. The goal is also to eventually help me building up the strength and flexibility in my left leg, though it's possible down the road, if things don't improve, I might need to consult a neurologist. I've been standing on the foot and walking just a few steps here and there--like from my bed to the closet and other short distances--but have found that while I no longer have the terrible stabbing sensation, I can't move flex my ankle very much if I have weight on it. That means I still have to get around on crutches most of the time. If the problem continues, it's possible that it will be necessary to remove the bone spur or take some other more intensive action. In the meantime, because my arch has flattened, I have been wearing my Dansko shoes to help me stand properly. Otherwise, it puts a lot of foreign strain on my muscles. A month is a long time to be on crutches and it looks like I'll still have to rely on them for several more weeks, but it certainly is easier to get around if I don't have that heavy boot on and I can stand when I need to! I'm also extremely glad I won't have to wear the boot on my upcoming trip to Florida for a wedding because I have the cutest outfit and the bulky boot would have totally ruined the effect! I've had to cancel my lessons with Drifter indefinitely and have been unable to swim and have been severely limited in my ability to take photos, but what can you do? Swimming in the lake with Mr. Gorgeous was a perfectly reasonable undertaking. I've slipped around on lake- and river-bottom rocks many times without sustaining injury. It's an unfortunate twist in my ongoing disability saga and simply getting around the house sucks up a lot of my energy, but it's just what I have to live with.

When walking, because of the way
my hips, knees & feet are aligned,
my leg crosses in front of my body
So what does this foot injury have to do with my long history of issues with the bones, muscles, and nerves in my feet and legs? Well, quite a bit. I was born with short hamstrings, which I've learned can also be connected to an innate instability of the spine, which in turn can impact muscle strength and development. Whether I was born with inward turning knees or my muscle imbalances prevented my knees from assuming a normal, forward-facing position as I grew, I developed a funny gait, especially on my left side, to compensate for the tight muscles and abnormal leg position. An uneven gait can cause further back problems and I'm wondering now if life-long spinal instability and my leg issues may be the reason why I've always had poor balance. My poor balance made it very hard to snowboard, thus upping the chances of me taking a hard fall on my tailbone like I did when I was fifteen. Fifty-eight percent of sacroiliac joint injuries like mine stem from similar traumatic accidents, but my long-standing weakness and instability and stress on the muscles, joints, and nerves, especially on the left-hand side, made me predisposed to get such an injury. And it was the left-hand sacroiliac joint that suffered the damage and spent fourteen years in a rotated position. As I've said, that made one leg much shorter than the other, further impacting my gait, further destabilizing my spine, and in addition to putting pressure on my left-hand sciatic nerve, leading to increased stiffness and muscle atrophy, I'm wondering now if the back pain I used to also have higher in my back created pressure on the spinal cord and is why I have the world's flattest posterior. Obviously, from a genetic standpoint, it's not a place where my body stores much fat, but it intrigues me to think that pressure on the nerves might have contributed to the lack of development in my gluts over the years. It might also explain why in years past I put relatively little muscle on my legs for the amount of exercise--including weight-lifting--I was engaged in. And then it happens that when I do finally get my SI straightened out a couple of years ago, it comes at a time when I'm forced by the migraines to keep my physical activity to a minimum. That means even if my left leg is getting better information through the nerve and had more capacity to put on muscle, it didn't get the opportunity. And meanwhile the weakness of the little muscles stabilizing my spine remained unaddressed. That means I waded into the water with Mr. Gorgeous with a balance problem, a structurally weak foot that could easily move in ways that it shouldn't (thereby allowing the previously unproblematic bone spur to poke into places where it didn't belong), and a spine unable to keep its vertebrae in line (making it very easy for one to get tweaked in a way that put pressure on the nerves). I was set up for exactly this kind of injury to happen.

My legs as seen from behind
and reflected in a mirror--my left
leg is therefore the one on the right.
The size difference is very clear!
On the bright side, I'm glad to finally have some more insight into my long history of stiffness, pain, and injuries. Looking back at old photos, I'm rather amazed to see that the differences in the musculature of my legs was already visible by the time I was four. That means I've been getting poor nerve information in my left leg since I was a little kid! No wonder I've always had wimpy legs, skimpy gluts, back aches, and had trouble with roller skates, snowboards, and bicycles! It's a bit of a relief, really, to realize that innate structural issues causing irritation of the nerves are responsible for some of my physical ineptitude and not a lack of, say, effort or desire or moral fiber. This inconvenient injury means that I'll finally be able to address this left-side weakness that has been hampering my body since I was a toddler, which should ultimately result in stronger, more flexible, and more EVEN legs. I might get a better ability to balance out of the deal, too. Come next summer, if I dare to go wading in the lake (I may not!), it is possible that my body will have the proper tools to slip, slide, and then stand again unharmed.

The injury update, two months out:

A week and a half after starting spine stabilizing exercises, I was able to start walking again without crutches. As communication between my nerves and my foot improved, the bones in my foot went back into their proper positions and the bone spur ceased to poke into where it didn't belong. My strength and flexibility has improved tremendously, my arch has almost completely reformed, and as of the last week or so, there is no longer any coldness in the foot at all. My sciatic pain has lessened considerably in the last few weeks as well. I still have the occasional issue if I walk on uneven ground, but the change from where I was a month ago to where I am now is almost miraculous! It underscores the importance of getting a good diagnosis and the right treatment. I'm glad I persisted in getting a second opinion and that in the end, some very simple muscle strengthening exercises were all the cure I needed!

Monday, September 17, 2012

An Island Interlude: How Abbey Spent Her Summer Vacation

A Washington State Ferry and a sailboat negotiate the waters between the San Juan Islands

The foot injury that I still haven't written much about has been taking up most of my attention the way an injury that forces you to be on crutches will. I've been wearing an air cast and was not allowed to put weight on it and that means everything I do (other than sitting) involves a tremendous amount of effort. It was very nice, then, that I got to have a lovely weekend away from home that finally shifted my focus away from my foot for a few hours!

The San Juan Islands
The occasion was the wedding of the daughter of longtime family friends. She had opted to get married in the San Juans, an archipelago of islands in the Salish Sea between northwestern Washington and Vancouver Island of Canada. Her wedding was held at the Lakedale Resort on San Juan Island, the second largest island in the group, and the most populous. The islands can only be reached by air or sea, so on Saturday morning, after an hour and a half drive from Seattle, we boarded a ferry bound for San Juan.

Okay, maybe I should back up, because it wasn't that simple. It had already been decided that my father would take the car and the dog and catch an early ferry because we had decided to make the trip on the day of the wedding. Arriving in your car before a ferry's scheduled departure time is no guarantee that you'll catch that ferry: if there are too many cars ahead of you in line, you'll have to wait for another boat. Because I require a lot of sleep, it was decided that my mother and my sister and I would walk on a later ferry and my father would meet us with the car on the other end. It was a clever plan until I damaged my foot. That it how I became a roll-on passenger!

Our San Juan Island-bound ferry crosses paths with a ferry
heading to the mainland and a third docked at Lopez Island.

A pelagic cormorant perches on
pilings at the ferry dock.
Crutches are hard work for anyone, but they are especially hard work if you're at all prone to fatigue, and with my migraines, I am exceedingly prone to it! So that's why I went to the islands in a wheelchair. Frankly, I didn't mind this at all, and it only proved to be an inconvenience when we discovered--on the gangway--that the wheelchair could only make it over certain gaps and down certain ramps if I was facing backwards. So I kept having to be spun around while my mother and sister--already dressed for the wedding--struggled to get me aboard. Once onboard, however, it was--so to speak--smooth sailing. If I had been more mobile, I would have spent more time outside photographing things, but I was glad that being seated in the wheelchair allowed me to bring my heavy DSLR along at all. The weather was sunny, if a bit hazy, and the forty minute trip to the island is a beautiful one as the ferry winds through the various straits and channels. I'm always on the lookout for interesting marine life--we'd seen a harbor seal at the ferry dock and orcas roam the waters around the San Juans--but sightings were limited to some red and purple jellyfish. It was without incident that we arrived in Friday Harbor, though it didn't quite work when my mom and sister tried to push me over a largish joint in the ramp up from the ferry to the dock: the wheelchair came to a sudden halt, but the camera bag in my lap did not! Nothing was damaged and we were swiftly reunited with my father, the car, and my ecstatic dog.

My dog, by the way, has not had many opportunities to travel. She's ridden along in the car on many jaunts, but she's never spent the night somewhere other than our house or, in the days when our whole family used to travel to California, the boarding kennel. Her suspicion of strangers makes it hard to take her out and about, but my inability to travel is really what has curtailed Abbey's opportunities. This time, though, we had some excellent dog-friendly accommodations with no others about. One of my father's regular customers has a large piece of property on San Juan Island where we were welcome to stay and we thought it might be fun for Abbey to have an outing. She'd gone in the car willingly enough earlier in the day because she'd seen my dad get out the Gentle Leader (indicative of walks to come), but she was delighted to be reunited with me. She's been extra attentive since my injury and likes to keep a close eye on me when possible. She lounged, the picture of contentment, with her head in my lap as we drove through the beautiful rural island scenery. She was less enthusiastic when we dropped her off at the guesthouse, but we had a wedding to go to!

A view of the lake where the wedding was held.
(Photo by Lakedale Resort)
The weather was perfect for an outdoor wedding--sunny, not too hot, and with no icy breezes--and the location--a small peninsula jutting into a lake surrounded by forest--was beautiful. We were able to take the car quite close to the wedding site and because the remaining gravel path was rough and the distance wasn't far, I opted to go by crutches to the ceremony. It was a pretty scene: the bride (wearing a custom red and gold dress) and her dog (wearing a red collar with silver hearts) were rowed across the lake to the ceremony site by her brother (wearing a captain's hat) in a rowboat (decorated with flowers on the prow). Her father helped her out of the boat and led her up a pathway of red rose petals to stand beside her husband-to-be, flanked by a matron of honor, a best man, and an adorable flower girl. What followed was perhaps the world's shortest wedding ceremony, but once you dispense with all the unnecessary pomp, it doesn't take many words to wed a pair. It prompted some musing on my part about the power of symbols, but the beauty of the setting certainly contributed much to the occasion. A break for hors d'oeuvres gave me a chance to chat with our friends and for the bride and groom (now wearing the captain's hat) to row back across the lake for pictures. I left the festivities shortly after we made our way back to the lodge in preparation for dinner because the stress of the day and the bright light of the setting sun had brought on a significant headache and a great deal of fatigue. I bid my adieus to everyone and my father drove me back to the guesthouse.

Canada is dimly visible across the Haro Strait as sunset light
paints the grass around the guesthouse a reddish gold.

It was on that golden evening ride across the island that the real vacation began. I always love to watch for wildlife, so was utterly delighted to spot a fox hunting in a field and to spy a quail perched on a rock beside the road. After we'd both eaten some dinner, I couldn't resist taking Abbey, my camera, and my crutches out for a quick tour of the sights around the guesthouse. I attached Abbey's leash to one of my belt-loops, trusting, perhaps foolishly, that her concern for my well-being would trump her desire to bolt after any potential prey. She behaved herself very nicely, adjusting to my pace and keeping out of the way of my crutches, and didn't spot the deer grazing on the far side of the field. Once we were back inside, she did have some trouble settling down. She's on the anxious side, so hanging out in this new house, even when I was there with her, was very stimulating. Shortly after she'd she'd finally heaved a heavy sigh--but long before the rest of my family returned from the wedding--I went to bed.

An unsettled Abbey found herself in a strange new world: a different house
with different furniture and a very different view outside the glass doors!

I was given the downstairs bedroom of the guesthouse and I was very glad not to have to go up the stairs. (The entire cottage was so small and so amply furnished that I could actually negotiate most of the downstairs without needing my crutches if I didn't mind hopping from place to place.) The tall bed was soft enough that my leg in its boot (I was wearing it at night, too) managed to find a perfectly comfortable space. I opened the window to let in some cool sea air and fell into a deep sleep. I woke up rather abruptly in the night just as I heard Abbey come out of her crate (she was sleeping in it with the door open, just like she does at home) and start pacing, panting, and shaking. I finally was able to determine that she'd heard something that frightened her and I wonder if it's what woke me up, too. I had to close the window before she could settle down at all and she made it plain to me that she needed to be under the covers of my bed to get over her scare by jumping up uninvited (an unusual behavior for her) and burrowing in. It took a while for Abbey to settle down, but when she did, she got out of my bed and got back in her crate and I quickly went back to sleep.

A very happy Abbey relaxes with her entire family around her after
a nervous night full of strange sounds.

The world beyond the cottage was shrouded in a light fog when I got up. Abbey immediately went upstairs to say good morning to the rest of the family. Unlike the evening before, when she'd been restless and anxious, Abbey was cheerful, relaxed, and delighted to have her whole family around her. Home, in her mind, is where the pack is! I was dressed before the others and couldn't resist taking my camera out on the patio despite my crutches. Our plan was to go out in the large field next to the cottage and let Abbey run free in a supervised fashion. We'd been cautioned that the abundant wildlife could provide temptation for dogs to run off, but we figured she could come out on the patio with me without a leash because she's good with the kind of boundary provided by the plantings around the patio, but she was so excited that she snuck away from me and wouldn't immediately come when I called. I got this great glimpse of her capering in the grass on the other side of the shrubs around the patio, her tail up, her ears up, cavorting with glee in the strengthening sunshine. She did come back to me, but boy was she ever ready to run when the whole family was ready to take to the field!

Abbey and my sister go bounding across the field for the sheer pleasure of running.

Poor Abbey, she's a wonderfully fast runner, but because she can't be trusted with other dogs or people off-leash, and because I'm not usually well enough to take her to one of our secret special spots, she seldom has the opportunity run free. But here she could run as much as she wanted, streaking across the grass after my sister, then turning around to speed toward me, her body low the the ground, a beautiful, primal animal in motion. Because she doesn't get much exercise these days because I'm unable to walk her (she's older now, too), she tired quickly and decided to try to eat grass instead. We discourage this behavior because she has an unfortunate tendency to throw up any grass she eats and we were all going to have to be in the car with her for several hours later in the day. Abbey is never sly or naughty--except when she's hoping to snatch a mouthful of grass! You can leave food unattended or put tempting items in the trash and she will ignore them, but if she's out and feeling frisky, she's going to try to start snacking on grass every time your back is turned! We wanted to check out the pond at the bottom of the meadow anyway, but getting Abbey on the dock, where she'd be unable to munch any vegetation on the sly, was an added incentive. (I'm pleased to report that none of the grass she ate came back up.)

This is what joy looks like.

The perfect pond.
The pond was everything a pond should be, with reeds at the water's edge, rafts of lily pads and flowers dotting the surface, and a lovely blue rowboat tied to the dock. We could see tadpoles in the shallow water and heard several frogs jump, but the frog sculpture on the end of the dock was the only mature amphibian we saw. There were raccoon paw prints on the dock, indicative of nighttime visitors. While they undoubtably visited the pond to hunt, we enjoyed the pond's more aesthetic pleasures. I took dozens of photos of the rowboat, eased down so I could sit on the dock and look into the water, and Abbey thought long and hard about going swimming before ultimately sticking to dry land. Light glinted off the wind-pushed ripples, the reeds swayed, golden eagles circled high above, and all around us was a deep and restful silence. Of course, it would have been MORE restful if Abbey hadn't still been wound up and trying to sneak grass snacks on the side, but it was the kind of scene that soothes the soul.

The roof of the guesthouse where we stayed is visible in this view across the pond.

The rowboat.

A happy Abbey on the prowl for grass snacks!

The beautiful landscaping around the buildings...
At length we got up to explore the rest of the property. Because I had definitely maxed out all of my energy conveying myself from the guesthouse to the pond on my crutches and the property is extensive, this tour was conducted by car. We drove through madrona woods and stands of firs on the slopes that rose up from the grassy meadow and peered out at the garage that houses the car collection, the fitness center, the artist's studio/gallery/guesthouse, the kitchen garden, a variety of outbuildings, another pond, and the main house. Most of the buildings had a perimeter of beautiful landscaping, consistent from site to site, and then the plantings would once again give way to vast expanses of the natural flora. I appreciated that they hadn't tried to eradicate all of the native plants and the landscape portions were so nicely done. We had noticed that the grasses and shrubs around the guesthouse where we stayed were specifically chosen so to screen it from other parts of the property so guests wouldn't be disturbed by other people going to and fro. The buildings themselves were stained rather than painted, with dark green trim, and also fit nicely into their surroundings.

...gave way to a natural landscape of firs, madronas, and black-tailed deer.

After all this fun, clouds were starting to move in and we had to get going in order to catch the ferry home. It was decided that I would ride on the ferry with the car since I was tired. In order to fit my wheelchair in the trunk, Abbey's crate had be transported in the back seat. She has one of those plastic-bodied crates and the top and bottom halves can be unscrewed and stacked, so she got to ride in the car in the bottom half of her crate. It took her a few minutes to get adjusted to the novelty, but when she realized she could lie in her bed, rest her chin on the edge of the crate-half, and watch the scenery through the front window, she was mightily content!

Abbey enjoyed ridding in her deconstructed crate!

Although we'd arrived an hour before the 1:50 ferry was to depart, we discovered that so many people were in line ahead of us that we would not only miss that sailing, we'd miss the 2:15 as well, and would be catching the 3:45 ferry home. After some dismay and then a regrouping, the rest of my family met up with our friends who were also waiting for the ferry while I stayed behind to train the dog.

Abbey would MUCH rather hold eye contact with
you for a Cheerio than bark at strangers!
Abbey, who has always been suspicious of strangers, has recently become paranoid that people are going to attack our car. She didn't used to pay any mind to people walking by the car or on the sidewalk or in other cars, but we suspect that getting older and not seeing as well has given rise to this fear. It's gotten to the point that when we're stopped at traffic lights, she'll growl or bark at people in other cars who are doing "suspicious" things with their hands like holding cellphones or adjusting their hair! We recently started a training program to redirect her attention away from anything that makes her start to fixate and get in that mindset, so waiting for the ferry for several hours was going to provide lots of opportunities for practice! Cars waiting for the ferry are lined up in parallel lanes are really no wider than your average parking space. When there's a long wait, most people get out of their cars and walk up the lanes to go to visit the shops and restaurants. We were parked near the top of one of the lanes, so all the people coming up from below us were going to pass within a foot or so of the car. So I armed myself with Cheerios and the "look" command (Abbey has to hold eye contact with me until I release her) and we went to work! Fortunately, Abbey would rather do tricks for Cheerios than bark at people walking past the car, so it didn't take too many repetitions before she was either focusing her attention on what I was doing with the Cheerios or settling drowsily into her bed. My mom and sister brought me some books they bought at a bookstore and so I took my boot off, put my feet up on the driver's seat, and began to read while watching for approaching people out of one corner of my eye and gaging Abbey's alertness level out of the other. By the time we caught the ferry, she was either glancing at passersby without any interest or ignoring them entirely--with one exception. She took an intense and immediate dislike to the young man sitting in the passenger seat of the car on our left and every single time he got out of the car or even moved so that his hands or head were visible through the window of his car, she'd burst into a frenzy of "stay away!" barking. I have no idea why she thought he was trouble--perhaps he resembled the abusive man from her past?--but I had to keep a close eye on his movements so that she'd already be focused on me and the Cheerio whenever he got in or out of his car!

A sailboat plying the waters between the San Juans.

My family rejoined me shortly before it was time to board the ferry, bringing a delicious sandwich from the restaurant where they had lunch, and then once again left me and Abbey (at my insistence) to our own devises in the car after we boarded the boat. I resumed reading, occasionally looking up to watch the islands slide by as the ferry plowed on toward the mainland, and Abbey drifted off into sleep, barely even registering the occasional ferry workers--hollering loudly to each other to be heard over the throbbing of the ferry's engines--that passed our car. The forty minute journey seemed to fly by. Abbey indicated with pacing and panting that she needed to make a pit stop after we arrived in Anacortes, but the drive home was otherwise uneventful as the unfamiliar beauty of the Skagit Valley farmland gave way to the forest-lined freeways and well-known cities close to home. When we at last pulled into our own driveway that evening, it felt as if we'd been gone much longer than a single night. In the wee hours of the morning, the gray skies that had rolled in as we left the island unleashed a torrential rainstorm, ending a streak of 49 days without rain.

The last time I spent a night away from home was in August of 2009. Since the migraines started in October of that year, I have seldom left my house for reasons other than medical appointments, much less traveling long distances for pleasure. I have missed many gatherings with the same group of friends that attended the wedding even though they've taken place much closer to home. Spending the night in other houses while dog-sitting is the closest thing I get to a vacation these days. Thus, this weekend away was such a treat for me. I love scenery and San Juan Island is dense with rural beauty: fields dotted with cattle and round hay bales, wind-gnarled firs and peeling madrona trees, a red fox trotting through a field aglow with golden evening light, sea and sky merging seamlessly in the Haro Strait, the blue rowboat placidly drifting on its tether in the pond. Against this peace and silence, my joy was doubled by Abbey's fierce delight in running free across the grass, her amazement of finding all of her family united in a strange dwelling, the clash of her handsome brindle stripes against the pastel patterns of the guesthouse interior, watching her discover the joy that can be found in the tension between the familiar and the new, the sight of her sweet face resting on the edge of her crate as she began to doze off in the car on the journey home.

Island farmland.

A distinctive, red-barked madrona tree.

Sea and sky blur into one.

The perfect rowboat.

Abbey standing out against the pastel patterns of the guesthouse.

My little animal explores a new world.

Running for joy.

An ecstatic Abbey leans in to give my sister a kiss.
I've always been someone who is sensitive to the demands of that ineffable mix of mind and emotion that we call the soul and since the disabling effects of the chronic migraines took hold, finding ways to soothe and feed it have become increasingly important. Macro photography, especially of natural objects, is good for my soul. Being with horses is good for my soul. Unable to be with the horses or engage in my usual photography since injuring my foot had been nearly as burdensome as the pain itself. Our overnight trip to the islands healed those hurts and a week later, the memories I made there--Abbey running, the island farmland, the fox at dusk--sustain me still.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Collie Time!

Mr. Gorgeous' summer haircut.

I recently wrapped up another gig spent looking after Mr. Gorgeous, my handsome collie friend. It's taken me some time to get around to writing about it because I badly injured my foot on the very first day I was with him and the stress and the fatigue and the pain associated with the injury and having to get around on crutches has overwhelmed my ability to string words together. I'd also initially hoped to be able to write an update on the foot, but a final diagnosis has been long in coming and now I have something else interesting to write about, so I wanted to at least post about events in chronological order.

Mr. Gorgeous in his lifejacket.

The day I started this most recent gig was warm and sunny and that is why I decided to go swimming in the lake with Mr. Gorgeous. That's how I ended up injuring my foot, but it was quite pleasant to be frolicking in the waves, though Mr. Gorgeous was rather too daunted by their wind-whipped height to go beyond where his feet could touch. I was even so bold as to jump off his dock and had the very satisfying pleasure of seeing a bald eagle fly low overhead while I paddled around and Mr. Gorgeous watched me from the shallows. The injury didn't make itself known until later that evening, so after I'd had my fill of the water, we sunned ourselves on the dock for a bit and then hiked back up the hill. I can't speak for Mr. Gorgeous, but I had a very nice time, at least until I stopped being able to bear weight on my foot!


One of the major perks of looking after Mr. Gorgeous is that he lives in a very beautiful area. There are lots of opportunities to take photographs on his property and then the beautifully landscaped yards we pass on our walks provide many more. It's quite common for me to return from even a short dog-sitting gig with more than 800 photos. It was extremely disappointing that the only photographs I was able to capture were those I snapped earlier in the afternoon on my first day when I'd walked up to the garden. In the end, I sent my DSLR home early because it was too heavy for me to easily wield while on crutches and I couldn't leave the house to take photographs anyway.

While trailing after me, Mr. Gorgeous discovered a bone he'd stashed
and gleefully trotted off to hide it in another part of the yard.

Another bee photo for my collection!

Because I was essentially confined to the house (my mother and a kindly neighbor stepped in to help walk Mr. Gorgeous who, fortunately, is getting old and lazy and not needing nearly as much exercise as he used to), I spent a lot of time lying on the couch with my foot up reading my way through Mr. Gorgeous' extensive selection of magazines, including Vainty Fair, The Atlantic, and Wired, as well as less serious magazines like Sunset, Seattle Met, and Better Homes and Gardens. I also watched so many nature shows on TV that I got tired of seeing animals killing other animals. In a fit of desperation, I even watched a romantic comedy one afternoon while I was feeling particularly low. (I resent how romantic comedies so blatantly manipulate you to root for a match that in reality would be a terrible idea.) The weather was warm and sunny every day, so I spent a lot of time watch boat traffic--I always liked seeing the line of little white sailboats straggling along like ducklings when a sailing class convened on the far side of the lake--and there were beautiful sunsets every evening. I had several visitors, including my own dog, who had a great time running around free in Mr. Gorgeous' enormous yard. And so the time passed.

A particularly lovely golden sunset.

Dramatic clouds added to this sunset's beauty.

My point-and-shoot was unable to fully capture the dazzling gold of the setting sun as it shone out beneath clouds that looked as though they were painted by an Impressionist.

I was very sorry I didn't have my 100mm lens when this beauty of a ship appeared on the lake!

So while this stay with Mr. Gorgeous was not much of a success in terms of photography or activity, the collie and I managed to have a nice time anyway. He spent most of his time snoozing in his dog bed, waking up for an occasional game of fetch-the-squirrel. We had a particularly good time one evening when he pulled me around the kitchen in the desk chair as I hung onto his squirrel! His long and narrow collie jaw is not designed for gripping, so it made him feel very powerful to be able to tug me about, though it was really the wheels on the chair that made the feat possible! I also couldn't get down and give him some serious scratching and massaging like I usually do, but I think he enjoyed having me around anyway.

A very fetching photo!

Mr. Gorgeous enjoys getting his ears rubbed.

He's ten now, so he spends a lot of his time in this fashion!

This particular dog-sitting gig will go down in history as the time I ________ my foot (I am hoping very much that the blank will be filled in by the end of this week!), but that's a story that deserves a post all of its own. Stay tuned!