We pulled into Lee’s Ferry Campground around 8 pm. That wasn’t the plan. The plan was to make it all the way to the Kaibab National Forest by nightfall. But we were hungry and tired after an eight-hour drive across the desert and several misadventures in the Hopi town of Tuba City: A lost credit card, empty filling stations, and a single small grocery with little food. As dusk approached on that late September evening we dreaded the prospect of setting up camp in the dark and feared a full campground when we arrived.
Lee’s Ferry emerged unexpectedly. John and I had never driven from Santa Fe, our new home, to Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs, our weekend destination. In fact, we were brand new Southwesterners, eager to explore the enchanting landscape around us. It had been a rough few years, and this brief escape to watch biologists release California condors on the cliffs was part of our healing.
Four years earlier I had developed a strange pain in my arms and legs that slowly intensified over months of physical therapy until I was essentially disabled. I couldn’t walk without pain, use the computer, or even cook dinner or wash the dishes. “There’s something systemic going on with you,” my physical therapist told me. “Here’s a doctor who helped me in the past. Go see him.”
That doctor diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s disease – an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid – and adrenal exhaustion, a condition conventional medicine typically disregards but is well known in alternative, functional medicine circles. In short, functional practitioners believe that prolonged stress damages the adrenal glands, preventing them from producing vital hormones. The doctor bumped up my thyroid medication, sold me half a dozen expensive supplements, and prescribed hormones to replace what my adrenal gland no longer provided. After a month of treatment I returned to him with little improvement. “You should be feeling better by now,” he said. “I’m going to test you for Lyme disease.” Fine, I thought, test for Lyme; it was epidemic in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic where we lived. But I knew the progression of my symptoms didn’t fit Lyme, and it was clear that once the test came back negative, this guy wouldn’t have a clue what to do next.
So I Googled, searching for additional help. Up popped the name of another doctor – this one in nearby Washington, D.C. – who specialized in just what I was experiencing: Hashimotos, adrenal fatigue, and muscle pain. He asked probing questions that went far beyond my symptoms and concluded that I had a mold infection. I confirmed this with a urine test that revealed toxins from black mold in my body. His complicated regimen of antifungal herbs and medication worked. Within a few weeks I was walking and working without pain. But as I slowly increased my dosage to the full strength needed to eliminate the infection, the mold began to fight back. It flooded my body with more toxins – a kind of a fungal last gasp – and the pain returned.
As this dragged on for months, I suspected the source of my problem still surrounded me. John and I had our home inspected twice to resolve the problem once and for all (or so we thought). The second, more thorough, inspector identified black mold under our kitchen sink from an old leak and milder forms of household mold in our crawl space, attic, and closets. We lived in a humid climate and used the air conditioning sparingly; good for the environment perhaps, but not so good for us. We left the house for six months to have it professionally remediated and make some upgrades in case we had to sell. We did. When I returned to the house, my symptoms did as well.
Time to flee. But where? Both doctors told me that my extreme mold sensitivity made me susceptible to chronic Lyme disease, with its never-ending aches and pains, fatigue, and neurological damage. I already had suffered one bout of Lyme and wasn’t going to chance another. Thus, I found myself in the impossible position of fearing the indoors (because of mold) and fearing the outdoors (because of Lyme): Of the two, fearing the outdoors was by far the worst: One could always find a new home I figured, but the outdoors was my escape valve, my sanity saver, the most reliable source of joy in life. The outdoors was what John and I did, it was who we were – we were outdoor people. As the danger became clearer, the choice did as well.
We had to move West.
We had to flee the dreaded deer tick, its beautiful hosts overrunning the woods and fields around us, and the noxious disease it spread. We had to follow a long line of European Americans who, over several centuries, left their homes and families for a better life (and in cases of tuberculosis, better health). Defeated by oppressive crowds in the East or oppressive governments abroad, lured by the beauty and freedom of a wild land, they took their chances. White America has overly-romanticized this westward migration for a new life by whitewashing the genocide of Native Americans that accompanied it. I was acutely aware I harbored similar tendencies. But I also suspected that many of those pioneers felt the same way that I did now: Going West was my only hope.
As we turned down the road to Lee’s Ferry we didn’t know what to expect. We discovered two small campground loops with tightly spaced sites. After circling the loops several times hoping to find a little elbow room, we settled for one of the few open sites left and immediately cooked dinner in the dark. Once we set up the tent, John suggested a walk. The moon was full and brilliant and without thinking we followed its luminous path down the paved road to the campground entrance. Suddenly, a rush of cold air and a quiet roar hit us. Curious, we instinctively followed a sandy path through the brush towards the river. I thought of tarantulas and the open-toed Tevas on my feet but brushed that thought aside. Then suddenly there it was: the Colorado. Its rapids glistening in the moonlight while rushing loudly downstream. Bats swooped and swirled around our heads, scooping up bugs over the evening river. Here was one of those magical moments we lived for.
Actually, I had been experiencing magical moments all day. Hitting the highway in the West always does that for me. As the car left the city, the constant fear that had gripped me for years dissipated. It didn’t matter how much the new house cost. It didn’t matter if some random leak in the future created a new mold problem for us. It didn’t matter that we still had to buy furniture (and more) to replace everything we had left behind. (We had gotten rid of our furniture and household goods to avoid spores hitching a ride to our new home.) It didn’t matter that I still had flare ups and had to carefully manage my diet, medications, and more to feel well. Who needed a house, and stuff, and a job to pay for a house and stuff, when there was this: This breathtaking open landscape, full of earthy colors, bizarre topography, iconic wildlife, and ancient messages from ancient people scraped into volcanic rock. Even if everything blew up in our faces again, at least I would have a place to heal. There was medicine here – at least according to a quote by Pueblo Elder William Weahkee, etched into stone at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. I felt it. And I had to believe it.
As we lay in our sleeping bags later that night, a steady stream of headlights flashed through the tent. More people arriving well after dark, and no more room at the campground. Too many people and not enough wild places for them, I thought as I drifted off to sleep
The consolation prize for setting up camp in the dark is the awe of seeing your surroundings the next morning. Lee’s Ferry didn’t disappoint. Layered mesas of red, pink, and beige sandstone surrounded us, hundreds of feet high, sharply outlined against a cloudless blue sky. The Colorado River sparkled down the road, visible from our site in the morning sunlight. The road to Vermilion Cliffs and Kaibab National Forest beckoned.
The magic I began experiencing the day before continued as we pushed towards Kaibab, determined to find a site for the weekend early in the day before hordes of other tourists hit. We had moved into our newly constructed home in Santa Fe (specially built to resist mold) only three weeks previously. Two symptom-free weeks had convinced me that our builder had gotten it right. But as we filled the house with new furniture (and all the other stuff modern life demands) I began to feel the familiar ache in my arms signaling a mold exposure. What could it be? It wasn’t the bed, or dining table or sofa. Those pieces were delivered before we moved in, and I felt great for those two weeks. We had a new delivery of several additional pieces more recently. Perhaps something was wrong with the new rug, or John’s recliner. Or maybe it was a flare-up of Hashimoto’s. My Hashimoto’s and mold symptoms were similar, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. But on the road, surrounded by the arid western beauty, exploring and camping, the pain had quickly dissipated. Maybe it was just stress after all.
We arrived at Jacob Lake Campground in Kaibab National Forest around 10 a.m. but discovered most of the sites reserved. We eventually found one a bit too close to the main road, but grabbed it anyway, leaving a water jug and a few odds and ends behind to claim it. Then we rushed back down the road to the Vermillion Cliffs to catch the 11 a.m. release of the condors. We had passed the crowd converging at the base of the cliffs earlier as we dashed into the nearby forest for a campsite, and it was a relief to finally turn down the dirt road leading to our true destination. The Arizona Department of Fish and Game had advertised the release effectively: Hundreds of people with spotting scopes, binoculars, and camp chairs clustered by a dusty parking area, while a biologist from the nonprofit Peregrine Fund told the condors’ remarkable story.
California condors almost didn’t make it. In 1982 only 22 remained in the United States. Condors scavenge for food, relying on their huge wings to glide effortlessly off the cliffs and search for lifeless carcasses below. They aren’t built to hunt; instead, with their featherless faces and keen eyesight they clean up after other hunters. And that handy niche almost doomed them: Toxic lead from hunters’ bullets poisons birds when they gorge on entrails and other remains from kills, causing a slow painful death. Back in the 1980’s, as endangered condors continued dying, federal biologists made a controversial decision: They moved all remaining condors in the wild to a captive breeding facility. Years later, after figuring out how to breed and raise condor chicks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began releasing them. It was a radical move, and it worked: By the time John and I were watching the cliff expectantly on that September day, 500 California condors existed in the world, about half of them wild, with 85 already gracing the dramatic Vermilion Cliffs in front of us.
With binoculars, we could just see the release cages high on the top of the cliff. This wouldn’t be a close-up view, but any wildlife sighting is medicine to me. At the appointed hour, the cages opened and three of the four birds lifted off almost immediately. Watching from below, they appeared as small dark birds floating above us. It was hard to believe they have nine-foot wingspans. We waited patiently for the fourth condor to gather the courage to lift off as well. He repeatedly hopped out onto the rocks and then back into the safety of his cage for a half hour or so. When he finally decided it was time, I was checking out one of the spotting scopes on display and clearly saw his launch. As he lifted off to freedom, the crowd cheered.
That evening, we attended a talk at a nearby lodge about Navajo weaving. The speaker was a white man named John Rich Jr. whose family had been trading with the Navajo for generations. He passed samples of beautiful woven rugs around the room and tried to explain the Navajo mindset that allowed weavers to create perfectly balanced designs in their head and transfer them to the loom: Hohzo. Loosely defined, according to Rich, hohzo means knowing your place in space and time. Knowing your family, your ancestors, and where you fit in society. Knowing your land, the four sacred Navajo mountains, and your role in life. Rich explained that many non-Navajos believe that hohzo refers to being surrounded by beauty. And it does. But beauty to the Navajo is linked intrinsically to knowing your place. Navajo weavers – by knowing their place in their design, in their loom, in their head – produce spectacular pieces.
I began to wonder about my own hohzo. It felt non-existent. I wasn’t at peace, I was in constant fight or flight about my illness. Professionally, I felt driven to write about wildlife and the environment, but was limited by the demands of my day job, building a new home, and managing my health. I had moved across the country to a strange place to heal, and I loved my new landscape, but where did I fit in?
Exploring the West was the only thing that made me feel alive, strong, and well in the midst of pain, illness, and fear. Was that the solution? Should I make the radical decision to leave my new home, be a nomad, and live out of a tent – or maybe a van or trailer? Was remaking a traditional house out here just prolonging life in a supposedly safe cage that no longer served me? Was I simply afraid to leave, like that fourth condor? As a nomad, l wouldn’t have to worry about developing a toxic home. I could be well all the time. Was this a magical moment or just magical thinking? At Lee’s Ferry, I had found myself admiring the compact Westfalia van that a clearly retired and very fit couple had parked in an ideal spot overlooking the river. The woman was serenely reading a book with her feet up while John and I frantically decamped to rush to the next campsite before it was taken. Did she have hohzo?
Over our campfire the following evening, John and I talked about this option as a way of life. A few compact vans and campers surrounded us, but most retirees lumbered in with humongous RVs sporting wishful names designed to mask their obvious burden: The Leprechaun (not so wee), The Eagle (not so swift), the Minnie Winnie (nothing mini about it). We mocked each behemoth trying to maneuver through the tight campground loops. (The Fleetwood, The Swift, The Ultra-Lite.) We would do it differently – keep it simple, nothing ginormous. I felt lighter than I had in weeks just thinking about it. Yes, I thought, if need be, there is a solution. Radical perhaps, but if radical had saved the condors, than maybe it could save me.
On Monday, reality hit (as it often does on Mondays): The challenges and discomfort of life as a nomad. The cold when winter comes. Where would we spend the holidays? And Drake, the young campground host, told us the campground closes for the season from October until May. No doubt most other campgrounds do too. And with sites running $15 to $40 a night, camping fees would approach rent or mortgage – meaning, yes, we still would need those jobs even after selling the house.
As these negative thoughts flooded my mind, pain flooded my arms again. Clearly bad thoughts breed bad biochemistry. But was that all that was going on?
Later that week, back home in Santa Fe, I discovered that a new set of bedside lamps had arrived before our trip with mold spores covering the felt bottoms. We returned the lamps, and I spent days cleaning the entire house to remove the spores. It worked, and my body returned to normal. For a while. Until the next leak or invasion entered our home, and I would dream again of living in the desert, where the bright sun and harsh wind would cleanse the air, heal my body, and just maybe bring me hohzo.