Critical Care Nurse

Yesterday Nicholas and I snuck out of quarantine to go dirt bike riding in the Jemez. You’re probably ready to accuse me of not taking quarantine seriously, but consider my point of view; dirt bike riding provides an opportunity to get out of the house, offers exposure to lots of sunshine for immunity building vitamin D, and on Northern New Mexico’s rugged wilderness trails there’s virtually no chance we’d interact with anyone. So we loaded our bikes into the back of the Dodge diesel and drove to the bottom of Barranca Mesa where we unloaded and suited up.

From there we headed out past the sportsman’s club to the lower entrance of Mitchell Canyon. The county had recently laid a layer of ground up asphalt over loose gravel so what should have been the calm part of our ride turned out to have lots of slips and slides. From the lower entrance of Mitchell Canyon we climbed the mesa above Santa Clara Pueblo and worked our way into the foothills of the Jemez Mountains. It was great day for a ride even though strong Santa Anna winds occasionally blew us into deep ruts and boulders we were trying to avoid. The post-winter trails were rougher than usual and both Nicholas and I had more than one moment when it seemed catastrophe was inevitable. It was during one of those moments I started to question the wisdom of riding in the wilderness where one of us could get hurt and have to go to the hospital; the virus riddled hospital where one could enter healthy needing just a few stitches and leave contaminated. But what the hell right, life requires constant reassessment of risk versus reward.

About an hour and a half into the wilderness, we found ourselves riding up a ridge when we spot another rider coming toward us. We stop as we’re about to pass because a) its the code of the west, and b) we were both interested in obtaining the same piece of information; namely whether the trail we were on would eventually lead us back to the bottom of Mitchell Canyon. We informed the other rider that if he kept going the way he was he’d eventually get back but warned him that a mile down the trail was a pretty treacherous climb he’d have to traverse. He told us we could in fact work our way back to Mitchell Canyon if we continued, but cautioned us to maintain a keen sense of direction or we’d wind up lost.

From there we chatted about bikes and how long each of us have been riding. He shared a story about riding his dirt bike last year from Mexico to Canada on back-road trails without any mechanical problems (shout out to the good folks at Yamaha). This caused me to add one more thing to my already long bucket list. Eventually we got around to asking where each of us worked, that’s when this tale takes a major plot twist. As fate would demand in a story such as this, it turns out he was a critical care nurse who worked in several area hospitals (not Los Alamos though). It didn’t take long before I asked obvious questions regarding if he had COVID patients, how prepared he felt our state was for the wave that’s coming, and how everyone where he worked was holding up? At great length he described determined COVID patients and our hospital’s effective state of readiness. He detailed how New Mexico was as ready for what’s about to hit us as can be expected and that nurses and doctors were holding up well in the face of mounting stress. Somewhere during all of this I started paying attention to wind direction relieved to realize it was blowing from my back toward him.

He went on to explain the personal importance of getting this last ride in before shit hits the fan. From there his tone suddenly down shifted with language akin to something you’d teach a sailor. He launched into a critique on hospital administration and the way they’re abusing staff. In no uncertain terms, he detailed what would happen the next time someone lectured him that, “he’d signed up for this.” Because this is a family blog, I can’t quote him further other than to say he concluded with, “I didn’t sign up to go to war with a virus in shorts and flip flops armed with a pee shooter.” I’m not sure what that meant, but definitely understood he was not happy about work conditions at his hospitals. In the very next breath he vowed to quit one particular hospital when this was over but not now, it wouldn’t be right to abandon his fellow nurses with everything that’s about to happen. There wasn’t much I could offer him other than my hope he stayed safe.

We parted heading off in opposite directions with Nicholas in the lead of my team. I was familiar with these trails after thirty years of hiking and riding about and wanted to see if Nick could navigate through the forest. Not only did he make it back to the bottom of Mitchell Canyon in one try, we rejoined the critical care nurse on the slippery slide back to my pickup. I felt comforted knowing he’d successfully traversed the treacherous climb I warned him about and would soon rejoin his fellow nurses in the struggle that was about to ensue.

Nicholas later summed up our encounter with the critical care nurse who’s treating COVID patients in a phone call to his girlfriend when he told her, “two freaking hours into the wilderness and the only person we encounter is the most dangerous person in the entire freaking state we could possibly talk to.” I have to admit, I too had been thinking about the irony of running into a critical care nurse deep in the New Mexico wilderness, I mean really, what are the odds? Luckily, I rationalized, at least we were all so suited up in our dirk bike gear it was equivalent to wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), and the Santa Anna’s were blowing in the right direction. I’m sharing this story both so you can now say I told you so regarding my decision to escape quarantine and so you can appreciate just a little bit about what life is like in the front lines of this pandemic for one critical care nurse. We really do all need to hug a nurse – when it’s safe to hug again.

Note to Governor: Hey Michelle, In my defense, realistically what were the odds of running into anyone on the mesa behind Santa Clara Pueblo deep in the Jemez forest? Equally germane, while I finished my ride tired and sore, I emerged as mentally and emotionally rejuvenated as I’ve been in weeks, so wasn’t the risk at least a little bit worth the reward? I do have to confess though, after yesterday’s adventure I’m starting to rethink my plan to sneak into Bandelier to check out how the beavers transplanted there last year are coming along with dam building.

Outdoorsman Update: For all you outdoorsmen who haven’t been able to get outside to scout around in advance of turkey season, here’s an update. Spring runoff has surprisingly not started, which means the turkey’s are probably still up Mitchell Canyon. We didn’t see any turkey’s on our ride but did see plenty of elk sign. There were only a few head of cattle on the range land, which means that ranchers haven’t moved their herds in yet. It’s bone dry everywhere, so lets hope we don’t get any fires to add to the already high burdens of our first responders.