Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.

Looking towards Ciudad Juárez from the University of Texas at El Paso ~ May 10, 2021

I have always thought beautiful the starkness of the desert. It’s interesting that all three of my Foreign Service tours to date – Uzbekistan, Australia, and Mexico – have been in posts with dry climates and proximity to deserts.

Far from being dead and dry, the nearly 250,000 square miles of Chihuahuan Desert shared by the United States and Mexico comprise one of the most diverse and endangered deserts in the world, and are filled with life.

Highlands Rehabilitation Hospital, El Paso, TX ~ May 3, 2021

More than a quarter of all cacti can be found in the greater ecoregion, as well as 3,500 different species of plants – nearly a third of which only grow here.

Rio Grande Heritage Trail, El Paso, TX ~ May 10, 2021

The Chihuahuan Desert is also home to greater than 170 species of reptiles and amphibians, 110 species of fish, 130 species of mammals, and approximately 400 different species of birds. Declining species, migratory animals, relic species, and endemic Mexican prairie dogs all call the desert home. I am just lucky if I see an armadillo or eagle once in a blue moon.

East El Paso, TX ~ May 21-22, 2021

When the autumn comes and we no longer have 105F degree afternoon heat, I would love to get to some of the more well-known outdoor landmarks in the area like Hueco Tanks.

Even though I love the desert, scorpions, mosquitos, and isolated trails are not the only risks. The first time I walked on the Rio Bosque Trail last month, I pushed myself too hard, unaware that earlier that week as social distancing at work had lifted, I had contracted a viral infection that was only just setting in (and which to this day, over a month later, I still have not fully cleared). Even though the ground was flat, the heat was brutal, and it was approaching 14:00. I had decided to go a little farther and a little farther to get more steps, until I realized rather suddenly it was time to head back sooner than the time I had previously marked for myself to turn around. I found a partially shaded bench and sat down, my heart pounding.

I think this marsh has been the only actual water I’ve ever seen on a walk in Texas or New Mexico!
Rio Bosque Park, El Paso, TX ~ June 18, 2021

After what I thought was just a few minutes, I realized the shade had shifted and I was sitting in the sun, almost out of water, and was becoming disoriented. It felt really hard to get up. I realized I was in a state of heat exhaustion, and if I didn’t get to safety soon, I could enter heat stroke.

Rio Bosque Park, El Paso, TX ~ June 18, 2021

It took a perplexing amount of effort, but I gathered my wits and moved slowly, but with purpose back to my car. Blasting the air conditioner, I drove to the nearest gas station, washed my face, and bought two bottles of electrolyte drinks and some cold medicine. An older man loitering outside the door had said something to me in Spanish as I walked in about tamales. “No gracias,” I replied. But as I walked into the bathroom and saw my face was so red it was almost purple, I realized he had been commenting on my alarming appearance rather than hitting on me or trying to sell me food.

Rio Bosque Park, El Paso, TX ~ June 18, 2021

I drove home and stayed lightly active until I was sure I had recovered enough to take a nap. Texas heat is no joke, ya’ll. Fortunately, V also recently fixed our treadmill at home, so I no longer need to walk outside in the heat if I don’t want to, or rely on the communal consulate gym for my walks. But I’m looking forward to finding more trails in the great outdoors I haven’t been on yet.

May your journeys in the outdoors alleviate what ails you.

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Sarah W Gaer

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