More than one avid reader (two, to be precise) have wondered how I am doing one-third of the way through radiation therapy. Most readers are aware that half my tongue was removed in early March due to re-current cancer and replaced with skin (medical term: “flap”) from my hairy forearm. I am not kidding. Why they did not shave it before installing it in my mouth apparently requires an advanced degree in “What the Hell?” which I do not have. Radiation is the next step in the process so the doctors can say “OK Ken, you are now cancer-free, and this time we really mean it.”
I will get to that. But first, you deserve something of more (or perhaps less) interest in return for your investment of 2 Minutes.
On the way back from Houston last Fall, we left the motorhome in Tucson, and drove the Jeep back home. On the way, we stopped for a night in Quartzite AZ.
Quartzite is hallowed ground for the boon-docking set. These are the people who prefer to park their trailers on dirt or sand in the middle of nowhere, receive no services (water, sewer, etc) whatsoever and pay nothing, or in the case of Quartzite, next to nothing for the privilege. The BLM manages hundreds of thousands of acres of raw desert surrounding Quartzite and for something like 10 cents or so, they allow people to park their RVs there all winter. Hundreds of thousands of people (by some accounts, over a million) take them up on that offer. Of course people also bring their tow vehicles, boats, one or two ATVs, a dirt bike or two, lawn chairs, propane powered fire pits, and who knows what else – all at no extra charge. So approaching the area in the winter at night it looks like a major city with fire pits blazing as far as the eye can see.
In the absence of an RV, the choice of accommodations in Quartzite consists of the Super 8 motel, or the cab of your semi. We decided on the Super 8. When I was younger, I could not afford to stay in a Super 8. Motel 6 was my preferred accommodation. Super 8 was a luxury I afforded myself only when the Motel 6 was full. It had been many decades since I had stayed at either and I was interested to see what this would be like.
After checking in, we noted that many of the luxuries of higher end hotels that we had come to expect over the years were missing: things like working lamps, a toilet that flushed reliably, and functional heating and air conditioning with fans that did not sound like a jet taxiing for takeoff. But, we did have four walls, a bed, and a bathroom, and it only cost 10 times what it cost the last time we stayed at one.
The motel restaurant consisted of a vending machine, so we went off in search of the local cuisine. On the way to the rowdy pizza parlor that we were told was the best place in town, we drove by the Quartzite Yacht Club and decided this was too good to pass up.
There is no body of water anywhere near Quartzite, but Al Madden bought a nondescript beer bar in the 1970’s and decided to call it the Yacht Club as a joke. He started selling memberships for $10, and business took off. It is no longer a joke. It is, in fact, the largest yacht club in the world, boasting a membership of over 10,000. For $49.95 you can become a member too, which gets you a t-shirt, a cap, and – most importantly – a membership card that has been honored by illustrious yacht clubs the world over (at least, until they figure out that the joke’s on them).
Commodore Madden rebuilt the club after a fire in 1995, and died within a year. His legacy now continues under the stewardship of current owners Omar (below) and MeMe.
I struck up a conversation with a local and asked if he liked Quartzite. “Oh, love it. I’ve been living here for 15 years, ever since I retired.”
“What is there to do here?”
“Well, most people get on their ATV’s and head out to the desert.”
“Great! What do you do out there?”
“Well, ride around.”
“Anywhere in particular?”
“No, just around.”
“So people around here mostly have ATV’s and ride them out in the desert?”
We did not buy a membership, but we did buy one of their unique glass toppers for $5:
After bidding farewell to Omar and MeMe and the Quartzite Yacht Club, we returned to the Super 8 and tried to get to sleep. I had forgotten how much sound can pass through walls made of cardboard. Fortunately, there were no newlyweds on either side, and the rowdies down the hall had hit the sack early. The bed sagged so that from the side, a perfect V was formed. Next time I’ll check the box for the optional “real mattress.”
Alas my tongue, having not yet fully healed from cancer surgery #1, started to bleed and by midnight the bleeding still would not stop. So, off we went on a 45 minute trip to the nearest ER. Small rural hospitals are wonderful. In the middle of the night we waited only a few minutes and a nurse came out to the lobby. I told her the situation, she looked at it, and said “there’s nothing we can really do for it except apply pressure with gauze. When tongues bleed, it takes forever for them to stop and all you can do is apply pressure and wait.” She then gave me a bunch of gauze to cover us for the night. She then asked if I wanted to open an account and go through the formalities of setting me up as a patient and pay for the visit, or just be on my way. “I’ll just be on my way – and thanks!” By next morning, the bleeding had stopped.
I still wondered what the draw of Quartzite was, so I headed out to the local coffee shop.
The Mountain Quail Cafe is out of the way, looks like a nondescript home, and is nowhere close to the Interstate. There is no buzz, no rush, no hurry. Everyone moves at a slow pace. The parking lot is filled with only two kinds of vehicles – ATVs and Jeeps – so my car fit right in.
But I didn’t. As I sat down and perused the menu, all eyes were on me. First, I was a stranger. Everyone else knew everyone else on a first name basis. Second, I was dressed funny. I wore jeans, running shoes, and a shirt with buttons on it. Every other old guy – and they were all old guys – abided by the desert dress code: shorts, sandals, t-shirt, baseball cap. The few women all wore colorful flowered tops and slacks.
“I’m in town for the day, what should I do while I’m in Quartzite?” I asked the people seated next to me.
“Well, most people get on their ATV’s and head out to the desert.”
“Oh, where do they go?”
“Any place in particular?” as if maybe there was a watering hole somewhere that everyone went to.
“No, just ride around in the desert.”
This was getting me nowhere. “What if I don’t have an ATV. Is there anything to do in town?”
“Oh, I’d just walk around, see what stands are open at the flea market…just walk around.” As we spoke, I found that everyone had acquired a slow, engaging drawl as if they were all from West Texas, though it turned out most were from California.
Many come every day. It is the unofficial senior center, though there are plenty of official ones in town as well. Marge sat alone at her table, reading a book from the religious rack. She comes here every day, and exchanges a few words with the servers and the other patrons, but I got the sense this was a lonely place for an elderly single woman who would rather read than hop on an ATV and ride out to nowhere in particular, Arizona.
The food was ample, as was the calorie count. I paid my bill (“thanks hon,” said the server, “see you tomorrow.”) and decided to walk around. Flea markets were everywhere. Lots of beads, jewelry, rocks, and more than one Trump Shop. I did not come across a Bernie Shop, and suspect that meetings of the Quartzite Democrats can fit around the dinette in a Fifth Wheel trailer. No democratic socialists around these parts, though pretty close to 99% of the residents enjoy socialized income (Social Security) and socialized medicine (Medicare and Medicaid).
It was time to press on, so I never found out about the joys of heading out to the desert in an ATV to turn gasoline into noise. I also did not come through town in time to meet Paul Winer, better known as the “Naked Bookseller,” who had recently died in his sleep. In addition to owning a bookshop, he was also a Boogie Woogie Blues musician known as Sweet Pie. I was glad he wasn’t known as the Naked Musician. His upcoming Celebration of Life was front page news in the Desert Messenger (Motto: “Always Free!”).
Well I could go on and on about all the wonderful things to see and do in and around Quartzite (did I mention going out on your ATV and riding around in the desert?), but I promised a brief health update and here it is.
The radiation treatments themselves have turned out to be no big deal. I arrive, lie down on the Rack, they put on the Mask of Terror, and the Death Ray machine goes around me a few times. The Rack is actually quite comfortable, and my fabulous radiology specialists always give me a warm blanket and turn Pandora to 60’s Classic Rock. It turns out I have no tendency to claustrophobia, so the Mask of Death has actually become my friend – it keeps my head from moving so I don’t have to worry about getting a twitch and having the Death Ray zap out my eye-ball. Two or three songs later I am out the door.
Radiation not only kills cancer cells, but also kills perfectly healthy cells. The body figures this out pretty quickly and goes to work repairing the good cells. This takes work and calories and protein. You may not be hustling, but your body is. Radiation-induced fatigue sets in after 2 or 3 weeks, and for me that has not yet happened. I remain modestly active, walking 1-1/2 to 2 miles a day. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.
All those calories and protein have to be replenished, and so the dietary advice for anyone undergoing this is to eat “mindlessly and excessively.” In one of those ironic jokes that mother nature plays (like when you have your tonsils out and they say you can have all the ice cream you want – ha!), radiation also destroys your salivary glands, and messes with your taste buds, and pretty much destroys your appetite. So just when you not only may but must eat all those monstrously unhealthy snacks, appetizers, main courses, side dishes and desserts you always wanted, your body looks at them and, in its best Larry David whiney voice, says “ehhhh, I don’t think so. Not really interested.” But you must, and so you eat and eat and eat as much as you can throughout the day to maintain your weight. Losing weight increases the chance that cancer will recur, and makes ultimate recovery much harder, so I now treat it as a job. When I get up in the morning, after my first cup of coffee, I say to myself “well, time to go to work,” and that’s what eating now feels like.
More ominous side effects are now starting to arrive. Pain throughout my mouth now makes eating solid food almost impossible. I will probably wear out my blender. I no longer have any sense of flavor. Ice cream and whipped cream have no taste and might as well be butter. Vanilla pudding and chocolate pudding taste the same – butter. These impacts were not unexpected but they did come on faster and harder than expected. My dietician warned me today that things will get worse. In the meantime, I’ve maintained my weight, and have avoided heavy duty pain meds and a feeding tube so far – and hope to keep it that way.
Here in the Pacific Northwest the trees are now leafing out, the sun makes an occasional appearance through the low overcast, I am still able to go out for walks, and our WiFi is wicked fast, so life is still good. I’ll report again when I have something half-ways interesting to say.