A few years ago, I went camping in the Grand Canyon. It was May and my partner hoped the dryness of the desert would soothe the bad temper of old lady RA. We spent our afternoons warming ourselves against the sun-baked red canyon rock; at night, we sat beneath a multitude of stars, listening to the haunted cry of the coyotes; in the mornings, we kept company with the deer visiting our humble site. My joints thrived in the heat of the sun during the day, but at night, we bundled up in layers to keep the desert chill from our bones. The weather was unusually chilly for that time of year, and there were nights when snowflakes drifted down from deceptively clear skies. After a few days, we made the decision to leave early and travelled to Las Vegas, watching the temperature climb as we drove past assorted cacti and tumbleweeds rolling across the dusty road. I felt my joints coming to life as we passed into the comforting heat of the desert. I always remembered that feeling.
I did not grow up in the dry heat of a desert. I have lived my life on the coast, surrounded by the freshness of the ocean mist in the breeze. I had always enjoyed our mildly wet temperatures, and natural beauty, thankful to avoid the snow squalls and harsh winters of the east. And then along came arthritis, and suddenly, the pleasant climate I had enjoyed became a thorn in my side. My flares rose and fell with each new pressure change. Our inconsistent weather was never obliging enough to stabilize my condition. I began to notice how I thrived in the summer, and it became clear that a long period of warm weather would become my delightful respite from the flares of arthritis.
Recently, I returned to Nevada for a vacation, anticipating the soothing power of the desert heat. As we descended, I peered through the window of the plane looking down at the familiar crimson canyons and mountains. I could almost feel their arid softness enfolding me in a warm welcome. The first waft of warm air encircled me when I exited the plane; my dark jeans and sweater, necessary for the cool damp spring of the coast, were rendered excessive in the balmy heat. My right shoulder which had been plagued with a stubborn stiffness for weeks, suddenly released its grip in a few short minutes. I was convinced this tiny miracle was due to the parched desert air. I noticed a dramatic difference in the first 24 hours. I rose in the mornings with ease – no stiffness dogged my joints, swelling was minimal. In the land of palm trees and dust I had found a singular relief medication and exercise had never been able to deliver. I walked for hours a day, feeling light and fluid. I didn’t need heating pads, NSAIDs or ointments to soothe irritated joints. My better half noticed a new spring in my step. I streamed through the crowds of Las Vegas, buoyed by a fresh vitality. On my last morning, I sat in the windowsill soaking up the sun, hoping the repercussions of returning home would not be too severe.
On my first morning back home, that exasperating stiffness began to creep back into my body. The moisture surged in around me, the cloud cover suffocating my joints as much as the sky. I woke swollen and stiff, returning to the normal condition of my arthritic life. I can’t be too disappointed. I have a great life in spite of my disease, and I was given the opportunity to be pain-free for several days while having the pleasure of exploring a new city – that’s more than most people get. I realize that sometime down the road, I might have to think about making a change to the place I call home. That is still a long way off, but at least it’s one of many aspirations that will keep me motivated as I continue to battle the fickle machinations of arthritis. I guess it’s true what they say “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.