Ron Russell

The Trek That Saved His Life

Interviewed by Abby Sinnott

Pacifica Pedro Point

Pacifica Devil's Slide, from Pedro

After smoking for over 30 years, Ron Russell, then 48-years-old, found himself huffing and puffing when climbing the stairs to his third floor San Francisco apartment. Although he lives close to Ocean Beach, it had been almost a decade since he'd stepped foot on the sand. These days, when the tides are right, Russell spends his free time walking Ocean Beach all the way to Mussel Rock and on to Pacifica. Or he likes to hike the Marin Headlands, Mount Tam and Point Reyes. "I may not be the fastest guy going up the mountain, but I get there," Russell says. Thanks to the Fontana Tobacco Treatment Center at UCSF Medical Center, Russell quit smoking nearly five years ago. At first, his friends didn't believe that this couch potato had actually completed such long hikes. So to prove it, he started taking digital photos and later found a new passion — landscape photography.

How has quitting smoking changed your life?

Thanks to the program I've gone from having trouble climbing the stairs to my third story walk up, to someone who now goes for long hikes and climbs mountains and like a kid, experiences new discoveries. I also live in constant pain due to a shoulder injury I had back in 1998 and this compounded my trouble quitting smoking. When I felt sorry for myself, I smoked, which was all the time. Even with medication, I wake up and endure pain every day. But unlike before quitting, I'm having fun now which makes it worthwhile. My inactivity was what my doctor called exercise toxicity due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In addition to those obstacles, I work in a 24/7 shop and often work rotating shifts.

Why did you finally decide to quit?

I tried everything unsuccessfully and really didn't want to quit and only went to the program to get my wife and my doctor off my case. Of all the people in my initial group, Suzanne Harris, one of the program counselors, would tell you I was the least likely to succeed. I was argumentative and only went so I could say, "I tried again, now get off my case!" I expected to fail, like all my prior attempts. Like a kid with milk and cookies, I loved my cigarettes and coffee, but was coughing when I got up and coughing after each smoke. Today, I still drink coffee but not to the same degree and certainly without the cigarettes. That smoker's hack and all the difficulty I had just breathing, each time I got a cold is a distant and unpleasant memory. I used to get them often and they'd drag on and on and in the last four plus years, I've only had two short-term bouts with the flu. Neither of those times did I think I might need bottled oxygen and that's where I was clearly headed if I hadn't quit.

You describe yourself as miserable when trying to quit, but you eventually did it within five weeks. What was the turning point for you?

Pedro Point, base of Montara

Pedro Point, base of Montara.

In the beginning, I used the patch and the nicotine inhalers and sat in my comfy chair in front of the TV and was miserable. So Suzanne asked me, "Why don't you find a way to have fun with it?" I think she was literally ready to tell me to take a hike right about then and I wouldn't have blamed her for doing it. This was a stroke of brilliance, as it really struck me that I hadn't tried "having fun with quitting." A few days ahead of my scheduled quit date, I went for a walk down Ocean Beach, which I hadn't done in years. I've always wondered what Point San Pedro looked like up close, which was at the far end of the horizon from my apartment, so I walked towards it. After what later turned in to 10 miles, I came up the hills above Sharp Park that felt like cliffs and realized it was getting late and the tide was coming in, so I walked home.

When I got home, I wasn't interested in anything but a shower and bed. I was exhausted, but excited about what "I'd discovered" and actually didn't think about cigarettes. The next day, I got up and walked again. After three days, I went to my smoking cessation class and said, "I quit three days ago" and from there I've just kept walking. It was ironic that I hadn't driven in a few days and when I got into my car to go to the smoking cessation class, I found two packs of cigarettes. At first I thought I could have "just one" and then realized what I'd accomplished would be gone. At that point I put the cigarettes under the tires of my car and drove over them a few times. When I got to the program, Suzanne had me blow into the carbon monoxide testing device and I went from a 27 before I'd quit, to a three. This difference in the two tests was really exciting!

The program taught me to recognize what my smoking "triggers" were, so I had an understanding of what was going on in my body, as well as all the toxins I was inhaling. What was really important was to understand the dichotomy of coffee versus cigarettes and the desire to constantly alternate each.

Why did you start taking photos?

Since folks didn't believe I'd walked the 25 mile round trip to Pt. San Pedro, I took photos to prove it on subsequent hikes. From there, my wife pointed out that I had a talent for landscape photography and then I began looking for more scenic places where I could hike, shoot pictures, discover new things and feel like a kid again. I've since hiked and photographed most of the routes around, to and over Pt. San Pedro.

Other than hiking, what else has replaced your smoking habit?

With the money not spent on cigarettes, I bought a Nikon D300 and three different lenses. Then there's the hiking packs, the boots, the associated gear and I've still saved money by not smoking. I'm enjoying food as never before and love the smell of blue ceanothus, pine and all the plants that Northern California has to offer. On top of that, the plants in the Bay Area are diverse and beautiful and each season gives me a new variety to enjoy — so I can discover new things in places I've gone before. The smells and the sights are a true gift from god. I've also encountered all kids of critters from deer to rabbits to a red fox, bob cats, coyotes and more. I love to watch raptors circling overhead and enjoy the time alone with nature. One drawback to quitting is the taste of food. I used to eat little, living on a diet of coffee and cigarettes and now I'm on the proverbial "see food diet." I see food and eat it all since it tastes so wonderful! So the hikes help me not to lose ground when I can stay active.

Are you still tempted to smoke?

Thanks to the program, I know I'll always have to be careful. I still carry the nicotine inhalers around and when I get tempted, I take a drag off it — like a cigarette. Suzanne says I can do that as long as I live and it won't matter. As long as I don't light up a real cigarette, I'm golden and in May (God willing) that will be five years. Considering the nicotine inhalers are over four years old, I think most of the nicotine is gone and I only do that when I get stressed or when my pain level jumps significantly. They taste so lousy, that one drag and I'm cured of the desire to have a cigarette for a month or two or three. Thanks to Suzanne I have a life.

You've accomplished so much. Do you have any goals for the future?

Ultimately, I want to go back to the Adirondacks and hike the "Forty-Six 4000 peaks." When I go, I feel like I'll be taking Suzanne with me — she means that much. Hiking and enjoying the thrill of discovery was something I did as a kid, before I started to smoke and then later, long mundane walks when I didn't have money for public transit. Oh, I'd have a few dollars here and there, but if it meant not having a cigarette, I'd walk two hours to work and two hours back home, so I could afford that pack of smokes But unlike today, those long walks were not fun.

Hill 88 over Ft Barry Chapel

Hill 88 over Ft Barry Chapel.

I'd also like to spend a month hiking in Hawaii. Both areas are long term goals, if I can ever figure out how to pull it off financially. Not smoking will ultimately help that too. But in the meantime, I love sitting on places like the top of Hill 88 at sunset and overlooking the Bay with 30 miles of coastal visibility. I caught a luxury liner going out at sunset and that picture is now my desktop at work. That sight was not something I'd have enjoyed or captured, if I was stuck back on the couch with my smoker's hack.

March 2012

Photos courtesy of Ron Russell

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Tobacco Treatment Center
1701 Divisadero Street, Suite 100
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885-7895

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