Two old friends have found better health — and lost more than 100 pounds — along the trail to the top of Lower Table Rock.
Paula Audley and Rachel Riekeman started climbing hills together when they were 12-year-old girls growing up in Riddle. As their 50th birthdays loomed, both wanted to lose the weight that had accumulated after decades of family life and busy work schedules. Early last year, they decided to start eating a healthier diet and walking together after work.
You don't need to be on a weight-loss program to enjoy the trails on the two Table Rocks. The twin mesas have been one of the Rogue Valley's most popular hiking spots for decades.
The two prominent mesas feature one of the most diverse assortments of wildflowers in Southern Oregon. Some species bloom as early as February, and there's usually something in flower until late April or early May, so you can visit several times over the course of spring and see a number of different flowers.
The wildflower display makes spring the best time of year to hike the Table Rocks. Summer heat can make the trails a sweaty ordeal, compared to this time of year, when the air is still cool, and the sun hasn't dialed in full power.
The Upper Table Rock Trail is shorter (2.8 miles round trip), with an elevation gain of about 720 feet. The hike up Lower Table Rock is about 5.4 miles up and back, with an elevation gain of 780 feet.
Getting there is easy. From Medford, take Table Rock Road (what else?) north, and cross the Rogue River. To reach Upper Table Rock, follow Table Rock Road to the Modoc Road intersection, turn right on Modoc Road and continue for 1 mile to the trailhead, which is on the left side of the road.
To reach Lower Table Rock, follow Table Rock Road past Modoc Road to Wheeler Road. Turn left on Wheeler Road and continue about one-half mile to reach the trailhead, which is on the left side of the road.
The Table Rocks are managed jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, which includes descendants of American Indians who lived in Southern Oregon before Euro-American settlers drove them out in the 1850s. Those indigenous people revered the Table Rocks as sacred ground.
Sturdy shoes make the hike easier and long pants reduce the risk of contact with poison oak. Make sure to bring drinking water and lunch or a snack. Pets are not allowed, even on leashes.
"I was a walking time bomb," Paula recalled. She weighed 235 pounds, and her blood cholesterol was high enough that her doctor wanted her to take drugs to control it.
"I knew I didn't want to take pills," she said.
Rachel, who stands just over 5 feet, weighed around 170 pounds at that time. When her first grandson was born, she realized she wanted to be around to enjoy him.
"I just wanted to change my lifestyle," she said. "I didn't want to be too tired to go out and play with him."
At first, the two Eagle Point friends walked around town after they finished working with dialysis patients at Medford's two hospitals. As they got stronger, they decided to walk up Lower Table Rock, one of Jackson County's most prominent landmarks.
"We started out at two times a week," Rachel recalled, "and we thought it was great. Pretty soon it was four times a week, then five times. By the time summer was over we were going every night."
As the pounds fell away, people noticed. A few even asked Rachel if she was sick.
A year after they started walking, they're hauling a lot less of themselves up the trail. Rachel lost more than 40 pounds, and Paula dropped around 70.
"People ask me how I lost the weight," Paula said. "It's really just eating less and exercising.
"Everybody wants the quick fix these days," she said. "I tried every one of those (weight-loss) diets, and they never worked. A life change is what has to happen. This has to be a commitment for the rest of your life."
Both agreed they drew inspiration and support from each other during the inevitable times when their enthusiasm waned or their motivation lagged.
"Paula and I fed off each other," Rachel recalled. "When one of us didn't want to go, the other one said, 'Come on, we've got to do this.' "
"It's been wonderful for us to do this together, and encourage each other," Paula said.
"Rachel was always encouraging me to get up that hill," she said. "I'd be whining about how it was killing me, and she'd say, 'Come on, you can do it.' "
They altered their eating habits by making small changes that didn't seem impossible. Rachel began by giving up the big fountain drinks sold in convenience stores.
"I thought maybe if I stopped the sodas I could stop the junk food," she said.
Rather than deny herself the foods she liked, she made herself eat less of them.
"Instead of four or five pieces of pizza, I'd have one or maybe two," she said. "Instead of Pepsi, I'd have water, and then maybe a salad."
Paula turned away from fried foods, started using olive oil in her cooking, and limited her portions, too.
"I've learned to have a little bit," she said. "I've learned to moderate. I don't deny myself. If you deny yourself, you want to splurge. To me it's a way of life."
Salads and vegetables became the mainstays of her diet.
"My children would come over and say 'Mom, you have no food in the house.' I'd tell them it was in the (vegetable) crisper," she said.
Paula also realized food had become a source of emotional comfort while she was going through a painful divorce.
"If you're under stress, you're not going to lose weight," she said. "You've got to be unstressed. The more stressed out you are the more you want to eat. You zone out, watch TV and shovel the food in without even realizing it."
She credited her faith, and support from women at her church, with helping her move forward, too.
The two friends' weight loss also paid off financially. They submitted their personal stories to a wellness competition sponsored by their employer, DaVita, a national company that provides kidney dialysis services at hospitals. Both were rewarded with a year's free health insurance.
They plan to keep moving. Paula has become something of a runner, and plans to enter at least one race every month. Last September she ran her first half-marathon. Rachel wants to expand her hiking to trails beyond the Table Rocks.
Last fall, they started to climb Mount McLoughlin, but had to turn back just short of the summit. Things will be different this year, Paula said. "We'll get to the top this time."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.