Slumber & Saguaros: How A Trip To The Desert Ruined My Sleep

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Traveling can be hard for even the most seasoned sleep strategists. Weird pillows, unfamiliar beds, different time zones and more can railroad your sleep, but what can be done to reverse the fallout? 

My wife recently booked a trip for the two of us, and decided to choose a long weekend in Phoenix, AZ in June. In case you’re wondering if June is a good time to go to the middle of the desert, just know that the temperatures hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit the entire time. 

While the getaway was fun on the whole, it also brought with it a handful of obstacles that had to be overcome from a sleep perspective: 

  • Long plane rides at night
  • Unfamiliar, hotel bed & pillow situation
  • Day/night desert temperature fluctuations
  • Jet lag from a 2 hour time zone difference

Most of these issues were short term afflictions that I was able to overcome in a single night, but one lasted for what felt like forever. Luckily, I found a solution that worked like a charm. 

Sleep Scenario 1: Long Evening Flight

OK, there are probably a few caveats to get out of the way here. First, “long” is a matter of perspective. We have direct flights between Phoenix and Nashville, which took 3+ hours each. I know that’s nothing compared to international travel, but for me, that’s long. Second, these weren’t overnight flights. I think the first one left at 8PM Central time (the time zone I’m accustomed to), and the second flight left at about the same actual time, though 2 hours “earlier” since we were leaving from Phoenix’ timezone. 

Now generally, I have absolutely no issue sleeping on a plane. In fact, I usually have issues staying awake. I don’t know if it’s the little overhead fan, the white noise (or is it a different color noise?) of the jet engines, or what, but plane rides generally provide me with an almost narcoleptic response – unable to keep my eyes open or control where my body wilts as I doze off. This should have worked to my advantage, as we were getting in at about 9:30 Phoenix time, even though that was about my normal bedtime back home in Nashville. I figured I would take a nice long nap, and wake up refreshed and ready to quickly adapt to the 2 hour time difference. Unfortunately, this flight was different. 

We flew through all kinds of weather issues, resulting in a horrifically turbulent ride. My head was pounding from the pressure changes, and I was fighting for my life to avoid puking in the tiny seatback bag. Not a single second of sleep was achieved, and I arrived at bedtime completely exhausted. But I couldn’t go to sleep just yet – I had to take a train to the car rental, wait in line over there, get my car, and drive 40 minutes to the hotel. By the time I got checked in and showered off the filth of a pressurized tube full of coughing humans that is the airplane, it was past my bedtime even by Phoenix standards. 

This trip wasn’t off to a great start. 

Sleep Scenario #2: Hotel Bed & Pillows

By the time I fell asleep, it was probably 2AM to my Nashville-tuned body, and I was absolutely exhausted. The good news: this was a mini vacation – I could sleep in as long as I wanted!

But here’s what actually happened. About an hour into my sleep, some machine outside my room suddenly starts buzzing – like almost shaking my bed it’s so loud. About 15 minutes goes by, and it turns off. Great! Unfortunately, now that the edge has been taken off my exhaustion by that hour of sleep, suddenly I’m finding my surroundings a little less suitable for nodding off. 

The bed was too squishy. I felt like my upper body was somehow “down hill” from my feet, because I was sinking in so deep. I tried to fluff up the pillows to make up for it, but that only made things weirder: now I was in a soft V shape, with my head and feet elevated well above my midsection. I took another pillow and jammed it under the small of my back – now I was close to parallel, but it was definitely not an ideal scenario. 

I probably woke up every 30 minutes for the rest of the night, finally calling it quits at about 5:30AM. This was not the restorative sleep I needed from the previous night. Oh well, life must go on. 

Sleep Scenario #3: Desert Temperature Fluctuations

I like the desert on the whole. Yes, it’s as hot as hell during mid-day, but take a similar approach to those who extol the virtues of living where you can experience all 4 seasons: I think it’s nice to have the different temperature zones of a warm morning, hot day, and cool evening. Unfortunately, this led to additional complications from a sleep perspective – at least with the hotel I stayed at. 

Remember that horrible, bed-shaking machine sound from my first night? I discovered that to be a function of the room’s attempt to keep our climate controlled through the massive temperature fluctuations throughout the day. The A/C was working overtime during the day to make our room livable, then when the outside temperatures inevitably cratered after the sun went down, some kind of auxiliary heater was kicking on to stabilize the room temperature. This heater and the A/C seemed to be in a constant war against each other all night unless you turned the A/C off. 

Here’s the problem with turning the A/C off in the middle of the desert, even at night: that means you have to open the windows, and there are a lot of disgusting and even dangerous creatures that want to come in. If you don’t want to wake up to a scorpion sting, you really want those windows closed. That means going to bed with no blankets and barely any clothes, then transitioning halfway through the night to a sweatshirt and a comforter. Not the most conducive formula for uninterrupted sleep. 

Sleep Scenario #4: 2 Hour Time Zone Difference Jet Lag 

Despite all the sleep disruptions during the trip, it was a pretty good time overall. We put like 800 miles on our rental car, driving all over the state. We hit Sedona, Flagstaff, Tucson, Apache Junction, Scottsdale, and all kinds of other little stops along the way. We explored the Saguaro National Park, hiked all over the place, ate some fantastic food (shout out to Frank & Lupe’s), and eventually got back on a plane headed for home.

I was really looking forward to getting back on my normal sleep schedule, with my comfortable bed and civilian-style climate control, but when I got home I realized something terrible: I had completely adapted to Phoenix’ time zone. For the first few nights home, I would just lay in bed, completely unable to fall asleep until 1:30-2AM, then wake up at my regularly scheduled 7AM. Forget the temperature of the desert at noon – this was the real hell. 

I was tired all day, just dragging myself around. But I still couldn’t fall asleep at night – I was completely off my rhythm. I couldn’t sleep in, because I was back to my life full of work, parenting, and dog owning responsibilities – I just had to suck it up and hope something changed. 

Solution: Soul Crushing Exercise

Finally, something clicked. I remembered an article Dan wrote about exercise and its impact on sleep. I had skipped exercising since getting back from my trip, because I was just too tired to put in a quality workout. I decided to just do what I could, and focus on the lifts that beat me up the most: squats and deadlifts. 

I put in a brutal workout, with several 10-rep sets of heavy (for me) squats, followed by three 5-rep sets of deadlifts at 80% of my one-rep max. By the time I hit that final set of deadlifts, I felt ready to pass into another dimension. But instead of stopping there, I decided to do a few 20-rep sets of leg curls and quad extensions just in case I still had something left in the tank that could keep me awake. 
After this workout, I could barely hobble my way from the garage to my bedroom. I took a shower, barely able to stand or keep my eyes open, and just like that: I was asleep by 10PM. I woke up the next morning at 7AM, feeling refreshed (though incredibly sore), and that was that – no more jet lag, and no more issues falling asleep any night since.