Sorry to leave everyone hanging for the last week or so. A little time was all my feet and my mind needed to help me move forward.
You always think you know how you’ll react to certain situations. I’ve always seen myself as a pretty predictable person. Well, ever since last September I’m happy to say I’ve been surprising myself. Expectations of myself were something I decided to throw out the window when I left for Springer Mountain in March. I started out so nervous and scared of those first steps on the trail, I mean what had I decided to do, was I crazy to think I could actually do it? However, from day one, every step I took going forward I found to be so empowering. My confidence continued to build with every step I took each day going forward.
It’s hard to describe thinking back over the past week or so on what I’ve experienced on the trail so far. Most people might assume I thought of the nights spent in below freezing temperatures, hiking through endless days of rain, the learning moments related to basic survival (oh yeah lots of those)….but those are actually the secondary tier of moments that I remember. Instead, I think about moments that showed me the great strength I never knew I had until now. I mean I hiked 450 miles! I never thought I could even get that far on flat ground, let alone climbing up mountains that far!
It may sound weird to say it all seems like a blur. Getting up to hike an “easy” 16 mile day; climb after climb to make 4,000 ft of elevation gain simply just part of the daily routine; walking that extra mile downhill (and then up again) at the end of a long day to fetch your water at the nearest source, because well, you have to; walking up over a beautiful vista and laughing because you realize you just climbed your 4th f*$&!ing mountain and it’s only 12pm; crying then laughing and then crying again in one afternoon because it’s just one of those days on the trail; having your lunch wrap fall into the dirt but not caring one bit cause hiker hunger is real; climbing down a rocky ridge with a bum ankle, nearly falling, but continuing on anyway to get to “today’s view;” laughing when you realize that once again you’ve set your tent up on a slant so tonight’s sleep will feature lots of rolling; and finally, meeting hiker after hiker, and too many kind trail angels to count to realize that the trail is, I believe, the most unique melting pot of amazing human beings you will ever find.
So, you may be thinking…why am I reminiscing on the trail already? Well it’s because after my long week of rest, I’ve decided to continue throwing expectations out the window and pull Trucker into an official rest stop. I’m leaving the trail, for this season anyway. You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any pain in the memories above, but unfortunately, the majority of those times I was experiencing some level of pain. It started off a dull pain but even the smartest of hikers will let the amazing moments of the trail cloud the pain that they are actually feeling, which I did. It’s one thing to ignore dull pain since that is the daily life of a thru-hiker, but a constant sharp, stabbing feeling in the one “tool” you need most for hiking is beyond uncomfortable. It’s more unsettling when that pain starts to creep up from your feet into your legs and start to make your toes numb and tingling….probably not the best sign.
My week off let me see how my Achilles Tendinitis felt after some time off my feet and specifically off mountains, but it also was a chance for my mind to have some space from the trail. I met a lot of different types of hikers on the trail and many had a common strategy of “push down the pain, take some more vitamin I (ibuprofen), and get to Katahdin.” I mean “No pain, No rain, No Maine” is a common saying after all. Some of those people’s stories have unfortunately still ended with severe injury/surgery while also getting stomach ulcers from pain killers. After days of just walking down my parent’s driveway and feeling pain, I didn’t feel comfort and enjoyment when thinking about getting out and trying to climb up VA mountains. My uncle, who happened to be visiting for Mother’s Day, is a physical therapist and gave me a once over this past weekend. He has a magical way (better than most doctor lingo) of explaining why and how I was feeling the way I did while on trail and how things could progress or worsen moving forward, but the bit of advice that I appreciated the most was asking “What are you wanting out of the trail?” A genuine question that I had been thinking about and helped bring clarity to many of the thoughts I’d been having about leaving the trail. I had made my decision and began to write this post when I came across something else that almost felt like fate and confirmed that I felt completely confident in my decision. Jennifer Pharr Davis, a well-known thru hiker and record holder for the fastest known time on the AT, writes for The Trek and answers common questions for thru hikers. This week the topic was “handling injuries on a long trail,” and her words solidified everything that I have been feeling:
It is important that you listen to your body and advocate for yourself on trail—and the doctor’s office. Long distance hikers can inadvertently worsen their injury by trying to keep up with their miles or a hiking partner.
Perhaps the biggest risks to long-distance hikers when it comes to injury is that we all deal masking pain that comes from backpacking for weeks at a time, and we can be stubborn asses blinded by the goal of making it to the last mountain. Rest can help minimize the common aches and unveil more problematic ailments. But being mule-headed is more difficult to identify and overcome. If you are hiking through extreme discomfort that does not improve, ask yourself, “Is making it to the end of the trail more important to me than a life of hiking?”
Remember, stopping for an injury does not mean that you will fail to complete a trail. It is a pause. Sometimes the pause takes a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. Maybe you have to return the next year. In the meantime, the trail is not going anywhere. You can come back and finish later, and you will enjoy it a whole lot more without trying to push through debilitating pain.
So, I decided pain is not worth it for me to just make it to the “end.” I am choosing to advocate for myself and my health. I love to hike and want to continue hiking in the near future. If that means having to stop the AT to fully recover then I’m 100% satisfied. And don’t worry, I’m not disappointed or sad about having to leave. Sure, it would be great if I wasn’t injured but hey, it happens. In terms of all that I accomplished, I am completely proud of myself. From the start my goal was to hike the Appalachian Trail, and sure, that obviously implies getting to Katahdin’s summit. But when I think back to “why” I decided to hike the AT, I wanted to challenge myself, and bring the strength I knew I had up to the surface. Well folks, I feel like I met my goal. I’ve already won, Katahdin or not. As many say, the trail provides and will change you. I completely agree. Even if my AT journey was just 49 days long, it was life changing and a journey that I could never recreate or regret having.
So where does that leave Trucker. Trucker will keep on truckin’ as they say. I’m recuperating in Lexington, KY with my sister for the time being, following the exercises my uncle recommended to get me back to pain-free. No matter what, I plan to keep this journey moving whether it be on the AT or off. Like I said, the AT gave me strength I didn’t know I had and part of that involves continuing to do things that challenge me, take me out of my comfort zone alongside things that I absolutely enjoy. So what does that mean? I’m not exactly sure as of this moment but I definitely have some exciting plans floating around my head for filling my time over the next couple of months before returning to work.
I hope to keep this blog going during that time so feel free to keep checking back to see what is up next!
I really appreciate all the support and love all of you gave during the last few months. Some of those hard days on the trail were uplifted by your comments I’d get here so I could not have asked for more, thank you!