Miscellaneous Ramblings

On Mountains and Medicine

As things are wont to do when you’re in your 20s and a year has passed since you’ve written, so much has changed since my last post.

After being forced off the PCT because of Lyme, I returned home to help my mother with her new business, eventually recovered, visited Pine Nut in Seattle, relapsed and reached my all-time Lyme low at the start of 2016, discovered a deep passion for fiber art, decided to go into the medical field, walked a winding yellow arrow of Caminos, explored Western Europe, enrolled and (very) successfully completed four weeks of pre-med courses, and then suffered from Lyme or carbon monoxide poisoning (long story) and had to withdraw.  Now I’m back at my “old Kentucky home,” creating fiber art, feeling strong, and pondering my next move.

Healthy people on career tracks might be so caught up in the day-to-day challenges that they are not afforded the chance to pause and take stock of where they’re going.  Getting to do so once every few years is a treat.  Getting to do so once every few months because of the cycles of remission and relapse (or carbon monoxide poisoning, you know) is a little excessive.

It’s not that I’d rather avoid being deliberate and mindful; it’s just that I’d prefer not to question my deliberate, mindful choices at such frequent junctures.  I feel completely smitten by mountains and art and the biological sciences; how am I supposed to choose just one?  (Perhaps I should take a page from polyamory and refuse to choose.)

I feel relatively certain that I would enjoy the lifestyle of a locum tenens hospitalist, traveling to various assignments and using modern medicine in the acute care setting where it most excels.  I would enjoy keeping abreast of the latest research and working through differential diagnoses to problem solve.  Most importantly, I would enjoy doing my best to ensure patients even more ill than I’ve been get the chance to hike another mountain.

But, the journey to that point feels daunting.  I’d forgotten about the competitiveness – the Slytherin atmosphere – of school; I’d forgotten what it felt like to live in a world where statuses and resumes are important.  It’s not a place where I feel as though I belong.

Thus, in my mind, the question right now, at this unusual limbo before registration for next semester opens, is whether I will find a place for myself – without losing myself – in med school. Should I be focusing on getting these last prereqs under my belt, when I’m not sure whether what comes next is a good choice for me?  I don’t want to go into medicine in spite of needing to go to med school; I want to be able to enjoy the journey.  I’m not opposed to hard work; I have just learned that life is too unpredictable to spend healthy days in unhealthy settings.

So, that’s where I am in my thoughts, at least today.  I welcome feedback, especially from med students who are finding their way toward their dreams.

On the PCT: Warner Springs, Part Two

I’ve actually done it.  I’ve resisted the urge to (Rainbow) dash along and taken some much needed zeroes.  In the five days that I haven’t hiked, I’ve been thinking a lot about community.

While I’ve zeroed, I met the blogger behind BikeHikeSafari.  He is even cooler in real life than he seems in his blog.

There were reunions all around.  I got to see the hikers I’d met all the way back in Campo; I was caught by Wild Bill and company, with whom I went to New York City while we were all on the AT in 2012; and I was recognized by Sprout, a 2014 AT hiker I’d hiked near in Maine.

The backpacking community is ridiculously small, and that’s one of the things I like most about it.  Out here, there never seems to be more than one or two degrees of separation between two people.  As a result, reputation is as important as it is in small-town America.

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Tent city in Warner Springs

For the most part, hikers are very mindful of and interested in building community.  There’s an ethic of sharing that’s implied in this lifestyle.  From the water sources (and, more importantly, water caches) to the campsites to the hiker boxes, what’s one’s is also someone else’s.  I was thinking of John Lennon’s “Imagine”:  We don’t stay in place long enough to have anything like the “country” he sings about; similarly, it’s difficult to be concerned with possession or be materialistic when you live out of a backpack.

There are many ways in which the trail isn’t a perfect community, and there have been a number of conversations online about perceived flaws with it as of late.  However, it’s interesting to consider the ways in which the trail serves as a microcosm wherein community is created.

For years, I’d struggled to articulate exactly what I meant when I think of the depth of conversations I have out here.  After the gear conversations (that drive me batty) of the first few hundred miles, people seem to talk about who they are, rather than what they are.  It’s not about what job you hold or what your spouse or children do for work; it’s not about what car you drive or home you live in.  It’s simply about who you are, what you believe, and where you’re from and heading.

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Waiting out 60mph winds in the Resource Center

Out here, the playing field has been leveled.  Everyone is dirty and stinky and passionate about the natural world and/or outdoor adventure and/or athletic endeavors.

I enjoyed watching this play out while I was holed up at the Warner Springs Resource Center, where older community members host a full-service hiker reststop.  Hikers who hadn’t met one another before fell into conversation quickly and parted company with the blessing of “Happy trails!”  In the tent city that was created on the Resource Center’s lawn every night, hikers shared stories through tent walls, thankful to have had warm food, showers, and clean laundry and to not be spending a night in the hypothermic conditions that have predominated the southern California mountains recently.

It was beautiful, but I was so, so ready to hike on.  Finally, when my swelling and pain decreased to the point that I didn’t need to get ice from the fire station next door, I shouldered my pack and headed north.

My Hopes for My PCT Thru-Hike

Hiking a long-distance trail is a wonderful opportunity to stop and think about where you’ve come from and where you’re going.  I think it’s even better to start sorting through the questions you’ll be asking yourself before you hit the trail.  That could happen as you’re gathering your gear, as you’re dehydrating meals, or as you’re waiting out a five-hour layover in Atlanta.  I chose the last option.

“All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.”
James Thurber

When I set off on my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I had some very important questions I intended to answer as I hiked.  How did I want to live my life?  What did I want to do?  Where did I want to live?  How did I feel about love and relationships?  Thinking about all of these questions simply didn’t happen while I was walking, but I considered them in the trail’s quiet moments, when I was filtering water, making dinner, or snuggled inside my sleeping bag at night.  Late night musings triggered a few existential crises along the trail, but, while I didn’t climb Katahdin with my questions fully answered, my thoughtful time on the trail allowed me time to sort through some of my ideas and perspectives.

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Gear for the PCT

So, what do I plan to ask myself on the PCT?  What do I hope to see and hear and feel and learn and experience while I’m out there?

In some ways, this hike feels as though it will be a very different hike for me, as I’m coming from a different place; no longer am I fresh out of college and working to figure out who I am.  I’ll be asking myself where I’m heading in the short-term, but I think I have a grasp of my longterm trajectory.

Many of my hopes for the PCT are concrete.  I want to experience the beauty of redwood forests and the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.  But, I don’t want to just walk through the less-magnificent places; I want to embrace them all.  I am excited to develop a love of the West Coast’s mountains and forests like that I have for the Appalachians.  I look forward to cultivating friendships with other hikers, and I am happy that I’ll be able to stay in contact with old friends — with whom I’ll share tales from the trail — while I’m hiking.  And, I am interested to listen to the stories of others who’ve been fighting Lyme who I’ll be meeting along the way, as I’ll be hiking to raise $0.81 per mile for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.

Some of my goals for the hike are more abstract, requiring more head space.  I want to figure out my battle plan for Lyme Disease, now that I know it’s going to be a chronic thing.  Should I continue to pursue treatment for relapses (when they occur) in Kentucky, or should I go somewhere Lyme is more common?  Should I try to continue with “band-aid solutions,” or should I try to pursue any of the more aggressive, definitive treatments that others have undergone?  Should I continue to use antibiotics to knock down my bacterial load, or should I try any alternative therapy?

I’d also like to do some contingency planning about my future goals.  When I got sick this spring, I had to give up my seat in the outdoor leadership program I was hoping to attend; I thought taking out loans for a year of schooling when I can’t guarantee my health for even a few months didn’t seem like a good idea.  With Lyme, there’s no middle ground for me:  I seem to either be overtly healthy or so sick that I’m stuck in bed.  Within these parameters, I need to set some reasonable but meaningful goals for the next few years.

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...And in rainbow order!

In the meantime, I’ll just work to put one foot in front of the other from Mexico to Canada.  I’ll take time to get lost in the beauty around me, make time and space for awe and inspiration.  I’ll explore quirky trail towns and take zero days in the woods.  I’ll hike Mount Whitney and swim in glacial lakes.  I’ll collect stories to cherish, mental images to meditate on, pictures to treasure, and moments to laugh about when times get rough.

In every Unitarian Universalist sense of the word, I fully recognize this hike is a gift, and I am a deeply grateful recipient.

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Heading to the trail

Hypothermia, Spider Bites, and Pogo Sticks: Wilderness First Responder Training

It’s not that there aren’t backpackers and outdoor adventurers in rural Kentucky; there are. But, I rarely seem to meet any of them, and, as a result, I generally don’t talk much about my outdoor experiences and aspirations. There are plenty of other things to talk about, and I genuinely enjoy visiting with friends and neighbors in the Bluegrass State. However, one of my favorite things about taking a Wilderness First Responder course at the Outward Bound campus of Table Rock, NC, is being surrounded by dozens of other wanderers and outdoor adventurers.IMG_20150323_102234_979

It became apparent that I was among kindred spirits — people who could understand my having five addresses in eight months, and who admire the latest outdoor gear but are roughly the age of their cars — when the first day of our course began with introductions, which included the place we each “receive mail.”

While we share the passion of adventuring outdoors, the specific sports and activities that we each enjoy are varied. I am one of a few people in our class who primarily consider themselves to be backpackers, and there are rock climbers and skiers and snowboarders and white water athletes and flat water boaters and hunters and horse packers in our group. There are instructors and group leaders; there are people who generally enter the backcountry with others and people who generally adventure alone. All of this has contributed to some varied perspectives and biases in how we have assessed and reacted to staged scenarios of disasters in the wilderness.

IMG_20150322_114631_036I came to Table Rock to take a Landmark Learning Wilderness First Responder course, which is a prerequisite for the outdoor leadership program I was just accepted to in Greenfield, MA. A WFR course is 80 hours and involves both lectures and laboratory time, during which instructors watch as we treat mock patients taking part in contrived scenarios. In the last few days, I’ve treated an asthmatic rock climber, a hypothermic naturalist, an unresponsive hiker, an adventurer suffering from altitude sickness, and a pogo stick champion with a broken wrist. I’ve been a birder with hypertension, an avid paintballer with a broken rib, and a Gore-tex-sponsored competitive runner suffering from heat stroke. Acting in the role of rescuer, I’ve been a lead responder, a member of medical teams, a patient advocate, and part of a volunteer response crew. And, in study sessions, some new friends and I have reenacted some of my favorite stories of health-related misadventures on the Appalachian Trail, including the tale of the Barrington Crater.

I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been having fun. However, there is also a real gravity to the WFR course. Every day, we learn about the traumatic injuries, environmental threats, and medical issues that can affect us and those we love while we’re doing the things we love to do. We hear recounts of tragedies, and we evaluate stories of successes and failures of medicine in the field. We acknowledge the limits of our abilities and consider the ways in which we can make a difference. The responsibility of becoming a/the person who, among a random group of thru-hikers, should know what to do in a given situation is something I’ve continued to think about throughout the course.IMG_20150320_182608_627

Maybe it’s my love of method acting catching up to me, or maybe it’s the memory of Emma’s fall on Mount Washington last year, but I have a difficult time distancing myself emotionally from some of the material I’ve been learning. It’s not that I’d felt invincible in the outdoors, but I have felt safe, secure in my experience and physical ability. While increased awareness of what can go wrong might make me a bit more anxious about scaling a wet and rocky incline alone, I think the knowledge and ability to respond to an emergency situation also engenders a sense of confidence that puts some of those worries to rest. As our instructors love to say, “Prevention trumps medicine.” Let’s mitigate the risks that can be mitigated and know how to respond to the problems that may occur.

Long story short, if you’ll also be thru-hiking the PCT this year, do everything you can to avoid dehydration, heat exhaustion, hyponatremia, rattlesnake bites, and traumatic injuries. But, if a problem does arise, I think you’ll be in good hands if you happen to have said problem around me or another WFR.

Be safe out there, friends.

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Finding My Way to Orienteering

I think I may have found a new outdoor athletic passion.  On the registration form for Orienteering Louisville‘s Return of the Otter meet, there should have been a disclaimer warning about addiction.

A few months ago, I had no idea that orienteering was a sport.  I was still planting trees up in Vermont and dreaming of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I was researching desert hiking, West Coast flora, wilderness first aid, and compass skills.  Looking for some instruction regarding the latter, I googled “compass class.”  Because Google thinks class and course are synonymous, most of the resulting links were about compass courses, which weren’t instructional but rather routes through the woods that people followed with maps and compasses.

Intrigued, I clicked from one website to another, reading through lots of orienteering jargon to figure out just what orienteering was.  How had I never heard of the sport before?  How, in all the time I’d spent outdoors and with adventuring types, did I not know anyone who’d mentioned it?  What was I missing out on?

While I’d hoped to attend a class teaching compass work with a bunch of other newbies rather than head off onto a competitive course and figure it out as I went, I vowed to embrace vulnerability, venture to a different edge of my comfort zone, and attend an orienteering competition once I returned to Kentucky.

The first opportunity I had was this weekend, when the nearest orienteering club hosted a meet roughly 2.5 hours away.wpid-wp-1426456080184.jpeg

Excited and nervous all at once, I waded down our very long and very muddy driveway in the dark to get in my car and make it to the meet in time for Orienteering 101.  When I entered the meet headquarters building, I was immediately greeted by warm and welcoming people, and I began to feel just excitement.

Louis, an older member of the group, took me through the basics of the sport.  There were maps with more detail and more symbols than I’d ever seen; a map lover at heart, I was fascinated.  There were courses of various levels and hieroglyphic markings denoting the various “controls,” or checkpoints, along each.  Then, there were these magical devices called “fingersticks” that recorded each participant’s journey through the forest.

I decided to enter at the advanced beginner level, cleared and checked my magical fingerstick, plunged it into the start control, and headed off into the woods.

Three minutes into my first run, I was covered in mud, my feet were soaking wet, I had a scratch on my leg, and I had decided I loved orienteering.

Yesterday and today, I attempted four courses. I completed my first in surprisingly good time, was less speedy and more tired on my second, and couldn’t complete the third yesterday. During today’s long events, I attempted the 8km orange course (which was more difficult than either of the courses I’d completed), but I had to stop halfway through because I was too tired and had a very sore IT band. Basically, I wimped out, but, given that it was only 10 days ago that I was able to start working out (lightly) again after this past Lyme flare-up, I was proud of myself for running through the woods for a few hours.

I was more proud of how much my orienteering skills had improved in two days. I’d gone from being unable to confidently take a bearing to being able to navigate (by either compass or landscape features, albeit a bit slowly sometimes) to controls sprinkled throughout the forest. On today’s orange course, there were a number of controls that I couldn’t see from the place in the forest I’d arrived at while searching for them, but I was confident in my navigating and simply looked over a knoll or into a ditch to find them nearby.

Conversational blue blaze: I am a firm believer that the right level of confidence is essential in outdoor adventure settings. While it’s important not to be overly confident and get in over your head, it’s also important not to have your actions rooted in fear.

All of the little result print-outs I got from the weekend declare that orienteering is “the sport for the thinking runner.” That really seems to be a perfect description! This meet was point-to-point style, and the thinking comes in when you realize that the shortest route to the next control isn’t always the fastest; it’s essential to consider alternative routes to avoid obstacles and the chance of getting lost. Some meets are called “rogaines” or “score-os.” Those have mass starts in which all participants go into the field for the same amount of time; each control has a point value, and participants choose which controls to search for.

By the end of this weekend’s meet I was bruised and bloody and sore and exhausted but completely exhilarated. I got in my wagon, turned on the radio (to “Carolina in the Pines”), and headed east, oddly unable to stop mentally transforming the “lone trees,” “gullies,” “knolls,” and “man-made objects” I passed into features on a topographic map.

To learn more about orienteering, visit Orienteering USA’s website.