health

Off the PCT

My final day on the PCT began inconsequentially, save for the Lyme trifecta of dizziness, tiredness, and nausea I was experiencing. I packed up and hiked down to Rae Lakes, enjoying again the spectacular lakeside trail. Near the Rae Lakes ranger station — where friendly Sam Webster was stationed — I marveled at the tranquility of three sleeping deer. I thought about my likely-imminent departure from the trail. How I would miss this wilderness!

Although the forecast had called for afternoon storms, I was only one mile into my hike when the skies opened up. For a few moments, there was just a light, cold rain, but soon the hail began falling.wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.55-1.jpg.jpeg

As I mentioned a few days ago, this hailstorm was unlike any storm I’d ever before experienced — and I’m from the unpredictable East Coast. The hail began falling and kept falling…and falling…and falling. I’m used to hailstorms accompanying warm rain in summer storms or the tumultuous air of spring frontal systems; I’m accustomed to hail falling briefly before giving way to rain. This hailstorm was a nonconformist: It hailed for 90 minutes or so and left inches of hail on the trail in its wake.

Throughout the storm, thunder resounded in the valley and lightning lit up the sky. The sparse tree cover overhead and nearby lakes didn’t exactly make the trail a safe place to be; however, I kept walking, remembering that denser tree cover awaited as I approached Woods Creek.

Crunching hailstones beneath my feet, I descended lower in the valley. By the time I was thoroughly chilled from the ice that fell from the sky, the ice was replaced by rain, a bitterly cold rain whose cold seeped through clothing even when its moisture did not. I traipsed through the increasingly green wilderness as I neared Woods Creek, wet and numb.

I fleetingly considered climbing Pinchot Pass after making it down to Woods Creek. I think my reasoning had been that the effort expended during an ascent would warm my core, but it seems more likely that the thought wasn’t reasoned at all. As I arrived at the Woods Creek Campsite, I recognized Ranger Webster through the rain.

“Has anyone come over the Pass today?” I asked, waving a numb hand toward Pinchot.

“Not since early this morning. I’m getting reports of a good bit of snow up there.”

Fortunately, the threat of snow travel made my brain surrender its idea of hiking over Pinchot. I accepted the fact that my day’s hike would be over after only seven downhill miles and began the challenging task of erecting my tent in the rain with immovable fingers.

After a good half-hour spent thawing my fingers and making campsite-creating progress in a stepwise fashion, my tent was up. As quickly as I could, I stripped off my rain gear and crawled into my tent and under my quilt.

The rain kept falling fast and furiously, and soon even my previously-dryish campsite became a shallow lake.   I hid under my quilt, willing myself to be warm.

Sometime in the afternoon, the weather broke.

wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.59-1.jpg.jpegEventually, I mustered the energy to take my belongings out of my tent and pack and set them in the sun to dry. Forty-five minutes later, the sun went away as more storm clouds moved in. Stumbling around the expansive campsite, I set up my tent on a drier patch of ground and crawled back inside.

It was 24 hours before I worked up the spoons (or, as thesweetadventurer said, “the titanium sporks”) to even consider leaving camp.

I spent most of that time sleeping and, if I’m being honest, feeling sorry for myself. I was below 8500 feet now; I still felt miserable, and my symptoms couldn’t be written off as signs of altitude sickness. I was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely dealing with a relapse of Lyme disease, a relapse that was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely forcing me off the PCT and back to bed. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying.

Then, sometime just before noon on the 10th, I realized how very ridiculous I was being, wallowing in self-pity. Yes, I was going to get off trail; yes, my plans were going to change again; yes, I’ve spent 13 of the last 23 months in bed. But, those 13 months haven’t been completely lost, and the other ten have been some of the most spectacular of my life. And, here I was, in a truly beautiful place. The sun was shining down all around me, the pendulous branches of the foxtail pines were swaying in the breeze, and the roar of Woods Creek filled the air. I began crying with gratitude — both for that moment and for the months I’d spent in the wilderness of California.

An hour later, I was ready for the slow, painful trek to Road’s End. I crossed the suspension bridge again, took a picture of the 800-mile mark again, and turned off the PCT and onto the Paradise Valley Trail again. With a pack-ful of memories of a wonderful hike, I was ready to head home.

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On the PCT: Sidelined with Lyme Disease

Throughout my fight with Lyme disease, I have tried to be patient and calm.  After finding that anxiety and depression got me nowhere, I have tried to embrace a Zen attitude about being ill for an indefinite period of time.  I have worked to relish the good days and accept the bad days, acknowledge the failures but savor the successes.  I don’t feel like doing any of that today.

Today, I feel the need to write a rare, less-than-optimistic post.  Forced off the Pacific Crest Trail because of Lyme, I’m not in the mood to look for the silver lining of my illness, not interested in thinking about the gratitude or perspective being chronically ill has given me.  Stuck in bed, tired, dizzy, achy, and twitchy, I’m finding it difficult to be positive or hopeful.  Today, I need to rant.

I’m angry.  I’m angry that some bacteria that entered my body when I was bitten by a barely-visible tick four years ago has the power to knock me off the trail, which I was hiking as a fundraiser for Lyme disease research.  I’m angry that the same bacteria makes it difficult to hold down a job or go back to school or be in a relationship.  I’m angry that it has changed the course of my life in dramatic ways.

I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that, according to the CDC, I never had Lyme and that, if I did, it would have been cured a few years ago, after a couple weeks of antibiotics.  I’m frustrated that there are so many unanswered questions about Lyme, that there is so much research that needs to be done.  I’m frustrated that there are so few doctors who are familiar with treating it and that there are so few success stories.  I’m frustrated that many people are far more ill than I am and that it seems as though little is being done to help them.

I’m sad.  I’m sad that being sick made me lose some friends.  I’m sad that a shortage of “spoons” made me flaky and unreliable.  I’m sad that a gap grew between some of my old friends and me, as I could no longer easily relate to twentysomethings who were able to live like typical twentysomethings.  I’m sad that people who’ve known me when I’ve been well aren’t sure how to respond when I’m sick.  I’m sad that our society doesn’t understand invisible illnesses and that a whole lot of health privilege goes appreciated.

I’m grieving.  I’m grieving for the years that I can’t remember and for the year I’ve basically lost to being bedbound.  I’m grieving for the brain I used to have, the intellectual competence and confidence I once knew.  I’m grieving for the way I used to be able to make plans for my future, for the feeling that I could achieve most anything if I worked at it long or hard enough.  I’m grieving for the marathon I haven’t yet run, the Masters degree I haven’t yet earned, the career I haven’t yet found.

I’m tired.  I’m tired of feeling like I’m fighting this alone.  I’m tired of not knowing what my next step should be.  I’m tired of wondering what the spirochetes inside of me are doing, of having no idea that the troops are rallying before they rise up and send me crashing.  I’m tired of being sick.

On the PCT: Kennedy Meadows, Part Two

I haven’t looked in a mirror since Mojave.  That was roughly eight days and 150 miles ago.  In the time since then, I’ve sweated while going up, down, and around beautiful mountains, walked through sandy desert, gotten some sunburn, and been rained on twice.  I’m sure that, by general United States standards, I look a mess.

But, when I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store with Pine Nut, it simply didn’t matter.  Hikers crowding the store’s deck and overflowing onto its lawn cheered and hollered and clapped as we made our way to the deck.  I threw my hands in the air in gratitude, and they cheered louder.  We had done it:  We two tired, hungry, filthy hikers had made it to the Sierras.

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Arriving at Kennedy Meadows

Kennedy Meadows has been an anticipated milestone for a long while now, since before I’d set out on the hike.  It marks the end of Southern California and the start of the Sierras, home of giant trees, water crossings, and Mount Whitney.  It means sun shirts get replaced with T-shirts and food bags get traded for bear canisters.  It means that we’ve gotten our trail legs and that the rush to Canada before the snow moves in is on.

Before the dash begins, it’s customary for hikers to spend at least a “nero,” a near-zero-mile day, at Kennedy Meadows, and that’s just what Pine Nut and I are doing.  Ant, who’s been really struggling with plantar fasciitis, will be arriving by bus in a few hours, at which point logistics will need to be worked out, as there’s virtually no cell service for a few hundred more miles.

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The South Fork of the Kern River

Until Ant arrives, it’s all about catching up on blogging and letters and food.  Catching up on the last involves a fair bit of people watching, as the General Store’s deck, where the food lives, seems to be the favorite destination of hikers.

Watching lots of tanned and muscled hikers interact, I thought about how the last 700 miles have done much more than give us our trail legs.  Over these miles, backpackers new to the long trails have gotten their trail identities.  Most everyone has a trail name by now, lots of hikers are sporting unruly hair grown over the last weeks and months, and the group’s adaptation to this lifestyle seems to have occurred.  No longer are showers and laundry the priority after getting to town; they’re important, for sure, but hikers don’t become what Ant calls “fluffy” until they’ve filled their bellies with at least one burger or hot dog, chips, and a cold Gatorade.

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The deck of the Kennedy Meadows General Store

Talking with other hikers, I didn’t think about the dirt smudges or streaks of zinc sunscreen on my face that a Wet One later demonstrated I’d had.  I didn’t care that my clothes smelled as though I’d walked from Mexico in them or that my hair was a wild mess under my ball cap.  I just smiled and laughed and shared stories with new friends and old.

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Hikers napping behind the store

On the PCT: Warner Springs

Anyone who has ever had a hiking partner knows how special they can be.  Hiking partners are people you can stand to spend “23.5 hours a day” with.  They’re the ones who are able to lift you up when you’ve fallen, physically or emotionally.  They’re the ones with whom you share backcountry culinary advice (such as the wonders of cold Idahoan potatoes) and Dr. Bonner’s soap (when it’s days before the resupply box containing shampoo arrives) and something magical called Badger Balm.  They’re the people who are there to hear you gasp at beautiful scenery and who enjoy retelling stories from the “Type II” fun you experienced.  I generally hike solo, but the time I’ve spent with my hiking partners, such as Quiver, is time that I treasure.

From Mount Laguna to Warner Springs, I was treated to the company of another 2012 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, SunRoof.  I met SunRoof when he came out of the woods and into the Burnt Rancheria Campground at Mount Laguna.  After I’d identified myself as Rainbow Dash, he hurried to give me a hug from Gluten Puff.

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SunRoof and me

Six miles into my hike the next day, I stopped to rest and was caught by SunRoof.  We spent the next three days hiking and camping together.

For most of that time, I felt great.  SunRoof and I put in three days of 19-21 miles, and I enjoyed every moment of them.  Time and Doxycycline were working their magic, and I no longer felt ill.

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The rain shadow effect

I was having a blast contour-walking in the high desert, weaving in and out of shaded cirques.  I was loving the array of colors the desert bloom brought to the desert and chaparral.  I was enjoying the cool nights, the breezy mornings, the mid-day siestas, and the invigorating evening air.  I’d met all of the hikers in our bubble and was appreciating the community formation.  I’d figured out how to drink an appropriate quantity of water and rehydrate my food without a stove.  I was hitting my stride.

However, I started to notice a nagging pain in my left heel.  I doctored it by cutting some of the padding off the top of my shoe–and then by adding a moleskin heel lift inside my shoe.  Thirty miles later, I needed to do the same with my right foot.

Maybe I was walking unusually in order to compensate for the knee pain I’d written about in Mount Laguna.  Or, maybe, thanks to Lyme hijacking my spring marathon plans, I was not conditioned enough to be hauling large quantities of water up, down, and around mountains.

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Sunrise from a high meadow

In any case, when I took off my shoe at the Warner Springs Resource Center it was obvious that something was very wrong:  Where the profile of my leg should have been concave above my heel, it was convex.  I had Achilles tendonitis.

So, currently, I’m RICEing in Warner Springs and trying to figure out what lies ahead.  Is this just a little road bump that I’ll recover from in a few days, or will healing be more complicated than that?  Here’s hoping it’s the former!

If anyone has any advice or words of encouragement, they’re more than welcome!  I feel frustrated, but I also know that it’s still early in the game; there’s plenty of time to get to Canada.

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"I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly..."

On the PCT: Mount Laguna

I’m fairly certain that the only thing the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail have in common is that they’re both long.  While the AT features lots of little ascents and descents, a hiker on the PCT can spend an entire day only going up or downhill.  While the AT is a “long green tunnel,” the PCT is a string of scenic vistas.  While the AT is wet, the PCT is dry.  Very dry.  And, while I rarely saw hikers on the AT, the PCT is ridiculously crowded.  (I’m only half kidding about that one!)

As I’m typing this, I’m at Mount Laguna (mile 42.6 of the PCT) enjoying a zero day.  I don’t usually take zeroes early in a hike, but my body needed it.  Hiking with/for Lyme has presented some new challenges, and the psychology of my hike thus far has been interesting.

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Getting dropped off at the southern terminus

It turns out that Lyme Disease looks an awful lot like heat exhaustion and dehydration, and monitoring my body for signs of any of the three (when I’m on Doxycycline and all three are very possible) is trying.  However, the more ill I feel, the more determined I become to hike the entire trail and raise the $2385 thus far pledged for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.

It probably doesn’t help that it seems I hear a new story about Lyme everywhere I turn.  Bat and Brian, two other thru-hikers, have both had Lyme and described the struggle to get adequate treatment.  My mother heard from a family friend whose eight-year-old grandson was just diagnosed.  And, then there’s Mary Kate, a woman whose kindness I’ve written about before:  When she pledged to support ILADS through my hike, she told me of a family member’s two-year battle with the disease.  I’m carrying these stories with me and hope that, in some small way, I’m able to make a difference in our fight against this epidemic.

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Houser Ridge, looking more beautiful than deadly

But, day to day, I’ve got smaller problems of my own to figure out.  First up was Houser Ridge, an exposed climb that a hiker hoping to hit Lake Morena (and water) on her first night out would need to climb in the afternoon, when the sun is burning the ridge (and not just the Doxycycline-ingesting hiker on it) to a crisp.  I’d rested in the shade and had plenty of water before starting my ascent; however, while I was climbing easily enough, the heat took its toll, and I spent 45 minutes working to cool off under a large rock before going on.

When I reached camp that night, I was on the verge of mental and physical collapse and was revived by the kindness, orange slices, and ice cubes of Dennis and Marie, two trail angels who sent me on my way with hugs and Salon Pas.  (Dennis and Marie, if you’re reading this, thank you so very much!)

I vowed to have an easier hike on my second day out, and I followed through with my goal, hiking only 12 miles and setting up camp in the shade of Fred Canyon at 12:30.  I enjoyed napping, snacking, and talking with a Belgian couple (Andre and Lian) who had been wilderness guides for years.

The day I hiked into Mount Laguna was a low-mile day; I only hiked 10 miles before arriving in the resort village.  The 10 miles were some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever done, let alone my favorite section thus far of the PCT.  I broke camp early and was on western slopes, so I enjoyed a liberating 2.5 hours without sun protection.  When the sun did shine down in full force, it was to accompany me over a glorious ridge and among tall oak and pine trees.  I doubt there will ever be a time when I will walk among such trees without feeling a deep happiness, even while struggling with more superficial issues.

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Trees, glorious trees!

One such issue is my knees.  This spring’s relapse of Lyme had hurt them, and its timing hadn’t allowed me enough time to regain strength before I needed to carry 30-40 pounds along mountainous desert terrain.  My main objective in taking a zero at Mount Laguna is to give them time to heal a bit from the stress of the last few days.  Getting a chance to let some of my tiredness and dizziness subside is just a bonus!

Thus far, the PCT has been more amazing and more challenging than I’d expected.  As I think about what lies ahead, I’m resolving to choose joy.  If I hurt or the trail is too difficult for me on a given day, I’ll give my body permission to take it slow.  Gone are the days of “no rain, no pain, no Maine.”  My body has dealt with too much to do that.  Now it’s more, as Grandpa (one of my favorite Class of 2011 hikers) always said, “Miles and smiles.”