health

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.”

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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Q&A: How to Physically Prepare for a Thru-Hike

When talking with aspiring thru-hikers, it rarely takes long for the conversation to turn to the physicality of an end-to-end hike.  Hiking a long trail is seen as a physical feat, one worthy of as much respect as an international competition of any other sport.  But, here’s a secret:  A thru-hike is really just a really long walk.

The best way to prepare for a long hike is to hike for a long time.  Now I’m not trying to sound pretentious or unhelpful here; that’s just the truth.  After being in the woods for a month or two, carrying a full backpack over mountains, a body is hardened and able to withstand the rigors of the trail.  Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” at which point they’re able to hike at full speed.  While getting their trail legs takes first-time backpackers up to six weeks (with dramatic improvements in the first several weeks), it often takes seasoned hikers half that time, at least in my experience.*  If you’re planning a thru-hike, it’s a good idea to, at least, take a few backpacking trips to prepare (and to get familiar with your gear).

That said, the first time I headed out on the AT, when I intended to hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin in 2011, I had hiked my fair share of 4000-footers but had never backpacked.  Not once.

So, if you can’t squeeze in some backpacking experience before your thru-hike, there are other ways to prepare for your time in the woods.

1) Take up long-distance running or cross-country skiing.  When you’re on the trail, you’ll often find that you’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or too thirsty or too tired or too sore.  You’ll be rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and sleeted on.  You’ll experience blistering heat and gale-force winds.  In my mind, the best way to stay strong and keep smiling through all of that is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  In modern America, many people are fortunate enough to very rarely find themselves physically uncomfortable; endurance sports are a good way to mentally condition yourself to keep plugging along through thirst, cold, some pain, etc.

2) Tackle the stair master — or, as one of the older men who watches me sweat for hours on it at the wellness center likes to call it, the “machine from Hell.”  As far as preparing your body for the actual activity it will be spending months doing, no machine beats the stair master.

3) One of the commonalities of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the enormous packs the authors’ carried.  With any luck, today’s aspiring thru-hikers will not be carrying loads that are nearly so heavy.  Nonetheless, it’s worth practicing lifting, putting on, and carrying around your pack.  Your shoulders and hips will thank you for any conditioning you do with your pack before you hit the trail.

Finally, if, come April, you realize that you’ve neglected the physical aspects of your trail preparations, don’t worry.  Many other thru-hikers have set out with the intent of using the trail as a fitness program; this is an especially realistic perspective if you’re hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, since the early portions of the trail are very forgiving.  Happy trails!

*I think some of this is due to seasoned hikers’ having mastered the “technique” of backpacking, but I won’t bore you with that hypothesis.

On Thanksgiving and Lyme Disease

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A visit to the ER in January

In the bathroom of a Wal-Mart in southern Pennsylvania in 2011, I found an engorged deer tick under the elastic of the running shorts I was wearing on a month-long hike of the Appalachian Trail. After a couple years of having some sporadic health issues but nothing particularly alarming — and six months of thru-hiking the trail — I came down with mononucleosis in September 2013. I crawled into bed to rest it off and, with few exceptions, barely got out until nearly 10 months later.

I had Lyme Disease.

The working hypothesis is that the bacteria that causes Lyme had lain dormant in my body until mono wreaked havoc on my immune system. With my white blood cells otherwise occupied, the spirochetes ran rampant.

At first, the only symptom I was presenting with was my tiredness. Extreme tiredness. In an essay in early winter, I wrote, “There is a particular tiredness that comes with mono. It is the type of exhaustion that seems to seep into one’s bones, weighing them down so that nothing sounds more appealing than an afternoon nap. Or a morning nap. Or a nap that stretches from an hour after one nap to an hour before another one.”

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Fun times.

All autumn long, I slept more than 14 hours and as much as 20 hours each night. When I was awake, I tried my best to be productive, but I scarcely had enough energy to feed or wash myself, let alone get any work done.

With winter came a breaking of my symptoms, a respite that I’d later recognize not as recovery but as remission of a pattern typical to Lyme. Able to go to the office, I enjoyed the chance to finally “get things done” for my AmeriCorps service position. I got back to exercising a bit and explored the region of Massachusetts that I’d moved to a couple weeks before getting sick. Suddenly, everything was perfect, minus some “brain fog” that I just couldn’t seem to shake.

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Post-surgery “sister selfie” with Candice the Kidney

While visiting my family for the holidays, I developed a migraine that lasted and lasted — for ten days. I spent most of that time hiding in a dark room, waiting for the pain to subside. Eventually, I felt well enough to travel again and rode a bus back to New England for 26 hours, sleeping most of the way.

Winter saw a whole different set of symptoms: achy joints, anxiety and panic attacks, and amplified memory issues. I struggled to discern reality from my increasingly weird dreams and often repeated stories (and falsehoods that I thought were true) while talking to my friends and family.

Then, I started feeling better again. For three weeks, apart from brain fog, I felt normal, and I lived life as fully as I could. I dated and contra danced and planned summertime adventures.

But, in mid-February, I caught a cold. The cold became a fever, which became a complete flaring up of all my symptoms — and then some.

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I should write an ode to Doxycycline.

At the end of February, I went to the ER with intense abdominal pain. A day and an hour-long ambulance ride later, I was taken to the OR for what was thought to be a miniscule kidney stone. As I was struggling to come out of an anesthesia-induced daze, I learned that the cause of my pain wasn’t a kidney stone at all and was, unfortunately, an issue that would require more surgery in a few weeks’ time.

In the meantime, my condition continued to deteriorate. Physically and emotionally, I was miserable. Mentally, I was nowhere near myself. My roommates put a cushion in the kitchen with blankets, and I would lie there and talk with them when I could. They also took to taking me out on Saturday drives when I was healthy enough to leave the house. One of my roommates in particular became a caregiver to me: Kate ensured that I had food to eat, picked up medications for me, and called an ambulance when I passed out as she was helping to get me back to my room.

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Going home from the hospital was so exciting.

Eventually, I felt a bit better, and I flew to Kentucky to be near my family for the kidney surgery and the month-long recovery period; however, the stress of travel made “mono” roar its ugly head yet again.

My family couldn’t believe the state I was in. I went back to sleeping around the clock, and I grew so weak that I couldn’t wash my hair or lift my full water bottle. My muscles ached and twitched, and I sometimes hurt so much that I couldn’t sleep. I was perpetually dizzy, my circulation was terrible, and sunlight made me nauseated. It seemed that I didn’t have a bodily system that had been spared by whatever illness it was that I had, which my mother insisted wasn’t mono.

During a visit to my childhood doctor, I asked whether I could be tested for Lyme. Several days later, on April 21, 2014, I learned that my ELISA test was equivocal for Lyme; while more tests were ordered, I began a two-week prescription of Doxycycline. Surgery was postponed until Lyme was under control.

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After surgery, my sister, Kelly, painted my nails to give me something pretty to look at while I was stuck in bed. She also kept me and my Lyme- and Oxycodone-addled brain happy with songs, bead pets, and coloring books.

The Western Blot that my doctor ordered ended up coming back negative, as did a future ELISA test, but by the time they received my results, it was readily apparent that the Doxycycline was having a positive impact (after a Herxheimer reaction). A physician’s assistant and family friend who works in that doctor office decided to keep me on antibiotics.

The day after my 25th birthday and just over one month after beginning Doxycycline, I fasted for surgery. The following day, I had abdominal surgery that left me with a Lyme flare and the need for too much Oxycodone and Valium. Over the next month, with more help from my sister than I can ever repay and Doxycycline, I got the Lyme back in remission, made significant strides toward recovering from surgery, and weaned myself off the other medications. As June turned into July, I started walking again — first down the driveway and then down the road. My brain seemed to start working again, and I dared to hope that Lyme was gone for good.

These days, recent bloodwork seems to indicate that I might be ready for another bout of Lyme, but I’m making the most of this health while it lasts. In August, I was strong enough to hike, and I was able to backpack in September and October. I’ve got my sights set on the Pacific Crest Trail next summer, and my trek will be a benefit hike for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS). The ILADS treatment protocol gave me my old lifestyle back, and supporting their important work is incredibly meaningful to me.

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When I was well enough to be outside but couldn’t be in the sun or sit, Kelly set up an air mattress on the porch for me. Ohana (our dog) appreciated it, too.

 

So, this Thanksgiving, I’m thinking back to where I was one year ago, and I am tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped me recover. Having faced a chronic illness and feeling well again has left me wonderfully grateful for each day that goes by. Every moment that I’m not in bed feels like a precious gift, a beautiful blessing. My family, roommates, friends, and doctors got me through what has been the most difficult experience of my life. To each of you: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

If you would like to learn more about my hike or sponsor me as I walk for ILADS, please click the Making Lymeade tab and visit my HikeFor.com page. Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you!