On Doctors and Thru-Hikers

Since I had a doctor’s appointment today and am anxiously awaiting blood test results (Lyme-related, because life), I thought I’d write about my experiences with doctors as I walked from Georgia to Maine.


I remember seeing these feet on a hiker I’d met during my first foray on the Appalachian Trail and being horrified. That was before I’d discovered the podiatric awesomeness of duct tape myself.

It seems that the modern medical community doesn’t really know what to do with thru-hikers.  The demands we choose to place on our bodies are extreme, our hygiene standards are rarely seen anywhere else in the developed world, and, while we look like ambition-less hippies, we have a (self-imposed) deadline of getting to Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes.

I will never forget the face of the doctor I saw at a walk-in clinic in western Vermont as he listened to my responses to his questions.  I’d gone to the clinic because I suspected that the wounds my hand had received during my fall on a road in Massachusetts had given me an ingrown fingernail.  (They had.)

“How long ago did you fall?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  A week or so ago.  Maybe two.  Sometime in Massachusetts.”

I got a similar response when I couldn’t tolerate an itchy rash any longer and had to see a doctor in New Hampshire:

“When did you first notice the rash?” he asked.

“Several hundred miles ago.  Whenever I was in southern Pennsylvania.  I think that puts it sometime in mid-July.”

After taking one look at me (before he even saw the rash), he assumed that it had to be Herpes.  He didn’t listen as I insisted that wasn’t possible and sent me out of his office with enough anti-virals and, luckily, antibiotics, to last the rest of my hike.

During much of my thru-hike, I was generally healthy.  There were a few days when I was under the weather, including one night during which I had the worst fever of my life (which is saying something), but, most of the time, I felt strong and healthy.  However, when I got to New England, I was perpetually exhausted — not that I ever visited doctors’ offices for my tiredness.  Instead, my first visit to an ER on trail was necessitated by a bruised and swollen foot.

I was near White River Junction in Vermont when my foot became terribly sore.  It had been cranky for a few hundred miles because it seemed to consider my second pair of boots (which were the same size as my first but not yet 1442-miles-worn-in) too small.  At a makeshift campsite I’d found during a night hike through a hemlock forest (more on that later), my foot’s whines gave way to screams.  The rain on my tent fly eventually lulled me to sleep, but I woke up still very much in pain.  The next morning, I loosely laced up my boot and limped several miles to the next road crossing.

When I got to the road, I breakfasted, dried my gear, and napped in the warm sun while trying to figure out what I should do.  I decided to keep walking to the next town, where I’d be able to get an easy hitch to a hospital.  In my mind, ten miles wasn’t a big deal; even with a limp, I’d be able to knock that out in half a day or so.  But, friends in New Hampshire (whom my mother contacted when I’d called her from my breakfast spot) would hear none of it.  They picked me up and drove me to the hospital, where I learned that I didn’t have a stress fracture but rather a bad case of tendonitis.

The doctor advised me to stay off my feet for a while.  I nodded politely to assuage him but set out two mornings later in Chacos, with my foot wrapped securely with athletic tape.

I would deal with tendonitis for the remainder of my hike — and then a stress fracture in my left foot.  The latter brought me to tears, but I didn’t get it diagnosed until I was back in Kentucky and frustrated that I couldn’t run without pain.

When I was a child, I remember watching the Olympics and thinking how crazy it was that the athletes would continue competing on injuries, competing to the point that they were doing permanent damage to their bodies, because competing in the Olympics was one of the things they wanted most to do in life.  Maybe it was the stubborn streak I’d inherited from my mother, or maybe it was that I’d channeled my inner Olympian.  All I know is that I was bound and determined to get to Maine.

On Being Spontaneous, Part Two

Last week, I explained how my friend and I embraced spontaneity and found ourselves in a car to an intentional community in eastern Massachusetts.

After a 90-minute drive filled with storytelling, contemplation, and laughter, U pulled into the community’s driveway.  As Quiver and I unloaded our packs, U’s mother rushed out to meet her daughter, informing her that a distant relative whom neither woman had met just died.  Instantly, U started sobbing.  As soon as I had a chance to reflect on the occasion, I was struck by the depth to which U grieved about someone she didn’t know among people she’d only just met; that sort of emotional response is certainly uncommon.

A priestess of a neo-Mayan form of Paganism, U immediately began an elaborate ritual intended to help the spirit of her relative cross over to the next realm.  She implored Quiver and me to join in, which we did — he without reservation and me self-consciously.  (Unitarian Universalists are called “God’s Frozen People” for a reason; it’s not exactly in my nature to chant and dance and make music without practice and with abandon, but I sure tried!)

After a half-hour beside the indoor altar, U gave Quiver and me incense and herbs and led us outside to a labyrinth.  There, we walked and twirled and meditated until, in the warm sunlight and amid the blowing grasses, I began to relax and mentally join in the rite.  We sat on the throne to Isis and Osiris and invoked gods and goddesses of numerous cultures and several millennia.  Then, we gathered at the fire pit in the center of the labyrinth.

We sat around the fire as U sang and prayed, and Quiver and I followed her instructions in adding the incense and herbs to the fire.  As the smoke from the fire encircled us and U continued singing, I began to feel odd.  U invited us to stand and look heavenward, and I did and promptly fainted.

When I came to, Quiver was holding my hand and U was gently massaging my shoulders and singing.  When she saw my eyes flutter open, U, who I usually describe as the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, explained that everything was all right and that she would now “massage [me] back to the world of the flesh.”  Quiver caught my eye and smiled a bit, with a “this is the stuff dreams are made of” look.

When I was strong enough to stand, U and Quiver supported me as we walked to the herb-infused hot tub, where, as instructed, we stripped and soaked in order to cleanse ourselves and complete the ritual.

After that, our stay at U’s intentional community was less dramatic but no less interesting.  Together, we traveled to Massachusetts’ North Shore, where we performed the Five Tibetan Rites on the sand and sang to “La Luna” as she rose over the sea.  We stargazed in happy companionship before vortexing our way back to the community.  There, Quiver and I slept in a brightly painted loft, not far from the “omniamorous” (because she is “in love with all Creation”) U and her partner.

Me, hitching a ride

Me, hitching a ride

The next morning, we breakfasted on food from the community’s garden, sat outside and discussed religion, spread out maps and (drawing on our extensive collective hitchhiking experienced) planned out our trip a bit, and toured the community before packing up and hitting the road.  The 26 hours that I’d spent in U’s community had been unlike any I’d experienced before, and I wanted to ensure that I didn’t forget anything about them.  However, while the sun shines, a hitchhiker is in constant motion, so, even as I worked to process and memorize the details of the previous day, I stuck out my thumb and headed to New Hampshire.

To be continued…

On Being Spontaneous, Part One

On December 31, 2013, my sister made a New Year’s Resolution.  Because she appreciated where my embrace-the-unexpected attitude had led me, she resolved to be more spontaneous.  I teased her that she didn’t quite seem to have fully grasped the concept when, on January 2, she spontaneously decided to have all four of her wisdom teeth pulled.

Spontaneity has led to some experiences that I will forever treasure, but I have never really thought of it as “spontaneity” at the time.  Except once.

In the summer of 2013, my hiking companion of 1000 miles, Quiver, found himself back on the Appalachian Trail.  (This is a common pattern for many of us thru-hikers.)   That year, a friend of his was doing her thru-hike, and he joined her for several hundred miles in the northeast.  At the time, I happened to live in New England, as I was spending the summer in central Massachusetts in a circa-1790 farmhouse (on 160+ acres) that I was working to transform into an intentional community.  (That’s one of those stories we’ll have to save for another day.)

In any case, when Quiver arrived in Massachusetts, he called me up, and we decided that we should spend a few days together.  A few days turned into a few weeks, and soon the question of what we should do with the time we had together was raised.

Me, hitching a ride

Me, hitching a ride

In response, I started talking about all of the things I liked most about New England that I thought Quiver would also like to see and experience.  Apart from his thru-hike, during which he’d not strayed far from the New England woods, Quiver hadn’t been to New England since he was in his early 20s and hadn’t formed a favorable opinion of it.  I saw this as a problem, and we decided that the best way to rectify this problem was to tour the region.  Being us, we didn’t want to just get in my station wagon and drive around.  No, the best way to see the region would be to stand on the side of the road, wait for New Englanders to allow us to ride in their cars, and then travel with them wherever they were going.  I mean, I knew that 1) we wanted to enjoy Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire again, 2) that I wanted to introduce him to Burlington, VT, and 3) that he had a ticket to a plane leaving from Portland.  Other than that, we had lots of room to be spontaneous.

So, we walked to the other side of the town I was living in, stuck out our thumbs, and began traveling. When we got to Route 2, we’d barely begun thumbing before an old car pulled over to the side of the road. As soon as the car had stopped, the driver got out, and Quiver and I knew this was going to be a fun ride. The driver was a willowy middle-aged woman wrapped in gauzy fabric, and she’d gotten out of the car in order to move her guitar to the trunk.

We ran up to the car and jumped in, and the driver, whom I’ll identify as “U” for the first letter of her name, immediately offered us some wheatgrass to drink. U told us that she’d been “vortexing” (read: driving in circles) all day and that our energy had pulled her to us. While we’d only been looking for a short ride, in order to get to a road that headed north to New Hampshire, U soon began telling us about her intentional community in eastern Massachusetts. Hearing of Quiver and my passion for communal living, she offered to drive us to the community for a visit.

Quiver and I exchanged a quick glance and, embracing spontaneity, enthusiastically agreed to head east.

To be continued…