Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gut Wrenching

It is with the heaviest of hearts and the longest deliberation, that I must inform everyone I am headed home to Vermont today. It was one of the most painful decisions I've ever made, but my knee really hasn't improved much, and sitting around in North Carolina didn't make much sense to me. I am experiencing so many emotions right now, and have cried more than once. It is so frustrating that I worked so hard to plan and train for this trail, and after only 237.9 miles, I am going to take a large chunk of time off to rehab my knee. Not only that, but I am leaving my incredible trail family behind. This decision was so hard, and even up until yesterday evening I was going to try and hike further. Late last night, after walking from town to my hostel in a good amount of pain, I realized I would be doing myself a disservice to keep hiking. Most likely, my pain would have increased and I would have done more damage. While I know I'm doing the right thing, it still feels terrible.

On the other side of the coin, I'm very excited to see everyone at home and catch up. It will be really great to reunite with my loved ones. I love Vermont so much, and any opportunity to visit sounds amazing. In a perfect world, I'll only need a few weeks to get better, and can then meet my friends back on the trail where they are and continue on pain free to Maine. From there I'll go back to the south and hike the miles I will have missed. I'm really trying to subscribe to the "everything happens for a reason" mentality, but at the same time it seems wrong to leave the trail and my friends behind.

Here's hoping that everything is in fact happening for a reason, and I'll be able to complete the trail in it's entirety this year. Fingers crossed. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Adding Insult to Injury

Well, as I write this, I am still icing my knee and resting up.

Trail Days in Damascus was a great time! It is essentially a huge festival celebrating the AT, the hikers, and the community in general. There were tons of vendors, lots of food, live music, a giant "tent city" for people to camp in, and tons of past and present thru hikers. It was a blast to be surrounded by so many people who love this trail. On Saturday afternoon I was sitting in front of the entertainment stage icing my knee and was fortunate to catch a presentation for Gene Espy, who in 1951 was the second recorded person to thru hike the AT. He had some neat stories to tell, and I can only imagine how different hiking was back then. No ultra-lite gear, no shelters, minimal trail maintenance. It must have been so much harder! It was an honor to see Gene and his family accept this recognition, and it was very inspiring to me.

After Trail Days, I was dropped off in Hot Springs, NC where I've been holed up for three days now resting my knee. Hot Springs is about 35mi north of where I last left the trail, and the plan was for me to rest here, recuperate, ice my knee and wait for my hiking buddies to arrive. I've been doing PT exercises sent to me from Brooke, Scottie, and my Uncle Mark which are definitely helping. A HUGE (Yuge) thank you to them for taking time to help me get better faster. I've been eating too many meals in restaurants, enjoying some local brews, checking out the outfitter in town, and catching up on my Netflix. I am so ready to get back on the trail tomorrow. My concern, however, is that my knee isn't ready. I still have a bit of pain while walking, and I know that won't get any better by traipsing through the woods and over mountains. I have one more night in town full of ice, rest, and stretches and will then decide tomorrow morning if I'll continue on or not. It is such a hard decision to make, and I'm seriously struggling with it. All I want to do is get back on the trail and continue hiking north, but I need to make sure my body is fully ready, or I'll risk further injury. This is not how I wanted my hike to go, at all. If I'm not ready to hike tomorrow, I may have to look at coming back to Vermont for some more extensive rehab for a few weeks. After that I can reevaluate my plan: where do I start back up, when, will I meet my hiking group, do I go south instead? So many questions that will come up if I can't start hiking tomorrow. I'm trying to take it all one day at a time and remind myself that everything happens for a reason. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Don't Mess With The Smokies

Happy Friday the 13th! As I write this, I am sitting in a minivan with a full stomach, a bag of ice on my knee, all while laughing a lot with my comrades. But let's get caught up on the last few days.

After leaving Fontana we entered the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The Smokies are known for rough terrain and an aggressive bear population. Along most of the AT you aren't required to stay in the provided shelters, you could tent in a number of campsites outside of the shelter areas. But in the Smokies, due to the bear activity, all camping must be done in the shelters. This can make planning difficult, as we are restricted to camping sites. The reason I'm in the minivan now is to go to Trail Days - a huge hiker festival - in Damascus, VA. Our planning for the smokies included some really long days, in order to make this festival.

The first day of hiking brought us over the top of the Fontana Dam which was neat to see. We had a really long climb up a few thousand feet of elevation into the Smokies. We saw a lot of thru hikers that we had been leap frogging over the last few weeks. The climb was tough, but there were numerous switchbacks to help with the elevation gain. It was all worth it when we came to a fire tower with some of the most amazing views. Many people probably know that I don't love heights, especially man made ones. However, I dragged myself to the top and I'm glad I did. We ended our first day at Spence Field shelter after passing a shelter that was closed due to bear activity. Spence Field was under what the ridge runner (an AT caretaker) described as a "Bear Warning." And for good measure, as two nights later at this shelter a man was attacked through his tent and had a piece of his calf chomped off by a black bear. He was evacuated the next morning and should be fine from what we've heard. Luckily for me, we had no such encounters with bears. In fact, I was the only one in our group who didn't see any bears while in the park. I did see a coyote run across the trail about 20ft in front of me. Other wildlife that I saw in the Smokies includes a spike horn deer, a rabbit, numerous squirrels, and other thru-hikers.

On Tuesday I had two major milestones! I crossed the 200mi mark and also summited Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,667ft. There was a unique tower with a circular, ramp-like path to the top which provided amazing views of the surrounding areas, including most of the mountains we had just hiked over. After many hard miles to get there, it was tough to see everyone who had driven to the top of the mountain in their cars. We were told there was a visitors center by the parking lot with snacks. All I wanted was a bag of chips. My left knee was starting to hurt at this point and the extra mileage to the snack shack needed to be worth it. It wasn't. All they had was "healthy" granola bars and some chocolate. That added serious insult to injury. We treked back up to the summit and continued the few miles to our shelter for that night.

The rest of the Smokies were absolutely beautiful. Every viewpoint provided miles of views without any sign of human trace. Just valley after valley and mountain range after mountain range of green rolling hills. The fog was definitely very present throughout the Smokies, which is presumably how they got their name. We were lucky to have a clear day for the views on Clingman's. With all the high mile days (18, 19, 19, 15) that we did in the Smokies, my left knee started aching more and more. My right knee, as luck would have it, was actually feeling much better from the week before. I almost got off the trail on Wednesday to rest and ice my knee, but decided to press on to stay with the group. In hindsight, I maybe should have left the trail then. I hobbled my way through 15mi yesterday and into the shelter in the thunder and rain. Between Tylenol, ibuprofen, a new knee brace, and exercises from my PT friends, I somehow made it. However, I definitely need a few days of rest and ice to tackle this. Continuing on in my current state would be nonsensical. Luckily, we had planned not to hike today or  tomorrow so we can visit Trail Days. I'm not sure that I'll be ready to start hiking again on Sunday, but will rest as long as I need to until my knee is in good shape. Hoping this is a quick turn around, as I really don't want to leave my Trail Family. For now, I'm icing my knee and will be enjoying all of what Trail Days has to offer - a hiker parade, drinks, booths, exhibits, and the chance to meet a bunch of other thru hikers.

The Smokies were beautiful, but they sure did a number on me. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Whew! It's been a long while since I've updated this! What an eventful week it's been. We left Franklin after many good meals, beers, and lots of time spent icing my knee. That first day back on trail (after crossing the 100mile mark!!!) we encountered an amazing couple, Granny and Old Goat, who are Trail Angels providing Trail Magic at one of the road crossings. They were serving up pulled pork sandwiches and cold drinks. It was such the perfect sight to see after hiking all morning long. After spending about an hour eating and shooting the breeze with other thru-hikers, it was time to continue hiking.

Earlier this week we were prepared for rain... But not for rain at higher (5000ft) elevations. It SNOWED! We were all shocked. It certainly made for some faster hiking, if anything to keep warm. Any and all stops were very short, because the cold set in super quickly. I really didn't pack any hiking clothes for colder weather, and was saving my warm (dry) clothes for camp. So I was hiking in the snow while wearing shorts and a raincoat. I will say, the snow was very pretty. It felt SO good to get into camp that night, make a warm dinner, and curl up in my sleeping bag. Naturally, as luck would have it, the sun came out once we were in camp.

We made it down into a "town" area on Friday where the NOC or Nantahala Outdoor Center is located. I enjoyed a massive brunch complete with mimosas and also was able to resupply for the next few days on the trail. The restaurant was set on the bank of a river and was quite lovely. It really broke up our day and made the day that much easier. This was the day that we sadly lost one of our trail family members. Mike (CastAway) had some really bad IT band issues and decided to take some time off of the trail to rehab. We were sad to leave him. On the next day we were hiking down into a gap and I saw a familiar vehicle that belongs to Granny and Old Goat... More trail magic! I came in at just the right time to finish off the last of the breakfast they were serving and also to have the first of the lunch. Yum yum yum! They're amazing and very friendly! Audrey decided to leave the trail for a little bit at this gap to heal the blisters on her heels. She will most likely catch up with us soon.

As for my knee, it's doing alright. Still hurts on some of the really steep downhills, but with stretching, ibuprofen, and ice when available... It's not too bad. Hoping to keep trekking on without any major injury. Will keep everyone updated on that.

Today, we had a quick yet steep hike down into the Fontana Dam region. There's a massive reservoir which appears to be a huge summer hot spot. There really isn't anything around the Dam except for a resort with a huge hotel, two pools, cabins, a restaurant, and a small country store. We decided it would behoove our knees (and our spirits) to only do six miles this morning and then spend the afternoon by the pool icing our knees and drowning ourselves in free wifi. It has been a lovely day and much more well received than the snow earlier in the week. We're planning an early dinner with some of the other thru-hikers and then will most likely be in bed early. I'm usually in bed before 8 these days. After you get into camp, set up, and make dinner, there isn't much to do but go to bed. I should buy a book. Paperback, of course.

Anyway, all is well here. Hope everything at home is going well. Love you all!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

Saturday morning was quite sad, as Dad dropped us off at the trailhead one last time. Saying goodbye to him and Stacey was really rough. Not only because we had so much fun with them that first week, but also because it meant that "true" trail life was beginning. No more slack packing or sleeping at the condo.

We hunkered down this weekend and decided to increase our daily mileage a bit. We did thirteen miles on Saturday, sixteen miles on Sunday, and did a little over 17 yesterday. We really lucked out with the weather this weekend. Every day was calling for rain, but somehow we managed to make it to the shelters before it started raining each day. From what I was told, it rained pretty heavily most nights, but with my ear plugs and a few Benadryl, I wasn't awake enough to notice. The high mileage felt good until Sunday when my right IT Band (on the outside of my thigh) started rubbing against my knee and creating lots of pain. What's amazing is I can almost run uphill with no pain, but my first (and subsequent) step on the downhills is excruciating. I somehow managed to push through the pain (with a few ibuprofen) and make it to camp. This does, however, lead us to the Birthday surprise.

After a particularly hard downhill yesterday, I met up with our group to find out that they had a plan that would get us into town last night (a day before our planned resupply) and would allow for us to take a "zero" today. A zero is a day with no hiking miles. I was ecstatic! I knew that the only way my knee was going to get any better was with rest. The only caveat was that we had to hike one mile further than where we were supposed to tent last night. I didn't care, I was game. I was already nervous about losing the group by taking a zero on my own, so when the group proposed this idea, I was super excited. This way I could rest my knee and the group could stay together. I know, realistically, that it's unlikely we all finish the trail together... But it's nice to have a little trail family at this point.

So after trudging through 17+ miles yesterday, we get picked up on an old forest service road by the sweetest woman named Beverly! She was a hoot and had us laughing all the way to our hotel. Once in town we naturally had to shower. I've never seen the water in the bottom of the tub so dirty. Once we were somewhat clean again, we made our way to a Mexican joint where I devoured the largest burrito I've ever seen. This was after multiple rounds of chips, salsa, and queso. All of which was washed down with a large beer. There is a term for the insatiable hunger that us hikers start to acquire as time on the trail passes and it is simply called: Hiker Hunger. I experienced this after a few weeks on the Long Trail and I think it's finally starting to set in here as well. Bring on the all you can eat buffets! All in all it was a great Birthday, and I'm glad I was able to spend it with my new friends.

Today will be spent doing laundry, shopping for the week's food, icing and resting my knee, and probably eating a lot. Hoping a day of rest, ice, and good stretching will be enough to get my knee back. If not, I'll just do shorter miles for a few days. We'll see how it goes. Love and miss you all!

Also, I cannot thank enough everyone who took the time to send me a text, email, or Facebook message for my Birthday. It really helped me push through the pain yesterday. I'm so fortunate to have all the love and support behind me from my friends and family!