I woke up around 5:15 and languished until 5:30 when my stomach decided it was time to get up. I crept past Norsemen’s hammock and wandered down the logging road to find a private spot for the morning’s duties (doodies? forgive me, you know I had to make the joke). I heard Norsemen stir as I made my way back under his guy line and lowered my food bag from its hanging perch. Given the soggy state of my shoes from last night’s unintended stream fording, I ate breakfast in my tent so I could delay the experience of wet feet a little longer. I switched into hiking clothes and began the breakdown of my sleeping gear as I heard Norsemen emerge from his hammock. I was packed up and ready to head out a little before 7, but I felt like procrastinating, so I sat around with Norsemen while he prepared a large bowl of cereal with powdered milk. Tater eventually emerged from her tent and went on a bathroom walkabout. I intended to wait for her to say my goodbyes, but I felt antsy before she reappeared. I passed my goodbye to her through Norsemen, and started the day’s hike.
The trail began as a narrow passage through soggy, overgrown ground cover with spider webs criss-crossing my path at such a rate that I gave up on clearing them from my face. I paused occasionally to take in the small water cascades in the stream off to my right. After about 20 minutes of walking, the trail edged to the left and the sound of the stream faded behind me. I started checking the mileage to the next shelter in the hopes of holding out for a privy, but it soon became apparent that I couldn’t manage another two hours of walking before needing another pit stop. I scrambled up a small bank and found a recessed spot of ground behind a tree to convene with nature for a few minutes. I really hope this doesn’t become a habit because it’s stressful to figure out where to go when I know there are people hiking behind me who could catch up at any moment. I felt good about my choice to risk such an encounter because I felt significantly more comfortable hiking without a physical deadline looming over the next four miles.
The trail continued to wind through a beautiful, quiet hardwood forest with thick ferns and other volunteer plants blanketing the forest floor. The diffuse canopy let in an abundance of morning light. The air was very still and humid, and I felt almost as if I was walking in Virginia, but there weren’t quite enough mosquitoes. As spiderwebs crackled against my cheeks, I ran through fantasies of the impending visit from Cotton, hoping for good weather across the big mountains we have on our agenda. My tailbone is feeling a little wonky today after the spill I took on the way down Saddleback Junior. I tried not to fixate on it as I worked my way through the woods.
Whatever boards used to span the water have since been washed away. About 5 feet to the right stood a few rock hopping options, but they were dark as an oil slick and covered in moss. After yesterday’s mishap, I felt gun shy about stepping on wet rocks, not that the rock I stepped on yesterday was even remotely wet. I didn’t feel like fording the stream, so I used my poles for stabilization and took comically slow steps across the mossy rocks. I felt ridiculous given the fact that most people probably fly across this stream without a second thought…or so my brain tells me when I feel like I’m falling short somehow. Short of what is something that remains to be seen.
The trail crested an overgrown woods road and continued past yet another stream. Then came the gradual climb up Lone Mountain. Sweat ran down the bridge of my nose and hung from my chin, jiggling as I walked. My steps dislodging each bead, making way for a new droplet to form. A steady stream of teenage girls passed me as I moved through the humid air toward the summit. My presence startled a few of them because they were engrossed in their footing. They all wished me happy trails even though they seemed profoundly unhappy. Maybe they’re tired? I made it to the wooded summit where there was a sign and a rock seat that someone had fashioned out of two small boulders. I dropped my pack, pulled out a snack, and proceeded to Internet for about 15 minutes while I had a decent signal. The fall from yesterday has sadly buggered my tailbone a bit. Sitting is more painful than it has been in awhile. I also had to set my pack a little higher on y back so that it wouldn’t press against the upper ridge of my sacrum. I hope that hiking will work its magic (as it has before) and my tailbone will recover soon enough.
I donned my pack, curling my nose at the soggy shoulder straps, and continued onward toward Spaulding Mountain. The trail was relatively flat between the two peaks, and I was surrounded by what appeared to be decaying ferns of a lighter green than usual.
I walked along at my typical pace, stepping around the occasional root or rock, daydreaming about visiting a music friend in California over Labor Day weekend. I stopped every now and then to inspect a flower or attempt to take a picture of the forest that looked like something besides a flat wall of green.
I periodically checked the mileage between me and the Crockers, attempting to predict when I might reach them so I could decide the evening’s destination. A moderately sized rock sat at the right edge of the trail ahead of me. As I planted my right foot to step around the rock, I lost my balance and pitched forward. My body twisted in such a way that I landed face down over top of my left arm with the full weight of my body spread across the impact points of my shoulder and my elbow. I felt a distinct cracking sensation as my elbow came down directly on a rock and exploded in stomach churning pain. I rolled onto my left shoulder and struggled to sit up amongst the tangle of legs and hiking poles. I unclipped my pack, which had gone askew in the force of the fall. I tossed my poles off to the side of the trail and sat there taking stock of my injuries. I flexed my left hand into a fist and felt a sickeningly familiar feeling of something gone terribly wrong. There was a strange pressure that felt reminiscent of the time I broke my wrist as a child.
I hadn’t just heard my arm break, right? That doesn’t really happen, does it? That CAN’T be what just happened. As these thoughts ran through my head, I scooched to the edge of the trail and pulled out a snack because it seemed like the thing to do after such a shocking fall. I ate a fig square, drank some water, and gingerly flexed my left arm, which I immediately ceased as it felt like someone was taking a knife to my elbow. As the pain transitioned from vomit-worthy to just this side of bearable, I decided I should probably get moving. I stood up and immediately got dizzy, so I sat back down for a few more minutes. After drinking a bit more water, I stood up again. This time, I managed to put my pack on by threading my left arm through the strap first and then my right arm. As I stood there, still feeling unsteady, I heard hikers approaching. I looked southward to find an older gentleman I didn’t know followed by Tater and Norsemen. I gave a half hearted grunt to the older fellow. Tater gave me a wide smile and asked how I was doing, to which I replied, “not that great. I just took a really bad fall.” I showed them my elbow, which at that point seemed unremarkable with a slight goose egg forming just below the tip and a small scrape that had opened an existing scab in the same spot. They responded to the panic in my voice by suggesting that we all walk a few more minutes to the Spaulding mountain lean-to and take a break together. I gratefully agreed to their offer for company and walked behind them towards the shelter holding both of my poles in my right arm.
The older gentleman that had passed us sat in the shelter with his stuff spread around him. I dropped my pack, taking care not to jostle my left arm, and sat down to process what was happening. Norsemen and the man whose name I didn’t care to know got into a pissing contest about the difficulty of east coast versus west coast mountains. I internally rolled my eyes and began looking up the symptoms of a broken elbow on my phone.
A succinct list came up that included nearly everything I was experiencing in the moment. Pain and tenderness: check. Swelling: check. Trouble moving arm: check. Inability to touch fingertips to shoulder: check. Weakness or numbness in your elbow, arm, or hand: check. My heart grew heavier as I made my way through various medical websites. I asked Tater and Norsemen if they thought I would know if I’d broken it, as if they would somehow have more authority on the subject than me. They seemed certain that I would have more bruising and the pain would be more intolerable. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the pain had been at the highest end of what I could stand; I just have a really good poker face. The other hiker saw that I was using my phone and asked me if I had service. I responded with an absent-minded yes. He then asked me what the weather was supposed to be like as he held his own phone in his hand. I curtly replied, “I don’t know, I have other priorities at the moment,” which was code for “F off and check it yourself you lazy jackass.” My tone sufficiently shut down any further bids for attention from him.
I put on my wool shirt, pain shooting through my left arm as I tried to tug the hem down around my waist, and I wandered down the side trail to fill my water bag. Normally, I stabilize the filter with my right hand and squeeze the bag with my left, but there was no chance of that happening, so I reversed hands and awkwardly managed to filter the bag. Then began the conversation of what to do about medical attention. The nearest exit point was a logging road about 5 miles away. That road appeared to be about 4-6 more miles of walking out to route 27 where I could get a hitch into Stratton. Another option would be to head towards the Sugarloaf ski resort and hope to find emergency services there during the off season. We all decided that sugarloaf seemed like too much of a long shot and involved climbing up into nowhere if it turned out to be deserted. I dithered about whether to go to a doctor or just continue hiking past the logging road. I asked tater and norsemen what they would do, and they both gave noncommittal answers that amounted to “we are stubborn folk and would probably keep going.” I can relate. I decided to use the 5 miles to the logging road as a test run to see if the pain would abate. In the meantime, I texted Cotton to warn her that I may have seriously botched our hiking plans for the weekend. She offered to drive up anyway and take a zero day with me if that’s what I decided to do.
Tater and Norsemen empathized my difficult decision and offered to walk with me down the mountain so that I would have company for the one armed trek. I said yes without hesitation, and we collected ourselves to continue northward. I collapsed my left hiking pole and tucked it into the side pocket of my bag. Then I thread my left arm through the shoulder strap again, and winced as I used it to pull my hip belt around to the front of my waist. After getting that buckled, I reached up to buckle my chest strap and realized that there was no way I could get my left arm to bend enough to make that happen. This was the first sign of increased swelling because I had been able to buckle the strap right after the fall. I sheepishly asked Tater to help me with the buckle, and then we left without saying goodbye to the other hiker who had been dithering for the last 20 minutes about whether it was going to rain this afternoon.
As it turns out, Tater, Norsemen, and I have nearly identical paces, at least on warm, humid days. I kept up with them pretty well on all but the flattest stretches as we made our way over Spaulding mountain, which was thankfully a very mild climb relative to the rest of Maine. Every so often, the muscles in my left arm would involuntarily engage, sending a breath-catching stab of pain through my elbow. As the hours passed, my arm began to feel stiffer and more swollen. I periodically took a picture of it to see how it changed in appearance. When I was able to forget about the pain and all that it might portend, I had a wonderful time hiking with Tater and Norsemen. They’re hilarious and easy to be around. We stopped for a late lunch off the side of the trail in a soft bed of leaves and pine needles. At that point, I had come to terms with the fact that I needed to get my arm x-rayed. The pain had not changed in any way and the swelling continued to worsen. I texted Cotton to confirm my need to take the weekend off, and she said that already had plans to drive up for the night because our intended meeting time in the morning required her to make the 5 hour drive from VT a day ahead of time. She had reservations for the night in Caratunk, but as we continued to talk, she agreed to cancel her hotel to stay with me in Stratton. I made a couple of phone calls and found a room at the White Wolf Inn in Stratton. The woman required that I give my credit card information on the phone to reserve the room, which meant I had to say my full name in earshot of Tater and Norsemen. They made wide eyes at me as I gave my name and when I got off the phone, they said in jokingly shocked, hushed tones, “now we know YOUR REAL NAME.” Depending on when you meet fellow hikers, you can go an entire relationship without every knowing their legal names. We joked about breaking through the fifth wall or some such nonsense, and then they gave me their real names in a show of solidarity.
After lunch, we continued to make our way down the mountain, laughing our way through dozens of Monty Python references and general nonsense. I’m not proud of this thought process, but I’ll share it anyway: I noticed that I hadn’t tripped a single time since my fall, meanwhile Norsemen scuffled and botched his steps often. He had claimed earlier in the day that he can barely hike without his poles because he’s so apt to fall. I felt resentful that my misstep had resulted in such a shit show while he managed to stumble around unscathed. Not my most generous moment in life.
We came to this break in the trees and stood in silence for a few minutes. I looked out at the mountains doing my best not to cry, wondering if this would be the last day of my hike. The trail eventually opened up to even more views of the surrounding mountains as the footing devolved into boulder scrambling.
I had to strategize about how to approach the trickier spots in such a way that meant I could lean on my right arm to lower myself down the large steps required to descend the hillside. We stopped to pick blueberries and take in the scenery.
When I wasn’t feeling like a monster or laughing at the silliness of my company, I was doing everything I could to keep from falling apart. Instinct told me that my hike, as I knew it, was over. I tried not to get too far ahead of myself, but I felt like all the plans I’d made for the rest of Maine were quickly turning into dusty figurines sitting on an out-of-reach shelf.
As we neared the bottom of the mountain, I made a passing comment about being happy that we’d made that rock scramble in dry conditions. Less than two minutes later, it started to sprinkle. We all laughed at the timing of my comment. Thankfully the rain petered out as quickly as it started. When we came to the southern branch of the Carrabassett River, Tater and Norsemen surveyed the water for swimming options.
I checked my watch and felt both anxious to get to the logging road and wholly uninterested in making my departure from the trail. I decided to join them in a short dip in the water. I took my shirt and shoes off and sat at the edge of the river, not wanting to completely submerge myself should it make my chances of getting a hitch at the road even harder. Who wants to pick up a soggy hiker? I did, however, rinse the mud from my legs and douse my hair to make it more presentable. Then I spent a few minutes with my left arm soaking in the ice cold river water. It had been such a wonderful afternoon hiking with Tater and Norsemen, and I couldn’t believe that the same day I had finally found a rhythm with them would be the same day I would have to say goodbye with no hopes of catching up to them.
After delaying the inevitable as long as I felt comfortable, I bid farewell to Tater and Norsemen, thanking them again for keeping me company all afternoon. Then I made the somewhat tricky crossing over the river and emerged a few minutes later onto Caribou Valley Rd.
I allowed myself to well up with tears as I began the trek to Route 27. The road was lined with wildflowers and tall grass. After about 5 minutes of walking, I rounded a bend to find a gate with several cars parked on the other side of it. One of the cars was a white shuttle van in which sat an older gentleman in a fluorescent orange shirt. In a vague attempt to yogi* a ride to the road, I asked the man if he knew the distance of the logging road. He rattled off “3 or 4 miles,” and asked if I planned to walk it. I told him that I had hurt my elbow and needed to get into town. Then he said in his thick Maine accent, “well, can you bend it?” I said, “No.” He said with incredulity and a hint of skepticism, “you can’t bend it??” I took a breath to avoid biting his head off and said, “No, I can’t.” He told me that he was waiting to pick up other hikers who are doing a day hike for the annual Appalachian Trail Conservacy conference. He introduced himself as a former thru hiker by the name of Mr. Bean (I’m almost certain that’s what he said, but he mumbled it a bit, so I apologize to the universe if I’ve gotten that wrong). He offered to give me a ride once he’d picked up his hikers. My stamina for small talk was completely tapped, and I had absolutely no desire to kill time trying to talk the welcoming but taxing Mr. Bean. I told him I would just start making my way down the road rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time for his hikers. He said, “Okay then. I’ll pick you up when I see you.” Before I could walk away, he suggested that we look at the map so he could show me where I might find medical care. By the time he’d pointed out the two distant towns that he guessed were my best options, a gaggle of hikers ranging in age from 50-70 approached the van. Mr. Bean announced my predicament to them as they circled the van and accepted their complimentary cans of Moxie (care of Mr. Bean). He proceeded to cajole me into accepting a can of my own, which I finally did so he would leave me be. One of the women hikers saw Mr. Bean make motions to toss the bag of ice he’d used to keep the moxie cool. She stopped him just in time and told him that I should use the ice for my arm. I thanked her for the idea as I settled into my seat amongst the other hikers. Then we bounced our way down the dirt road, pain ripping through my arm with every bump in the road. I instantly regretted my choice to accept the ride even though I knew it would save me at least two hours of walking.
When we got to route 27, Mr. Bean surveyed the hikers’ willingness to take the time to drive me the rest of the way to Stratton. They all agreed, thinking it preposterous that I might have to hitchhike from that point. So I lucked out yet again and was driven all the way to the White Horse Inn. As we sped down the highway, I marveled at the timing of the trail magic and felt amused that I had been picked up by a bunch of ATC hikers while simultaneously lambasting myself for the two seconds I can never get back in which I somehow should have managed to prevent myself from falling. The women next to me asked me questions about my hike, and I did my best to hold a conversation with them while my mind swirled.
When we got to the White Wolf Inn, Mr. Bean pulled my pack out of the car and set it against the side of the building. He bid me the best of luck and drove off with his charges. I stepped inside to a bustling restaurant on the first floor of the inn with a harried older woman who appeared to be waiting on the entire restaurant alone. She gave me the keys to my room, and I wandered outside in a daze to the second floor. The backside of the inn looked out onto this little stream, which made me both incredibly happy to not be looking at a paved road and incredibly sad to be reminded of the woods I had just left for who knows how long.
I lay on the hotel bed texting with Cotton about her dinner plans and getting much needed support from another friend. It seemed wise to eat dinner, given the mileage I had hiked and the hour (verging on 6). I went downstairs to the restaurant and took a seat at a booth near the bar. The woman running the place rushed over with a menu and a glass of water. Then she rushed back 10 minutes later and apologized for having forgotten about me. I placed an order for a burger and fries, because F today, and she scurried away to continue serving other patrons. Two obvious thru hikers at the bar approached me on their way out the door. One of them said, “are you a hiker?” (we like to check in with our people in public spaces), to which I replied “yes, but I’ve just hurt my elbow, and I got off the trail today to get it x-rayed.” The other hiker asked me if it was swollen because she couldn’t tell through my shirt, so I gently rolled up my sleeve and showed them my elbow. They both gasped and took a step backward, which I took as a terrible sign (I hadn’t looked at my arm since I’d gotten to the inn). They wished me luck and expressed their sympathy as they went back to their room.
I ate my dinner in a dazed silence and then ordered Cotton a burger to go for her late arrival. I also ordered a piece of peanut butter pie because F today. The server brought the pie in a takeout container and said in a conspiratorial tone that there had been an awkward small piece left over in addition to the piece I’d ordered that just happened to end up in the container. I thanked her, closed out my bill leaving a generous tip, and asked her for a bag of ice to take to my room. I then proceeded to cry, mope, and talk on the phone with my music friend who I’d been texting throughout the day with updates about the status of misery. Cotton arrived around 9 and immediately went into support mode when I floated the idea of driving to Farmington in the morning to the nearest hospital. She didn’t flinch at the prospect of a two hour round trip with an unpredictable amount of time in a hospital rather than the hiking we had planned for the day. We caught up on other life events while she ate her cold hamburger and the rest of the peanut butter pie. I managed to undress myself (I had embarrassing visions of requiring help with that process before Cotton arrived) and took a shower to prepare myself for re-entry into the land of deodorant wearing, bathed people. Here’s my elbow by the end of the day:
Mile 1982.9 to mile 1993.3 (10.4)
Total miles 990.1
Creature feature: Your guess is as good as mine.
*yogi is a term that references yogi bear and can be defined as indirectly implying a need/desire in such a way that someone offers to make it happen for you. Example: thru hiker says “do you know how far it is to the nearest grocery store?” muggle says “its X miles. I’m going that way, would you like a ride?”