*real time comment: it’s late August 2021, and I am finally (finally) in the homestretch for finishing my AT blog. I’ve experienced a non-stop parade of physical and emotional barriers to getting through this material (not unlike the trail). Thanks to the readers who actively supported me while I toiled and sputtered through one post every few weeks (or months). I had hoped to finish by my birthday, but this summer has been a complete shit show. Won’t make that goal, but it will be close! Here is the account for the last day of my botched 2017 thru hike.
September 10, 2017
I woke up at an unidentified heinous time this morning and intermittently dozed until I finally gave up around 5:15am. I’m going to guess the original wake up time was in the neighborhood of 3:30 based on how long it felt like it took to get to 5:15 and the brightness of the moon when I woke up. My plan is to attempt 23 miles to the second shelter from here, so I begrudgingly fumbled through getting my headlamp on, which is shockingly difficult to do one-handed (try it and see how fun it is!). I failed my previous attempt the night before, and had to hold my light in my right hand. The headlamp and putting on my fleece hat are two things I did not foresee having trouble with. I can’t even cheat and use my left arm sparingly because I can’t bend my elbow enough to reach my head!
After clocking myself in the forehead several times, I finally managed to wrestle on my headlamp. I grabbed my tp and my trowel amongst the exploded contents of my pack. Then I unzipped my tent, using my socked foot to hold tension on the stable end of zipper. I don’t have any notes or memories about getting through my morning duties, but I somehow managed to pop a squat and get through that task without falling over. Afterward, I stumbled up the rocky hillside and made a mental note to put my bear canister somewhere that didn’t require coordination with what I shall call “morning feet.” Think wooden blocks.
The blister on my right heel gave a loud greeting as I tottered back down the hill. After unzipping my tent, sitting down inside with my legs over the doorway, and wrestling my food canister inside, I settled into my sleeping bag only to realize that my spoon was hanging on the line with my overflow food and toiletries. I had to get out of my sleeping bag, unzip the tent, and pull my food bag down. Easy enough, but it was an unwelcome detour on my way to breakfast.
It took me two hours from waking up to leaving my campsite. I felt dejected and exhausted by the effort of doing everything basically one armed. I was also anxious about using my broken arm a few times when I shouldn’t have, mainly for zippers and to hold my rolltop bag open while packing it.
I walked past the shelter and barely waved when the people there said bye to me. I’m feeling horribly avoidant because it takes too much energy to explain my situation. It also makes me really sad, and I feel like an overzealous weirdo when I tell people I’m hiking with a broken elbow.
I turned onto the trail and slowly climbed this rocky hill.
My shoes inexplicably started to eat the heels of my socks, which is one of my least favorite phenomenons. I had hiked over a thousand miles and not experienced the dreaded creep. I cursed and adjusted my socks every couple of minutes until I got to this view where I paused to try to pay attention to something besides my aggravation.
Not long after, I reached the northern registration station for Shenandoah National Park. I pulled a paper permit out of the kiosk and puzzled over how to estimate the duration of my hike. I had no clue how slow my progress would be, especially because I had a planned break for an X-ray in NYC. It felt impossible to make an accurate prediction, so I made up a number that I can’t remember and assumed that no one would really care or pay much attention.
I managed to attached the metal tied permit onto the top of my pack, and continued onward in the brisk, sunny morning. My arm ached more than I wanted on the hills, and there was a sharp tug near the joint that worried me.
It had started hurting last night with the heavier pack (thanks bear canister AND water carry). I thought the pain would subside after I lost the extra water weight. Not so much. I started to wonder if I could really do this and better yet, whether I should. I had decided before stepping foot back in the woods that arm pain would be my bottom line for stopping this experiment. It’s also just not fun to do everything one-handed. Granted there are plenty of things about thru hiking that aren’t fun, but this was next-level soul sucking.
This is the spot in the trail where the idea of stopping began to really take hold:
I stood staring at the sun beaming through the trees while tears streamed down my face. I cried for the original loss of the hike I had envisioned and the secondary loss of the revised version I had settled into. I continued crying as I made my way over the mildest stretch of trail yet. The blister on my foot stung with every step, and my heart felt heavy. I was both grateful and resentful of the fact that the trail was so easy I could have jogged it.
I arrived at Compton Gap parking lot and crossed Skyline Drive before heading back into the woods where I promptly lost what little phone signal I’d had at the gap. I desperately wanted to call Oakland (known as my “music friend” in the previous 2017 posts), but the cell phone gods had left me to wrestle with this decision alone. I also considered going back to the parking lot to text my mom for an extraction, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the idea of stopping.
The trail climbed slightly through spacious woods. I found a weak signal and sat down on a wide rock to call Oakland. She wouldn’t tell me what to do, but she listened to me cast about while crying through the details of my dilemma. We ended our call, and I sat there in a daze. A couple of SOBOs that I met at Liberty Springs campsite in the Whites came zipping through. It’s always so amusing and disorienting to see people in different states even though it happens all the time. Day hikers with a cute dog slowed down to ask me about my hike. I told them the briefest version that I could muster without crying and they expressed their sympathies before leaving.
I lost my signal despite having not moved since ending my phone call. It felt both fitting and aggravating that I had been cast back into silence at a time when I wanted help deciding what to do. Clearly the trail felt like I should figure this one out on my own. As I stood to go, I noticed a drip on my left hip pocket, but I assumed it was coming from my water bottle, so I didn’t investigate it.
I hiked in silence and took no pictures for the better part of two hours (more evidence of my despondence). I considered putting on music to help with my mood, but I wanted to hear the woods and be completely present if it was going to be my last day for who knows how long. At some point the wildflowers lured me back into taking pictures. I lingered near a gnarled crabapple tree and admired its hard work. Chest high yellows and whites lined both sides of the trail.
I eventually found a good for a pee break, but I had to resist the urge to drop my pack on the ground because I can’t get it back on without the help of a waist high prop. I backtracked about 20 yards to put my pack down on a log. This exercise was yet another point of exhaustion with my one-armed hiking. Luckily my trusty spandex hiking shorts have proven very user friendly. When I was done with my bio break, I threaded my left arm through my pack strap and followed suit with my right arm and a hefty dip forward to get the pack onto my waist. Another droplet fell from my hip pocket. I touched the material with my good hand and the oily slickness made my heart sink. I knew immediately that my bug spray had leaked. I put down my pack and carefully unzipped my hip pocket by pinching one side every so slightly with my bad hand. Zippers are nearly impossible without a stabilizing force. Sure enough, when I finally got the pocket open, the noxious smell of deet filled my nostrils. I took a ziplock from my stash and sequestered the defective bottle in the outside pocket of my pack. There was nothing to be done with the rest of the contents in that moment. I was so exasperated by the incident and alarmed by the fact that I didn’t know how I would have dealt with a larger malfunction that required two working arms.
As I shimmied back into my pack, a female SOBO headed towards me down the narrow trail. She asked if I was thru hiking with the clear hope that she had found a long distance hiker that wasn’t a dude bro. She was both sympathetic and crestfallen when I told her I was indeed a flip-flopping thru hiker, but I had plans to end my hike in a couple of hours. She kindly asked if I needed any help, which I declined because there wasn’t anything left to do but put one foot in front of the other.
About twenty minutes later, the trail began to climb and I caught a good enough signal to text my mom and Oakland. My mom insisted that stopping wasn’t failure and asked where she should come get me. We agreed on the parking lot between North and South Mount Marshall, which was 3.7 miles south. My right foot hurt more than I could ignore, but I wanted to have lunch at the cliffs just north of that parking lot rather than opt for an earlier road crossing.
I walked south, vacillating between an intense presence of taking in the flowers and smells around me and the compressing numbness of grief. I felt a little ridiculous being so distraught about my hike based on the catastrophes happening in the bigger world at the moment, but I tried to allow myself to be miserable.
I made it to the cliffs around noon. The view down to the valley was as spectacular as I had hoped, and I had the place to myself for a few minutes of picture taking (including today’s top photo) and blubbering. Then I tugged my bear can out of my bag and picked out a good lunch rock. As I settled down to fix my lunch, Hops and his friend arrived. I asked about their plans to cope with Irma (a weather system, not a person). When Hops asked me about my plans, I told him I was stopping in less than a mile. He expressed sadness and respect for my decision to be more conservative. I asked how his wife was doing after her detached retina, and we shared a couple of stories of our respective attempts to catch Halfway. Ah, yes. Halfway. He’s out of SNP now and has continued chugging along. I will miss not being able to hike with him anymore, and I’ve asked him to keep me updated on how he fares. Baby gay – slash French dip – slash Zach is deep into NC now and on track to finish in mid October.
Hops and his friend said goodbye, and I finished my lunch alone. I cried some more as I stood on the rocks. It was a picture perfect September day and my heart was in pieces at the thought of walking away from the woods. Here’s the view in video form:
I stowed my canister, carefully rolled down the top of my bag and fumbled with the closure. Then I picked my way down the rocky stretch of trail just past the cliffs. The footing evened out and the trail eventually dropped me into the parking lot that would mark the end of my 2017 hike. Imagining my mom’s face as I hiked made me cry more, but I didn’t see her car when I got to the lot. I sat in the grass and texted her to give her a few extra landmarks. The minutes ticked by, and I started to worry. I called Oakland (cue more blubbering) and talked to her until my mom’s white Subaru finally turned off of Skyline Drive. Apparently, she had been waiting for me in a different parking with no phone signal, but she had found out from a person doing an AT training hike that there was another parking lot nearby, so she drove around until she found me. I listened proudly as my mom told me about all the advice she had given the hiker based on what she’d learned from supporting my hike.
I put my smelly pack in the trunk and my even smellier body in the front seat. My mom continued to talk as we headed north on Skyline Drive. I silently cried next to her, feeling despondent about my choice while knowing it was the right thing to do. My heart sank when I found out my mom had babysitting duty for my niece later that afternoon, and we had to pick her up on the way home. I had no idea how I was going to buck up for the energy of a gleeful small child. I have no memory of what we talked about for the rest of the drive down Interstate 66. I just remember seeing the hills around us and desperately wishing I was still swatting bugs and cursing the rocks in SNP.
I sat in the car while my mom collected my niece. I buzzed with the whiplash of waking up in my tent to sitting in a suburban development less than two hours from the trail. My niece got in the car and handed me another home made card and said that she sorry I had hurt my elbow. We made silly noises and laughed our way through the short drive to my mom’s house. I managed to play silly string in the backyard before retreating to my guest room to mope.
I had made it roughly 1045.2 miles, which is just shy of the halfway mark. I say roughly because my day to day mileage math leaves something to be desired. As I stared at the ceiling fan, feeling suffocated by the walls around me, my wheels immediately started turning for how to finish the remaining miles in the summer of 2018. I could start in late spring, maybe the beginning of May, hike north through my end point in SNP and then jump up to the middle of Maine to finish at Katahdin. The strategizing was comforting and exciting. In the original planning stages of my flip-flop, I had struggled with the idea of finishing my hike at Springer, and with this new structure, I could end at the infamous Katahdin sign. Fingers crossed that there aren’t any wild cards that prevent me from completing this damn thing.**
I’m finishing this to the sound of the ceiling fan above me, my niece talking downstairs, and the suburban drone of lawn mowers.
Mile 1223.0 to mile 1231.7 (8.7) – North Mt. Marshall parking lot (skyline mile 15.9)
Total miles: 1045.2
Creature feature: squirrels, the usual songbirds, and a couple of cute day hiking dogs
**there were indeed several wild cards. they SUCKED. and I finished it anyway.
OMFG! I’ve been thinking of you; I’d heard that you completed the AT in 2107 – I was dubious. I will be following you during your trek this year. My absolute best wishes to you. Enjoy the journey my friend. I’d love to catch up with what you’ve been up to in the last two years.