Seven twenty two

A week ago I was forced off the trail due to a severely sprained left ankle and swollen lower shin muscles/tendons in my right leg (likely the EDL, or tibialis interior).  Taking time off the trail for a rest day isn’t going to mess up your stride too much, but after a week off my feet I’m starting to feel lethargic.

I do love being home and enjoying life’s comforts and my beau, and taking time to heal has been my #1 priority.  The dreams have subsided, which I’m not sure is a good or a bad thing yet: I was dreaming of being on a trail (not necessarily the AT), and they were pretty lucid, but I did enjoy them nonetheless.

The swelling has almost gone and I can walk without pain, but my feet and knees are still stiff in the mornings or if I stand after long periods of sitting down.  I’m no longer limping which is a relief, and I’m no longer popping pain pills – which is even better.

I wish I could take my better half on the trail with me, it would certainly make the decision to return to the AT much easier on both of us.  I don’t want to leave (per se) again, it was hard enough the first time, yet I have a yearning to finish what I started.

On another note, I started my trip weighing in at around 235lbs (total lard arse), and I’ve been watching what I eat since coming home – today I weigh 212.8lbs – for a total weight loss of ~ 22lbs.  I feel great, and I have a level of energy that I haven’t had in many, many years.

Being home has given me the chance to be back with the most important person in my life, and to share my stories and experiences with her has been a treat.  My wife’s support throughout the month hiking the trail was the most helpful, and I’ve realized that she’s been my very own personal trail angel this entire time.  I wouldn’t have gotten out of Davenport Gap if it weren’t for her.

Anyway, back to elevating my foot and my daily dose of HGTV.

Day 5 of recovery

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It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in NY and my ankle is feeling much better. Swelling is reducing each day and my right tendon isn’t tweaking (yet; I’m a realist).

Sat here teaching the missus how to play Texas Hold’em, sipping a Coke Zero, and enjoying the fact that my old clothes fit – amazing how much weight I’ve lost and kept off after “real world” hydration.

Day 4 of recovery

I’ve slept like a rock for the last four nights, my dreams taking me back to the trail each time.

My ankle, although still sore, is getting better each day.  There’s not as much swelling as the day prior, and I’m getting into a pretty good routine of rest and elevation.  I’ve also not taken any ibuprofen at all – doctor’s orders.  Tylenol instead, and maybe just a couple per day.

I managed to get through all the DVR’d shows that had recorded over the last four weeks which included Game of Thrones, Top Gear, The Walking Dead, and The Following.

I love being home with my wife.  It feels a little strange at times, and I know she’s also going through her own stuff with me having been gone for a month and returning.  The 500lb gorilla in the room recently is whether I’ll be returning to the AT once my feet are mended.  Honestly, I’d love to – I feel a little lost out here, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all.  Being on the AT felt like I was walking to something greater, and not even Katahdin.  Just the everyday hike with friends was a path to a new me, a me with a stronger mindset on completion. Given I was essentially forced off the trail and not of my own accord, I feel I have unfinished business.

Clearly it’s not a decision I’ll be making overnight, and it’s something I’d like to discuss with the missus – I would still want her blessing.

For now, though, I’ll rest and enjoy my lazy time with my beloved.  We had taco night last night and it was every bit as indulgent as I’d remembered.  Epic!

I received two text messages this morning: one from Bucketlist (Mike, Dan’s very close friend who hiked the Smokies with us) wishing me well, and another from Captain Dan saying that he’d gotten word from Tie Dye of my prognosis and hoped I’m doing ok.  I do miss Danny, he’s a good man.  A friend for life.

Thru hike hopes dashed?

Leaving the podiatrist with news that I need to rest for two months before contemplating a return to the AT isn’t quite what I’d hoped to hear today. I’m very upset to be honest. All I could keep repeating while he was telling me was “this is very upsetting news”, ad nauseam. Rolling four times in three weeks is “very rare” and I’m “lucky to not have torn anything.”

While looking at my X-rays he asked if I’d broken any bones in my feet, to which I responded “no”. I’d told him about an old RAF injury when I was 20 that I caused by me missing the curb — while running full pelt — and rolling my left ankle severely. So severe in fact, that I had to go through five months of electro therapy. He thinks I actually fractured a bone that was missed during my treatment and showed me a faint dark line crossing my fibula close to my ankle.

Come to think of it, I remember sitting across my uncle Stuart’s road bike as a kid – ass on the frame with both legs dangling to the right side of the bike — I think he’d tried to make a turn and my left foot got caught in the spokes, while going a good 10mph – my little ankle was dragged in there with quite a lot of force. I can’t believe I still remember that, I was no older than six years old!

To add to this, he’s confident that I have compartment syndrome in my lower right shin; severe inflammation of the muscles in the lower shin area that are building pressure against surrounding muscle and tendon tissue, hence the swelling and pain. Warm compress with Epsom salts will draw out the swelling. Worst case scenario: I don’t do it and I will need to go under general and have holes poked through my muscle tissue to relieve the pressure.

He’s asked me to return in two weeks for a checkup.

What.

The.

F*ck.

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Lieutenant Dan

Waking this morning in my bed was, in a word, luxurious.

I woke up in the same position I’d fallen asleep in and I’d slept very hard indeed. I think it may have been the best night of sleep I’ve had in one month.

Anyway, I turned on the TV and Airplane was playing, so I opened the guide and Forrest Gump was on the next channel up – click!

Like a message from the trail or some crazy twist of serendipity, it was at the exact scene where Lieutenant Dan arrives at Forrest’s house for his wedding to Jenny. Forrest looks Lt. Dan up and down as he notices he’s walking, and pronounces “Lieutenant Dan! Lieutenant Dan… he got new legs.”

We used to joke around a lot with Captain Dan and his knee injury/ies and oftentimes we’d shout out, ” Lieutenant Dan needs new knees!”, and there’d be rapturous laughter throughout the group. Even in trail towns we would keep up the joke.

I dreamed I was hiking most of last night; I don’t know where I was or with whom, but I was outside on a trail – and I felt at peace.

I miss Captain Dan, I miss him a great deal. I hope I see him again.

 

 

Deflated yet elated

As I sit on the porch of the Hemlock Hollow hostel waiting for my ride back to civilization, I’m flooded with mental pictures and mini flashbacks of the time spent on the trail. I can hear echoes of laughter from Captain Dan and Tie Dye (my rocks), the cracking of ice falling from frozen trees between Burningtown Gap and NOC, the serenity of Cheoah Bald, my woot of jubilation on top of Clingmans Dome, the fist bumps with other numerous trail friends, the smile on my face each time I’d cross paths with Piper (four times in total), the scent of spruce forests, the gurgling of creeks and streams, and the sheer physical enormity that was the smokies.

I’m very happy to have attempted my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, and I’m ok with my decision to step off.

Will it be for good? I never say never – I may return when I’m back to full strength, or I may not, choosing to perhaps bring my own son or daughter in the distant future instead.

What am I taking away from this? Never underestimate what you are capable of; we are capable of enduring much more than we would ever give ourselves credit for.

My desire to learn more about myself and who I really am was at times a struggle, but ultimately I found what I was looking for on the AT. My journey was always bigger than the actual hiking, and far more profound than the physical demands before me. It was a walk of self reflection and of discovery.

I found that I’m actually a jolly bloody Englishman with a thirst for life and adventure. I’ve enjoyed getting to know me.

Would I do it all over again? You bet I would.

Jolly off the Appalachian Trail

I’ve been dealing with the extensor injury for a week now — the dreaded downhill from Crosby Knob Shelter to Davenport Gap — and the pain is just too much. Add to that the constantly swollen left ankle and shooting pains up the inside, it’s time to call it quits. If I have to pop a dozen ibuprofen daily just to walk — even after zero days — then I need to stop hiking. I’m also waking in the night to throbbing pain so I’m dropping pain killers to help me get back to sleep. This needs to stop.

I’m calling it a day.

Lola (Cap Dan’s girlfriend) is driving back to NY today, so to kill two birds with one stone, I’m hitching a lift. I can help with the long drive north and gas money. I’ll be back home tonight, and I’m glad.

If you asked me what I’m looking forward to the most, it would be for the pain to stop. It’s been severe and prolonged and even with time off the trail, neither injury is improving; they’re actually worsening. I need to be smart now, not proud.

I’ve had many other thru’ers suggest I take more zeros and ice and elevate, but I’m confident that even if I reduced the swelling to a normal state over time, it would return within a week – and I would be back here again with the ultimate quandary: do I push and risk further (read: permanent) injury, or do I make the smart decision and be proud of the 290.2 miles I’ve tackled and call it a day?

I’ve run through all available scenarios and I’m comfortable with the latter choice every time.

This isn’t an easy decision; I’ve been thinking about leaving ever since injuring my right tendon last week in the Smokies. I’m going to miss my very good friends that I’ve gotten quite close to over the last four weeks, but they’ll be friends for life. I’m going to miss the trail very much, too. It’s become a way of life, an organic connection to something great. I know I’m going to want to return, but not now.

I’ve had an incredible time and have spent many, many days in my own head thinking about my life, what brought me here, and what the future holds. I’m a stronger man for doing this, and for one month I took on one of the toughest trails in the world; and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

A little over a month ago I was standing on top of Springer Mountain with a truck full of balls and absolutely no clue how tough this was going to be. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be calling it quits due to injury. I’m humbled to the core, and have grown to have the utmost respect for the AT and everyone that steps foot on it.

I wish everyone else the best, and a safe and successful thru hike.

Hemlock Hollow, thru-hike sorrow (290.2m)

Not much ankle pain this morning, but I still had to hobble to the bathroom from the sofa.

Around 7:30am, Cap woke up and began packing final items before our hike. I had my day pack set and my regular pack ready for delivery to Hemlock Hollow, a hostel with bunks and cabins 16 trail miles from our Hot Springs starting point this morning. We were slack packing, and I’d spoken with Hattie the night before — the owner of the hostel — it was going to be an easier day without our full ~25lb packs. Excited to return to the trail; hiking helps to warm up muscles and aids in circulating what lubricants I have left in my aching joints.

Coffee, group photo, and we were on the road back to Hot Springs by 8:45am. We stopped at Reggie’s for breakfast on the way which was a treat.

By the time we got to town it was almost 11:00am, so we said our farewells to Lola and we were off.

Four ibuprofen, down the hatch. I still had some swelling this morning.

Steep and prolonged climbs followed, and I was feeling great. New shoes felt superb and I was making a fantastic pace. After the climbs the trail became hill hugging and sweeping through gentle PUDs over some beautiful areas. Green tunnels and easily navigable trail, I was on a roll.

About half way in (8 miles) my left ankle started to tweak, and so did my right extensor tendon. You have to be kidding me, not now.

Three more ibuprofen; I had to keep both the pain and swelling down and keep going – it was close to 3:00pm and I still had another three and a half to four hours to go.

I pushed on and each step began to feel like I had hammers smashing me in the feet and shin. My left ankle was painful on both the outside and inside, agonizing.

By 5:30pm I was hobbling and leaning heavily on my trekking poles, and the downhills — which were aplenty — we’re destroying me.

Four more ibuprofen.

My spirit and determination was waning, and fast. It took everything I had to keep going and I hung back with Alfalfa for the final few miles. I was coming in last. I know it’s not a race, but when I’ve been one of the first to finish each day, this was a big telltale sign of what was about to become the inevitable.

Reaching the hostel at 7:00pm is was in so much pain that even standing still was excruciating. I’d told Alfalfa, Cap, and Tom that I thought today would be my last day, I just couldn’t keep popping close to a dozen ibuprofen every day. They were shocked to hear me speak with such conviction, but they’d all seen how much pain I was in, and how much medication I was taking.

I called my wife and brought her up to speed about me quitting. As usual, she did her best to motivate me, playing to my passion for staying the course; but I think my decision had already been made a week ago coming down to Davenport Gap. I was sick of pushing, tired of being in pain – it’s exhausting, and I wasn’t enjoying the trail anymore.

I’m done.

The Captain’s Gaf: zero

Dan has an awesome Polaris Ranger ATV and took some of us for a spin around the neighborhood; dirt tracks, hillsides, and steep ups ‘n downs. We had a blast, totally awesome bouncing around and whipping through trees and over gravel roads (I took video of the whole ride, it was epic). Afterwards we popped round to see Dick and Suzie, a really nice couple that live in the same private riverside community. We chit chatted for about a half hour and headed back to Dan’s gaf.

We took a trip to REI later in the day and I picked up some new trail runners, La Sportiva Wildcats. My other shoes don’t provide enough support under and around my heel/ankle and I spent a good half hour with the footwear rep.

Tie Dye and I went food shopping for dinner at Walmart, and I got to drive Cap’s 6.7L Ford F250 – it’s a freaking beast.

Back at the cabin, the fire pit was blazing and Alfalfa wanted his head shaved; I obliged, of course. Ken Jolley pitched in with the shaving as I snapped a pic. A great steak, pasta and salad feast quickly ensued.

We chilled by the fire towards the end of the night.

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Hot Springs, halle-effing-luljah (273.9m)

Six o’clock and I figured it was a good time to get up. Cap shouted across to see if I was awake. We’d expected rain through the night but it never came; it was pretty windy most of the night, though, and it ripped out one of my stakes in the early hours, turning one corner of my tarp into a loud flapping cuben flag.

Tie Dye headed out onto the trail at 6:30am as she’d not slept, and Cap, Tank, and I were on the trail by 7:30am – the earliest we’d broken camp since starting our thru hikes.

We had 7.6 miles to get to Hot Springs and our pace was quick out of the gate; we got to Deer Park Mountain Shelter — 4.3 miles away — in a little less than an hour and a half. Steep climb to the top of Deer Park Mountain and then a long 2.4 miles downhill to Hot Springs.

Have I mentioned how much I hate downhills?

After being dropped off on the outskirts of town by the trail, we followed the white blaze across the street to a set of steep (and slippery) stone steps leading down to the main road through town. Looking left we could make out the “AT” tiles laid into the sidewalk. It wasn’t long before we rounded a corner and saw the restaurant: Smokey Mountain Diner. Tank, Cap and I took a table and ordered coffees and food; both lads ordered their “hungry hiker” burgers and I opted for their “skillet breakfast” – our plates were cleaned with ease. Camel and his son Alfalfa made it into town shortly after and joined us for breakfast. Tie Dye had been in town a little longer and had already paid a visit to the outfitters to collect her packages. She joined us for breakfast, too.

After breakfast I walked over to Bluff Mountain Outfitters and picked up my packages; one had some awesome goodies all the way from NY: a new Sawyer Squeeze filter (my original one had frozen on night #1 at Hawk Mountain Shelter), a nice sheet of Polycryo, and some post-it notes with cute messages on them!

I picked up some XS sized nylon stuff sacks for my first aid kit and other gear that I’d kept in the small cuben sacks I’d ordered from ZPacks. As it turns out the cuben used for the small stuff sacks isn’t that “thru durable”, and certainly not long distance worthy; there are small tears appearing in all the sacks I’ve been using.

I also picked up a new pack, a ULA Circuit. I’ve been using my Six Moon Designs Swift pack for some time before the AT, and it’s a great weekender. What I found to be a negative on this long distance thru hike is that the hip belt has no real benefit. 99% of packs have wraparound waist/hip padding that provides support and comfort, then the hip belt pockets are attached to the belt. With the Swift, the pockets are the hip belt. No matter how tight I pull them around my waist they’d always end up slipping down. Another negative that had recently started happening is that both shoulder strap buckles don’t hold the webbing as firmly as they used to. I’m constantly retightening and retightening. It’s annoying and frankly it’s just not an appropriate product for my needs. Oh, and the left sternum strap webbing has come loose of the buckle when trying to adjust the height. I’m pretty dissatisfied with it.

After being measured and fitted for the Circuit by one of the outfitter’s specialists, I feel it’s going to provide me with a much sturdier ride, and the popularity of the ULA line with thru hikers is also very encouraging.

Captain Dan’s good friend, Ken Jolley was picking us up from the outfitters and driving us the ~90 miles to Dan’s cabin in NC. We’re taking a zero there and I’m hoping that I can rest up my ankles again.

The skies opened and it bucketed. We threw our packs inside large plastic sacks that Ken had brought with him and tossed our gear in the flat bed. Four guys on the back seat, Cap riding shotgun, and Tie Dye straddling the console. Sardines.

The rain was torrential the entire trip to Cap’s cabin and eased off later in the day.

His cabin is fantastic and had an almost Aquone Hostel feel to it. Completely open concept inside, 60″ flat screen, awesome kitchen with a massive butcher’s block island, and two bedrooms. There were two large leather sofas which were so comfy; I baggsied one right away.

By early evening we were all starving again so we made haste for a local Italian restaurant: Tuscany. Plates piled high with different types of pastas and sauces along with 25 wings, there was little left after our wolfing. Dessert followed, and with full hiker bellies we retired back to the cabin and chilled.

The sofa was hella-comfy.

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