I Went, I Walked, I Got Diarrhea….
A few weeks ago, I completed another section in my quest to hike the Appalachian Trail piece by piece.
In prior years, I’ve always been able to coax someone onto the trail with me and I’ve appreciated both the camaraderie and the sense of safety and security that a hiking buddy provides. But this year, I couldn’t get anyone I knew to agree to the journey, so I made my first solo trip.
In the months, weeks and days leading up to my hike I wavered between confidence, self-doubt and fear about my abilities as a solo hiker. And when my nerves kicked in, I looked for any plausible, defensible reason not to go.
I’ve been hiking this trail for years now and everyone from my boss to family members and close friends know it’s an annual event. Simply telling them I was too chicken to go without a partner this year seemed pathetic. I needed something better. So, as I planned, I worked through the grounds I’d use to build a case should I ultimately choose to bail.
It’s too long to be away. I’m being selfish. I shouldn’t go.
When I said this to my husband, he said, “No one likes a martyr. You work hard, this is important to you. You deserve a break. Go!”
When he refused to guilt me into canceling, I thought of other reasons. Like, the weather. It had been a particularly rainy spring in New England and I would be hiking into Vermont, or Vermud, as it is known for its especially soggy mud season.
I probably won’t enjoy having to slog through mile after mile of thick, oozy mud, I told myself. It’ll be miserable. I shouldn’t go.
When that made me sound more like a “glamper” than a hardcore backpacker, I considered the dangers of the trail.
What if I fall and sprain an ankle and can’t go on? I’d have no one who could go and get help. I could die out there….of exposure and starvation. I shouldn’t go.
As I pondered this hypothetical dilemma, I had to ultimately concede that the trail is fairly busy throughout the spring and summer months. Not only is it traveled extensively by other hikers, it’s also traveled by ridge runners and trail maintainers. In addition, I’ve rarely been in an area completely devoid of cell reception. Therefore, it would be highly unlikely that I would spend more than a few hours sprawled across the trail waiting for rescue.
But what if I get struck by lightening? What if a huge tree branch falls and kills me? It’s happened. True, it’s happened with less frequency than planes crash, but it has happened. I shouldn’t go.
And what about bears?
This threat took on the feel of an omen, when someone posted to a discussion board dedicated to the trail, that a bear had been hanging out at one of the campsites I planned to stay in.
Totally shouldn’t go.
This seemed my most reasonable out. It was a real threat, but at the same time, it’s always been a possibility. The presence of bears on the trail is something you always have to prepare for. And though I’ve never seen a bear on the Appalachian Trail, I did cross paths with a black bear in Yellowstone a few years ago.
I saw him as I rounded a corner on the Slough Creek Trail. I stopped my approach and stood there with one hand on my canister of bear spray, the other on my camera, instantly prepared to snap a selfie (kidding).
When he saw me, he sniffed at the air from his seat on a rock, but having smelled nothing of interest, he went back to whatever he’d been doing. I made a wide circle around him to pass. He made a few casual glances in my direction, but otherwise, he ignored me. I’ve told this story a million times while advocating / pontificating on the importance of proper food storage.
Why would I suggest now that the presence of a curious bear who had yet to show any signs of aggression was the reason I wouldn’t be hiking at all? Beyond always properly storing my food, both while hiking and while in camp, I wasn’t obligated to stay at that particular site. I could walk to the next. Or, I could camp almost anywhere I wanted, since that part of Vermont does not require hikers to camp only at designated campsites.
Still, I continued to invent, consider and eventually talk myself out of various scenario’s and risks and reasons for not going. Including, the hypothetical presence of a serial killer and the recent uptick of bear mauling’s in Alaska….as if the bears in Alaska had somehow issued a call to arms for bears across the country to revolt.
I did this right up until the morning I was due to set foot on the trail, when I awoke to torrential downpours. It’s a sign! I shouldn’t go!
But when I checked the weather forecast and learned that the storm would pass at almost the exact time I’d planned to head out. I had to accept that perhaps this was a good sign and I should definitely go.
I’m glad I didn’t let my nerves get the better of me. I loved my solo hike. The moment I stepped into the green tunnel of the woods, I felt the apprehension and fear melt away. All those reasons I’d been debating over the proceeding months, seemed foolish now that I was on the trail.
My hike wasn’t without its challenges though. On my third day, I miscalculated the distance between water sources. A mistake I’ve never made before. I dehydrate easily, so understanding where I can find water along the trail is a top priority in my pre-hike planning.
The day I made the mistake, it was incredibly hot and humid and I ran out of water with seven difficult miles to go. I’ve passed out from dehydration, more than once, so my lack of water caused me to panic.
As the day wore on, I had no appetite and no need to go to the bathroom. I was exhausted, depleted. Then, with about a mile to go before my next campsite and water source, I thought I could hear the sound of water on the trail up ahead. I hoped, but wouldn’t allow myself to believe it was true. I had checked the map and my guide at least a dozen times for water references since I’d run out and I knew there were none.
But as I reached the top of a small hill, the sound became louder. Then, I saw it. It was a narrow mountain stream that had likely formed due to the heavy rains the region had experienced throughout the spring months. For a second, I just stood there and stared at it, still not convinced it was real. Then I dropped my pack and cheered. I knew this was a rare gift though. The trail does not reward stupidity.
Despite the rehydration, I dragged myself into camp feeling like my feet weighed a million pounds a piece. I slowly set up my tent, organized my things and hung my food bag. I still didn’t have much of an appetite, but I forced myself to eat dinner and then I crawled into my tent for a restless night’s sleep. My stomach churned and I was alternately too warm and then too cold. When I awoke the next morning, I still felt terrible.
The next day was supposed to be a relatively easy, eight mile hike. I headed out early, planning to take my time and hoping I could walk off whatever was ailing me. It didn’t work. I had plenty of water, but still no appetite. My stomach seemed to revolt at even the thought of eating. Then, about two miles from my campsite, it started to rain. I’d known it was in the forecast, but I didn’t expect the significant drop in temperature, or the golfball sized hail that accompanied it.
That afternoon, I drug into the campsite once more. Only this time, instead of just feeling depleted, I was soaked to the bone and freezing. Worse, in addition to an upset stomach, I also had an inconvenient case of the trail trots. I’ll spare you the details. You’re welcome.
I rode out the storm in the shelter, along with some other hikers I’d met and camped with each night I’d been out. When the storm passed, I decided against setting up my tent and chose to sleep in the shelter instead. Beyond the fact that I just didn’t have the energy to set everything up, sleeping in the shelter seemed an especially good idea since this was the campsite with the bear.
For the rest of the day and into the evening, I went back and forth between staying on the trail to finish out my hike and asking my husband to pick me up at the next road crossing, which was about four miles north of the campsite, the next morning. My stomach ultimately made the decision. At that point, I could keep nothing in and I knew that trying to tough it out for three more days wouldn’t make for an enjoyable experience.
I never did see the bear, but we all heard what sounded like something large moving around in the woods near the shelter that night. The next morning, I saw large bear tracks at various intervals in the mud along the trail. I intermittently tweeted the whistle on my packs chest strap as I walked while shouting, “You don’t want to eat me bear! I probably taste like poop! Literally!”
When I exited the trail, I was upset at not finishing the section I’d planned, but I needed indoor plumbing and eventually a trip to the ER, so disappointed or not, I know I made the right call.
Despite the way it ended, I’m still so glad I went. I’ve yet to complete a section without learning something about the trail, about backpacking and about myself.
To quote Thoreau, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.”
See you next year Vermont.