Friday, April 29, 2011

Coming to Terms With My Limitations

I've injured my Achilles tendons on both feet.

Now, from what I can tell, from my brief perusal of the internet, this isn't a huge deal. It's actually more uncomfortable than it is painful. Most of all, it's worrisome. I have a fear, which I like to tell myself is irrational, that someday my Achilles tendon will rupture and snap back into my leg. Don't ask me where this comes from; I don't know anyone this has happened to and I've never had any reason to think that it would happen to me.

Now that I feel this discomfort with every step, it's what I dwell on almost all day.

When I first started planning this trip, I counted on my stubbornness to get me through. I was confident that difficulty or misery wouldn't be enough to make me quit. I said to myself, "Only running out of money or an injury could send me off the Trail permanently."

Of course, being healthy, lucky, and never seriously involved in athletics mean that I have never really been injured. I've never had a broken bone. I've never had surgery. I've never had a hospital stay. So when I thought of an injury that could send me off the trail, I was thinking of a freak accident like falling off a mountain and breaking a leg.

Definitely nothing so mundane as a repetitive stress injury.

Thanks to the the time-honored tradition of self-diagnosis and the internet, I know that what I need to do to treat this is only the three least satisfying treatments ever: Rest, pain medication, and stretching. I found myself thinking, "Isn't there a magic pill or a brace that will fix this? I want to be better NOW."

I'm going to give it my best shot with the stretching, but unfortunately, rest isn't much of an option right now. We're heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today, and park regulations require that we stay only in shelters. No camping allowed. This means that we will have to hike ten to fifteen miles a day for the next week. Not exactly what the WebMD ordered.

We're just going to have to go ahead and see what happens. Hopefully stretching will clear it up. We can try taking more frequent breaks or going at a slower pace to try to provide some relief. In three weeks, we'll be in Northern Virginia for my mom's wedding, so this will give us a good long break and the time to visit a doctor, if it comes to that. I just have to make it that far.

I'm going to keep telling myself that there's no way this could be the stumbling block to reaching my goal. Denial can be a good thing, right?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Few Pictures

We're finally at a computer and have the opportunity to post a few pictures. Forgive the poor quality of some of these. I won't have a chance to go through and tweak the brightness and color of these photos until the end of our trip, so for now you'll have to make do with these. No particular theme to these photos; just a random smattering that I like so far.

Breakfast! Sans horrid, awful, revolting PopTarts.

This is where our tent floated, and thankfully remained dry inside.

Please don't run the hikers over. Please?

We not-so-affectionately call these "hiker's hurdles." With a 40 pound pack on, they're some serious glute workout. They're also entirely the opposite of helpful, and a long string of them makes me want to shoot someone.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tales From Our First Week in the Woods

Our first 100 miles is already behind us and it feels like we've been out here forever.  Sometimes, it's like any other life was just imaginary, impossible that we could be doing something other than walking all day, planning our mileage, looking forward to having instant mashed potatoes and tuna for dinner, checking the  elevation maps to try and determine exactly how painful our near future could turn out to be.

We've already had a few adventures in the short time we've been out here.

Our very first day, our friend's car broke down about 30 miles from Springer. We had to leave her in a Moe's parking lot, waiting for the tow truck, to start hitchhiking towards our starting point. It was a narrow, twisty mountain road, with no shoulder. It was hot. Our packs were at their heaviest, loaded with water and food for two people for seven days. Car after car passed us. For my first hitchhiking experience, it wasn't one to inspire an opinion that it was at all an effective or convenient mode of travel. Finally, a car pulled over. We didn't even believe it was for us at first. Turned out that the guy was the trail caretaker for Springer and the nearby trail. Not only would he give us a ride, but he would bring us to exactly where we wanted to go: Up the forest service roads to within a mile of the summit. A more perfect first trail magic couldn't be imagined.

Day two. We strolled (limped) into Hawk Mountain Shelter around one o'clock for lunch and valiantly decided that there was no way we could waste the rest of the day lounging around. Not on our first full day on the trail. We knew from our ride the day before, and from the guide books, that there wouldn't be any water for a few miles after the shelter, and we decided that we were up to hiking to Justus Creek, where there was water and a campsite. Just five miles away. No problem.

Except that it was. It was, for my tastes at least, brutally hot, and the sausage and parmigiana lunch wasn't sitting well. We had to go up steep ascents that left me nauseated and gasping for breath, and down equally steep descents that made my knees cry for mercy. The sun was setting, we were almost out of water, and about two miles from our destination, I sat my sweaty self down in the dirt and despaired. I said that I didn't think that I could make it.

But then I took some ibuprofen and decided that I had to do this. The second day was not the time to start being a quitter. John led the way as I stumbled after him like a zombie, not even lifting my eyes from his feet in front of me, until we got to the creek. The next morning, we found out that we'd accidentally walked 11 miles.

We took it easy on day three and found a nice camping spot near water and chemical toilets. We had heard that there would be a storm that night, and although we both noticed that our tent was in a slight depression at the foot of three inclines, we didn't care enough to move it.

I woke up at midnight to find that our tent, thankfully waterproof, was floating in two inches of water. It was like a water bed. When John rolled over, I felt a wave push up under me. We didn't get much sleep during that storm, but when we woke up, everything, including our packs, which we'd left outside, wrapped in their rain covers, was dry.

On day four, we weren't so lucky. We climbed to the top of Blood Mountain, the highest on the Georgia AT, and decided to take the risk of staying there despite stories of a lot of bear activity in the area. The sun was setting, our feet were hurting, there was a view. We tied up our food using the proper bear bagging techniques and went to bed confident that our food would be there in the morning. Nope. No trace of our bags the next morning. After climbing on rocks and peering under bushes, we found the sad remains of our food, toiletries, and dishes. That, and a lot of bear diarrhea.

Nothing for it but to hike the 2.8 miles down the mountain to Neels Gap where we could get some breakfast and supplies for the rest of the week.

Those were just the first five days of this six month trip, and even since starting to plan out this post, we've acquired some more stories. Those will have to be shared some other time, since I'm disgustingly longwinded and I think the other hikers in this shelter are starting to get irritated by the iPhone typing noises. And after sunset is well past my bedtime.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Moisture and Mountain Views

I'm sitting in a Ramada Limited in Helen, GA (hooray discount coupon from the Welcome Center, making it affordable!), and I feel dry for the first time in 7 days. I've taken a long shower, eaten a lot of food, and am watching as a big thunderstorm dumps rain down outside. There are so many ways to be wet in the woods (mom alert: don't read the lines between the dashes)--get your minds out of the gutter...we're too dirty to be wet that way--and for the past 7 days I've been all of them.

I'm not terribly sore. I don't entirely mind being filthy. I can deal with heat and cold. The worst part is never really getting dry. I get wet because it rains on us. I get wet because I'm sweating all day long. I get wet because it's humid inside the tent. I get wet because I'm walking through the clouds. I get wet because I'm walking through the fog. I'm damp inside my sleeping bag, even without anything on but underwear. I think maybe one day, outside of today, I've been anything approaching dry.

It's not really awful. To tell the truth, it mostly frustrates me at night, because sleeping in the damp sucks. Sweating throughout the day isn't that bad; I'm exerting a lot of energy, after all and so sweating is fine and keeps me cool. The constant wetness is really just an ever-present annoyance, a burden to bear along with my pack.


What I love, however, are the views. I can be constantly wet just as long as I get to keep reaching spots that make me stop, dumbfounded by the beauty. We had one day in which we stopped about 7 or 8 times just to look out over the valleys and mountains (pictures to come when I'm not posting from my iPhone). We walked through the fog all morning today, surrounded
by the contrast between white mist and verdant green leaves and mossy rocks. We camped on top of Blood Mountain, 4,450 feet up, and watched the sun set. As tired, dirty, and wet as I am, every time I get to yet another beautiful place, I think "worth it."

7 days and 50 miles down. Hundreds of days, thousands of miles, and thousands of views to go.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reflections on Getting Ready

We have finally finished organizing and packing and buying last minute things. Neither of us had fully appreciated just how much would be involved in buying and packing food for two people for six months, although it should have been obvious. There’s just something about spreading it all out that makes it more concrete for you.

We also had to resign ourselves to the calorie deficit we’re going to be experiencing. It’s one thing to read in all the books about how hikers lose too much weight, how they constantly talk about food, and how they eat their own body-weights when they can find an all-you-can-eat-buffet. However, when we actually looked at the food spreading out across three of the rooms in my dad’s house, when we realized that food for two hikers for a week weighs about 20 lbs., we had to just get over it. There was no way we could find enough food, and carry enough, to fuel the amount of physical activity we’ll be undertaking.

Something we both commented on while shopping was how it was such a turn-around from what we usually buy. We were searching out the foods that were non-perishable, highly processed, and high-calorie while still being reasonably lightweight. Much like trying to find clothing that was all synthetic fibers, when I normally try to buy as much natural fibers as possible. It brought home to me how much of the next six months are going to be entirely different from the way I usually live my life. I won’t be reading any books either, which is already making me feel antsy and a little desperate.

One of my final acts of preparation was to cut off all my hair, to make it easier to care for when I won’t be showering on a daily basis. I did the same thing when I moved to my village in Armenia, where we had no running water for the first four months, and it was a very good decision. John was inspired by my radical new hair-do:

He managed to convince me that I should leave behind my shampoo and conditioner, which I had carefully measured out into 3 oz. bottles, and wash my hair with the half bar of soap I’m bringing. Having battled with my hair for most of my life, this idea horrified me, but I couldn’t argue with his flawless logic.

We’ve been staying with a friend in Athens, Georgia, for the past couple of days. This mini-vacation has had two affects on me : Partly, it’s been a break that’s slowed my momentum and distracted me. I feel like this is just another vacation and soon I’ll be flying back to Providence. At the same time, the weather is beautiful. Unlike in New England and New York, everything is green and blossoming, the air smells of mulch and flowers, and it's the perfect temperature. All this makes me want to be out there, in the woods, on the trail: I feel ready.