Muddy Soles and Clean Souls: Plunging into a Thru-Hike

So, as it turns out, I’m hiking 2,190 miles over the course of the next few months.

I’m loading my life into a small backpack, tying on my trail runners, and disappearing into the woods. I’m living in a hammock, walking under skies bright or blustery, and waking with the sunrise (OK, maybe less of that last one). I’m diving headfirst into a world of muddy soles and clean souls, a mess of mental and material morasses.

In short, I’m thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

But the question remains: why?

In many ways, this isn’t the most reasonable time to thru-hike; I’m in the middle of college at an intense, beautiful liberal arts school in Vermont. As a hopeful pre-medical student, I should be doing medical-school preparation things like getting real internships with real doctors, or at the very least putting my EMT certification to good use. And, honestly, I sort of already used up my adventure quotient for the year, sailing on a tall ship this past fall and trying my hardest not to get too seasick. So, again, why?

I Thought It Would Be a Nice Lark

Don’t get me wrong, I do actually know that hiking isn’t all sunshine and butterflies and frolicking woodland creatures. I’m pale enough that I burn after 0.3 seconds of direct sunlight, butterflies probably won’t be around when I start this trek, and I have a nagging feeling that a lot of the cute, fuzzy animals will probably only see me as a food source. That’s fine. But the truth of the matter is that I absolutely love being outdoors, and I can think of nothing better than waking up every morning for the next five months surrounded by trees.

Making the Invisible into the Visible

Confession time: I am, in fact, a cyborg. Literally. As a type 1 diabetic, I depend on a horde of small, clever robots to help me stay alive. And because some folks don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a crash course on type 1. At some point (April 2011, to be precise) my pancreas decided that it had worked for long enough and just quit on me. Specifically, it stopped secreting a hormone called insulin, which allows your body to turn carbohydrates into forms of energy that your body can actually use. No insulin means no energy – unless your body breaks down fat and muscle cells, which is honestly less than ideal. But fortunately for my little malfunctioning internal organ, the technology to treat type one diabetes has moved way beyond hourly shots (which is good, since I am terrified of needles). I wear an Omnipod pump system for insulin infusion and use the Dexcom G5 to watch my blood sugars, and neither has failed me yet.

But diabetes is an invisible disease in a lot of ways. Unless you see the robots, you wouldn’t know that the reason I’m pale, shaking, and sweating halfway up a steep slope is that my blood sugar is too low for me to stand. You’d never guess that my slurred speech comes from a serious lack of sugar in my body, or that the excessive amount of gummy bears in my pack isn’t just the sign of a serious sweet tooth. And that’s OK – I don’t expect people to know. But I’m hoping that by getting out there and hiking my own hike, gummy bears and all, I can increase the visibility of this chronic condition. More than that, I’m hoping that I can encourage other diabetics or so-called “unlikely” hikers to get out and hit the trail.

A Little Bit of Je Ne Sais Quoi

Seriously, though. I don’t think it’s ever possible to know every reason that we do anything, let alone something as huge and wild as a thru-hike. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m hiking; maybe, by the end of all of this, I’ll have some idea of why I did it.

And maybe I won’t. But either way, thanks for joining me on this journey.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar
    Pony : Feb 8th

    Enjoy the trail, Rachel; it’s an amazing experience.

    Re critters coming after your chow: Check out Ursack products at Ursack.com. No, I’m not an employee or being paid to promote Ursack; I just really appreciated using the Ursack Minor (aka “critter sack”) with (very important) the OPsak (17,000 times more odor-resistant than construction-grade plastic sheeting).

    With that setup, the mice in shelters never even knew I was there.

    Pony

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 14th

      Hi Pony,

      Sounds fantastic! I’m definitely interested in the Ursack Minor – figured that I’ll run into way more mice and squirrels than bears on the AT.

      Thanks for the tip!

      Rachel

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris Guynn : Feb 8th

    I hiked with an awesome lady, sunshine, who also had an insulin pump on my AT thru hike in ’17. I often saw her by the side of the trail in the afternoon taking a food break. She did great and I’m sure you will too!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 14th

      Hey Chris,

      She sounds like a pretty cool woman – if you have any way of getting her in touch with me, I’d absolutely love to hear about whatever experiences she’s willing to share.

      But even if you can’t, thanks for the note and for taking the time to read my post!

      Rachel

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sarah : Feb 11th

    Why do we need a why ? Always one of the first questions. The why sorts itself out. It’s the when that can come and go. It’s a great trail ..maybe I will see u out there. I’m heading south.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 15th

      I agree- sometimes not having that ‘why’ all laid out before starting leaves that many more doors open down the road! Hopefully we’ll cross paths – if I’m headed north and you’re coming south, it seems like a pretty good possibility!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Michael : Feb 11th

    My name is Michael. I have had type 1 for 39 years. My dream is to thru hike in a few years. Please share your experiences and strategies for keeping insulin cool and how to resupply medications strips etc. I spend a lot of time in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont. If my wife and I can assist you when you are in that area please let us know.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 15th

      Hi Michael!

      Hopefully one of my upcoming posts will be about tips for hiking and planning a hike with diabetes, and I’m going to be writing a short piece for the College Diabetes Network as well that I’ll try to get you the link to. If you and your wife want to come and hike with me at all, I’d love to exchange hiking tips once I get up to your neck of the woods!

      All the best on your planning for your thru hike as well – absolutely a doable thing, regardless of how well the ol’ pancreas is functioning.

      Rachel

      Reply
  • Avatar
    David Drake : Feb 11th

    My name is David. I know your mom. don’t worry about the Why. You’ve already handled the when nicely- congratulations. Sounds like you never listened to wouldn’t or shouldn’t- nicely done!
    I love your writing and attitude about life and look forward to reading all about your adventure to my kids (5,6&8) would love to take the AT with them in a few years.
    Good luck God bless

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 15th

      Hi David,

      I do try to take the advice of Shel Silverstein when it comes to ‘wouldn’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ – “anything can happen… anything can be”. I’m excited to share my experiences with you and your family; hopefully it proves to be an encouraging journey!

      Thank you for your kind words, and hope you are well!

      Rachel

      P.S. The poem I am referencing is here, if you’re interested in it: https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/poetry_in_motion/atlas/portland/listen_to_the_mustn/

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Robin : Feb 11th

    HI Rachel, your mom and I were roommates at that small liberal arts college freshman year. You got this!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Katie : Feb 14th

    Hello Rachel,

    I work in Communications at the national office of the American Diabetes Association and am also an avid hiker–LOVED your story and attitude toward tackling type 1 on the trail. If you’re interested, I’d love to connect to learn more about your journey and potentially add your story to our Story Bank (where we house real-life examples and ways people are affected by/living with diabetes). Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Best,
    Katie

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Megan : Feb 23rd

    Hi Rachel! Your story is super interesting and exciting! Best of luck on the trails. I’m also a biochemistry student halfway through my undergrad career, and am curious how you found time to take a break in your curriculum to hike. How exactly did the logistics work in terms of taking time off from college? I am considering thru-hiking soon, but have no idea how the timing would work. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 25th

      Hi Megan!

      My school is pretty supportive of taking a semester off, since they have a whole other graduation in February for students who are a semester ahead of or behind the majority of the college – so I’ll graduate February 2020 instead of May 2019. I front-loaded a lot of my classes as well, and made sure that I’m not ‘splitting’ any with my time off – ie taking both general chemistry classes and organic chemistry before I leave, and not having to take Orgo 2 when I get back.

      But a lot of it was just deciding to take the time off, and knowing that I wanted to hike NOBO and so I needed to go in the spring; the rest was just worked out by talking to advisors at my school and making things fit.

      I hope you can work it all out, and definitely reach out to me via Instagram or Facebook or something if you want to talk further!

      Rachel

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Mj : Feb 25th

    Type 1 diabetic also. And im making my on a thru hike starting in april. Question. How are u jeepung your insulin cold

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rachel Hemond : Feb 25th

      Hi MJ!

      Great to find another type one taking on this adventure!

      Since I think I’ll use about a vial of insulin a month on trail, and since Humalog can be unrefrigerated for 28 days without spoiling, I’m not too worried about my insulin overheating. When it starts getting hotter outside, I’ll just keep it deeper inside my pack. If I do start having problems, I’ll use a frio system ( http://www.frioinsulincoolingcase.com/ ) which I’ve used before – they’re just heavy, so not as convenient.

      Hope this helps!

      Rachel

      Reply

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