Thoughts on Leaving Trail, and Ankle Surgery

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted.  Maybe it’s because I don’t feel as though I have anything to add to or that I don’t have anything to offer to help the Class of 2018.  Or it may be that I’m still dealing with the downside of coming off my attempted AT thru-hike.

Over the past few months, I’ve made a few trips (OK, several) to the doctor to get some issues diagnosed.  While my dislocated finger seems to be healing, the cold weather brings out some discomfort (pain and stiffness).  However, my ankles and knees haven’t recovered.  I mean the pain is real!

Brace it Up

The initial solution from the doctors was braces.  That’s right, the X-rays didn’t show any broken bones. So let’s just brace it up.

After physical therapy for the knees and ankles that was not successful, I returned to my doctor thinking something must be wrong.

The knee MRI revealed that I had a bad bone bruise and some cartilage issues.  The patellofemoral syndrome disorder is a real thing.  My kneecaps are tracking correctly and are rubbing, which is sending radiating pain above and below my kneecap.  It’s very, very painful and really spikes going up and down steps.  I did the basic strengthening, but the PT said “stop if it hurts.”  Well, that’s not what I want to hear.  I want to know how to stop the pain.  If it’s strengthening my leg muscles, then tell me how and what.  I’ll do it.  But to say, “We don’t have a plan to stop the pain,” what am I paying for?

After PT for my ankles, I thought I had more going on.  I had asked and finally the doctor agreed to do the MRI.  Thank god!  The ankle MRI revealed a torn ligament and a requirement for surgery.  While surgery would correct the instability, it may not be the fix I need.  So the surgeon left it up to me. I can wait for a while or do the surgery immediately.

Decisions, Decisions

After a great deal of contemplating, I’ve decided to forgo the ankle surgery at first… just like I did for my knee surgery (torn meniscus) a few years ago.  I wasn’t too confident in the recovery rate that I will be any better or more pain free.  So for the short term I decided to brace it up and trek on. But at the first sign of a problem, I think it’ll be “under the knife” for me.

That pain returned (or should I say never left), so I finally made the decision to have the ankle surgery.  The doctors were telling me it was three options: you will tear something, which will require surgery; you will break something, which will require surgery; you will do both, which will require surgery.  So, I’m having surgery.

This ankle issue has been a problem for quite some time.  I remember back in 1987 when I first turned my ankle.  Yes, it was that long ago that this issue began and I’ve dealt with the continuous dealing with twisted ankles, falling on my face, and injuring my ankles and knees from the falls.  I’ve seen doctors for the past 30 years and couldn’t ever get a good diagnosi.  I had everything from a “You’re still walking” to a “It sounds like you have drop foot syndrome.”

All I know is that I’m tired of wearing ankle braces and hoping that I don’t injure myself.  Not just on the trail, but in life in general.  I’ve been known to step off a porch with steps and come crashing down on my face only two steps down.  Or just walking or running along the road and stepping on a pebble only to find myself face first in the pavement.  I guess I’m more surprised I haven’t done more damage to other parts of my body over the years from the falls.  I’m still the great-looking guy I’ve always been (LOL).

I Have (Had) a Plan

I still had ambitions (OK, dreams) to finish my AT thru-hike before the 12-month limit.  Since I was a flip-flopper, I have two dates to finish within the mandatory 12-month window required by the ATC to call it a thru-hike.  Since I started in Georgia on April 29, 2017, I had until April 29, 2018, to make it from Shady Valley, TN to Pinkham Notch, NH.  That’s about 1,400 miles left to finish.  But since I didn’t start hiking earlier this year before March, it wasn’t possible to achieve that goal.

The backup plan was based on the day I flipped to Maine and started hiking south.  That day, July 11, 2017, remained a marker for me.  You see, if I could have hiked north to Pinkham Notch and flipped back to Shady Valley and hiked south to Springer Mountain before July 11, 2018, I would technically be an AT thru-hiker with a big, big break in the middle.  While I’m not sure if this would really qualify as a thru-hike (nontraditional at best), it would meet the ATC requirements.  But some things beyond your control can derail a thru-hike before you see it coming.

When I left the trail in August after I couldn’t take another step (my knees and ankles were giving out beneath me), I called my wife and talked about ending my hike.  This call was not like before when I’d called and said I wanted to quit.  Before she’d said, “Suck it up buttercup!” and I’d trekked on for more miles than I could have ever imagined.  But this time was different. I’d been hurt only a week before with my dislocated finger.

I’d struggled and stumbled my way from Gorham, NH, over the Wildcats (A-F) and was a wreck.  I was falling (more the normal).  On my way down from Wildcat, I wondered why I didn’t take the gondola ride from the top and save myself some agony and injury.  I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make it off that mountain and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it home.

It was on Wildcat that I realized life and family were more important than hiking an AT thru-hike.  At that time, I knew I needed to leave the AT.  The trail had gotten the best of me and I needed to survive for another day.

But now, months later, I find myself wondering, pondering why I didn’t keep hiking.  I was afraid back then. I was afraid I’d be hurt, really hurt.  I knew my time on trail was over and I didn’t like it then and I like it even less now.

In my spare time between doctor visits, I find myself wondering if — if I’ll be able to get back out there and finish this.

Good Idea or Not

My wife isn’t a big fan of me going back to the trail.  She (sometimes) knows me better than I know myself.  While I still think I am invincible, she knows my weaknesses.  She sees right through my want and determination and sees what is really there — someone who never was a long-distant hiker.  Someone who desires more than maybe my body can provide.  Someone who is strong in will, but short in brains.

The Pull Is Real

As I planned my trip back East, I was secretly planning an attempt to jump on the trail for a few miles.  However, with the projected winter weather in Tennessee and Virginia, I knew it was a good decision to hike.  So my plan of taking my RV and having my wife be my support crew for a few days just didn’t materialize.

However, as I traveled  I happened to pass the AT a few times.  It was places that were beyond the location I hiked and got off trail so I’d never been there before.  As I drove parallel to the AT up Hwy 81 in Virginia, I could feel the AT pulling at my heart.  It caused me to pull out my trusted phone app (Hiking Project) just to see how close I was to a white blaze.  It pulled so hard, I had to make a quick stop to see a white blaze and there my heart was filled with excitement of what could have been.  And back rushed so many feelings of life on the trail and how much I wanted to finish this.

Surgery and Recovery

After delaying the inevitable, I finally had the ankle surgery.

Going in, I was very hopeful of a quick fix and being back to normal. At least ankle normal.

However, the surgery has taken its toll.  I’m seven weeks post surgery and one week post non-weight bearing and out of a boot.  However, the struggle is real and the recovery will be much longer than I anticipated.  While I know it’s only week one, my calf has lost all of its strength.  I will have to do a lot of stretching to get back to just a normal gait.  Also, the ligament they tightened is very tight.  It’s so tight that it slips over the ankle if I turn my foot just so. So I don’t do that if I can help it.

For now, I’m sidelined.  It will be months before I can put my ankle through any real trials.  Running is a no go for the next six months.  So until then, here’s to a slow recovery.


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Comments 1

  • Paul B : Dec 18th

    Ugh! Almost six months out, how’s the ankle doing? Do you think you’ll be able to long distance backpack again? I too have a chronically weak ankle that turns if I step on anything uneven. So far I’ve relied on good ankle support boots, a brace and hiking poles. Which works, but who wants to walk around the neighborhood with all that?


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