And That’s How She Got Off Trail
The thing you think will never happen to you
“And that’s how he got off trail…” was their joking refrain.
Early on I hiked with a fun crew who call themselves The Minnesota Hikings.
One of them would lean a little too close to the rock ledge for a selfie and the other would laugh, “And that’s how he got off trail.”
Another would eat a wild berry, inspect a strange mushroom, or drink suspicious water, and a chorus of voices would chime in together, “And that’s how they got off trail.”
It’s only a joke because of this:
No one wants to get off trail.
No one wants to quit their job for six months, save up their money, invest in expensive gear, and leave their family and friends—only to stop before Katahdin.
We come here for the experience, but we also come here to finish.
We train our bodies, minds, feet, backs, sleep schedules, diets, and spirits—all in order to make it to the end. Together.
Counting the cost from the start
When you begin a thru-hike, you know anything’s possible. You know storms, danger, or injury could strike at any time.
But you feel determined. You’ve read the books, taken the REI wilderness classes, and fine-tuned your fitness and nutrition.
Most of all, you have this spark of hope that can’t be snuffed out. Something compels you to the trail—all 2,192 miles of it—because you believe you’re meant to go. You sense something lies in store for you that you can only discover by saying “yes.”
When you plan your hike, chart your course, and assemble your pack, you never think about what it would feel like to quit.
I didn’t see it coming
Everything started out bright.
Finally, the days of extreme July heat had passed as we set out for our second day in New Jersey.
Just one day earlier I’d crossed over from Pennsylvania, having conquered the land of rocks and bugs. Now we were confidently entering the Garden State.
Having lived here for four years during grad school and after, I knew this state. Jersey didn’t scare me.
I’d already made it halfway through the AT, and couldn’t wait to move into familiar territory—first New Jersey and then New York—where I’d lived for the past 12 years.
I couldn’t wait to climb down Bear Mountain, the closest part of the AT to my old house. This time not as a day-hiker but a bona fide thru-hiker.
It was a year ago July 22 that I’d met Mary Stewart here, and she’d inspired me to thru-hike like her.
The day my hike ends
So on this July 22, I cheerfully make a video as I hike, telling Mary Stewart (aka “Kudzu”) about this anniversary day and how happy I am to be on trail. How I owe it to her, and though I am a few days behind her schedule, I feel so glad to be here.
I feel glad to have finally made it to the Northeast, glad for Mohican campground where we stayed the night before, glad to hike with my friend Django, and glad for cooler weather.
Beauty on the way to doom
OK, that’s a dramatic subheading.
But all of this beauty—butterflies and blueberries, bright mushrooms, and lily pads—comes right before the soundtrack shifts to an ominous minor chord.
“Cloudy with a chance of gunshots”
This is what Django says when I ask about the weather prediction that day.
We are walking through woods and hear gunshots less than a quarter mile away. Hunters? A firing range?
Oh well. “It’s Jersey,” I think.
We hike on.
Down come the storms
We know that storms are coming. Rain and lightning and wind. But after days of 100-degree heat index, any form of water feels welcome.
Plus if you don’t hike in the rain, you don’t get to Maine. As they say, “Hikers hike.” Rain or shine.
Still, when the storm system moves in we don’t know what we’re in for. Soaking wet, sloshing through mud puddles, and shifting our weight on slick boulders, we focus on the good.
Wet ground is soft for the feet. Cool rain means less heat. Flowing water means fuller streams from which to filter.
Wet also means:
Add the shoes
Here is a takeaway for you current thru-hikers: if you don’t like your shoes, stop wearing them.
No matter what you paid or how new they are or how hard it is to get new ones, don’t keep hiking in shoes that feel wrong.
These are Saucony Xodus, the same kind I hiked the last 500 miles in, but these are a half-size up and a whole new color. I stand by the peacock blue, but the fit never felt right, even with the added Superfeet insoles.
Maybe they were too new. Maybe I needed to rough up the traction more. Maybe they were too big. Maybe I needed ankle-support boots. Maybe I could “maybe” myself to death, but it wouldn’t change a thing.
The point is—the shoes felt like a poor fit ever since I got them a week earlier.
And it turns out they definitely weren’t fit for the storm and slopes.
Enter Crater Lake rocks
Django went back on trail today and started right where we left off, mile 1,314.8. A number I now know by heart.
He took the photo above of the place where my hike ended, a place I remember more like this:
If you add a lot of wind, rain, and slippery shoes to the photo above, you have a perfect storm of what happens next:
I still don’t know exactly how this moment came into being.
I know I felt strong that day and was concentrating. I know as a small person with lots of yoga training, I have good balance. I also know that I deliberately followed the white blazes marking the AT path, and used them to decide where to put each calculated step in the storm.
All I know is that right on the top of this rock, on the right upper slope of the photo, something goes wrong.
Breaking it down
This is the moment where I roll my right ankle, my full weight crashing down on the outside of my right foot and leg. I hear and feel something crack.
As I fall I slide down the rest of the rock, landing at the base of the tree in the left foreground of the photo.
Curses fly out of my mouth as I grip my leg tightly. It feels like a knife in the side of my ankle and the pain shoots so sharply I have to will myself to breathe.
Django comes right behind me and I tell him I think something’s broken. He takes my pack and goes to find a place to set up my tent so we can have shelter from the pelting rain.
We need to stay warm. An injury is one thing. An injury plus hypothermia is another.
I call my hiker friend Audible, who’s an ER nurse. He sometimes has good reason to suspect I’m “crying wolf” when it comes to my imagined ailments. But my voice on the phone alerts him that this time is different.
He calmly asks if I can move my foot, and if I can put it weight on it. But I can hardly begin to stand on this rainy slope of rock. I also know I cannot walk.
Django carries me the 50 feet or so to where he has set up my tent on flat ground under the trees and away from the lightning.
Here is where we are:
And the rescue begins
What happens next is 911, followed by waiting in the wet tent for an hour, followed by ATVs and ambulance and the EMT who also happens to be Manager Misty from the Mohican campground.
Below are photos. I am smiling only because it is strange and surreal and dramatic, and I am still hoping against hope that my hurt ankle is just a sprain.
My life, the action thriller
The smiles end there
Because here is where stuff gets real and the X-rays come back:
And the doctor says, “No more hike for you”
Solid fibula break. Two months cast and crutches. Three months till (hopefully) full recovery. Possible surgery.
This is July 22. You have to make it to Katahdin by early October. I have over 800 miles and over two months to go.
No need to do the math.
My thru-hike is over.
I tell Django and the nurses I do not want to talk.
I ask the ER doctor if I can see a chaplain. At the very least one of my tribe could pray for me.
I remember my hospital chaplain days as a seminarian, and how I jumped when patients called for us. Nothing was too small for spiritual care. Both my internships were in New Jersey and people weren’t big on seeking out religious help. Thus we didn’t get a lot of requests.
“I’ll give those Jersey chaplains some business,” I think.
The doctor rolls his eyes. “You want a chaplain? For this? Now?” He scoffs. “It’s 11. No one’s on duty for that.” He says some other things very fast and then leaves the room.
Django and I have nowhere to go. There is no car. There is no home. There are no cabs in service, either. I ask about renting a bed somewhere in the hospital, even if I haven’t been admitted. The answer is no.
In one afternoon I go from valiant thru-hiker to homeless and jobless. The doctor says to follow up with an orthopedist in two days. But where? How?
We finally get what seems to be the last Uber in all of North Jersey, and take the hourlong ride to a hotel nearest the trail. A hotel near some of our friends who’ve just hiked High Point State Park and are seeking shelter from the rain.
The tiniest glimmer of happy
It is nearly midnight now and Gabriel the Uber driver asks if we want to stop anywhere on the way.
I, who live for salads and green smoothies, look up weakly and say, “McDonald’s?”
And the Happy Meal is a hot delicious reminder that all is not lost.
It even comes with extra pickles.
What comes next
We get to the Scottish Inns in Matamoras, PA, where I hope a few friends will stop by in the morning before their 8:30 a.m. shuttle back to trail. Maybe I can still hug them goodbye?
I can’t even wrap my head around this abrupt end. No more reunion with friends at Bear Mountain. No more New England. No more hiking the White Mountains with TBD, my thru-hiker friend from that region. No more 100-Mile Wilderness. No more Maine.
Nothing ahead is clear. All I see is a lonely sedentary void. No hiking. No trail family. No trail magic. All I can see is the word “No.”
But what I don’t know is this:
My trail friends have a plan.
They are staying. They are not letting me drop off the trail so fast. They surround me for days with a big hug of hiker love, filling my fridge, my hotel room, and my heart until they’re full to bursting.
The best zeroes
And BEST of all
We find a way to summit together.
This was the photo I’d hoped to take two to three months from now in front of the Mount Katahdin sign, all of us euphoric and foot-sore from that final mile.
But this might just be the next best thing:
This isn’t the way I planned it
But I’m pretty proud of how far I’ve come.
Allowing for the 80 miles in MD-PA that I skipped, I hiked/paddled a total of 1,234 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
And you better believe I’m not finished.
At least for now I can say:
Five parting words from the past five days
1. I don’t know yet what’s next
Thank you for caring and wondering. I’ll let you know when I know. For now I’m in NY for more orthopedic appointments and a reunion with my junior trail family:
I may go home to see family in Kansas City once I’m on solid footing (no pun intended) with the ankle and am cleared to fly.
Likely I will keep my plan to be at the monastery near New Paltz, NY, this fall/winter, and hopefully finish the AT next spring/summer, with some kind of employment in between.
Once I can drive, I also want to visit my AT friends as they hike up north this fall!
2. Yes, I’ll keep writing.
If you’ll keep reading. Thanks for following my journey.
3. Here is what helps when someone has a sudden blow
This is what has meant the most to me from friends and family this week:
Every voicemail, text, email, FB and IG message, even though I haven’t been able to read and reply to them all yet.
I will, I promise. Those of you who allow me to feel this pain and also name my potential- thank you. I take screen-shots of each of your notes:
I especially treasure the friends who skip the logistics, the “who-what-when-where-why’s,” and the “God has another plan” theories, and just show up without asking me to figure things out.
For showing up with rides, food, games, spinach, deodorant, books, and lemon cake: I love you.
And I love it when people ask not about my ankle and my future plans, but instead wonder aloud with me:
“What did you love about the trail? What do you miss most? Why do you want to go back? How do you feel different now?”
It’s hard for me to talk about the injury and the “what if’s” and the “what next’s.” That’s why I wrote this.
I’m glad to have a slightly better idea now of how to help others who have sudden setbacks.
4. No, I’m not secretly relieved
I just got asked this question.
After one of my recent posts, I think some got the impression that I was sick of thru-hiking.
Not the case. I just had some hard days and wanted to write honestly about it.
But there is nothing like this AT thru-hike, and I started the second half with a renewed sense of purpose and energy.
I’m truly bummed the trail for 2019 is over. I will miss it, and my friends who are still hiking it, more than I can say.
5. What’s getting me through
What’s getting me through is perspective:
No one died; a season of my journey ended.
I have a broken ankle, not a brain injury.
I have a great life, and a pilgrimage that’s taken a detour.
I now get to use my thru-hiker maneuvering skills to figure out how to open spring-release doors with my cast and crutches. I get to use my newly increased resourcefulness to make myself breakfast without falling.
I have this unexpected time to rest, write, make art, dream big, and help others. Something creative and surprising will emerge.
And all those goals I had for why I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail?
I have more time now to manifest them.
As they say, the trail’s not going anywhere.
Still, sometimes I have to let the sad, bad feelings come. Like the clouds passing over the trail. Like the chipmunks that scurry across the dirt and scamper off.
The pain has its place.
Then I ask myself: “Aside from all you’re missing out on and feel you can’t face, can you face this moment? Can you handle what’s right in front of you right now?”
And usually the answer, after looking around and seeing what’s here, is, “Yeah. Yeah I can.”
(Except that moment when the ER doctor grabbed my foot and jerked it back without warning and wouldn’t stop and I screamed like a banshee. That was a bad moment.)
So that’s how I got off trail
From my winding road to yours,
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