In the Midst of the Blues, the Path Becomes Clear

I’d heard a lot about the Virginia Blues. And I knew, heading into Virginia, that I might face them. But I was optimistic. I’ve talked a lot about the battles I’ve had with my feet in other posts. I had hoped that Virginia’s allegedly easier trail would help settle things down. And I also thought that knowing the Virginia Blues were a thing would help prevent it.

Wrong on all counts.

I want to talk a bit about how Virginia has gone for me, because I suspect I’m not the only one who struggled, and I hope perhaps it helps other hikers know they aren’t alone, either.

I did alright through the first halfish of Virginia. I was hiking with Tank and Tagalong for the most part, and we had fun and did reasonable miles. The trail in the Grayson Highlands was way rockier and more brutal on my feet than I expected, but it was punctuated with some nice stretches, too.

I limped into Woods Hole Hostel and zeroed there to help my feet and encourage my spirit. The time with Neville, Michael, Blue, Bear Charmer, and Golden helped me immensely, and my feet felt a bit improved at the end. I was by now hiking solo.

And suddenly, summer arrived, in full blazing glory.

I struggled with the heat, which made the swelling in my feet worse. But I still maintained my generally cheerful thru-hiker attitude despite feeling like I was melting. I had a day that, while devoid of truly awe-inspiring views, reminded me of the small town where I grew up, and my mother. I saw the Keffer Oak. It was an utterly beautiful day.

The Keffer Oak.

Other hikers commented to me that hiking was starting to feel more like work, and less fulfilling or beautiful. I assumed that was what the Virginia Blues felt like, and I felt safe from them, because it didn’t feel that way to me.

The blues hit me not long after, though, and from a really unexpected direction.

The trail coming down from Dragon’s Tooth is a technical section, more like climbing than hiking. It is the kind of trail that, as a day hiker, I relish: awkward rock slabs, hand over hand, lots of balance and footwork, even a couple of metal rungs in the ugliest places. This is the kind of stuff I love hiking in New Hampshire and Maine, and I was looking forward to it.

A section of trail after Dragon’s Tooth.

But there are really huge differences between my day-hiking life and my thru-hiking life. The pack weight and size are obvious factors, but my feet are the main one.

Thanks to the metatarsal and nerve issues in my feet, the day I hit this section of trail, I really couldn’t feel most of my toes or the balls of my feet well. I literally could not tell where under my foot the metal rungs were–if they were actually under the right stretch of the ball of my foot and centered, or if I was way off base, and in some cases I struggled to feel if my foot was even on the rung or the rock ledge.

Instead of being the kind of awesome challenge I was used to, it was deeply stressful, painstakingly slow, and about as far opposite of fun as possible. I dreaded every step and felt like I had to inch my way down, not trusting my feet for a second.

Something in this totally rattled me, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. The rest of the day up past McAfee Knob was hard. I felt unmotivated and things hurt and I found myself just pushing forward to get closer to town.

Obligatory McAfee Knob picture. If only I had felt this gleeful all day!

But that day, I have since realized, planted a huge seed of questions and doubt. The obvious question, of course, is always: how long can I keep pushing my feet to do this? At what point do I risk permanent damage? How much is too much? I don’t want to mess up my post-AT life and possibly jeopardize lifelong pursuits just to finish this.

But that is a question I have faced for over a month. The new, more insidious question which I took even longer to articulate was quite simply: What if this makes me hate hiking?

My brain has this habit of pulling up films while I hike, and I remembered the documentary “Losing Sight of Shore,” about a group of women who row from America to Australia, across the Pacific Ocean, setting a couple of world records in the process. (If you’re into intense endurance efforts, it is worth watching.)

Specifically, I remembered Emma Mitchell, who starts out clearly loving rowing with her whole heart. And along the way, she loses her joy. Her smile disappears and she just goes through the motions. She finishes, but you feel like she lost a piece of herself along the way.

I felt increasingly like that. I was struggling to remember why I ever thought thru-hiking would be fun. I found myself envious and almost resentful of day hikers. I worried that I was burning myself out by staying on trail.

Throw onto that the joy of Mother’s Day, which made me think of my mom at the end of her battle with cancer, stripped of being able to do anything she really enjoyed, deeply pained, and it’s no wonder I had an emotional breakdown on trail.

But I pushed through to Waynesboro, lured by a long-awaited visit from my dad, who brought homemade anisette, and my aunt’s flourless chocolate cake, and a huge wheel of brie, and bratwurst that I shared as trail magic. I took a zero and did trail magic with dad, and then I slack packed my first day in Shenandoah and talked to him honestly and openly about how the trail had been. He seemed astounded at how pronounced my limp was, at how much foot care I did while in town.

As we ate breakfast the day he dropped me back on trail and drove home, he said: “I wish I could be happier for you.”

I realized, in that moment, how negative the trail had become for me. And I thought, “He’s here. With a car. It would be so easy to stop now.”

I did not stop. I had him drop me on trail and as it started to pour, I thought about him saying that and I sobbed.

Because this was not the hike I expected.

And so I did the only thing I could think of: I talked to my mom.

I do this, periodically. Sometimes daily, but on trail I haven’t done it as much because I am a bit self-conscious about talking aloud to a dead person. But I needed to talk to someone, and dead parents are very good listeners.

So I told her about how proud she would be of dad, of how chill and amazing he had been coordinating the visit and how awesome it was to see him. Of how great he did at trail angeling.

And then I said: I need your help. (Also a thing I say a lot.)

I need your help with my feet. Do I get off trail? Is that what I should be doing?

I rattled through all the clutter that had been swirling around my head. The worries about my feet, my lack of enthusiasm for hiking in 90-degree days with high humidity, how much I missed showers and fresh vegetables. And in the midst of that, this sentence came tumbling out:

I don’t want to quit.

I had posted a video to Facebook on Mother’s Day, when I fell apart. And in it, I had noted that I was hiking now for so many other people in my life: friends with autoimmune issues and lifelong injuries, battling cancer and other nasty conditions keeping them from the things they wanted to do.

These people have all been inspirations to me, because they manage this kind of pain just trying to do their normal lives. I have felt like I carry them all with me, so they can experience this hike vicariously. As can my healthy peeps who would never want to do this specifically but enjoy seeing it unfold.

I carry all of these people with me every day on trail.

In exchange, they comment on photos and posts, send packages, text me encouragement, send me cards, etc.

I thought about a conversation I had at Woods Hole Hostel, talking to Trial and Error about letting go of the hike you expected and embracing the hike you’ve been given.

The hike I expected was a hike of personal challenge and triumph, an endurance athletic endeavor.

The hike I’ve been given is much less about me, and a whole lot more about the entire community of people helping to keep me going. Fellow hikers, family, friends.

I realized, hiccuping into the storm as I kept hiking, that this thing I am doing… it is no longer really about personal achievement as it is wanting to give this hike to everyone I know, wanting to show them the wonder and frustration, and to show them one can triumph over adversity to complete a thing.

And as I heard myself say I didn’t want to quit, I knew that’s what was keeping me on trail.

So I asked for help in finding a way to stay on trail for all of them, not for me. And help finding the joy again.

And somehow, in that, I felt lighter. I felt the weight and tightness of the last couple weeks start to drip off me.

Over the next few days, despite constant rain, I had some of my best hiking days in weeks. Almost immediately, I started to see amazing little details again, even amidst the fog and rain. Like the solemn beauty of rock fields in fog.

I found amazing mushrooms (when I day hike, I love photographing mushrooms, so getting back into this has been fun).

I exchanged surprised glances with hungry deer.

I hiked slightly shorter miles and gave myself more time to lie in my hammock and read, or journal, or just chill. I reread the quotes I had collected for just this moment, and they felt perfect.

And I started to love hiking again, tentatively.

I don’t think there is a set of steps I could give other hikers going through this that would be foolproof.

I do think that the conversation with my mom helped me do one really clear thing, though.

I’m part of a Facebook group called Women for Tri, an excellent resource for female triathletes. I had written down this quote from one of the members last fall:

Listen to that little voice that whispers behind the screaming.

And that is the one piece of advice I have to offer in dealing with the Virginia Blues. Once you fall into them, your mind will start screaming things at you. All the things making you miserable, all the things you could gain if you just stop, and probably some panicked “Why am I thinking all this?” screams, too.

Whether you return to a list of reasons why you’re thru-hiking, or talk things over with another hiker, or your dead mother, or your dog, find a way to listen to that whispering voice. It may take a couple weeks of struggle to hear it, but it knows the answer.

And once you find that answer, staying on trail or getting off trail will feel, definitively, like the right choice. And that knowledge will help beat the blues. Sometimes getting off trail is absolutely the right decision. But not for me. Not yet.

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Comments 10

  • Anne aka Quiet Storm : May 22nd

    I’m a section hiker dealing with some of the same foot issues. I make it through each hike, barely recover for the next one, and it begins all over again. My love of the trail trumps the pain and keeps me coming back. The AT decides what kind of hike you’re going to have. Sometimes it’s amazing. Sometimes it’s terrifying (70 mph winds on the Roan Highlands). You give yourself to it. It gives itself to you. You’ve turned a corner. You’re going to make it. I’ve got about 900 miles to go. Not a doubt in my mind I’ll see Katahdin.

    Reply
    • Kate Mueller : May 22nd

      That’s exactly it. (Funny, I had horrible winds in the Roan Highlands, too.) I think my foot care now is more elaborate than most human relationships I maintain! But you keep doing the thing, because that’s what you do. I’m sure you’ll get those last 900 miles!

      Reply
  • Jim : May 23rd

    Hey there, great story!!! I’m glad to read that you are hanging in there, adapting, and finding good things again!! Cool!!!! Good luck!!!

    Reply
    • Kate Mueller : May 23rd

      Thanks so much, Jim!

      Reply
  • Trevor “Sweet Monkey” Foote : May 26th

    You will probably have at least one more low period like that but it is worth it in the end…trust me! In the end after everything remember you are hiking for yourself!

    Reply
    • Kate Mueller : May 27th

      I suspect you’re right, but knowing I made it through this one gives me a bit more confidence for the next!

      Reply
  • Three-Jack : May 29th

    Reading your story took me back to my 2016 thru-hike. I very much know what you’re going through with numbness throughout your toes and the balls of your feet … the process each morning of when you first stand up … rocking a little bit back and forth between your feet to get some feeling in them before you take that first step of your day to get your bear bag or water bottle. How that process took only a few seconds in NC but lengthened with each passing week. There was more than one day out there where I just stopped in the middle of backcountry all by myself, standing still on some rocky stretch of the trail, not wanting to take another step forward. I just wanted to sit down, but there’s no where to sit, so instead you just stand there welcoming the respite from not having to take that next step.

    You heard yourself saying “I don’t want to quit” (for me it was telling myself and my fellow thru-hikers around me that “nothing in hell is going to knock me off this trail”). Only you know how your body is working at any given moment. Listen to it. Always respect what it’s telling you. Most of all be sure to hike YOUR hike — no one else’s. The good friends that you might need to let go out there (so that you can give your feet a day or two of rest) will still remain your good friends for years to come. Trail bonds endure for life.

    I do hope you can take some encouragement from knowing many of us out here have experienced what you are experiencing now, and we’re all rooting you on.

    Reply
    • Kate Mueller : May 30th

      Three-Jack, I absolutely do take encouragement from it. And I know what you say about trail family is true–I got a day behind most of them way back in Fontana Dam when my feet first started causing me trouble. Then, as now, I have to hike my own hike to keep my feet happy. (And they all know this–we overlap in town, etc., and it is always fantastic to catch up with them.) Whenever anyone asks me how far I’m going for the day, I invariably say: however far my feet let me.

      It’s an odd limitation, one I didn’t expect. And I know the moments you’re talking about on trail, when you desperately need a break but are in the midst of a rock field or something and just have to keep going.

      Thank you for your comment. It really does mean a ton to know other folks have prevailed through the same issues to finish their hikes!

      Reply
  • Dorothy : May 30th

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been struggling with morale issues since 4 Pines and reading this made me feel so much better. I really appreciate that you share your story! Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Kate Mueller : May 30th

      You are so welcome! I debated whether to post it because it felt so raw and honest, but if it helps even one other hiker (like you!) work through some of the same, then it was totally worth it! Hiker hugs from up the trail–I promise you really can escape VA and when you round the corner on whatever’s making you struggle, it will feel AMAZING.

      Reply

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