Busted Knees and Lessons Learned from a Rocky Start to the Appalachian Trail

The First Zero

Hobbling into my first hostel, my left knee had swelled to the size of a softball. I was frustrated at my body, at myself. I should have stretched. Or maybe I should have just actually trained hills instead of flat neighborhood walks. I could barely put weight on my leg. How could my body have failed me this soon? It felt too early to take an extra zero (rest day, zero miles) but I truly had no choice.

A text from Brian read, “I’m only an hour and a half away…would you want me to come up and hang for the day?” Brian Ferris Bueller-d me from a day of wallowing. He’d brought me a fresh salad and Reese’s. As per usual, he found a nearby stream to poke around with his dip net. I felt my mood lighten as he proudly brought crayfish and salamanders up to the bank to let me hold. It was a bluebird sky. And I suddenly felt silly for thinking that a busted knee could keep me from feeling gratitude for such a wonderful day.

Brian using his dipnet to find crayfish

The Second Zero

I was overwhelmed with apprehension climbing Blood Mountain. The ascents felt doable with my knee, but the descents were excruciating. Favoring my right leg and with the posture and motor control of an ogre, I stepped hard on a rock THREE times with my right foot. I oozed into a cabin to ice my knee just as the ball of my right foot decided to blow up, looking like a red golf ball was planted underneath my big toe. Well damn, guess I’ll take another zero.

I serendipitously came upon a Scott Jurek quote in the book I was reading:

“Injuries and problems were inevitable… that’s what this was: a two thousand mile problem that we would get to solve on our own terms.”

I rested, iced, compressed, and elevated my angry joints. I tried to put on a favorable attitude toward solving my injuries on my own terms. But mostly I ate potato chips on the cabin couch and tried to will my knee and foot into de-swelling.

Cricket

The next morning, I packed up and hobbled through the portal underneath the Mountain Crossings building. A sizeable hill began to warm up my quads and calves and suddenly I was walking with more confidence. I found a rhythm with my trekking poles. Pushing them out and leaning down on them I felt like the boiler man from Spirited Away with poles and limbs working in chaotic tandem.

I climbed into a cloud. And it was sending down sharp, cold pellets of sleet, but I didn’t care. I was practically skipping. The point is, I wasn’t limping as bad anymore. I was elated by the freedom of motion. Ecstatic to be back on the trail. When alone, I sang quietly along with the songs in my headphones.

The trail ascends into a cloud

The downhills were still soul-crushing. I thought about what the guy at Mountain Crossings had said. “First two weeks, everything will hurt. Your body is asking why you won’t just stop and sit down. But it’s all up here. It’s mental. If you can get through the Smokies, you’ve got it.” Each uphill refueled my hope and each downhill tested my mentality.

I came upon a group of hikers I had met back when I was hobbling up Blood Mountain.

“Holy shit you made it??”

“Damn, you really are a little cricket, hopping all over these mountains.”

My trail name is Cricket.

Banal Platitudes

I heard the drops on my tent transition from falling rain to drips from the overhead rhododendrons. I jumped out, shoved my soaked tent in the net of my pack, and found the bear bag I had struggled to hang the night before. Once again, I set off into a climb up through the clouds.

I felt a reverence for the mist collecting on every leaf, trunk, and moss. This was the birthplace of water. The place where the land touched the sky to carry water down through the ancient channels in the mountains to recharge streams, rivers, and aquifers. I felt gratitude for the trail for keeping these mountains intact unlike the ones, leveled and scarred from mountaintop removal mining I had witnessed.

I had a newfound appreciation for movement. For my legs carrying me through the spring landscape. Purple trillium colored my path and each overlook displayed the quilt of spring in the gaps below. I felt the urge to meditate and embrace the feelings of appreciation for the ecology around me.

I thought about Michael Pollen’s words on restating the cliche, sharing that a platitude is a truth that’s been drained of all emotion. When emotion returns, we can re-evaluate these banal platitudes, and the power returns.

A Lesson

I had played my opening move and the mountains of Georgia had cornered me— deliberately slowed me down. I couldn’t blast through the beginning of the trail like I did everything else in my life. I had to slow down and make space for mindfulness. I am learning to be mindful of my body, my surroundings, my emotions. And mindful of the friends and family back home and on trail that continue to guide me through my start.

Just keep following the white blazes

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Comments 5

  • Zoe Morelli : Apr 17th

    Aww, thanks for sharing your adventure! It sounds beautiful and I cannot wait to get onto the trail. Good advice to slow down!

    Reply
  • Krueger : Apr 17th

    Cricket, excellent update! I also trained with neighborhood walks. It worked fine for me and I think you will do fine. You bounced back from that knee pain, right? Those miles got you ready. Krueger

    Reply
  • Madeline : Apr 18th

    Thanks for that account, Cricket. I will look forward to your entries.

    Reply
  • cynthia : Apr 18th

    I love this! I’m excited for you and can’t wait to follow along. I was set to start in march but was sidelined with a badly broken arm and shoulder, which I got on a training hike🙄 I’m now setting my sights on 2023!!

    Reply
  • Jolene : Apr 18th

    You’re living my dream.
    I wish you all the best and will be cheering you on the whole way.

    Reply

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