Cheeseburger in Paradise
“Today’s the day, Hellman. Today, you’re gonna get a beautiful cheeseburger.”
I settled into a motivational morning routine on trail. Typically I sang along to my favorite songs while sipping my coffee. But that morning, no motivation was needed. A mere 11 miles away, a cheeseburger had my name written all over it.
There was a small store right off trail called Brushy Mountain Outpost. Our plan was to stop in, resupply for the next stretch into Pearisburg, and gorge on burgers and fries. Cookie and I arrived at the outpost much quicker than I had anticipated. A group of hikers we had stayed at the shelter with were already there eating at a picnic table. They informed us about how delicious the food was. We slung our packs off and hastily made our way into the store.
I was already dreaming about the amount of hydrogenated vegetable oils I would be dumping into my body that day. Would it be too gluttonous to get fries, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks? The menu overwhelmed me—how would I choose when I truthfully wanted one of everything? I settled on a smorgasbord of fried foods. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, a corn dog, mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, and onion rings. I figured whatever I didn’t eat at that picnic table would fit perfectly into a ziploc bag for later. I had become truly a slave to my taste buds.
After grabbing a few granola bars and pop tarts from the barren shelves in the store, I waited impatiently for my food. Cookie got his first, and the smell of cheeseburger was aggressive enough to make my stomach rumble. I was used to my stomach audibly complaining at this point. It was something that happened every few hours, and if ignored would only grow progressively louder. It was the reason my right hip belt pocket on my pack was ripping. Each day I crammed an ungodly amount of snacks into that poor pocket, but it was never enough.
I finally got my food and sat across from Cookie at the picnic table. Within seconds, I was mercilessly demolishing my burger. I must’ve smeared a concoction of condiments on my face at some point, because Cookie tapped my arm and handed me a napkin. The look on his face read slightly disgusted, which was harsh coming from another hiker.
After my belly was full and my food bag refilled, I sat back to relax and soak up some of the cell signal I had at the outpost. We stayed there for about two hours total, just enjoying the chance to be lazy and feel full. A few section hikers stopped by, but mostly Cookie and I had that little area to ourselves. We finally left and walked a short 2 miles to the next shelter. Gummy Bear was spending the night there as well, so we all sat on logs around the back side of the shelter and had some laughs for a few more hours.
Convenience Store Round Two
The next morning I felt pretty groggy. I hadn’t slept too well, or for too long, so I was feeling particularly sluggish. Cookie tried his best to brighten my day, but nothing seemed to work. We ended up stopping for lunch at a shelter and he cooked us some rice and potatoes to share. I think he was hoping the calories would give me a boost. Then he suggested we stop at Trent’s Grocery, an off trail gas station a little ways ahead of us. As always, the promise of something hot and greasy to eat helped me along, and we hit the tiny convenience store in no time.
My hunger wasn’t at the same level it had been the day before. In retrospect, I guess that should have been concerning to me. Most days I felt insatiable, like a black hole had taken up residence where my stomach once was. I ended up eating an ice cream cone and some french fries. We sat outside the store for a bit, then made our way up to Dismal Falls.
We found a tent site that night tucked beneath some rhododendrons. Early morning showers were forecasted, so we hoped camping in the dense shrubbery would serve as a mediocre umbrella of sorts. We sat by the creek before dark eating mini donuts and talking about our plans for the next two days. We had no idea that those plans were about to change drastically.
A No Good, Very Bad Day
I woke up and started my daily routine: every morning I wake up and immediately retrieve our bear bags from wherever they are. Within minutes of opening my eyes in the morning, I need coffee, so this step is crucial. I then make myself said cup of coffee and drink it while I listen to music. The music lifts my spirits for the day, and the coffee empties my bowels before packing up camp.
That morning, however, my stomach was already feeling out of place. It began rumbling before my coffee water was even hot, and I thought perhaps I was extra hungry since my appetite had been lower the night before. I crammed a pop tart in my mouth while I stirred my coffee, then took the first sip. I felt a twinge in my abdomen, and figured I would need to dig a cat hole sooner rather than later.
Right then, it began to rain (of course), so I put on my rain coat and grabbed my shovel and wipes. My stomach was doing somersaults at this point, and the situation had instantly become quite urgent. I darted out of my tent and down the trail, looking for a place to dip into the woods. Suddenly, my stomach rolled one last time and I felt a hot liquid pouring from my body. There was a split second of confusion, then total defeat as I realized what had happened. The rain was coming down hard at the point, my stomach was starting to ache, and I had just pooped my pants. I cleaned up as best as I could and turned around to head back towards the tent. Before I could take a step, I spewed vomit over top of where I had buried my fecal lava.
Once I finally made it back to the tent, my clothes were drenched and my stomach was revolting against me. The pain I was feeling was getting steadily worse, but the thought of spending the morning curled in a ball in my wet tent was incredibly unappealing. I resolved to hike that day, and just hope the stomach ache went away after a bit of time. I told Cookie about what happened, and that I just wanted to take it slow.
After hiking about a mile, I had to dart off trail again to dig another hole. All I could think about was the 14 miles ahead of us, and the shelter where we planned to camp. I would undoubtedly spend most of the night in the privy. Plus, my appetite had completely disappeared and been replaced with revulsion. The mere thought of food induced a hefty wave of nausea. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew hiking to that shelter was just not possible for me.
I then discovered an upcoming blue blaze that could work to my advantage. There was a small trail (the Ribble Trail) that cut out a 7 mile c-shaped portion of the trail. This would knock 4 miles off the remaining mileage into town, making it only 19 miles from where we had camped. Images of sleeping in a bed, having a toilet, and maybe taking some Imodium flashed through my head. I asked Cookie if he would be willing to take the blue blaze and add on an extra zero day. Considering the condition I was in, he agreed, and off we went.
The Ribble Trail was difficult hiking. We had several creek crossings where rock hopping was simply not an option. We were already soaked from the rain, so after the first creek I gave up on trying to keep my feet dry. Every step brought a new wave of nausea, and every uphill brought stabbing pains to my stomach. I could feel more bodily fluids wanting to escape, but I held them in. Dehydration was certainly a concern, as even water was tough to get down. I didn’t want to expedite the process of me drying out like a sponge. Ironic, considering how relentlessly the rain was coming down.
After fighting the cold, rain, and tough ascents and descents, we finally hit town. We had gotten a reservation at a crummy motel in town, and I had never been happier. Immediately upon entering the room, I found a millipede in the sink. I greeted him weakly on my way to empty my guts in the comfort of a heated bathroom. I ran myself a hot bath while Cookie grabbed Gatorade and crackers from the grocery store. My head hit the pillow around 7 that night, and I slept until morning.
I woke up that next morning with the realization that my body wanted food. To clarify, I was not hungry. My appetite was still quite low, but I could tell the lack of calories had completely zapped my energy. I picked up a couple of things from a nearby gas station and tried to eat. My wife was heading down to visit that day, so I was incredibly hopeful that this had just been some sort of 24 hour bug or a quick bout of food poisoning.
Cookie, Grateful and I hung out most of the afternoon. I did try to eat a few times throughout that day, but had trouble keeping any food down. Once my wife, Alex, arrived, we picked up Taco Bell on our way to our hotel. The Taco Bell was the first thing my stomach seemed to be able to hold on to, though I was still having issues from the other end. I was in the bathroom all through the night, making my first zero pretty miserable. However, I was glad to be sick off trail and able to get through it before hiking out of town.
Alex and I drove back into town on the day of my second zero. I wanted for her to meet my hiker friends, and Coyote and Radio had been a day behind me for quite a while. My wife and I got lunch at the all you can eat Chinese buffet in town with Coyote, Radio, Gummy Bear, and Cookie. We had a good time, and after disappointing myself by only eating a plate and a half of food, we left. Gummy Bear hiked on that day while the rest of us stayed together for a few more hours. I was feeling somewhat better, but still couldn’t keep the majority of my food down. After catching wind that a handful of other hikers had also gotten sick, I began to suspect it was Norovirus.
That next morning, we had a 28 mile slack pack planned. Alex was going to drop Cookie and I off at the road crossing we had stopped at, and pick us up at a trailhead parking lot 28 miles north. We made sure to be on trail by 7 so as to have ample time to get the miles done. However, Cookie was experiencing debilitating calf cramps. After about 4 hours we had made it only 4 miles, and I realized we would have to stop short of our goal. Cookie set his tent up about 2 miles before the first shelter out of Pearisburg, and I changed the location of my pickup to a trailhead 20 miles north instead. I received a text later that Cookie had night hiked the 14 miles to catch up to me, so we would be able to start together the next morning.
After a saddening farewell to my wife, I hiked on the next day in a somber mood. While it had been lovely to have her visit, it had also pierced a hole in the bubble I had tucked my mind into. It was easy to focus on the trail day after day and dismiss thoughts of the life I had left behind. The longer I went without seeing my family, friends, and spouse, the easier it became. But my visit had opened a fresh wound, and I found myself moping throughout the day. About the only thing that could lift my spirit was trail magic—and then we got wind of Fresh Ground.
Fresh Ground is a prominent AT trail angel. He travels along the trail and cooks for thru hikers. Everyone in my hiking group had gotten the pleasure of being fed by him, save for myself. I was envious of the others; his food was spoken of highly, and I wasn’t sure if hiker hunger was responsible for the praise or not. I wanted to personally make that decision. So when Cookie and I passed two SOBOs who told us Fresh Ground was set up only a half mile ahead, I bolted up the trail. This glorious trail angel fed us each about 4 burritos, and it was exactly as I had dreamed it would be.
The upside was now I was full and fully motivated to push our last 3 miles. The downside was, the next mile of trail was a steep, grueling, rocky climb. I cursed every other step, but maintained my newfound contentment. Once at the top, I pulled Cookie by the arm down a blue blazed trail to a view atop Kelly Knob. We watched the sunset from the giant boulders up there, then turned on our headlamps to make it down the other side of the mountain.
We finally made it down to Laurel Creek shelter around 9 pm, set up our tents, and turned in for the night. I was excited for the next few days, as we would walk by some of the trail’s most famous points. Even though the week had been rough with whatever illness I had procured, I was still just as happy as ever to be on trail.
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