Flu of the Stomach, Eye of the Tiger
When I was in fourth grade, I bought my teacher a Christmas ornament. It was a small white ceramic heart with tiny pink roses delicately painted on it. It was the kind of quintessential object that catches the eye of many young girls around this age or aging English grandmothers. It belonged next to things like lace umbrellas or gold rimmed tea cups and fuzzy kittens. To me, it was beautiful.
I placed the carefully wrapped ornament on the corner of my desk and waited for the perfect moment to present it to her. Only, in the hustle and bustle that twenty fourth graders can produce before winter break, I lost sight of my goal and when I remembered, the tiny package was laying on the tiled floor. Picking it up, I felt a crunch. Instantly, I knew there were no big pieces of the heart that could be puzzled back together, only a fine crumble of what was.
Sobbing, I ran up to my teacher and tried to explain what happened, what it used to look like and how I wanted to give her this beautiful thing that was now ruined. She suggested that her husband could glue it together, but my tear stained, X-Ray eyes knew better. When she opened the wrapping, I howled to see what I knew all along. There was no fixing this.
“Would you put this on for me, dear?” the doctor asked, handing me as mask for my nose and mouth. I obliged, feeling like a character in a zombie apocalypse videogame. Not one of the ones who’s going to survive. He explained to me that I have the flu, I am very contagious, and that I need to be on medication for five days. I was to come back if I wasn’t any better after that.
I felt the crunch of the ceramic heart in my hands again. The beautiful thing was broken and there wasn’t anything to fix so much as accept.
The doctor left to go talk to my parents who were serendipitously visiting me in Gatlinburg. Five days is a long time, especially on top of the two I had just taken. For one, it was long enough to lose the group of friends I had just begun to make. I shut my eyes to my disappointment and let the faces of my new friend’s surface. Jetson, Ivan the Terrible, Curly, Purple Heart, The Kid, Double Time, Huckleberry, New Hampshire Bob, and Pickle…The situation was survivable but losing these friends felt like it’s own small tragedy. I let a few tears drop for the 200 miles I had earned, the strength I had felt, and for the knowledge that I knew I could do this. A few more fell for fear of the future.
I texted my hiking partner, Mamie, the news, knowing she’d go on without me. Knowing she should, knowing if our positions were reversed, I probably would too. But I also knew I would never be able to catch up to her. Did I want to hike alone? Did I want to go through the money and the rigmarole of food planning all over again? I had someone to split the work with last time and it still felt like a gargantuan task. While I could consider hiking alone I knew I did not have the money, time or drive to food plan again.
My parents entered the small room, somber and shocked as the doctor explained how flu season had come late to the South. I was the sixth case he’d seen this week. My dad’s voice dropped and the doctor turned to me and delivered in an even voice, “You can’t continue to hike right now.”
With my heart broken, my brain was left to sift through the facts. In five days I could be feeling well but considering how hard it had hit me, a longer recovery time might be more realistic. It felt wise to work on accepting that now, if that would be the case. Day to day health is also different than thru hiker health. I could sit at a desk and feel sort of wobbly, but I didn’t want to feel that way going up a mountain in 85° weather. Plus, I couldn’t endanger other hikers. This thing had to be totally out of my system. And then financially and logistically, it didn’t make sense to stay indefinitely in a hotel in Gatlinburg.
I would go home.
I felt a cold sense of satisfaction as the decision was made. But what about the rest of the trail? I didn’t have to stop entirely. But did I want to? I didn’t want to come back here. I didn’t want to hike alone, think about the logistics regarding that or make new friends. Was I even having enough fun to continue?
I started feeling nauseous earlier in the week. I awoke in the middle of the night vaguely aware that something was going wrong and spent the next day hiking through mild nausea and uncomfortable bloating. Eventually, I lost my sense of hunger which was the complete opposite experience of my comrades. Eventually, I sat in front of a sapling and tried to give myself over to the waves of cold sweat, knowing if I threw up I would feel better. But I didn’t. Thinking I had beat a bad meal, and feeling slightly better, we continued on to Fontana Dam and eventually Gatlinburg, where I threw up more in one night than I think I have in my entire life. Finally, with tears stuck to my eyelashes, I choked on nothing and murmured a few cuss words before falling asleep. The next day I was weak and fearful of food and water. My stomach and throat burned with each sip of Gatorade and I grew tired after eating four saltines. I was becoming anxious about getting back on the trail. I tried to sleep less, eat more, walk outside and focus on the future. Gradually, I began to feel better and more confident about starting again. I wasn’t 100% but I thought 65% wasn’t bad.
Before the day was through however, that would change. Like a perverse version of The Princess and the Pea, I was lying on pillows and writhing in pain. Sharp and constant, the pea was covered in wasabi and embedded into the muscles of my back, neck, stomach and ears.
With Tamiflu in my system, Mamie and I talked about the next day. I’d go home, she’d go on. She suggested I meet up with her when I got well. No catch up, no give up. Not if I didn’t want to. And she offered to finish this section with me after Katahdin. Two possibilities I hadn’t considered. I wasn’t sure after Katahdin the end of the Smokies would matter to me or feel like a detraction from the legitimacy of the thru hiker status, but it was worth storing away to think about. Despite the mounting ache in my chest, I smiled at my friend.
As our car climbed the spiral road back up to Newfound Gap, I felt possessed by logic and disconnected from my feelings again. This is what should be happening. Slowly, the golden morning light filtering through the verdant trees softened me. It is truly so beautiful out there. Staring up at a mountain, round and uneven like the hump of a brown bear’s back, my mask caught a few tears.
I wanted to be there.
Knowing I wouldn’t always be happy or healthy. Knowing how difficult it could be. This is the thing I want to be doing right now, for reasons I can articulate and reasons I can’t yet. Seeing Mamie next to the wooden AT sign, my surety grew.
I had to go home, but I had to come back.
Happy trails to all, can’t wait to rejoin in a week or so!
I’d like to take a moment to thank my parents for their generous support emotionally, financially and logistically. Without them I might not have gotten the medical attention I needed or the drive to get back on the trail.
Another big thank you goes to Dr. Rothwell of Well Key Urgent Care of Sevierville, TN. He treated me with care and respect that I’ve found hard to come by in a doctor and I am very appreciative of his swift and correct diagnosis.
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