How to Derail Your Thru-Hike in 1 Easy Step

Step 1: Get Sick

To be fair, there are countless ways to derail your thru, illness is just the way that I chose. Or rather it chose me.

A Promising Start

Things started smooth enough. My oldest brother and I spent the night before I left at the lovely Amicalola Lodge and I was feeling good. Great even. I had been looking forward to this for such a long time I wasn’t ready to let anything slow my roll. Not even the fact that I was coughing a bit and wasn’t entirely feeling 100%. I didn’t think it was anything to be too concerned about, I just bought some DayQuil/NyQuil tabs, some coughdrops, and took all the tissues from the room for worst case. We went to the introduction at the Amicalola Visitors Center, I got my tag, and took some pictures with the famous arch. After years of jealously watching others start their journey here, it felt like meeting a celebrity. Monday, March 18th I met the arch too:

Dave at the Arch

With the waterfall stairs closed and me not trying to set any purist records, my brother and I drove to the Springer Mountain parking lot and started from there. He hiked with me for the 1 mile climb to the top of Springer and saw the first white blaze to officially start this journey. We took a few more pictures and then back down at the lot we said goodbye and I was on my way.

The End of Beginning

For most of that first day I was riding the high of finally being out there. I put on the AT playlist that has been slowly growing on Spotify for the last 5 years and got to walking. I was planning to stay at either Hawk Mountain Shelter or Hawk Mountain Campsite and figured I’d make the call as the day progressed since they’re pretty close to each other. After registration, checking out of the lodge, getting to the Springer lot and making the initial climb, I didn’t start on the trail proper until about 1pm but was loving life. That would all change just a few hours later. The small hills of the first few miles were hitting me HARD. I figured, “hey, that’s what happens when you go from desk life to trail life” and decided I would call it earlier at Hawk Mountain Campsite. Trail legs would come… I mean I always knew this would be hard, right? With some hills right before the campsite, the last 2 miles of the day took me about as long as the first 7 or so I hiked. I slogged down into Hawk Mountain Campsite and set up my tarp and hammock like a zombie trying to remember the skills from his previous living life. As much practice as I had, I had never practiced doing it utterly exhausted, clearly coming down with something, and with it getting colder every minute. Thus began arguably the worst night of my life.

Winter? In Georgia??

I can admit that I probably came in a little too cavalier about my status as a Wisconsinite and our ability to handle cold. While it’s true that we live pretty consistently at temps that literally make others question our sanity, we definitely haven’t cornered the market on cold; and Georgia proved that in a big way on night one. The overnight temp was somewhere in the low 20s with wind gusts that brought the wind chill down somewhere to the teens or lower. My 20 degree rated gear probably would have struggled at the best of times, and when it was assembled by a shambling husk of man, I have no doubt some user error made things even worse. After making camp and getting water, I cooked dinner and sat down in my hammock to finally enjoy some warm food under the tarp. Almost predictably, about two bites in, a heavy wind gust blew in and ripped 3/4ths of my tarp stakes out of the ground, peeling the tarp over my head and leaving me fully exposed in my hammock as I seethed. The food was still warm though, so I just kept eating while I gathered the will power to fix the tarp and try to ensure that doesn’t happen again in the middle of the night. I finished my meal while doing my best to stifle the coughing that now made up about half of my breathing; then reset the tarp, and climbed in hoping to sleep this off.

Hammock View

POV of the worst night of my life 🙂

It was wishful thinking. For the rest of the night, starting about 8pm and going to about 10:30am the next day, I sat awake in my hammock. Sometimes I was shivering, other times I wasn’t. When I wasn’t actively shivering, I was thankful that I was just freezing and no longer shaking. I got up several times to readjust my under quilt and do things to help find some comfort, all while a new level of cough had taken hold and I began hacking up some nastiness that I’ve decided to spare a creative description. Just trust me, it was gross. I lay back down and became aware of a disgusting raspy breathing that was like an echo every time I exhaled. I’d let air out, and then after a slight delay a sickly sounding kazoo would sound. It was so foreign and weird that I honestly didn’t realize it was me at first. But it was, and once I realized that, I sang that terrible song the rest of the night (I even put in earplugs like that might somehow drown it out… but its an internal sound, so no dice). There I was, night one of 6 months, waiting/begging for the sun to come up and give me some warmth, trying not to think of this whole endeavor as a huge mistake. It was a pretty grim turn to what had started a great day. The sun eventually came up, but came up cold. There was no immediate wave of warmth like I so desperately hoped. It was still 20 degrees, just a little lighter out, and when I finally peeled myself out of camp and back on trail it was about 1pm of day 2.

Spotting the Difference

Despite the horrendous night and feeling pretty damn terrible, I started the day trying to make my miles. I was shooting for Justus Creek, a nice 6-7 mile or so day. I planned to make a new camp there and hopefully be through the worst of it. However, there are some small climbs on that stretch, and it was during those that I started to realize how bad I really was. Flat land and downhill was still fun for me, but the climbs were torture. I couldn’t really do more than 10-15 feet before I would have to stop, hunching over my trekking poles, and gasp for air. I started the hike with 3 liters of water but was down to 0.5 when I found myself at Horse Gap staring at a climb, still about 4 miles from the next upcoming water source. I realized then that there is a big difference between being out of breath and not being able to breathe, and I was in the latter category. So with a dash of shame, even though it was the right call; myself and another hiker were able to call Lucky, the owner of Above the Clouds Hostel in Suches, GA, who drove out of their normal shuttle route to pick us up.

Decision Time

Back at the hostel I had one of the best showers of my life and then hit the bunk pretty early. I wasn’t up for being social and still had a pretty ugly cough. That night while laying in bed I was kazoo-breathing again, which confirmed it wasn’t just some fluke from the night before, something was actually wrong. The next day, another member of the Above the Clouds team named Coyote was kind enough to give me a lift to Dahlonega and wait around for me to go to the nearest urgent care. The medical team there were able to determine that allergies played a big role in my initial discomfort, which then expanded in to a sinus infection and double ear infection. This was all draining into my throat causing the raspy breathing/gasping. I was given a five day course of antibiotics to knock out the infections and an inhaler for the hills when I got back on trail. I was honestly surprised that it wasn’t something in my lungs like bronchitis or pneumonia just because of how ragged my breathing had become but was grateful to be on the path back to healthy. It all left me with the choice of how to proceed though, and ultimately I decided to leave trail to get fully healthy and return in April when it was at least a little bit warmer. I know I won’t be fully out of reach of the cold, but I’m at least hoping to avoid a cycle of feeling better, then freezing at night and getting worse.

Sick Dave

Finding the Bright Side/Don’t Quit on a Bad Day

I think anyone who has done any research in to thru-hiking has heard the advice of “don’t quit on a bad day”. I’d expand that to “don’t make big decisions on a bad day”. I have no intention to quit, but I did start planning my exit off trail when I was feeling terrible. It absolutely felt like the right decision and it probably still is… however, had I waited a few days for the meds to kick in, I might have made some different choices. Being around the other hikers in the hostel, as well as the great staff at Above the Clouds, became a lot more fun as I started to feel better – and I began getting excited to be back out there again. Instead of hearing their plans and feeling glad I wasn’t part of them, I was starting to get jealous I wasn’t joining in.

As the resident ghost for about 4 days, I was able to meet a wide variety of people who came and went, and it reiterated that I very much DID want to be there. I also got to meet fellow Trek blogger Spark (if you’re not following them yet, you should), who embraces the philosophy of “be bold, start cold” and rocks shorts from the early morning on. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’m probably 3 times bigger as a human being – so it’s inspiring and humbling to see someone handle, with a smile, the same cold that I’m running away from.

In the end, maybe I still would have gone off trail, but I doubt I would have bought a flight home to rest up. The flight purchase ultimately put the nail in the “leaving for multiple weeks” coffin instead of maybe just a week. But even though I’m actually finishing this post in the lobby of a Chicago hotel after a flight delay, I still don’t necessarily regret it. I’m not sure I would have made the same decision on Friday that I made on Wednesday, but I’m still coughing and probably not ready to be bold yet either.

I’m going to treat those first couple days essentially as a shakedown hike. I already know some of the pack weight mistakes I made, understand I don’t love the water filter I chose, and have completely ditched some clearly non-essential gear. I’m also going to make the most of my time away and head down to Texas for the solar eclipse in early April. After catching a quick celestial event I’ll hopefully return healthy, rested, and with a better understanding of the challenges on trail. So while it’s not quitting, it is goodbye for now and I’ll hopefully have some good things to share in a few weeks. Until then, thank you and best of luck to everyone at Above the Clouds and all the hikers I met so far – maybe I’ll see you at Trail Days!

Long Exposure Waterfall

Even when it was rough, it wasn’t without its charms




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Comments 3

  • jen l : Mar 25th

    Oh man. Bummer of a start. But you’ll be good to go soon. Looking forward to a take 2 in a few weeks. Get some rest and heal up. Later…

  • Jingle Bells : Mar 26th

    Great, humbling, post. Thanks for sharing. Leaving the trail for legit infection(s) is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it is the right move. Imagine if you couldn’t have gotten a ride to the hostel! Good luck in recovery. Hope to see you hiking/posting again in a bit.

  • Kelli Ramey : Mar 26th

    Just rest up and come on back.
    Yes, the South can hand you some weather.

    The Atlanta pollen count was over 4000, yesterday.

    But the trail will be here when you are ready.


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