Injuries are the Worst and I Don’t Recommend Them
I admit it, I’ve been a terrible Appalachian Trials blogger. I updated exactly twice from the trail and then promptly fell off the planet. I want to say it was because I was just too busy experiencing everything the trail has to offer, but that was not the case. Injuries are real, folks! And they are so so terrible, because often times they are completely out of your control. Well that was a bit of a downer, let’s get some context.
A few days after my last update, roughly the end of March, I was having a rather intense day slackpacking. Slackpacking (essentially, day hiking without your overnight gear) is supposed to be great, but so far my experiences with it have not ended particularly well (more on that later). At that point on my thru hike attempt, I was averaging about 12-14 mile days. I was into my third week on the trail, and I was OK with the miles I was averaging. But after I took an unexpected zero, I decided to slackpack a bigger day to compensate a bit. 17 miles through the Roan Highlands in Tennessee to an actual bed at the end of the day? Deal! Let’s do it. My only other slackpack had been a little over 20 miles, this couldn’t possibly be as bad as that, right?
It started out decently, mostly downhill with some gradual ups. I knew I was going to see beautiful things today! And a really awesome shelter. The highlands were so beautiful I didn’t stop for lunch until 3pm after starting my hike closer to 10am. At that point I still had nine miles to go. I’d also been playing the mental game all day, I just couldn’t keep up with other hikers and I felt like I had no business calling myself a thru hiker (pro tip: errrrrybody has a bad day, and sometimes it can take months to get your trail legs). The uphill from Overmountain shelter where I had stopped for lunch was destroying me. I was close to tears, but everything was so beautiful. So, so beautiful.
See? SO PRETTY. And yet, still the tears? I don’t know. It happens. Around 6pm I finally finished my last uphill which came in the form of Hump Mountain which is totally exposed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really beautiful, but as I stepped out of the Rhododendrons to see that monstrosity in front of me in my slightly off kilter mental state, I was terrified. I managed to climb it in a little over a half hour, but I was so distraught the entire time. Anyways, it was about 5 miles straight shot downhill to the road from Hump and I was determined to get to it by 8pm. In Roan Mountain, TN there’s a bbq place that’s open until 9pm, and I wanted real food. 2.5mph, let’s go! Goals are good for you, right?
Everyone I had talked to at the hostel that had already hiked this section said it wasn’t too terrible and that the 17 really shouldn’t be a problem, even with my current average. Exactly zero people mentioned that there was a rock death trap for 1.5 mile downhill section that was really quite steep. The problem with this is that I have some cranky knees, in particular my left one. In fact, my time on the trail in May was my return to the trail from an injury. Way back in March, climbing down the rockiest rocky rocks of Blood Mountain in Georgia, my left knee wound up in some serious pain. Like knife stabbing every time there was any sort of bending going on. It was profoundly painful and after a zero at Neel Gap and an attempt to hike the following day revealed, it wasn’t going to get better. I was limping on flat land, not good. And the pain literally did bring me to tears (which was rather mortifying). The knee thing kicked me off the trail and back home. From there I saw an Ortho who, after an MRI, told me that I had this really random thing called “Patella Alta”. My knee caps apparently like to hang out a little higher than your average hikers. Thus climbing mountains causes more knee cap movement and those ligaments apparently don’t like it which then can cause pain? At least that’s how it was explained to me. I was thus told that I should wear some patella straps (those fancy knee bracelets) and build some stronger quads, this would fix my knee problem. Huzzah! Back to the trail!
But then there was the descent from Hump Mountain. Rocky section downhill that lasted maybe 1.5 miles. And all of a sudden my left knee hurts like Blood Mountain all over again. Wait. I thought those Patella Straps were supposed to fix the problem? And I’d hiked rockier terrain than this before. I mean, yeah, this was a long day, but my longest day had been 20 miles and that was at the end of my first week back. No knee pain then. Why were they hurting now? My quads were the strongest they’d probably ever been. I thought I was ok? When I finally came to Doll Flats, about 3 miles from the road, I wished so much that I had the rest of my gear. That I could have just stopped and camped with the other hikers who were already set up for the night. Why had I thought 17 miles would be ok? I did get myself down the mountain by 8pm through probably sheer panic. I hitched into town. I had my dinner. But that one stretch is what pushed my knee over the edge.
I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t done again. After taking two zeros, I slackpacked an 8 mile day, I did that my first day on the trail ever, I should’ve been fine. But there was a somewhat steep downhill for maybe half a mile, and my knee hurt so terribly that I knew, it was done again. I was limping on flat land. So I took another zero. I’m stubborn, you know? Hiking the trail has been a dream of mine forever. I tried another short slackpack and less than half a mile uphill I was done. My knee was just done. I was devastated. That night I took a bus back home. I knew I needed to wait for the pain to go away again, and I was looking at at least two weeks off trail. I had hiked 237 miles of the Appalachian Trail at that point.
I look back on this and I take lessons away from it, and I can make rules for myself. My new rule in regards to slackpacking: don’t slackpack more miles than you would hike with your pack on. Maybe that’s now how it’s “supposed” to be done or how I thought it was supposed to be done, but that doesn’t mean I have to do it that way. In fact, I think I’m mostly over slackpacking in general. That’s an ok thing, to not be into slackpacking. And for goodness sake, do NOT rush those rocky sections. I don’t care how great your footing can be on them, you know darn well that your knees hate rocks of any variety! Keep it slow until you get your trail legs, gosh darn it! Just because you can do a bigger day, doesn’t mean you should. When it comes down to it, yes, you have to make the miles. But give yourself a break until you for real have your trail legs. Because you know what’s worse than going slow? Having to get off the trail completely. That’s heartbreaking in the worst way. Yes, the trail is really, really hard. But real life is so much harder, especially when you have an incomplete thru hiker whispering to you.
Maybe that last part is a pep talk to myself. But when attempting any sort of long distance hike, self talk is going to be a part of it. And now it’s August. I’ve been off the trail for over two months and the trail is still calling to me. I went back and forth on how reasonable it would be to get back on the trail. I mean, my knee had already kicked me off twice. But maybe three strikes and you’re out? I’ve decided to go with that, at least for this summer. There’s no way I’m going to be able to complete my thru hike this late in the game, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hike more of the trail. I’ve decided I want to learn from my experiences on the trail and apply them. I’ve decided I want to see New England and Maine. I’ve decided I really do want to try a third time, even if maybe it won’t work out. So next week I’m shipping out again. With ~650 miles of trail, I won’t have to average huge days to complete my section. And you know what? It’s OK if I can’t complete it. I just want to see the pretty things and work at becoming stronger. I’m only in my 20’s, I think I see a thru hike in my future.
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