Leaving Lil Santa

The rumors are true. I’m about to write another “why I’m off the trail” blog post.

The tendinitis just couldn’t clear itself up and the day after day pain of it was so mentally exhausting that I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other anymore.


Hangin’ with Shovel and Stumble!

But I keep hiking.


Lil Santa had endless patience for my inability to walk a significant amount of miles. For my last week we averaged 10 miles/day.

But the pain grew to be too much and despite passing the 1000 mile marker, and Harper’s Ferry my spirits were low every day.

I felt guilt about holding Lil Santa back but mostly I just couldn’t stand the pain anymore  every step had to be carefully evaluated to make sure it wouldn’t bring me a shock of extra pain, but there really wasn’t really any way to avoid the pain anyway.

I’m not trying to tell a sob story, or justify getting off trail. I’m trying to explain how much further I pushed than was really reasonable to expect from myself, because I couldn’t imagine leaving Lil Santa and letting him finish the trail by himself.

So I kept pushing. Late one night, in Harper’s Ferry, taking a much needed, but totally expensive zero day I told him “I think I have to get off the trail permanently.”

“That’s my worst case scenario” he replied, “I can’t imagine the trail without you.”

From the beginning this was a trip we had planned, prepared for and dreamed of together. Honestly the idea of only one of us finishing wasn’t something we really thought about.


So I kept hiking. I thought ‘I can at least make it until his birthday, a month away. If I can just make it until his birthday it will be ok. Maybe I can hitch around the really rocky sections in PA to take it easy on my foot but this is still possible’

Pretty much every day after that I thought “I should probably get off trail, this isn’t working.” I felt betrayed by my body, like it was actively working against me. Getting off trail was never a part of the plan. And even worse, I was still having fun! I was still loving every second of the trail and I couldn’t help but feel like a petulant child screaming LIFE’S NOT FAIR. It’s not FAIR that people get off the trail because they don’t want to hike anymore even though they are perfectly fine and uninjured and here I am WANTING with my whole self to keep hiking and knowing that if I did it would mean mile after mile of pain. It would mean facing the rocks of Pennsylvania with only one functioning ankle. It would mean 10, 9, 8 miles a day, as my capacity to hike decreased and the pain grew. I never felt the superhuman hiking power running through me that other hikers experienced, my ability to crush miles decreased the further north I hiked. My body was failing. I felt like I was failing him.

The day we planned to cross the Mason-Dixon Line I realized that wasn’t happening  I needed to get off the trail. I found Lil Santa waiting for me on a rock and burst into tears.

They say don’t quit on a bad day. I don’t know, I would say every single day I was on trail has been a  good day. I’ve never stopped wanting to push forward and I often imagined myself standing on top of Katahdin with my arms raised above my head. I imagined the two of us fighting off bugs and mud and the craziness of the next half of the trail together but the reality of the scenario set in. I was done. Both of us were, and are, heartbroken. When we crossed the Mason Dixon line, it was so bittersweet  to have made it so far and see things end for me. Our last milestone together.


I loved the trail. I lived so well and being a thru-hiker (even if I didn’t get all the way “thru”) will forever be a cherished part of my identity. But the hardest part of leaving the trail was leaving Lil Santa.

I’ve been off trail for over a month now. I’m back in my cubicle. My hair is washed, and my nails are polished. I have clean clothes of a thousand different fabrics to choose from every day. It is hollow. I’m one of the lucky ones. I had a home and a job to return to. I have friends who welcomed me home with open arms. But I am mourning for Lucky. The thru-hiker who didn’t make it thru.

Little Santa ended up getting off too, and coming home to me. He missed me, and the trail was hard. It’s hard, losing your support system. He made it to the Delaware Water Gap and then spent a few weeks traveling around. New York City, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. He jumped off tall rocks into Lake Superior and ate a lot of pasteys. I’m told these are a German pastry.

We are starting a new adventure together, figuring out how to move together, trying to find him a job, and figuring out what “normal life” means after so much of the extraordinary. I still have tendinitis and it still causes me a pretty decent amount of pain. I can’t really walk without hobbling. I can’t really run at all. I start physical therapy in a few weeks. Every night I dream of putting on my pack and walking through the green tunnel, looking for Little Santa around the next turn in the trail.

When we started hiking I wasn’t sure how it would work out, everyone says hiking with a partner is hard. But I can’t imagine doing it any other way. He is my best friend, and the reason I kept hiking in days when I was wet and tired and cold. He made me feel badass and beautiful when I was caked in 5 days of sweat and mud. I’m sure it can be hard, to hike with a partner, but for me it was the easiest part of the trail.




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Comments 3

  • Amber : Aug 5th

    It sounds like we had a very similar experience on the trail this year! I was hiking NOBO with my boyfriend and had to come home due to tendinitis, except I didn’t make it as far as you. I had to get off in Hot Springs 🙁 my boyfriend kept going and he’s about to reach Harper’s Ferry but I think he is coming home after that. I sympathize so much with wanting to keep hiking but your body not allowing you to. I kept going farther than I should have and even took 3 days in Hot Springs debating whether I could keep pushing myself even though my feet were swollen beyond recognition! Lol. All because my mind was not prepared to quit. Do you have any plans to finish the trail down the road?

  • Notebook : Aug 6th

    Such bittersweetness. I love how you cherish Lil Santa–how you both cherish each other. I’m so sorry your body couldn’t give you the power you needed but I’m happy you got the 1,000+ mile experience. You really have always seemed way more cut out mentally for it than most. I thought often on my own hike about a picture you posted after Lil Santa fell in the rain and he was laughing. I could never laugh in the rain and I envied you guys for having such positive spirits. You both inspired me. I hope this doesn’t make you even sadder about getting off! Get that foot healed, girl, and get working in your next adventure! Xox

    • Kira Thornley : Aug 6th

      I remember the first time I fell, on that same rainy day heading into the NOC. I was a much more careful walker than Lil Santa and didn’t fall as often and the first time I fell I was PISSED and scared, and felt like “holy shit what the hell what if I kept falling” but I was alone. lil Santa was ahead of me and I didn’t know if anyone was behind me. I thought “suck it up butter cup, this might be the first time you fall but it won’t be the last. It’s a big old slip n slide all the way to Maine” and then I laughed and I wrote a song to sing to myself when I fall. The Main line? “You ate shit and that’s ok!” Falling is scarey but it’s also funny.

      Thanks for saying this, because it does make me sad, but not in the bad way.


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