Lexington to Harper’s Ferry(ish) Scorecard
A lot of things have happened since I blogged last, and for the sake of getting everyone updated, I’ll skip my usual scorecard format and return to it next time. I hope you all enjoy this giant block of text I’m about to shoot at ya.
After updating my last blog in Lexington, I made an executive decision that I would not blog again from Virginia. I hated the tone of my most recent blogs. I felt they ranged from apathetic and cranky to miserable and whiny. I desperately wanted to blog about exciting and fun things again, like I imagined crossing the thousand mile mark and the border from Virginia into West Virginia would be. I was only 200 miles away, and as my pace was getting faster and faster, this seemed like a reasonable stretch to go without blogging.
Beyond that, a number of exciting things were coming up. Long time readers of this blog might recall my friend Marco, who I hiked with from the very beginning through into Hot Springs. I hiked out a day ahead of him, thinking that I’d probably have to slow down a bit when my mom came, and so I wanted to get ahead while I could. But then he got sick in Erwin and my mom came and booked it. Suddenly we were hundreds of miles apart and realizing that we wouldn’t see each other again on the trail. But he was taking two weeks off for his brother’s wedding and had decided to skip into Waynesboro to stay with the bubble, coming back to finish the section he missed later. All this meant he would get into Waynesboro a couple of days after I projected myself to get there, and we were within striking distance of hiking together again. I was pretty eager to make this reunion happen.
The first day I returned back to the trail, my feet exploded. Or at least it felt like they were about to.
I usually wait to put my shoes on until I’m on the trail since my crocs are much cleaner and don’t leave mud prints about in decent society. I waved goodbye to my shuttle driver, sat on the ground and pulled on my shoes. I stood up and almost collapsed. This had become kind of the norm as of late. In retrospect, I should have realized my shoes weren’t right the second I got them: my feet had started to hurt back in the Grayson Highlands right after I switched to them in Damascus, but I just accepted it as the new reality. It usually takes a couple miles before my feet start screaming at me, but in this case it only took about 50 yards.
I’d had a 17 mile day planned, but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t going to happen. At lunch I pulled off my shoes in an attempt to see what was going on, and just trying to extricate my feet from the shoes was painful. They were cartoonishly swollen; my shoes are about 2 sizes bigger than what I wore in the real world but I still could barely fit my feet back into them to hike.
By mile 10 I could hardly walk and was limping along with my trekking poles. It started raining and I actually said “ow” with each step because it felt like the right thing to do. This is when it finally occurred to me that my foot pain might not be normal and maybe I should see a doctor to get it checked out.
So after 13 miles I needed to get back into Lexington. Limping for the previous three miles had not moved me along quickly, and it was getting late. I was also soaked from the rainstorm. Cut to the reason why everything wasn’t a total disaster:
When my friend Laura was here, we met a trail maintainer named Ken doing a section hike. He regaled us with stories of the Summit Sundae in Millinocket while we ate lunch, and then he hiked out to finish his section. Before he left, he told us he was a shuttle driver and that we should give him a call if we needed a shuttle.
Laura and I were, in fact, going to need a shuttle, since her section with me would end on a random forest service road. But after he left, we realized he had never mentioned his name.
We went through the names in the AT guide, trying to guess which might be him. (“Did he seem like an Earl? He could have been an Earl.”) I actually tried a couple of numbers unsuccessfully before calling the one that ended up being his. He picked us up an drove us into Lexington and when I went back onto the trail he drove me out of Lexington. And when my feet imploded, I called him to get me back into Lexington once again.
It was an hour and a half drive one way, it was getting dark, and it turns out the road I staggered onto was recommended to only be driven by cars with four wheel drive. His car didn’t have four wheel drive, but he rescued me anyway. On the way back he offered to drive me to the ER the next day.
For that he showed up with his wife Joyce. They waited patiently outside while my feet were looked over and then brought me ice cream while we waited for my x-ray results. The doctor told me that the amount of swelling in my feet seemed consistent with stress fractures, which wouldn’t show up on an x-ray and which would almost certainly be hike-ending. She referred me to a podiatrist. Ken and Joyce immediately began planning who could drive me before I could have asked.
They drove me to my next appointment, which involved a lot of walking back and forth down hallways in front of multiple people. At one point, the doctor was poking along the bottoms of my feet, asking me did this hurt? Did this hurt? What about this? Not really, I responded every time, feeling a little foolish and wondering if I had blown this whole thing out of proportion. He paused for a second, and then placed his hands of the sides of my feet and pushed inward gently. I almost kicked him as I yelped in pain, and everything clicked into place from there.
It turns out my already flat feet were expanding ever outward as I trekked more and more miles, and the front part of my foot had gotten much wider. So began an incredibly informative explanation of hammer toes (which I was developing) and metatarsal bones (which were being crushed). He gave me some inserts that would help force my metatarsals to stretch out and my toes to relax.
He also instructed me to get new shoes with a wider toe box pronto.
“So as soon as I get new shoes I can hike?” I said excitedly.
The doctor looked at me sympathetically. I got the sense that he saw many hikers as a podiatrist near the AT. I promptly got a lecture about patience and healing and not abusing your body that I expect he’s given many times before.
The actual directive was “little to no walking until things stopped hurting,” which was pretty vague considering my whole body was a giant ball of aches and pains that hadn’t gone away in the chunk of time I had taken off waiting for doctors appointments. I decided to give it another week at the most.
So began a very long week of sitting in a motel in Lexington, icing and elevating my feet while watching an obscene amount of Law and Order (SVU if I get the choice, but I’m not picky). I was sort of jealous of people who get hurt and can go home to be with family. My own family felt really far away across the country in California. I really just wanted someone to bring me food.
I also got new shoes at the outfitter (driven again by the ever-amazing Ken and Joyce). They didn’t have the Altras my doctor had recommended for their wide toe box and I really wanted to get hiking again, so I just got a pair of shoes a half size larger, which was also dumb in retrospect. My feet are two different sizes: 6 1/2 and 7 (a fact I learned when I first got my feet sized at REI, explaining years of never being able to determine exactly what size my feet were). I had originally gotten size 8 shoes for the trail, knowing you were supposed to size up. I had gone up to an 8 1/2 when I switched shoes in Damascus. Mostly scared by how swollen my feet had been on my last day hiking, I got size 9 shoes and then regretted it all week as I watched my feet deflate with diligent icing and rest.
Sitting around was excruciating and I had to impose a social media ban after spending hours scrolling through photos of all my friends walking out of Virginia, past Harper’s Ferry and the halfway point, thus putting hundreds of miles between us. I texted Marco sadly that we wouldn’t be meeting up any time soon but I would try my best to catch him eventually. By the time I thought I was ok to hike out, I felt like a caged animal.
Ken drove me back out and like all the times before, refused to let me pay him. I felt guilty all car ride, thinking that there weren’t enough words to thank him and Joyce for everything they’d done for me. While the trail angels that come out and set up hiker feeds or leave coolers of drinks are amazing, I couldn’t help but think that what those two had done was even more amazing. I’d come out of nowhere and without hesitation or me asking, they stepped up and literally got me on my feet again. We are friends on Facebook now, which makes me extraordinarily happy.
I had gotten off the trail right before the descent down The Priest mountain and the Three Ridges. I told myself that I needed to take it really slow all the way to Waynesboro, which I did in a leisurely 3 days. Then I sprinted out of Waynesboro into the Shenandoahs. They’re much easier terrain than anything we’ve experienced so far, and this was where I decided I had to catch up to my friends. Looking through every logbook and seeing people I adored weeks ahead of me broke my heart. Coming into shelters every night and not knowing anyone broke my heart. Coming into shelters and seeing no one at all broke my heart the most. I hiked way faster than I should have after two weeks off.
I turned into the worst kind of miserable, toxic vortex of determined unhappiness. The Shenandoahs are amazing, and I give them a lot of credit for making me think they were amazing even while I was pretty set on being sad all the time. I did see three bears, a baby skunk, and countless deer.
I also consumed as much blackberry ice cream and milkshakes as I could and generally thought it was a lovely and well maintained national park. I actually thought the car campers, thru-hikers, bikers, section hikers and day hikers cohabited peacefully, probably because all were well fed and relatively clean. I also saw a 3 year old with a 3 year old sized backpacking pack, complete with a waist strap and a brain that towered over his head. “It’s empty,” his dad told me. “He just likes to participate.” Also a shout out to Larry, who maintains Pinefield hut and who bought me breakfast and showered me in park history.
But I was still miserable, even though I knew everything was pretty spectacular. A lot of it was that I was trying to hike more than I should have, and could have if I’m being honest. Catching up to people is not an easy business these days since everyone is doing pretty big miles. I was a good six days behind Marco and while I was gaining on him, it was frustratingly slow going for how much effort I was putting in. I woke up early and hiked late. I cried a lot. I taxed my parents nerves as I complained about everything to them. There was no one else around to vent to.
It wasn’t until Luray that I finally got the Altras the doctor had recommended and so returned to wearing shoes that fit me. I continued my bolt into Front Royal. It was almost the Fourth of July. Marco told me he was going to get into Harper’s Ferry to commemorate the holiday. I would get there on the sixth, but my Fourth would be celebrated with more feverish hiking. I was feeling pretty jealous and devolved into another pit of misery. And like with my feet a couple weeks before, I realized this wasn’t normal.
This is supposed to be fun. Difficult and challenging and yeah, maybe miserable sometimes, but mostly fun. I was not having fun. Being in Harper’s Ferry on the Fourth of July would be fun. Reuniting with original tramily would be fun.
Less than 12 hours later I was traveling from Front Royal to Harper’s Ferry, skipping about 70 miles of the trail. I’ll come back and finish that stretch once I summit Katahdin. It will be one last short jaunt on the AT before I head back to California, and ending at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy earns you a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne, they told me when I stopped by today. I decided not to get my official picture taken for the hiker binder now to commit myself to making up this last bit after I finish up with Maine.
Sometimes the fixation on getting from point A to point B clouds the purpose of all this. Marco and I reunited and spent the day exploring the town and talking about what’s to come. Harper’s Ferry is considered the psychological halfway point, but we’re still 60-something miles short of the actual halfway point. There’s a lot of hiking left to be done. But whatever is left has to feel less daunting if you’re having fun.
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