They Say There’s No Crying on the AT, and That’s a Lie

Last week four friends came up for a nice long weekend visit. We did all the regular things girlfriends do on a weekend getaway like laugh at my perpetual stink and overindulge in the finer things like Red Vines and jerky. OK, so maybe it wasn’t just a regular girls’ weekend out. In fact, it was so unregular that I still insisted on getting some miles in and even succeeded in getting two of them on the trail with me for an afternoon hike. The hike had been planned well before their arrival, but what we hadn’t planned for was a walk in the rain. After giving them several opportunities to bail they insisted and we headed out. Conditioned to the rain, I was happy to be slackpacking, be in good company, and to walk through the afternoon on mild terrain. A few minutes into the hike my friends’ faces didn’t reflect the light and airy vibe that had me buzzing.

 

I worried I had thrown them right into AT purgatory, but it turns out they adapted well and the sideways looks I was catching were just the reflections of experiencing the trail for the first time. After their six-mile stretch they wanted to know if what they experienced was what I meant when I said it was rocky. Not wanting to discredit their hike I felt a little guilty telling them that what we did wasn’t a comparatively rocky stretch. As the questions kept coming I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect. They told me they wanted to see more than just the pretty pictures of sweeping vistas and almost cuddly looking bears. I realized in previous posts I’ve talked about achy joints and grumbly muscles and I’ve even mentioned my mind’s wavering willingness to cooperate with the mission to thru-hike, but I haven’t exactly done a good job of painting an accurate picture of what a hard day on the trail actually looks like. Capturing the challenges through a lens isn’t easy, and pictures are the last thing I’m thinking about during hard afternoons. In attempt to show you a true slice of a hard day on the AT I am going to tell you a somewhat hilarious and very humbling story. Up until last weekend I silently swore I would never rat myself out on this one, but you’ve got to know it isn’t all sunsets and wildflowers out there.

It was sometime at the tail end of the 15-day period of rain that sloshed us in May and I knew my mental wherewithal was reaching a breaking point, but I certainly didn’t expect it to come crashing down so completely. The night before the incident I chose to stealth camp a couple miles south from the shelter I had intended to reach. After putting in 21 miles I was just too wet and exhausted to keep going. It didn’t matter to me that I was sleeping on a slope or that I didn’t have nearly enough water for the morning. All I cared about that night was getting my saturated shoes and socks off. Needless to say I did just that and crashed. The next morning I woke up in an especially puddly tent and clothes that had dried zero percent overnight. Let me tell you, at  6 a.m. putting on a freezing cold sports bra is the worst, so I started off pretty grumpy about the situation and hastily packed up. It took me no more than ten steps to remember the other reason why I was so desperate to stop the night before: chafing. Chafing is something nobody wants to talk about, but we’ve all had it at some point, yes, even you nonathletes reading this have experienced it somewhere, so we all know just how bad it sucks. My problem that day was that my two sizes too big leggings were still saturated with water and they simply wouldn’t stay up. A mile into the day I stopped and switched to shorts and kept walking, which seemed to work for a whole half mile. The burn between my legs just wouldn’t let up. All I wanted to do was sit and there was nowhere even semidry to sit.

Five miles into the morning the burn was moving from discomfort toward intolerable. I slid my rain pants over my shorts, hoping that adding a layer would help. It didn’t, but I walked another mile or so with the pants on believing that if I stopped I simply wouldn’t ever start up again. Bad idea. Really, really bad idea because then I was sweating and sweat never, and I mean never, helps with chafing. Also, in case you were wondering, Body Glide and similar products are worthless once the damage is done. I kept walking, desperately checking my phone for cell service. All I had to do was get another seven miles. In seven miles there would be a road and if there was a road, then there would be the possibility of people with transportation that didn’t involve walking and at the time the only thing in the world that mattered to me was not taking another step. I kept going, trying to keep my mind distracted. Most of the time when I’m hiking my mind is busy taking in the sights or making up stories about woodland creatures, but sometimes when I’m out there I like to do mental math. Yeah, I know, how nuts would someone have to be to do mental math on the AT? I tell myself it’s a practice of keeping my mind sharp, but deep down I know that’s a lie even if doing long division in your head has positive benefits. Deep down I know it’s a lie because I hate math and the singular reason I would engage in such a ridiculous exercise would be to keep my mind off something.

So anyway, I’m out there doing double digit multiplication, trying to not think about my thigh chafe when I decide to see if I can mentally figure out how many more steps it will take to get me to the road. I knew my stride length is 2.2 feet and there are 5,280 feet in a mile and I had 6.5 miles to go. The equation: 5.280 / 2.2 x 6.5. Screw mental math – I needed to know right then. I whipped out my phone, plugged it in and practically collapsed in the middle of the trail when I saw it would take approximately 15,600 steps to get me to the road. Taking a deep breath, I started in on the self-coaching. “OK, Rachel, so you’ve got a few more steps than you wanted to take today. There is a solution here you haven’t thought of yet. Just sit here and wrack your brain.”

Having recently gone through wilderness first aid training I started rifling through my pack, thinking there had to be something relatively dry in there I could use as a barrier between my skin and my shorts. I cursed myself for not having ace wraps, thinking that if I did I could easily snug them up to my skin. At home, reading this cozily on your couch, I know that sounds ridiculous, but even the faint possibility of a small amount of relief would help me walk those 15,600 steps. I kept digging, believing there must be something. Then I had perhaps the most crazed idea… moleskin. If moleskin could help with rubbing blisters, then why couldn’t moleskin help with chafing thighs? Climbing out of sight I shimmied my shorts down and carefully unpeeled two entire sheets of moleskin and secured them against my skin. With my shorts back up and pack on I headed down the trail feeling like a problem-solving wizard.

Just when I was starting to get the idea that the miles between me and the road were going to be a breeze, I felt something stick. I looked down to see a couple of the corners of the moleskin starting to roll. Smoothing them back out I kept going. Within another 100 yards the bandages started to bunch again, but even worse this time. I tried again, only making it a few feet before realizing the folly in my genius – not only was the moleskin not going to stay put, but it was going to hurt like hell pulling it off the raw skin. Clearly, a slow-peeling removal wasn’t going to work, so hoping there is some truth in the old saying “rip it off like a Band-Aid,” I yanked both sheets at the same time. Whimpering and now bleeding I sat down in the middle of the trail and cried. I wasn’t crying from the physical pain or believing that I was in any real danger. I knew I would get to the road eventually and I wouldn’t really be any worse for wear. I wasn’t crying over my snapped ego over the ridiculous experiment. I wasn’t crying thinking of quitting the trail or anything of that nature. I was simply sitting in the middle of the woods crying because apparently I needed to have a good temper tantrum before bucking up and taking another 15,000 or so uncomfortable steps. As with most good cries the tears eventually bubbled into laughter and I was able to hobble my way to the road.

If I’ve learned anything the last two months it’s that the true challenges on the AT are almost never what you expect and it’s OK to sit down and have a good cry now and again as long as once the tears dry you’re willing to dust off your britches and keep walking.
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