A Slight Change of Plans

We were in Duncannon, PA having lunch at Sorrento’s Pizza when I finally cracked.

I had been asking a lot of my feet for months, but ever since we crossed the Mason Dixon line the pain had been at a whole new level. From the moment I stepped out of my tent in the morning to when I crawled back in it at night, they ached, they throbbed, they screamed and begged me to take my pack off, to sit down, to soak them in a stream for much longer than we could afford. If I had been seated for any notable length of time, I struggled to balance on them when I stood back up. I struggled to stand on them if I stopped walking, even if I took off my pack. Once we were about 10 or 12 miles into our day, they invariably became so sore that my stomach would turn with each step I took. Vitamin I (ibuprofen) proved useless. I tried to stay positive, tried to compartmentalize the pain, view it as just one small factor among the many components of a thru hike. But it was hard.

Throughout Southern Pennsylvania I could feel my resolve breaking down. At the Pine Grove Furnace general store I ran into Bear Bait, whom I hadn’t seen since Franklin on account of her injured Achilles tendons forcing her to leave the trail for awhile and then hike very slowly while they recovered. Bear Bait had just given up on the half gallon challenge, but she was on cloud 9. She gave me a big hug and told me with deep sincerity how happy she was to see me. She told me about her injury, her painful and tedious recovery, and how beautiful her journey on the trail had been. I was sincerely happy to see her too, and especially glad to hear that she had made a full recovery and was loving the trail. But even after I sat down, it was difficult to muster a smile through all the wincing and grimacing that my face seemed to be doing of its own accord. I tried to get on Bear Bait’s level and talk about the good times, tell her about how wonderful my hike had been too, agree with her about the Appalachian Trail being a special place, but at that moment I happened to hate it, and everything I said came out sounding snide and sarcastic. I apologized and told her it had just been a long day. She was understanding, but I hated to be such a buzz kill.

The following day we walked into Boiling Springs, aptly named since it sits in the middle of a vast open valley full of dairy farms and corn fields where the steam rises up from the ground and the sun beats down from above. It was entirely flat though, and should have been one of the easiest days of walking that we have had, but my boots were worn down and my feet were so swollen by the heat that I doubted whether I would be able to manage the entire 18 miles into town.

Around 6pm, however, I did manage to stagger down the main drag behind Chelsea  and Ben to the store where we had planned to meet up with a young woman named Virginia who we had connected with on Couch Surfing. She and her boyfriend, Andrew, had graciously offered us a place to stay for the night free of charge. The least I could have done in exchange was be gregarious and entertaining (one has to assume that people who offer up their homes on Couch Surfing are hoping to meet interesting people who can spin a good yarn about their travels), but it was all I could do to make eye contact and maintain a relatively friendly facial expression since the default look on my face was a blank, bleak, thousand-mile stare. Everything that wasn’t sitting down and closing my eyes was excruciating.

I tried very hard to laugh and smile. I was beyond thankful that Chelsea and Ben were doing an excellent job of picking up my slack, but I was frustrated with myself to the point of devastation. Virginia and Andrew were a lovely couple in their mid 20’s who loved travel and the outdoors themselves, had two sweet laberdoodles and a small school bus that they had converted into an adventure vehicle complete with a full sized bed and kitchen. They drove us everywhere we needed to go and gave us full use of their shower, kitchen, and laundry. I wanted so badly to show my gratitude for their kindness, but I could barely sit up straight and speak more than three words at a time. A strong person would fight through the fatigue, I told myself. A strong person would bury the pain and place the many positives of the situation at the forefront of their thinking. But I was weak, and I was letting the pain overtake me, and I hated myself for it.

In the morning when I woke up, I placed my two feet on the floor and tried to stand. It was like stepping on a bed of nails. From the floor up through my chest, every nerve vibrated in agony. I nearly vomited as I lost my balance and fell backward. Up until this moment, I had never doubted that I would make it to Katahdin. Now I wasn’t so sure.

When Chelsea came into the room to fold some laundry, I teared up and apologized for being so off and so negative lately. She hugged me and reassured me that it was fine to have bad days. She suggested we go to the outfitter in town so I could buy some new boots.

Later that day, as I was walking through a flat valley of farmland, I called Sarah to make a declaration that I wasn’t going to quit the trail on account of my feet hurting. I told her I was going to walk to Maine by our deadline (August 17) if it killed me. Sarah sounded very troubled by everything I was saying. She reminded me that when she and I went hiking together, we always made it a point to state beforehand that reaching the summit was not the most important thing. What was most important was staying safe and enjoying the hike. The way I was talking was very unlike me, she said. At first I tried to tell her that hiking the AT was different, and after we hung up I kept telling it to myself, but her words got under my skin.

The New Deal

The following morning we hiked into Duncannon. We passed by the famous Doyle hotel (we heard it had bed bugs) and walked into Sorrento’s- highly recommended on Guthook’s AT guide as a spot for lunch. Over a large supreme pizza, Chelsea, Ben, and I started to talk logistics regarding a music festival we had gotten tickets for before the hike. It was in North Adams, Massachusetts and we were probably going to have to rent a car. We needed to figure out what town we could rent one in and how we could get back on trail as quickly as possible.

It felt like we were prisoners to the deadline. Ever since we did the math in Glasgow, VA and figured out that with all of our planned days off trail factored in, we would have to walk an average of 17.5 miles per day to make it to Katahdin before Chelsea and Ben were scheduled to fly back out West.

Suddenly I heard myself asking “how important is it to you to do a traditional thru hike?”

From there I suggested that we go stay with my sister in New York City before the festival, catch a ride up to North Adams and then pick up the trail again at the Connecticut border. We did some calculations and found that we would only have to walk 14.2 miles per day (which may not sound like much of a difference but it is HUGE) and Chelsea and I decided that we could finish the 260 miles that we skipped in the fall.

It was hard at first to adopt the new plan. In a way it felt like we were giving up on something. It felt like we should push harder, not seek an alternative plan that was easier. But the truth was that we were all in pain, we were all exhausted, and we weren’t having fun anymore. We decided that the worst thing would be for us to wind up missing out on the beauty of the hike because we were too tired or in too much of a hurry to appreciate it.

So we hiked for a few more days to Reading, PA. Then we caught a bus to NYC on Tuesday, June 21 and returned to the trail the following Monday in Kent, CT after a week of rest. The terrain in New England is already a good deal more challenging than Pennsylvania, but the beauty of Connecticut and the Berkshires has restored us.

Plus it feels wonderful to be so close to home! I really have been missing it.

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Comments 1

  • Eric : Oct 9th

    Thank you for your great life adventure I’m 51 and have been thinking about hiking the ATP for 20 years at least the only thing holding me back now is work my kids are in their mid to late 20s other than paying bills I would love to try thank you for your story it inspires me more than you know


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