Slow and Steady to Stay in this Race
95 Days and 798.2 miles since Springer Mountain.
Here I am in Glasgow, Virginia. Again. Still. Whatever. After my last entry I tested my bum knee with a little 11 mile slackpack. It failed the test. I charged up the first mountain faster than three miles an hour. Elated to be back on the trail and feeling good. A few flat spots and small inclines followed. I felt like a hiking machine. Even the few descending dips didn’t register as any sort of issue. But when the trail took a more consistent downward trajectory it all fell apart.
A whisper at first. A mere suggestion that the 60 hours of rest may not have been sufficient in healing my rickety leg. The twinging annoyance turned into a dull ache. The nagging ache soon gave way to punctuated acute pains on every footfall which gave me short relief between steps when all I felt was the, comfortable by comparison, dull ache.
It’s something that happens out here. You spend so much time just trying to be comfortable in a very basic way. Almost everything in my pack is designed to provide or emulate the same basic comforts that come so easily off the trail.
There are amazing prizes to be had out here; the views, the friendships, the oneness with nature, the exercise, and the escapism. But to appreciate these aspects, one must achieve and maintain a modicum of baseline comfort. When that comfort persistently eludes you, it becomes the prize in it of itself.
It’s like when you’ve got a bad cold and both nostrils are completely out of commission. You’d give anything to be able to breathe properly. Even though in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal, something happens in your brain where you’re like “I can’t believe how much I take breathing through my nose for granted! I’m gonna be so thankful when this cold passes, I’ll never take a deep breath lightly again!” Or even when you have to pee really, really bad. It’s strange how your mind turns into this myopic, focused, urine emergency mechanism. You forget what life was like 30 minutes ago when you didn’t have to piss. You barely recall what your bladder feels like sub capacity. You get tunnel vision as your mind and body send you continuous signals and reminders on how to get back to normal. Get back to that baseline first and then you can work on other things in life. This doesn’t feel right and you need to fix this discomfort first. To appreciate things properly, there is a standard degree of basic personal comfort one expects.
I’d concede that when uncomfortable for an extended period in a specific way, that discomfort can reprogram you to be the new baseline of your expected comfort. But that’s a whole different tangent.
Anyhow, during that 11 mile slackpack, I was able to recognize that my knee was screwed up worse than originally thought. Not only was I mechanically incapable of hiking, my discomfort was severe enough to render the experience unfulfilling in all of the other facets I’ve come to enjoy. As I hobbled back to my ride at the James River outside of Glasgow, I decided on one week off trail. Maybe more. Definite bummer, but listening to your body is rule number one out here. C’est la vie.
On my way down that last mountain, I stepped wrong a few times to a degree that elicited a few expletives. Crying out in pain is not my usual style but the harshness of the assaults and the realization of the possible implications was beating me down. I was angry, sad, and lost for how to handle it. It was then that I came within a step of a box turtle on the path. My first turtle in three months. I’ve been looking for them too! I’ve always been obsessed with all things chelonian. We even have a red-footed tortoise at home that gets full run of our Chicago condo (when it’s conducive with the dogs). The turtle stopped me in my tracks. I observed it, photographed it, and followed it for a bit. Before I knew it, I had taken an unintentional break. As I bid my shelled buddy adieu I couldn’t help but think this was somehow meant to be. That my infamously unhurried yet steady spirit animal might be here to tell me to slow the hell down and take a beat. Something I often struggle with.
I came back to Stanimal’s Hostel already crafting a plan. I knew sitting around for a week would be depressing and expensive, and probably a little more binge-drinky than someone tending to an injury should indulge in. So despite Stanimal’s being awesome, and highly recommended, I knew I needed to bail.
My wife and her dad were flying out to DC to stay with her brother for the weekend and celebrate Father’s Day. I reached out to my brother-in-law and asked if he’d be down to house me long enough to surprise them. He liked the idea and I found a cheap enough train ticket from Lynchburg, VA. So I was out of Glasgow via hostel shuttle to Lynchburg, Amtrak to DC, metro train to Silver Springs, and a couple of buses to Beltsville, MD. The DC area has an efficient transit system and the buses are currently free.
I surprised Alicia and they let me tag along for the weekend. It was a lot of fun and what my knee needed. We saw some monuments and walked much of Arlington Cemetery. I tried the notorious DC foods; pupusas and a half smoke hot dog. Both were fine, but entirely underwhelming.
In the end, instead of parting ways as originally assumed, I zipped back to Chicago with Alicia. Figured instead of paying for a room and eating out three meals a day, I’d rest my knee in my own bed and hang out with my wife and dogs for a few days. It was a nice little return to relative normalcy but an ongoing struggle to stay focused on my goals back East.
I joined Alicia to Minnesota for my niece’s high school graduation party which was great. A lovely and unexpected visit with family. All the while, trying my best to remember not to forget about my knee and the trail. Knowing full well that losing perspective can be easy the farther one strays from the task at hand.
But perspective was maintained and we drove together back to Chicago. I flew to Roanoke, Ubered to Troutville, spent the night there, and got a hostel shuttle this morning.
Tomorrow I hit the trail at the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook, mile 798.2. It’s make or break with this knee. If it feels great I’ll continue my northbound hike and race the clock for a Katahdin summit before Baxter State Park closes on October 15th. If it feels good, not great, I’ll do short days up to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia or somewhere thereabouts. Assessing my situation again then. If time no longer allows for a linear northbound hike, I may flip flop. Which is where I would hike north to Harper’s Ferry, and then skip to Katahdin from which I would hike the northern half southbound to Harper’s Ferry, still hiking every step of the Appalachian Trail.
It’s tough. When you plan on something for the better part of a decade and circumstances force you to recalibrate and alter those plans, it isn’t ideal. But that’s just another skill the trail helping me hone. Flexibility of expectations while still treasuring every bit of life.
But anyhow, I’ve got my head around it. If my body and the calendar only allow for it, I’m comfortable with the idea of a flip flop hike.
Good to be comfortable when possible.
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