Ticking Lyme off My AT Fear List

I’ve been on and off the trail for two weeks now. It feels like my mind has been in a constant battle with my body. I knew I should expect to feel run down and beat up after Maine and New Hampshire, but this was excessive. I was constantly tired, battling headaches and muscle pain in the week after we summited Mount Moosilauke. As we tried to pick up speed across Vermont, each rolling hill and well-groomed footpath felt like traversing the Mahoosuc Range all over again.

At first, we chalked up this exhaustion to a concussion I had received after fainting in Hanover, and an emergency room visit seemed to confirm this self-diagnosis. Most importantly, the doctors ruled out Lyme disease after an EKG. Rest was recommended and we made the difficult decision to take three full days off trail. The first day I could barely stand long enough to shower. I have a habit of pushing myself until I break, but this was definitely next level (unfortunately, not the next level that has you feeling like a total badass). I felt like my body was betraying me, which was compounded by the reality that this is the longest I’ve ever gone without a melanoma diagnosis. This is the healthiest I’ve been in a decade.

After three days of rest, I got back on trail. We planned to do low mileage while I regained my strength. Things were going well. My energy was still low, but we were making progress and enjoying ourselves (minus a bear that trolled us one night, determined to get to our bear hang). After an incredibly great day and some epic trail magic from our friends Borderline and Longshanks, who were taking time off with their family ahead of us, we were in high spirits. The cloud that had been looming over us seemed to break, even as we approached Killington, VT, in the rain.

That night, I barely slept. My head hurt, the pain was radiating down my face and through my neck. I woke up feeling sick and was emotionally distraught. We were just getting back on track, how could this be happening? I called my mom and she reminded me that the (not so) little girl she knows perseveres through even the most challenging circumstances. She knew the only way forward for me was to continue with our thru-hike.

As a mind-over-matter person I wanted nothing more than to rally. I went through each of my ailments in my mind: I had a rash, but it was likely an allergic reaction to laundry detergent or heat rash. I had a horrific headache, but I had a serious concussion. I was absolutely exhausted, but I’d hiked almost 500 miles through Maine and New Hampshire and a bear messed with my sleep two nights before. Every symptom had a reasonable explanation and Lyme had been virtually ruled out in the ER. I felt like an absolute failure because I was incapable of moving forward.

After more tears, it became clear that I couldn’t rally. I didn’t want to go home, but I knew I couldn’t keep hiking like this. My husband finally made the decision for me—we were going to Massachusetts to stay with my parents. I was relieved, but devastated—unsure if I’d be back to finish what I started. That uncertainty weighed heavily as we boarded a bus from Killington, VT, to Hanover, NH. We ate lunch silently, and the pain in my head finally began to subside. I started jotting down a list of why quitting the AT wasn’t an option. I didn’t know what was happening, but through writing it became clear that I still wanted to finish. No doubt, going through this uncertainty has and will be ugly, our plans and goals will need to change, but the AT has broken us down. Now it’s time for us to rebuild and move forward. I’m confident the trail will provide.

My dad picked us up from Hanover and we made our way home. Naturally, I envisioned walking into my home state of Massachusetts. The fact that I was in a car, unsure if I’d return to the trail, was devastating. However, at the end of our longest trail shuttle yet, I knew I would see our coonhound Lucky when we walked in the door. She was beside herself with excitement despite my tears.

The next day, we spent three and a half hours at the doctor’s office—I went through a battery of tests, X-rays and a CT scan. We also opted to pull ahead some of my routine lab work and X-rays to rule out cancer. I was drained, hoping for an answer, refusing to accept that my body just isn’t capable of thru-hiking 2,192 miles.

As we waited for results, we revamped my entire diet. I’d lost over 20 pounds in 60 days (14% of my body weight) and it is clear that I couldn’t survive on the typical hiker diet. I need to fuel myself the same way I’d fuel my body for marathon training or any other outdoor adventure. It is going to be more expensive, but if it enables me to complete my thru-hike, it would definitely be worth the investment.

Feeling good about our new plan, we got a call from my doctor’s office—everything was clear, but the preliminary test for Lyme disease came back positive. I started an antibiotic that night, hoping the second and third tests came back negative. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that lucky. Five days after returning from the trail, and nearly two weeks after visiting the emergency room in Hanover, I was officially diagnosed with Lyme disease.

In some ways, I’m relieved to have an answer. Not being able to rally is atypical, and I was disappointed in my inability to power through the pain. The trail challenges you in countless ways, pushing you past your comfort zone. Often times, we find ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to face down our fears. Mother Nature has been relentless this summer—thunderstorms above treeline, 70 mph winds on top of Mount Washington, and hail over Mount Madison. I’ve cried in front of boulders twice my height and wondered if I was ever going to get through Maine, let alone to Georgia. However, despite each obstacle, I’ve somehow found my way through. Mental discomfort is a given, but at what point does physical discomfort become a concern?

Personally, it took awhile to address what was happening in my body. Looking back, I had been journaling for weeks, noting that my body was hitting a plateau. The strength I’d gained seemed to be diminishing. As a result, my mental state began to unravel. It became harder for me to wake up each morning and my exhaustion seemed to be inescapable. I’ll admit, there were countless times when I thought I didn’t have what it takes to finish the trail. My mental game was overriding my ability to listen to my body. The typical external signs weren’t there—I never had a bullseye, didn’t pull a tick off of me, and wore Permethrin-treated long sleeves shirt and long pants to protect myself from the sun and ticks.

Needless to say, I haven’t been able to rally as quickly as I’d like. I am not sure when I’ll feel well enough to get back on the trail, but I will certainly make a comeback and continue to put one foot in front of the other. The trail has broken me down, but I know it will also help me to rebuild. After all, when life gives you Lyme, you make lime aid.

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Comments 2

  • Mike S : Sep 8th

    Ticks are my biggest concern. They can get on you and you never know they were there, especially the really small ones. And, you won’t know what damage they’ve done until it’s too late. The standard advice is to carefully check your body as often as you can. I don’t have a giraffe’s neck, so I can’t get a 100% inspection.

    My solution is to set up my smart phone. I would expose the areas to be inspected, while slowly rotating for the camera. I practiced at home first.

  • David : Mar 5th

    Having been twice attacked by “seed” ticks (first 74 bites/attached, second over 100/stopped counting), the best thing to do if looking for ticks is to suck up your pride and let someone else help check the spots you can’t see. Its horribly humiliating, but better than the alternatives. And I am by no means saying this could save you from Lyme’s. Also, if you do get bitten (having gone through both of those horrific tick episodes and multiple other tick bites over the years), invest in Witch Hazel. It is the only thing that takes the itch out of the bites. I tried all sorts of stuff, but in the end it was a simple home remedy that worked for me.

    Allison, having friends that deal with Lyme’s, I understand how debilitating it can be. Your mind of matter attitude ( I don’t mind, so it don’t matter), will keep you going. Eat right, figure out which fuels can help keep you on trail, and even if you have to section hike 10 miles at a time. Finish what you started. There is always more than one way to accomplish a goal like this. Dream big. Pray hard. Learn to listen to your body, and I know you’ll succeed.

    Also, where was this picture taken with the rock wall? Very cool!


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