A Few of My Trials (And How I Overcame Them)

No one ever said hiking the AT would be easy. In fact, they warned me it would be hard. I had even had some AT experience, so I knew the hiking was difficult. I knew there would be aches, pains, and psychological turmoil. I had no idea what the first 1,000 miles had planned for me though.

Below are the trials of my first 1,178 miles on the Appalachian Trail. And how I overcame them.

1. Bum Knee

I actually, probably somewhat stupidly, started the trail with a bum knee – a leftover injury from a half marathon 6 months prior. The symptoms were a “funky” feeling, as I describe it; I could not stand on my left leg without feeling like my knee was out of place or just… Funky. I did countless hours of yoga, sauna stretching, swimming (to replace running), and muscle rolling – when I left for the AT the only time it didn’t feel funky was when wearing a knee brace. So I started the trail with a knee brace and a knee problem. Every day the knee would twinge with pain randomly, then go away. Then, once I started upping my miles, the knee would hurt pretty badly every few steps from mile ~14 on, and continue to throb into the night. Believe you me, I spent plenty of time worrying about explaining to all my friends and family how I had to get off the trail at mile 200 because I was too scared to see a doctor. But alas,

How I Overcame it:

I met a really awesome couple of dudes, Belch and his hiking buddy Lover Boy, who recommended I try something that, in retrospect, makes perfect sense: sleep in the knee brace and ween myself off of it during the day. The logic, Lover Boy explained, is that your muscles heal at night (duh) and the brace holds everything in the “right place”. Hiking in a brace only supported the knee, ultimately making it weaker and, as we had already seen, not solving the problem.

So I slept with the brace on that night, and the next day did just the first 15 minutes of my hike without it. I then put it on and finished the day like normal, a bit of pain and crossing my fingers. I slept in the brace again, and the next day hiked for 30 minutes without it. I repeated this process adding 15 minutes braceless a day until I got to four hours, when I felt confident the knee could take it, and finished out the whole day without it, no pain at all. I considered the kneel healed and got rid of the brace.

*I also did 15 minutes of yoga before beginning my day’s hike and at its conclusion every day. Since I had been doing yoga for many months before the hike without any difference in the knee, it is difficult to say whether or not this actually helped in the healing process.

2. Plantar Fascitis

Around mile 100 the arch in my left foot starting hurting pretty badly upon waking up, and would have a stinging, sharp pain the was hikable, but noticeably persistent, throughout the day. I Googled the symptoms and concluded it was every hikers worst nightmare: Plantar Fasciitis.

How I Overcame it:

In the next town I got to, Franklin, NC, I visited the wonderful folks at Outdoor 76 who concurred that my symptoms were indicative of PF. They fit me with a pair of SOLE custom orthotic inserts and I hiked out 6 more miles that day pain free.

3. Strained Foot

Once my knee was healed, my German hiking partner Hard Times (San Quentin) and I hit the miles hard. Which was stupid. “But hey, I’ve hiked before!” I thought. Silliness. Pure cockiness combined with bravado and stupidity. Never, never hike 27 miles in to Erwin, Tennessee unless you’re a Southbounder. Your body simply has not adapted to that kind of stress by that point.

Ms. Janet even warned me, “It’s too early on for miles like that boy!” she said, “Slow down or you’re gonna get HURT!”.

“But I’ve hiked before.” Was my response.

A few days later, my left foot hurt at about a 6/10 on the pain scale. Every single step. The pain wasn’t unbearable, but I certainly couldn’t hike to Maine on it. I did push through it to Damascus, VA, when, at the urging of my fellow hikers, I decided to take a week off.

How I Overcame it:

I saw a podiatrist as soon as possible. I showed him my beat up trail runners to which he smirked and said, “You hiked how far in these?” He explained that aside from the obvious fact that there were huge holes in the sides, the shoes had virtually zero support left in them, and my feet were left to do twice the work for every step. Hence that 27 mile day was like a 54 mile day for my feet. Hence a strained foot. Hence 8 days off from the trail and watching all your friends hike away without you. Please, please – if your shoes are worn out – GET NEW ONES!!! Shoes that don’t do the other part of their job aside from protecting your feet are useless.

The podiatrist gave me some steroids and recommended the old RICE technique. During my time off, I discovered Barefoot Science insoles, which I am currently still using and reviewing for Appalachian Trials.

Without going to in depth, the insoles use a series of inserts that exercise the arch while you walk. Each week you graduate to the next “level” of insert and rehabilitate the weakened arch more and more. At the end of level 7, I had averaged 26.4 miles a day for 16 days straight with minimal foot pain. I can now walk 20 miles a day with little to no pain at all.

4. Waking Up in a Puddle

For a while I was sleeping under a tarp/poncho and a bug bivy, which was very light and extremely compact. Unfortunately, if set up even slightly improperly, this system can be very prone to rain and the subsequent wetness of your sleep system being drenched. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know my pain.

Basically, I assumed it wasn’t going to rain that night. Which it did. Enough water sprayed in drizzled into my bug bivy that I was awoken in a puddle of sorts. This, as you may surmise, is no fun. In fact, it may be among the least desirable things a human can experience at 3:30 in the morning.

How I Overcame It:

When you discover you’re entire sleep system is wet you have two options: 1) Continue to try and sleep with the sensation of being completely soaked (note: this is next to impossible) or 2) pack up your wet gear in the rain and hike.

So I hiked.

I knew the next shelter was ~4 miles north, and it shouldn’t take *too* long to get there. With blinding rain and gusts of approximately 15-20 miles and hour, I trudged. Perhaps the scariest moment was getting to a field and being unable to identify the trail or see any white blazes ahead. I kept moving in what I felt was the general direction of the trail and luckily made my way to the shelter by 6 a.m., where I met a guy named Littlefoot whose dad was picking him up at the next road crossing and driving back to Damascus for trail days. He kindly invited me and we squeezed my dog and myself into a truck that already had 6 people in it, and subsequently had one of the best weekends of my life.

5. Broken Tooth

The Homeplace has great chicken. That chicken also has bones in it. Animal bones and ceramic teeth do not get along. I broke my front left tooth literally in half biting into a chicken bone. Not wanting to take another week off while waiting for a new tooth to be made, I had to improvise.

How I Overcame It:

I don’t know if I’d consider this one really “overcoming”, but I found some super glue and pushed that sucker back up in my face. #HikerTrash much?Post super glue sexiness.

6. My Dog Breaking His Leg:

This was perhaps one of the worst days I had on the trail. It also just so happened to be on my 25th birthday. We decided to slack pack 22 miles south from a road crossing back to Glasgow, VA where there was a free hiker shelter. I thought, since my dog had not had a zero day since leaving Damascus, VA, he deserved one. I asked a few other hikers if they minded watching him and they kindly obliged. About 11 miles into the hike Littlefoot received a phone call that my dog had broken his leg while wrangling a stick. How this happened the vet couldn’t even really explain.

How I Overcame It:

First of all, if you have a dog, get pet insurance – especially if you’re taking them on a multiple day, high mileage backpacking trip. I use Pet Plan

and for $29.99 a month get a $200 deductible. $1800 of x-rays and surgery later, I’m extremely grateful I decided to get pet insurance – if I hadn’t had it, I wouldn’t have enough money to finish my hike.

This incident might also, in fact, be the greatest case of trail magic ever. Littlefoot’s dad knew I couldn’t afford to take multiple zeros again after my injury, so we called him and he drove 450 miles from Morehead City, NC that night. He picked up my dog, drove BACK to North Carolina the next day, and is watching my dog for the remaining duration of my hike. Talk about trail magic.

And that was only in the first 1,000 miles. Of course, a book called Appalachian Trials wouldn’t have been written were the trail easy, lighthearted, and without peril. But it is, and very much so. Some people have it luckier than others, and I just so happened to have caught a string of bad luck – I think, however, the biggest determining factor in completing your hike in spite of seemingly constant psychological trial is, as Mr. Davis says, purpose.

If you really want to do this thing, you will. No matter what.

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