What To Expect When Injuries End Your Thru-Hike
Injuries and illness happen even to the best of hikers. Much of the time, rest and perhaps minor medical intervention quickly puts a thru-hiker back on the trail. But what happens to your mental health when an injury sends you home for good?
While no one can accurately predict an individual’s reaction to leaving the trail, other interrupted hikers might find my story helpful.
In May 2022, I went home to investigate instability and pain in my knee. Rest and doctor assurances that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my joints put me back on the trail, eager to resume my thru-hike. It was not to be. In July, a minor slip as we were trekking through Maryland broke a bone in my foot, making completing my 2022 journey impossible.
My first reaction was shock. Within 48 hours I went from hiking 15 miles/day to sitting on my family room couch depending on others for even a cup of coffee. Alongside the shock came denial. Maybe my foot wasn’t really broken, despite what my doctor friend had declared after a short exam. Maybe it was merely a bad sprain and I’ll be back on the trail in a week, two weeks max.
The bargaining stage followed. Even if it was a broken bone, I would work on staying hiker-fit, with swimming and weight training, and heal super-fast. To make up for lost miles, I’d do a flip up to Katahdin and take my time finishing the rest of Maine and New England. I’d even heard of a thru-hiker who resumed his hike in a DME walking boot. There were options here, right?
All these hopes were dashed when the urgent care doctor rushed back into the exam room after reviewing my x-rays. Not only was my foot broken, but the location and type of break meant a long recovery period — eight weeks or more. I was crushed.
What do you do with circumstantial (aka situational) depression? My symptoms included doom scrolling, online shopping, Netflix-binging and lots of ice cream. All my plans to stay fit went out the window — the yoga mat still rolled up in the corner and exercise bands still encased in cellophane. (Did you know that YouTube has videos for exercising in a broken-foot boot? Yeah, watched them once without ever getting off the couch.)
As my mobility increases, acceptance is creeping in. Daily texting and frequent phone calls with my partner Chris/Buttermeister keeps me grounded. Staying in touch with thru-hiking buddies was hard at first but my depression really began lifting as I started to vicariously celebrate their accomplishments.
Professional counselors might recognize my mental process as fast-forwarding through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s iconic Stages of Grief — denial; bargaining; depression; acceptance. (Somehow, I skipped the “anger” stage.) As a retired minister, I know that grief can happen with any loss, including the loss of your hopes and dreams, and the “stages” are not linear but can happen in any order, with some stages recurring as the grief is processed. Perhaps this knowledge helped me cycle through my grief in record speed after ending my thru-hike. Less than 3-weeks from my injury (and 7 days post-surgery) my depression is clearing and I am making new plans.
As soon as I’m cleared to drive, I plan to provide trail magic and slack-packing support through the New England states as Buttermeister progresses towards Katahdin. Visiting my son in Greater Boston and many friends throughout the area also top my list. And though I missed our annual July beach vacation, late August provides another opportunity to connect with friends at my happy-place, Ferry Beach.
One thing that boosts my spirit is the knowledge that I, indeed, hiked nearly half of the Appalachian Trail. Nothing can take away that accomplishment. I will still climb Katahdin this year, if only to photograph Buttermeister’s triumphant ascent.
And maybe tomorrow I’ll unroll that yoga mat and take those exercise bands out of their packaging.
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