When Life Gives You Lyme Make Lymonade
The adventure continues.
And by adventure, I mean it in the broadest possible sense, with all the left-of-field scenarios that can come your way on a thru-hike.
New York, New York
Our last blog left off with us leaving New York, having enjoyed two zeros in town with Robin’s parents. As we left we could feel our focus shifting. We’d slowed down a lot since crossing the 1,000-mile mark. We’d taken more zeros, spent time with friends, and not walked as many big-mile days, but now we were focused on getting back into the swing of things, and getting this trail done.
We hiked what should have been an easy day, but Robin wasn’t feeling great. She felt stiff and achy, not quite at her best. It’s been a long time since we haven’t been stiff and achy, so we didn’t think an awful lot of it. Maybe it was just because we’d taken a few days off and her body was getting used to hiking again. As we reached the end of the day, stepping off the AT and onto the side trail to the shelter, Robin saw the rash.
As soon as we saw it, we knew immediately what it was. A rash that looks like a bull’s-eye means Lyme disease. There are bears, snakes, and Liverpool fans on the trail, but the only things we were desperate to avoid were Lyme-carrying ticks. Every night we’d check ourselves over for them; often we’d check each other and we’d use deet every day, sometimes twice a day, to keep the mosquitoes and ticks (which can be the size of a full stop) away. Somehow, one got through.
Urgent Care, the Birth of Three Trail Angels, and the Help of Two More
We stayed that night at the shelter, with little to do but worry about what this meant (and how to put the dream tent up for the first time). The thru-hike was clearly at risk, big risk, but worse than that, what did this mean for Robin’s health? Lyme disease can be nasty and affect different people in different ways. It can stay with you for the rest of your life and give you a lot of trouble.
In the morning we hiked just over three miles to a road. There was a restaurant near where the trail crossed the road so we went straight to it. It was early and the door was locked, so I knocked. Loudly. The cleaner answered and before she could speak I said, “We need help.”
Her face immediately changed from a smile to something much more serious, which I guess is the natural reaction when someone skips the salutations and cuts straight to business.
We asked her if there was an urgent care nearby and if there were any taxis or Ubers in the area. She told us there was an urgent care half an hour away and she’d just finished cleaning, so if we needed a ride she could take us right away.
A trail angel was born. Now that we identify as hikers we have a special name for it, but really it’s just the kindness of strangers, and this wasn’t the last time we were going to benefit from it in our time of need.
I can’t remember her name, although I made a point of asking for it and thanking her by it when she dropped us off at the medical center, but we’re hugely grateful to her. It might seem like a simple thing, getting to a doctor when you’re ill, but when all you have is what’s in your backpack and you’re essentially stranded by the side of a road, getting around can become difficult.
The doctor confirmed what we already knew: Robin had Lyme disease. She’d need to take a three-week course of antibiotics, but the good news was that once finished, the Lyme would be gone and that would be that. We’d caught it early enough to avoid anything becoming chronic. The bad news came, too. The medication was strong and came with a side effect. Photosensitivity. For the next three weeks if Robin was in direct sunlight she could get third-degree burns. She also had to stay crazy hydrated. Crazy hydrated? It’s difficult to stay hydrated out here never mind crazy hydrated and avoid the sun. No chance.
We were both devastated. We just couldn’t see a way that she could hike in these three weeks, and with us working to a visa deadline, our options felt limited. To be honest, we were sort of in shock about the whole thing. All the time spent planning and saving, all the miles behind us, and now this. The carpet was pulled from under us.
After the doctor’s appointment we sat in the waiting room and tried to figure out what we were going to do. Not in terms of the trail, just in terms of the next 24 hours. We had to get to a pharmacy to get the meds and then we needed to figure out where we were going to stay for the night, because there was no way we were going back out on trail right now. The staff gave me the number of the only taxi driver in town. I called and she told me she was on another job and didn’t know what time she’d be finished and could get to us. “But you’re driving your passenger to a known point, you must have an idea of how long it will take you to get there and back,” I implored. She told me to call back in 20 minutes. Useless. We checked Uber and Lyft; no cars in the area.
We checked Google Maps and walking to the pharmacy seemed like an option, so we asked the staff how far it was. “Probably a ten-minute walk,” said one. “Oh yeah, ten to 15 minutes,” said another. “To the pharmacy? No way, more like 30 or 40 if you’re walking,” added a third. As soon as the third view is added the idea is scrubbed. By this point, probably around 24 hours since the first symptoms of achiness started to show, Robin is feeling much worse and a fever is starting to set in. Her temperature is way up. We’re not risking a 40-minute walk (I realize the irony in the context of us being hopeful thru-hikers) and we’re not trusting the potential groupthink of the ten-minute theory.
Feeling pretty dejected, all we can do is wait before calling the world’s worst taxi driver back. But then, to our immense good fortune, a couple and their 12-year-old son walk over to us. “Are you hikers? Do you need a lift?”
It’s a moment of complete relief. Before the trail, if we were offered something we’d do the polite, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly. Are you sure? Well, if it’s not too much of a hassle…” type of thing. Over time we’ve stopped doing that out here. There’s just so much kindness and generosity that now when someone offers us something, we just graciously accept. There was zero chance of us going through any of the pleasantries in this situation. We couldn’t have been more thankful, and we bit their hands off at the offer.
They’d been at the urgent care because their son had gotten a poison ivy reaction and his reactions get really bad, much worse than the average. They were also serial trail angels that had been helping hikers passing through the area for years. Talk about lucky.
The car was full of fishing equipment, so it took a little while for them to make space for us. That morning they’d been out by a river. The son, a Boy Scout, was trying to earn his fishing badge. He’d been trying to get this one for a while, they explained, and while he was excellent at the fishing part of the task, he was having real difficulty with the catching part. The boy, Ben, found his parents’ joke funny too, and said he was going back out this afternoon to get that fish.
We reached the pharmacy and the trail angels gave us their number. They told us to get in touch if we needed anything; they were free all weekend. We collected the antibiotics, Robin having made a call to her parents who were still in the States but on their way to the airport to fly back to Scotland as we waited and then we walked to a hotel just down the street. We’d stay there for the night and figure out what happens next.
When we got to the hotel we found out it was full. Typical. The receptionist called the only other hotel in town for us and that one was full too. The dejected feeling was back.
We sat on a bench outside and trawled through the guidebook looking for somewhere else to stay. We downloaded the Booking.com app and started searching on there, too. The only place we could find was a hotel 13 miles away, so we did the only thing we could and texted the angels. Fifteen minutes later they arrived and gave us a ride to the hotel, reminding us to just let them know what time we needed a lift back to trail in the morning. They were amazing.
That evening we worked out our plan. While Robin’s parents had been in America, they’d also visited family friends that live in New York. The family friends, Gilly and Richard, had been with Bill and Julie when they found out Robin had Lyme and had immediately offered up their home as somewhere Robin could stay for the three weeks while she got better. Two more trail angels were born. Gilly was going to drive to the hotel in New Jersey in the morning and pick up Robin; meanwhile, I’d get a lift back to trail with the couple from the urgent care and continue hiking. Robin’s thru-hike, it seemed to us, was over. We were both angry. It just didn’t seem fair. We’d taken precautions, we’d done what we could, and she’d already had her share of problems on this journey, in the form of her foot issues that culminated with her having to see a podiatrist after hiking through some pretty terrible pain. Now this. Just not fair.
In the morning I woke, rolled over, and checked my phone to see what time it was. I had a message from my mum, the lock screen showing the first few lines of text as part of the message notification. My uncle had died. He was in poor health and we knew it was coming, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it still kinda sucked. We were close and I hadn’t been there at the end. Now half a world away, everything that comes with a death was left for my family to deal with, while I swanned around in the mountains. It didn’t feel great.
Ninety minutes later my shuttle had arrived and it was time to go. I left Robin in the room, feverish and deeply disappointed to have lost the thru-hike we spent so long dreaming of. We talked the night before about me getting off trail with her, that maybe we could do something else with the time we have left on our career breaks, but we both think I’d probably regret not finishing what we came to do.
I get in the car and Ben’s there, too. “How’d the fishing go?” I ask him. “You get that fish?” “I got two!” he beams back. I’m happy for him, there’s got to be something to be happy about right now.
I get back on trail and hike two miles, before throwing my pack down by a stream and sitting in the dirt. I’m just not up for it today. I’d rather be somewhere else. How have I just left Robin in a hotel room with fricking Lyme disease? Should we just fly home? Should I go see my family; should she go see hers?
I drink my water. I’m by a stream; I’ll just filter some more. Eventually I get up and decide it’s time to go. I’ll keep walking. I scoop water from the stream and it comes out filthy. Great. Even if I filter it it’s going to look disgusting. I’m not drinking this. I hike nine miles in the sun with no water.
Because I was getting back on trail late, my plan for that day was to walk 16 miles, but I reach the 15-mile mark by 3:50 so I push to 21 miles for the day and arrive at the Secret Shelter. It’s not an official AT shelter; a guy who hiked in I think the 1980s has built it on his property and allows hikers to use it. As I’m walking down the side trail to it I see my first real-life groundhog. Within the next hour I’ve seen two more. I don’t miss the irony and can’t help but think to myself, “If Punxsutawney Phil thinks we’re having another day like this any time soon, he can f*ck right off.”
Nothing, it seems, keeps this girl down. If it were me I’m not sure I’d have much interest in coming back out and hiking, but Robin makes it clear over the next couple of days that as soon as she’s done with the medication she’s coming back out and joining me. She’s going to get as much of this trail done as she can. On cloudy, overcast days, slathered in factor 70 sunscreen, and wearing a huge sun hat, she even manages to get a couple of day hikes done, covering 32 miles. We make a plan to meet at the town of Pawling, which isn’t too far from Gilly and Richard’s, where she’s staying.
When we’d gone to the urgent care, the tramily had continued north, meaning when I’d got back on trail they were 16 miles ahead. Over the next four days I take four miles out of their lead each day and catch up with them in time for us all to get to Pawling together. Gilly and Richard’s (I’m just going to coin them Team Gilard now, for ease) hospitality extends and they invite the whole tramily to their house, where we end up taking a zero. When we get there I find Robin has broken down all the hiking we’ve done without her into day hikes that she can try and get through on days the weather isn’t too sunny.
We have a great time, including a barbecue, a surprise birthday cake for Brand New, whose birthday had been two days before, and a screening of one of mine and Robin’s favorite films, “The Martian.”
The next day we say goodbye to Gilard and Robin, and head back out on trail. There’s a wet week ahead of us. On the first evening, about half an hour before we reach camp, the heavens open and the rain comes down hard. I reach the shelter first and while the rain slows a little I decide I’m going to take the opportunity to get the tent up. What a mistake. Right as I get to the point of no return the monsoon kicks back in and the Ganges forms in the inner compartment of the tent before I can get the rain fly on. I head back to the shelter to get out of the rain and the tramily have arrived. “Why did you do that?” “Yeah, that wasn’t smart,” I reply.
The tent is so wet I’ve no desire to sleep in it so I spend the night in the shelter, which surprisingly, isn’t terrible. I’m not a fan of staying in shelters.
The next day we pass the largest oak tree on the trail. It looks like this:
We get caught in another storm a few days later, but this time I get the tent up before the rain starts. The humidity has been so high recently the storms are huge. The rain pounds down on the tent and the thunder booms above us. The inside of the tent lights up with each flash of lightning.
I sleep relatively soundly until 4 a.m., when a tremendous clap of thunder wakes me up. I can hear running water somewhere near my head, which is never a good sound. I look out the mesh inner compartment of the tent to find something akin to Lake Windermere is forming in the vestibule. The way the land lays, it’s funneling the rain runoff right to the growing lake. The tent is doing its job, but I’m not sure how long that will last so I decide to pack everything up. By 4:15 I’ve changed into my hiking clothes and packed, sitting on my backpack in the tent, pools of moisture starting to form. As I sit there I work out how I can take the inner compartment down, while leaving the rain fly up. At 6 a.m. during a lull in the rain I try my plan out and my tent-based luck changes. It works perfectly.
That day I pass the 1,500-mile mark. We only realize we’ll be getting to that point a couple of miles beforehand; it hasn’t really registered on the radar up to then. During that couple of miles it starts to hit home how much of this trail I’m doing without Robin. 1,500 is a big milestone and it doesn’t feel right that I’m about to pass it without her. We came here to hike this trail and live this adventure together, and Lyme or no Lyme, I want us to get back to that. I’m certain she’ll feel the same.
I start to think back to how we made the decision that I would hike on while she recovered, and we sort of just fell into it. Almost like it was the default setting. I’ve always said that I want us to finish early- to mid-August so that we have some decompression time before we have to go back to work on Sept. 3 (which is also the day our visas expire), and by saying that I think maybe I’ve put up an early and unintentional deadline to our hike. If we really do want to finish hiking by mid-August and have some time to adjust back to normal life, then yeah, we didn’t have time for us both to get off trail for three weeks. But if we were to forget about that and just keep hiking right up to Sept. 1 or 2, then maybe we could get every mile done. It would be up to the wire and we’d have to push hard, but it would be possible.
Goodness knows how the transition back to normal life and work would be. Imagine flying back on Sept. 2 and being at work on the third, after living like this for six months. We wouldn’t have moved back into our flat (which is currently being rented out), we wouldn’t really have had time to process and reflect on what we’d just achieved, I’d still have a ridiculous beard. It would be tough. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, though. We’re not coming back and hiking the AT again… I don’t think. This is our chance to do what we came here to do.
As I hike toward 1,500 I try to think about how it could work. By the time she’s finished her meds Robin will have lost three weeks of hiking. Our current plan is for me to hike and her to join me wherever I am and then for us to continue north together. If we could reach the top of Katahdin by Aug. 10, we could turn around and have three weeks to fill in the section she’s missed, including a couple of days to shuttle around to where we need to be. This is doable! If I slackpacked her through some of it, she may even be able to get through the miles I’ve done without her faster than I got through them, so it may not even take her three weeks.
It dawns on me, though, that the idea of climbing Katahdin and knowing you still have three weeks of intense, race-against-the-visa-clock hiking ahead of you is probably not the most thrilling prospect. Imagine the feeling, too, of the night before Katahdin: Hedwig, Brand New, and I sit around the campground eating dinner, reflecting on the adventure we’ve had, the highs, the lows, the craziness of it all, and how it all ends in the morning. Maybe Robin listens to that and feels sad. Maybe when we get to the top of that last mountain, the jubilation we feel isn’t shared between the four of us, because for one of us it isn’t quite over.
I want that moment at the top of Katahdin and I want Robin to have it, too. Right now it feels like that’s not going to happen, but maybe I could at least share her side of Katahdin. What if I got off trail with her for the last week of the antibiotics? Hedwig and Brand New would continue north and then after a week Robin and I could head back out together, shuttle north to join the tramily, and then I’ve missed a week of hiking, too. At least then, when we get to Katahdin, we’ve both missed a section. We both have to go back and fill it in. We’re in it together.
I would still get myself in the headspace that Katahdin is the end of the journey and I’d hope Robin would do the same. That moment will be climactic and astounding and in the real sense of the word, awesome. It’s that Katahdin moment that is one of the drivers for doing this and I’m sure I can compartmentalize the missed section as a “tick-box exercise.” A formality to complete the thru-hike. Katahdin is the goal, Katahdin is the destination. We came to do this as a team and me getting off trail and sharing the post-Katahdin hiking burden feels like the way a team would do this.
This broadcast comes to you live from the home of Gilard, where I’m off trail and secretly mixing Robin’s antibiotics into her food so she gets through them faster than two per day.
Robin’s Two Cents
Talk about a bloody nightmare! I don’t think I’ve ever been on such an emotional roller coaster, but in some ways I need to count myself lucky. Firstly for the fact that I had the textbook symptoms of Lyme. Genuinely, if you google “symptoms of Lyme disease” then I ticked off every single one of them. So much so that the doctor took one look at me and pretty much wrote the prescription there and then; I was a textbook case. Not all are so lucky and so can go through months of pain and discomfort before getting treatment, so at least that wasn’t me. Secondly, I had Buck. He completely stepped up to the mark and I couldn’t have asked any more of him…. other than possibly carrying me that last three miles to town in the morning. My goodness, was that the toughest three miles I have ever hiked. But he really was my rock when I just felt sh*t, so I can’t thank him enough for that. I just wish I’d have been the same for him for the passing of his uncle. It broke my heart to not be there with him when life was really testing us and that is something I will always regret. Lastly, I cannot thank Gilly and Richard (and their daughter and son-in-law, Louise and Neil) enough. They welcomed me into their home and lives for three weeks without any hesitation and made me truly feel like part of the family (even though I’ve eaten them out of house and home with my hiker appetite). I’ve decided to upgrade their status from trail angels to trail saints – they really have gone above and beyond. Without them, I don’t think I could have stayed in the country, never mind recovered and concocted a plan to finish my thru-hike. Although can I now be considered a flip-flopper? That’s still up for debate. Either way, I’m getting this adventure done and Team Gilard are a huge part of that.
It’s funny. One of the hardest parts of this all was watching Buck, Brand New, and Hedwig continue on the adventure without me. Although trail life can be tiring, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright awful (like putting up a tent in a monsoon, or waking up to find slugs in your shoes), you put up with it all because of the incredible moments in between that it allows you to experience. The camaraderie, the adventure, and the just plain-old funny that the trail throws at you. I have one more day of medication before we get back out there, and I cannot wait. I think I’ll be going out with a rejuvenated appreciation of what the trail is, and for that I’m thankful.
So, I know I’ve said this once before, and I’m hoping that this time the AT doesn’t take it quite so literally, but….
Bring it, AT.
Katahdin. See you soon.
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