Midpoint Reflections: Hiking with One Kidney, AT vs. PCT Comparisons, and More
I’m over halfway done with the PCT!
Although I’ve fallen a few weeks behind with my regular journal-style blog entries, I recently crossed the midpoint of the trail. After a low period when I struggled physically (#thanksCOVID), mentally, and socially, I have once again found my groove, and I’m feeling optimistic about the remainder of the trail.
So, I wanted to use this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on my hike so far. Going into the PCT, I had four major questions. With over half the trail behind me but over a thousand miles still ahead, I think I have answers—at least initial ones—to three out of four.
1) What is it like to thru-hike with one kidney?
In the months leading up to my donation to my dad, I sought information on previous kidney-donor thru-hikers of the PCT. Although I found articles about a transplant recipient who hiked the AT over 20 years ago, the closest I found on the west coast was a donor who completed the John Muir Trail. It still wouldn’t surprise me if others have thru-hiked longer trails and simply not made a big deal out of it—after all, most of us live very normal lives afterward, and the donation becomes barely a footnote in our stories rather than a major plot point—but it meant that I had no first-hand information about what to expect when attempting such a long journey.
That said, I have backpacked a lot since the transplant. In 2020, I joined a backcountry trail crew, and I spent this past winter season leading weekend backpacking trips for REI. However, on an REI trip, we hike 17-20 miles over three days. Out here, I’m doing 20+ miles almost every single day for five months straight. Recently, I’ve even hiked a few 30-mile days.
And honestly? It’s been fine. The only differences between me and your average thru-hiker are that I pay extra attention to my hydration, and I have to avoid NSAIDs. When other hikers talk about “Vitamin I” (translation: ibuprofen) I think wistfully of my AT days. Back then, Advil PM was my best shot at sleeping through my aching feet and the itching of my mosquito bites. But I’m also glad to have an ironclad reason not to mask my pain with medication. It forces me to listen to my body and not push too hard.
Besides these two small changes, the donation hasn’t impacted my hiking experience at all.
I recently wrote a long piece about my donation to an organization called Kidney Donor Athletes. If you’re interested in reading my full story or learning more about the athletic feats of other donors, check them out here. If you have specific questions or are considering a donation, feel free to send me a DM on Instagram. It’s a topic I care about deeply.
2) How will the PCT compare to the AT?
I know, I know. Don’t compare. Let each experience stand on its own. It’s advice I’ve heard from others and from myself. I was already aware that my AT memories are unrealistically rose-colored, and I arrived in Campo determined to have an open mind. But deep down, I harbored fear that with all my nostalgia, the PCT could never live up to the AT.
Nonetheless, previous experiences are how we contextualize the present. It’s inevitable. When I taught English overseas, I viewed other places through the lens of my American upbringing. Then, by combining my past and my new context, I learned more about both. As long as we resolve not to make value judgments or reject new things purely because they’re different, I think comparison can be useful in gaining perspective.
In terms of the trail itself, the PCT seems much easier. Part of this is simply that I’m more experienced now, so the long days and simple hassles haven’t fazed me the way they might a newer backpacker. Another part is that with my late-April start date, I’ve been incredibly lucky with conditions. The water carries, temperatures, and Sierra snow levels in the first half of the trail were all very manageable compared to what some hikers experience, depending on their year, direction, and permit date. Moreover, the nonstop views, gentle elevation grade, and lack of constant rain give PCT hikers few reasons to complain.
I was also fortunate not to struggle with elevation sickness. Many hikers find that simply existing at 10,000 feet can make them feel ill. Against all odds, I—originally a Floridian flatlander—was among the lucky ones. I never experienced headaches, nausea, or shortness of breath, not even on Whitney.
In terms of the broader experience, the two hikes have been very different. Much of my AT hike was characterized by relationships. For one, I accidentally found a romantic partner who remained a huge part of my life for close to two years after Katahdin. Just as importantly, I found a tramily in a few other hikers. They supported me through knee issues, illness, and Mid-Atlantic ennui. My PCT has made me realize that my AT tramily was a bit unusual in both cohesiveness and durability.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure there are lots of groups on both trails that never stray from each other for the long haul. But this time, I believe I’m having a more typical experience. I’ve met amazing people on the PCT, but besides about 500 miles with The Second Breakfast Club, I haven’t been hiking with the same people all the time. Because of off-trail obligations, on-trail injuries and COVID cases, visits from friends or family, and different perspectives on hiking vs. skipping burn zones, most groups seem to exist in a state of flux.
At first, I struggled with this. As I detailed in my most recent blog post, I started the trail reluctant to get “tied down” by a tramily too soon. Yet, I was still looking forward to eventually fitting in with a great group. I wanted to prioritize friendship rather than romance on the PCT, but like many, I’ve been craving community throughout the isolation of the pandemic. The close-knit found-family vibes of the hiker trash world were perhaps what I missed about the AT most of all.
When my tramily out-hiked me at the end of the Sierra, thanks to my hip injury and COVID, it almost felt like being dumped. I knew, I knew, I knew that we were all making the right choices—me by slowing down to rest, and them by not waiting—but it was still no fun. I second-guessed everything. Maybe I was a weaker hiker than I thought. Maybe they never even liked me! Maybe the PCT community is just not as tight as the AT.
Or, possibly, we were all just hiking our own hike. Over the next few weeks, I eventually recovered from COVID and began to enjoy myself again in Northern California. And even though some of my original group remained ahead, we could still share the occasional meal when they took a zero. And I found myself among other friends. Some are from earlier in the trail, and some are new. I’ve met lots of other hikers in NorCal who’ve shared similar experiences with groups morphing and changing. I’ve also spent more time hiking and camping solo. Without the self-imposed pressure to “keep up,” I’ve taken amazing little detours, like the Subway lava cave and Burney Falls.
Altogether, the AT and PCT are very different in terrain and weather, but the thru-hiking community is irresistible on both.
3) What if I get COVID?
Well… it happened. I got sick the day before Sonora Pass but couldn’t get a test until Tahoe. Positive. I held out for two years, but eventually, the Rona got me.
Stories of COVID, and especially long COVID, have worried me since the start of the pandemic. My lungs are so important to me! I mean, lungs are obviously important to everyone, but hiking and running are the key ways I manage my mental health. On some level, the thought of being forced to be sedentary feels genuinely life-threatening, beyond the impact of the virus itself.
But I was lucky. I felt sick—very sick—for about a week, with a few additional days of “meh” on either end. My symptoms were congestion, a sore throat, a wet cough, and a croaky voice. But as unpleasant as it was, I did not experience severe shortness of breath, fatigue, or loss of taste and smell. I had to slow down, but I only ended up taking one actual zero. Otherwise, I just kept to myself and kept plodding north.
It was undeniably my worst ten days on trail, but I recovered. It felt so frustrating to finally catch COVID when I literally live outside (my theory is I was exposed on the crowded shuttle between Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Lakes), but honestly? I felt relieved. For two years, I’ve fretted that COVID could stop me from being active for weeks or months. In reality, it made life unpleasant for less than two weeks. This pandemic has caused so much suffering for so many. When it comes to the actual illness, I feel like I got off pretty easy.
4) What about wildfires?
This is the question that I can’t really answer yet. So far, the class of 2022 has been fortunate on the fire front. The trail through the Dixie burn was back open, so I haven’t yet missed any official miles due to fire. Hiking through the massive zone of destruction was sobering. My friend Booster wrote a really good post about it.
But it’s only late July. This morning, my phone warned me of an excessive heat warning in Northern California. I have only been rained on three times in 90 days on trail. All three showers were fleeting. Today, Mount Shasta is hazy from the fire down near Yosemite.
At this point, it feels like we’re all racing to Oregon, chased by smoke. Somehow, we imagine that the fires can’t catch us there. Oregon and Washington had lots of snow this year, right? Maybe it will be OK this year.
We hope, we hope, we hope. But wildfire season is long out here. Its consequences remain to be seen. Fingers crossed?
Back to the Woods
That’s it for my halfway reflections! I have another zero coming up, so I’ll try to catch up on my normal blog posts then. (They will probably contain more haikus.) In the meantime, I will keep hiking because there’s a lot of trail still to go! Overall, I am just grateful for the opportunity to be out here and eager to keep going.
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