Returning to Trail, Humbled by Injury
Sixteen days after hiking into Wrightwood with a skin infection, I was antsy to get back on trail, even though I wasn’t quite physically ready. Here’s how I adjusted, and how my perspective shifted as I regained my trail legs.
From LA Back to the PCT
While I was laid up, I’d gone to LA to visit my friend Remy. He’d generously put me up for a week before I woke up mysteriously covered in hives. It was my first experience with hives, so it took Remy 24 hours to convince me to go to the hospital. By that point, I’d earned my first butt-cheek shot, new antibiotics, and a round of steroids. My new and awesome friend Charlie of The Might Project picked me up later that day and drove me back to Wrightwood. I stayed a couple nights with more wonderful trail angels (thanks again, Mike and Sue), and then got back on trail at Vincent Gap, the base of Mt. Baden-Powell. I’d heard from Roy and some of our friends that the upcoming section of trail was pretty challenging, but I was determined to summit Mt. Baden-Powell, since I’d forgone the Mt. San Jacinto summit due to blistered feet weeks before.
I started the climb at 5:30 a.m., alone on trail except for a kind solo female day hiker who was altitude training. We leapfrogged all the way up, encouraging each other and pointing out the views as the sun rose. We took each other’s photos on the summit. I had some time alone on the summit, high above the morning clouds; I’d heard LA was sometimes visible down below. It was my first mountain summit ever, my first time posing for the kinds of photos I’d scrolled through on Instagram for a year. I was happy and proud of myself, but more than anything I was just thankful to be back on trail.
Less than an hour into my Baden-Powell descent, I found myself alone in a campsite crying over bare, swollen, sore feet. For two weeks I hadn’t been able to walk or hike at all, and I’d used an allergic reaction as an excuse to jump back on trail and prematurely climb a mountain. I knew transitioning back to trail life would take some adjusting, but I’d underestimated how much patience it would require. I was as sore as I’d been in the early days of the desert section; it felt as though my endurance and stamina were gone.
Trying to Stay on Trail
I realized I wasn’t the boss. My brain was no longer the decider when it came to daily mileage, or when to take breaks, or how fast to hike. For over 300 miles hiking with blisters had been an exercise in mind over matter for me. I was proficient in compartmentalizing pain until I’d achieved the day’s goal, then untaping my feet in camp and not walking much till morning. But now, forcing my body onward was no longer an option. As one doctor had told me recently, “infections have no rules.” When my feet got hot or sweaty, my unnamed blistery rash would return, complete with swelling and a fiery itch.
I switched from double layering Darn Tough socks and Injinji sock liners to the liners only, and I made myself stop every three hours to air out my feet and change socks. The soles of my feet were slowly peeling off, and I was having to treat my feet with five different topical creams twice a day. I was taking two antibiotics and an oral steroid. I was bandaging my feet with gauze and tape, and changing the bandages two to three times a day. I was still unable to keep the rash at bay, and the healing I’d waited weeks for was slipping away. I realized I probably needed more rest, somewhere around the PCT 400-mile marker. After a long break at the marker, I slowly limped toward Mill Creek Fire Station, debating about asking day hikers for a ride into town.
I zoned in on the trail, putting one foot in front of the other, ready to gut it out to the fire station and nearby road. But with less than two miles to go, something broke. As I stepped with my left foot, something in the arch popped, or ripped, or exploded. And for the first time on trail, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t find the exact place where the blister popped; my whole foot was red and swollen, and sort of sticky.
I debated hiking to the highway in my Crocs, but ultimately decided to saddle up in my trail runners and slowly shuffle up trail. Halfway to the road I was exhausted and frustrated, when I turned a corner and stumbled onto a homemade sign from trail angel Mary, offering rides to injured hikers. I texted her, and she drove me from Mill Creek Fire Station to the KOA campground in Acton. I rested there for about four days before I felt ready to try getting back on trail again. I spent Memorial Day weekend hanging out in the KOA TV room with my feet up, catching up on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
I hiked from Acton to Agua Dulce, and was finally feeling good. I was ready to be back, to hike real miles, to stop sitting still. I walked into Hiker Heaven and saw Carmen McNerney, the Julian legend. We went out to lunch and I told her my story. I told her I was feeling better, but was frustrated to now be two-plus weeks behind all my friends. She offered to drive me northward, but insisted on showing me Casa de Luna in nearby Green Valley first. After her restaurant sold, Carmen had essentially gone on tour, volunteering her time and contagious energy at PCT trail angel hot spots across Southern California. She drove me to Casa de Luna and we stayed the night. Plans changed quickly in the morning, I said hastened goodbyes to Carmen as Worldwide offered me a ride northward since he was headed home. He dropped me off at Walker Pass, and I started hiking north the following morning.
I skipped a 200-mile section of trail, from mile 450 to 650, but I’m incredibly thankful to be back on trail, and to have now hiked 250-plus miles almost entirely without issue. My feet look like feet finally, and I’m hiking 15-18 mile days in the Sierra. I feel thankful, humbled, and happy.
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