Plan B – SOBO on the AZT

Goodbye 2021 PCT Thru-Hike, Hello Operating Room

One of the harder phone calls of my life was calling the PCTA to turn in my 2021 PCT thru-hiking permit due to the discovery of a growth in my pancreas.    Between then and now, I had most every know type of imaging study – an MRI, multiple CAT scans, normal old X-rays, a colonoscopy, plus an endoscopy with a biopsy of my pancreas.  Turns out I had what might be most easily described as “precancerous” cyst with an estimated risk of progression to pancreatic cancer of 65%.  My mother died of pancreatic cancer two days after diagnosis, so this was very worrisome to say the least.   I end-up getting 1/3 of my pancreas, my entire spleen, and my gallbladder removed.  The gallbladder was filled with stones and since they were in the neighborhood, it was an extra add-on.  Why not?  The surgery went well, and I was discharged 2 days earlier than expected.  YAY for me!

Sepsis Pretty Much Sucks

Two weeks after discharge, I developed a fever.   I was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of extreme sepsis – fever of 104, resting heart rate of 120, and delirium.  I was in the hospital for 10 days with daily fevers and extreme fatigue.  All I did was sleep.  As they say, I was sick as a dog.   When I got home, I could only walk a few blocks and slept about 16 to 18 hours a day.  That lasted for weeks.  I also had no appetite and lived on Ensure and Coke.  I lost 25 pounds and weighed the same I did when I graduated high school in 1977.  155 pounds looks a lot different on a 17 year old boy than on a 61 year old man – not pretty.

The Mend – a work in progress

My recovery was very slow.  I was on IV antibiotics for a month followed by 2 weeks of oral antibiotics which just ended 2 weeks ago.  In reality, I have only felt normal for about a month.  I started riding my bike, 3 miles the first time was all I could do, and walking my feisty 16 1/2 pound terrier mix, Louie, as my self-developed rehab program.  Last weekend I did a 4-mile hike up on the Mogollon Rim (the AZT climbs this beautiful protruding foot of the Colorado Plateau).   Two days ago, I drove from my home in Phoenix up to Grand Canyon National Park and took a 5-mile walk in the refreshingly cool temperatures at 7000’.  If you’ve ever lived in the Sonoran Desert, you’d appreciate why anyone would drive 4 hours each way to walk 5 miles.  I did have the added bonus of seeing one of the most extreme thunderstorms from my hotel room in Williams, AZ – an old Route 66 town.  While there, I visited the South Kaibab trailhead which is where an AZT SOBOer exits Grand Canyon.  I’ve hiked down to the Colorado River on the South Kaibab.  The trail is shared with mules that take people and their luggage to a lodge, Phantom Ranch,  at the bottom of Grand Canyon.  To be blunt, mule piss stinks A LOT and it definitely impacts the rim-to-the-river hiking experience.

I’ve been going to the gym and riding my bike 15 to 20 miles almost every day and am feeling stronger every day.

New Adaptations

I have some new challenges.  I already was a type 2 diabetic before they chopped out a third of my pancreas (the pancreas produces the insulin your body needs to maintain normal blood sugar levels).  I am learning to follow a new and much stricter diet and am working on planning a menu that is diabetic friendly for the trail.  I listen to an episode of a new podcast by The Trek, Walking Distance where Aaron Owens Mayhew was interviewed by Blissful Hiker.  Owens is a registered dietitian who has an extremely comprehensive website, Backcountry Foodie.  I joined Backcountry Foodie as a paying member figuring I need all the help I can get moving from a diet of Top Ramen and Snickers to something more diabetic friendly.  There is lots of great information about how to lower your food weight while increasing the caloric and nutritional value.  A little professional dietitian help can help a lot.  This is even more true when the dietitian is an avid backpacker.

 AZT, Here I Come

If there is one thing long distance backpacking has taught me is that I am capable of much more than I once thought.  I learned that persistence is important and to never underestimate my own abilities.  I’ve learned to figure out things on my own. I’ve also come to have a deep appreciation for planning, always considering safety, and for being flexible.   I learned to make a Plan B on a pretty regular basis as our initial plans for backpacking trips almost never go as planned.  So, in late September or early October, I plan to start a SOBO hike on the AZT.  It might be a Plan B, but it is not a second rate trail.  The AZT is really a beautiful and challenging trail with a very wide range of diversity in the landscape and ecosystems packed into 800 miles.

I have 2 months to get ready for this trip.  That should be plenty.  What I know is that when I have an upcoming trip, my mood is better, and I am more focused in my activities.   I train much harder.  I am already daydreaming of the very dark skies of Northern Arizona were the Milky Way crosses the sky like a belt of glistening diamonds.  I am looking forward to dust and long water hauls and eating crap I normally would not eat (HINT:  Slap Ya Mama Cajun Seasoning can make almost anything taste good).  I am daydreaming of my tent and of cowboy camping and meeting new friends along the trail.

For me, this trip on the AZT has been a longtime dream.  I have been a member of the ATA for about 15 years, before the ATZ was even completed.  It is also a great way to affirm my return to health with my risk of pancreatic cancer greatly decreased.  It is a tribute to my husband who was amazing through all my emotional and physical health rollercoastering (yes, I am pretty sure that is not a word, but it is now).  My friends were amazing.  And finally it is a tribute to all the outstanding care I received from my nurses and doctors.  And, let’s just be honest about what is really happening here, hiker trash is happiest on the trail, right?


Photo:  by the author.


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Comments 1

  • Aaron Owens Mayhew (Backcouuntry Foodie) : Aug 9th

    Thanks for sharing your story and inspiring others to not give up on their dreams despite hardships. In my own experience, Plan B seems to be inevitable at some point in a thru-hike. Glad to hear you’re on the mend rounding out 2021 with the AZT. Have a great trip!


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