What I Learned After My Hike Changed Everything – Colorado Trail Epilogue
If you followed my Colorado Trail thru-hike, you know it was fraught with challenges. From a suspected UTI that wasn’t to a fall down a snowbank that almost ended my hike, I struggled.
Negative thoughts are sneaky in invading the psyche when things aren’t going well. As a solo hiker with no one to distract me from the lure of dark places, my mind indulged itself in many forms of self-flagellation.
“You’re too old for this,” was a big one. At 57, it would be easy to give in to that assumption. Then there was, “You don’t belong out here,” and “You’re too out of shape,” joined by its cousin, “You didn’t train hard enough.”
Trying to thru-hike when half your thoughts are self-defeating isn’t fun. Although the other half of my brain was in awe of the amazing scenery and epic views, darkness seemed to be winning.
At least half of thru-hiking success is mental, not physical. Your body can be as strong as an ox and you’ll still miss the goal of a thru-hike if you have the wrong mindset. At times, I was clearly losing that battle.
Could I Be Sick, Not Weak?
For the past six years, I’ve been documenting my hiking, van life, and travel adventures on YouTube. I started my channel, Joyful Rambler, because I didn’t have a hiking support system and I wanted to create one before I attempted an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
Now, on my second attempt to complete the Colorado Trail, someone in that community planted a thought in my head that nagged at me.
She commented on a video about what I thought were UTI symptoms that turned out not to be. I had gone home to get checked out by urgent care, and the test for a urinary tract infection came back negative.
The practitioner prescribed a strong antibiotic, Cipro, which was doing a number on my digestive system even after they told me to stop taking it. I was plagued by fatigue and suffered from what I called Jello legs.
My mind would tell my feet to move and my legs rebelled. There were days when every step seemed to be a battle and others when I felt pretty good. Something seemed off, but I had been to the doctor. I was told I could keep hiking, so I did.
Then I saw that comment and it shook me.
“I think you had Rhabdo,” she wrote and proceeded to share a litany of possible symptoms.
Did I Have Rhabdo?
(Note: I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice, it’s just a report on my experience.)
Rhabdo (formally Rhabdomyolysis) is a serious but rare condition that can lead to kidney failure or even death. It happens when the body breaks down skeletal muscle tissue, which then creates a protein called myoglobin which clogs up the kidneys.
Intense exertion, particularly when combined with high temperatures and dehydration, can trigger Rhabdo, as can crush injuries such as those suffered in an auto accident. Endurance athletes, CrossFit enthusiasts, and even backpackers can get rhabdo unexpectedly.
While I had heard of this condition, it never occurred to me that I could have Rhabdo.
When I went to urgent care, I knew something wasn’t right. For about 3 days, my symptoms had started by late morning, got worse as I hiked, and abated in the evening once I was in camp. My urine was dark brown, like strong tea, and even a little viscous, like maple syrup, on the third day.
Urinating was painful. I had to strain to empty my burning bladder. As soon as I did, I felt the urge to go again, but nothing would come out. The early sections of the Colorado Trail were hot, dry, and exposed, and I drank as much water as I could to fend off dehydration.
I was tired, but I had just started a thru-hike and was increasing my miles each day. It’s normal to feel some fatigue while you wait for your trail legs to kick in, so I didn’t even lump that into my symptom list.
Getting Better, I Think
After a few days at home, my symptoms seemed better, except for the Jello legs (they didn’t really hit me until I came back to the trail.).
I pushed on, taking zero days as I needed them, and frequently cutting my planned hiking miles short. “I’m going to try for 14 miles today,” I’d tell the camera, then stop at 9. I got to Copper Mountain and promptly hopped on a bus back to Breck for a rest.
It was frustrating, but that negative self-talk convinced me it was my weakness and not an illness that slowed me down. I was as determined as ever to finish this hike.
The challenges continued when I entered the Collegiate West. I struggled on my way to Cottonwood Pass, where my thru-hike attempt ended last year when a persistent respiratory infection I caught on day 4 finally beat me.
Reaching that point was a huge milestone, but within 48 hours I was back home again after falling down a mountain on a snow bank. “I can’t end my hike in fear,” I decided and returned to the trail once again.
A few days in I was feeling much stronger. My Jello legs were replaced with more muscular gams. Healthy lungs powered me up 13,000′ peaks. I had a plan to meet up with Gunslinger, so I wouldn’t be hiking alone anymore.
Things were looking up, but that little comment, “I think you had Rhabdo,” kept echoing in my head.
Call the Doctor
By the time I got to Lake City, I was really curious. Was it possible I had Rhabdo and didn’t know it? If I did, were my kidneys damaged? Would I have any lasting effects?
I felt good, finally, but these questions swirled in my mind. I read up on Rhadbo and I decided to schedule an appointment with my regular doctor when I returned home, just to be safe.
Since Rhabdo is rare I didn’t assume she would know what it was, much less if I had it or not. I went to my appointment armed with a detailed description of all my symptoms – which ironically started to come back on the 2nd to last day of my hike, then disappeared.
“It’s complicated…” I said as I began to explain. She listened for a moment, then interrupted me, “You had Rhabdo,” she said emphatically.
I was shocked…and scared.
What did that mean for me? Did I have kidney damage and not know it? Could I get it again? Would it end my hiking adventures?
My doctor, who had seen Rhadbo before, assured me I’d be fine. I could still hike, and I would not be more prone to Rhabdo just because I had it before.
She ordered blood tests and a renal ultrasound to check my kidneys, and the results were good. No damage was evident. I was lucky.
A Completely New Perspective
In the days after that doctor’s visit, I reflected on my thru-hike, which I finished after 35 hiking days and lots of zeros. It was an amazing experience but much, much, more difficult than I anticipated.
One of the biggest mistakes I made going into my thru-hike attempt this year was assuming that it would be easier, if not “easy.” After kicking the respiratory infection that made every climb agony in 2022, I believed my conditioning and experience would ensure my 2023 hike was a breeze.
I envisioned dreamy nights by mountain lakes, casual strolls through idyllic meadows (with a backpack, of course), and lovely climbs up mountains to enjoy breathtaking views. I got some of that, but only about 10% of what I expected. The rest was hard work – for my body and my mind.
Even though many hikers I respected shared their feelings that “The Colorado Trail is tough,” I was still asking myself the same pivotal question again and again:
“Why was the hike so hard for me this year?”
I finally had the answer: I wasn’t weak, I was sick.
Peering through a different lens, the challenges of my thru-hike suddenly came into crystal-clear focus.
I was still 57, not 27, but I wasn’t frail and unprepared. I trained a lot and had thousands of miles of backpacking experience. I was ready for my Colorado Trail thru-hike and what happened to me could happen to anyone.
In hindsight, so much makes sense now and it’s a shame I beat myself up like I did. The fatigue and Jello legs were a lingering side effect of the Rhabdo, not a sign I was a washed-up old woman.
Thinking back on what I did right, I remembered how hard it was to exit the trail at the end of my first week of hiking. I cried buckets of tears when I made the decision to go home and get checked out, afraid it meant failure for the second year in a row.
No thanks to the urgent care though. I was (and still am) pretty upset they didn’t diagnose me correctly. I stressed that I had just started a Colorado Trail thru-hike and that I needed to talk with someone who understood the medical issues hikers face.
I was clear in explaining that while my symptoms seemed like a UTI to me, it was possible I could have something else. Rhabdo wasn’t on my radar then, but it should have been on theirs.
They sent me back to the Colorado Trail telling me, “You’re fine to keep hiking,” quite possibly too soon.
Thankfully, when I returned to my thru-hike I was smart enough to listen to my body. I took my time hiking. I allowed myself to take zeros I didn’t want to take, and shortened my days when I felt “done” before I planned to be.
This whole experience, from the challenges of the thru-hike to the delayed Rhabdo diagnosis, has armed me with a host of lessons I didn’t know I needed.
Complacency can set in quickly once we have a good dose of backpacking experience. After months of hiking in all kinds of weather across a wide variety of terrain, it’s not uncommon to think “I got this.”
The Colorado Trail humbled me. It showed me that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always more to learn. It taught me that while solo hiking is fun, it can also be risky. I’m fiercely independent, and I need people, too.
There were moments on this trek when I thought resolutely, “This will be my last thru-hike.” Now I’m not so sure. These lessons will only serve to enrich my future experiences, whether I’m long-distance backpacking, hiking on shorter trails, or traveling to parts unknown.
Having had a little time to think about it, I’m now asking myself, “Why not take what I’ve learned to another trail?” Maybe the PCT or the CDT is in my future.
Time will tell.
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