What’s Wrong with Me? Colorado Trail Thru-Hike, Part 2

Oh no, not again! I just started the Colorado Trail (for the second time). How is it possible to have health issues so soon?

Starting Strong

My thru-hike attempt started strong, even though I decided to make Day One a short one. I logged record time – for me anyway – hiking up Waterton Canyon to Lenny’s Rest. As I made my way downhill toward Bear Creek, the rising heat nagged at me and my speed slowed.

Just past the campsites where I stayed last year, I stopped at the creek to fill up on water. Several hikers were there for the same reason. A young family of five looked confident, two 50-something men starting a section hike were ready to move on, and a younger woman seemed a little intimidated by the magnitude of her first day.

I dropped my pack to retrieve my water filter and the sky opened up. Time to deploy my umbrella!

Sitting in the rain, I drank and rested for a bit, starting to waver on my plan for 14ish miles. “Why rush?” I thought. Better to start slow and increase my distance, even though I trained plenty for this trail.

This spot had bear trouble last year, but the Far Out app didn’t reflect any recent issues from users, who can comment to share updates. A couple of other hikers showed up, wondering if it was safe to camp at Bear Creek.

“It should be,” I assured them, “if you store your food properly,”

A few of us decided to end the day there, and I was glad I did. No bears bothered us, I slept like a rock, and I was ready to go early the next morning.

Repeating My Steps

From Bear Creek, I quickly fell into a pattern of repeating my stops from 2022, which I didn’t really want to do. It’s not fun retracing my steps. I prefer uncovering fresh trails and new experiences as I hike. But there I was, trekking from Bear Creek to a campsite at mile 20.2 to Buffalo Creek – all places I camped last year.

I was pleased as my daily mileage increased from 8.7 miles to 11.5 to 16.2. Then on the morning of Day 4, I just couldn’t get moving. The struggle bus ran me over and even a moderate climb drained me.

When I reached a high viewpoint, I had cell service and called Andy, lamenting my fatigue. “I just feel like I need a break,” I said through tears, “I’d love to NERO into Bailey.”

I hadn’t planned to stop there, I fell sick in Bailey last year. It seemed like bad karma to tempt fate, but I decided to see if the lovely Two Bridges hostel had space for a weary-too-soon hiker. They did, so I rushed to the trailhead as fast as my tired legs would go.

It was a wonderful little break, and I don’t regret stopping. I’m learning to listen to my body, and when it’s screaming, “Give me a break!” I take heed.

I met some wonderful new friends there and got the rest I needed to get going again the next day.

I Didn’t Expect This

Soon after I left Bailey, I noticed some weird symptoms I’d never experienced. It was hot, water carries were long, and my body was still adjusting to the daily rigors of backpacking.

(CAUTION: Stop reading now if you’re squeamish about bodily functions!)

As each day progressed, my urine grew darker. Clear in the morning, dark gold by early afternoon, and still darker (like strong black tea) later in the day.

I was drinking all I could to avoid dehydration, but my pee looked more and more concentrated. When I urinated, it would burn. I’d struggle to empty my bladder, only to feel the urge to go again within minutes.

It had been years since I’d had a urinary tract infection (UTI) and I didn’t expect to get one on the trail, but I thought it was possible. However, when I got to camp at night, things suddenly seemed to return to normal. The cycle would begin again the next day. So strange.

By the 3rd day of this, my urine was looking cloudy and viscous. I could get it checked out in Breckenridge, but I was worried and Breck was still a couple of days away.

I’d reach Kenosha Pass that evening – a Friday night. It was the next road crossing, with access to the towns of Jefferson and Fairplay. Should I find an urgent care there?

Cell service was spotty, so I used my InReach to contact Andy. “Can you find me an urgent care?” I asked.

His response was not what I wanted to hear. The closest place I could be seen on a Saturday was miles away in Breckenridge or Buena Vista. Getting to either would require a long, expensive, shuttle ride or a difficult series of hitches. Ugh!

“I’ll come get you,” Andy volunteered, offering to drive the two hours to pick me up. “You can go urgent care here at home,” he suggested, and I agreed. When I hung up the phone, tears cascaded down my cheeks. Thankfully, no one was around to see.

The women I’d been hiking with were ahead of me, with plans to meet at the Forest Service campground at Kenosha Pass for the night. I’d be going home instead, and I felt defeated.

This was NOT the plan!

A Visit to Urgent Care

Home Too Soon

I waited with my friends at the campground until Andy arrived to retrieve me, at about 7 pm. On the way home, I went online and booked an early morning appointment at the local urgent care.

When I got there, I discovered the clinician (a doctor, I assume) had called out and there was no one there to assess my problem. The staff offered me a telehealth visit with someone in another office, and I pleaded with them. “I just started the Colorado Trail, I need to see someone who understands hiking issues.”

Soon I was on a video call with a Nurse Practitioner who had been to Everest Base Camp. That gave me some confidence that she might know what was going on. The initial test for a UTI was negative, so she ordered a 3-day culture. Then she prescribed me a strong antibiotic called Cipro and sent me on my way.

“You can hike again once you start the antibiotics,” she advised, so I went home and made plans to return to the trail, ASAP.

By Tuesday I was hiking again and my urine was back to a normal color. The rest of me felt pale, too, as the Cipro really did a number on my digestive system. I wasn’t sure what was worse: mysteriously dark, icky urine or having to dig a cathole in a hurry 2-3 times a day.

It’s Not a UTI

Later that day I heard from the clinic that the longer culture was negative, too. Good news, I guess, but no one could tell me what the problem was. The NP had mentioned a possible kidney infection and prescribed 7 days of Cipro, just in case. “It will knock out either one,” she said.

It was only day 3 when the clinic told me to stop taking the Rx. I was happy to do so due to the side effects, but also concerned. What if I did have a kidney infection?

“Can you confirm that with the nurse?” I asked the urgent care. They did.

I stopped the meds but still had daily diarrhea, usually from morning until midday. Soon I felt like my body wasn’t getting enough nutrients, and everything in my food bag tasted terrible. It was hard to eat well, and my energy level suffered.

Defiant, I vowed I would not quit the trail. I planned too long and I wanted it too much. I left Breck with a full pack and hiked to Copper Mountain, one of the toughest stretches of the Colorado Trail.

At the end of the day, I was beat and crashed at the first campsite I could find. When the sun rose, I was still exhausted so I took the free bus back to Breckenridge for a NERO at my favorite hostel, the Bunk House.

In next morning, I bused it back to Copper and hiked on.

Resting Up to Rebound

When I reached Tennessee Pass, Andy picked me up for a pre-planned weekend ZERO in our camper van. Copious town food seemed to help, and I felt much better when I started hiking again on Sunday afternoon. Even so, I decided to take another ZERO in Leadville when I reached the Timberline Creek trailhead two days later.

My thru-hike attempt was certainly off to a rocky start.

More town food, lots of rest, and a chance to slack-pack for a day with my new friend Gunslinger helped me rebound a bit. My stomach was still rebelling, but overall, my body felt better and my hiking pace improved.

I never did learn what caused my UTI-like symptoms, but thankfully, they abated. With clear urine and a touchy stomach, I powered through, planning to see my regular physician when I finished the trail.

As long as the symptoms didn’t come back, I reasoned, I could still complete my thru-hike.

(Want to start this series at the beginning? Read this.)

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Comments 3

  • Rae : Sep 5th

    Did they test for rhabdomyolysis?

    • Joey Ferguson : Sep 14th

      I wish they had! Turns out, that was exactly what it was. (More on that in a future post.)


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