“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” – 1 Corinthians 10:12
“The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” – Psalm 34:19
Today was the first of two consecutive not especially good days on the AT. Some days are just like that. When you hit a wall, physically and/or emotionally, you just have to grind it out and keep your head up.
Just a couple of miles into the morning hike, I took a side trail .3 miles west to check out the beautiful Dismal Falls. The scenic waterfall and the surrounding campsites may very well be the best water-based place to camp on the AT thus far. On my way to the falls I saw Dawn, aka Slim Rim, hiking out and we chatted briefly. At the falls I had the place to myself. I set my pack and trekking pokes down, ate a snack, took some pictures and video, took care of some business, and then decided to check out the place. Specifically, I wanted to walk along the edge of the water and look for fish. And that’s when it happened. As I nonchalantly walked around some large, wet, flat rocks, not really paying attention, my feet slipped out from under me and I went airborne, landing flat on my back! Actually, my back, butt, and right elbow all hit at the same time, with my elbow bearing the brunt of it. I was in immense pain and was somehow embarrassed, even though no one else was around. It was my first fall on the AT, at mile 610, and it happened on a side excursion with my backpack off. I felt very thankful that I didn’t crack my skull. If I had, instead of my blog, you might be reading my Fobituary.
I gathered myself, felt around for damage (bruised elbow, muddy shorts, dislocated ego), and then continued northward. It was an overcast day, with occasional showers, and I walked alongside various streams and crossed bridges throughout the day. In the afternoon my feet started to ache all over. They became especially sensitive to stepping on sharp rocks, which happens hundreds of times throughout a typical day. On top of that, the elbow pain from my fall worsened and I wasn’t able to push off on my right trekking pole during climbs. As a hiker who relies heavily on forearms and trekking poles for power and balance during climbs, this is a problem. I felt like someone had popped me in the elbow with a hammer.
On top of of the physical pain that afternoon, I felt really sad that I was missing my son Kyle’s and future daughter-in-law Laci’s college graduation. Realistically, to hike the trail I had to choose between their graduation today or their wedding the following weekend and the wedding won out. Although they understood and supported that decision, I felt terrible about it. They had both had such remarkable college experiences. It’s one of those family sacrifices you have to make to hike the AT, and emotionally it hit me pretty hard. Exhausted, bummed, and in foot and elbow pain, I had simply had enough and just stopped in my tracks. Time to set up camp. It had been a tough 17.1 mile day, mentally and physically. As I sat there cooking Chili Mac, Dawn and then later Conductor and Whistler (aka Mowgli) passed by and asked how I was doing. I said, “Fine, thanks.” I lied.
“My life before the trail was often a bit white-washed, as if someone had trimmed the peaks and valleys from each day. The trail has brought a vivid color back to each day, both in good and bad ways. The reality is that you can’t have the highs without the lows out here.” – Slice, aspiring 2016 thru-hiker
It was a restless night of sleep because I’m a side sleeper and every time I rolled onto my right elbow the pain woke me up. As I crawled out of my tent that morning to retrieve my bear bag, pain shot through both of my feet. It was the sorest I ever remember them being. I brought my food bag back into my tent, ate a pop tart, and sat there rubbing my feet. I then remembered that it was Mothers Day, the first one since my dear mother passed away. I’m not much of a crier (ENTJs tend not to be all that emotionally expressive) but I laid back on my air mattress and had my first good long AT cry. It was a combination of thinking about mom, missing my wife, missing graduation, nursing an injured elbow, and dealing with foot pain that made it difficult to take even a step. Of my 58 days on the AT so far, I had reached my lowest point. I took a few Advil, poured out my heart to God, and then wrote a poem for my mom. Writing has always been therapeutic to me as it allows me to unscramble and process my thoughts and emotions. Prayer has a similar effect because I know God knows my heart and struggles and is ready to give me whatever I need to get through the day.
I eventually pulled myself together and counted my blessings. I am an immensely blessed person and I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone. Still, just like the AT, life has its peaks and valleys and I was in a temporary valley. I thought about people and families I know courageously dealing with cancer and brain injuries and other things far worse than the sadness and foot pain I was experiencing. I realized I simply needed a break from the trail and, fortunately, a break was coming! All I needed to do was hobble 11.1 miles along a flat, and then descending, section of trail into Pearisburg. So that’s what I did.
Conductor caught up with me and we hiked together for the last few miles. He is one of my favorite hikers and I’m glad our paths have crossed several times. As a guy who previously thru-hiked the AT several years ago (and had an injury-riddled failed attempt last year), he has tremendous credibility in answering trail questions. He does that very humbly and only when asked, so he doesn’t come across as a know-it-all. We both are retired military and love the AT, so there are always plenty of things to talk about. After hiking into Pearisburg, checking into the motel, and showering (separately), we headed across the street for some great Mexican food and more conversation. He really lifted my spirits, as did the motel manager who offered to do my laundry for free.
That evening, after a hot bath, my feet were feeling a little better so I decided to walk to the other side of town and attend worship services at the Pearisburg Church of Christ. I arrived a few minutes before 6:00 p.m., the start time according to my google search. No one was there. I called the number listed as the contact person to get more information and got no answer. Oh well. I hiked back to the motel, stopping at Pizza Hut along the way for some pizza and salad.
My original plan was to take a zero day in Pearisburg on Monday, and then rent a car and head to Alabama on Tuesday for the wedding week activities. While sitting at the Pizza Hut, I decided to accelerate that by a day because I missed my wife and family, and an extra rental car day would be less than an extra night at the motel.
I decided to keep my day early arrival a secret to Lil Jan, and just told our friends, the Diamonds (with whom she’s staying) about the plan. In just a matter of hours, I had gone from the valley of pain, exhaustion, and sadness to the mountaintop of anticipation in seeing my wife, other family, and friends. I needed rest, a break from hiking and some normalcy. I needed my family. I needed to be a part of the wedding festivities. I needed some extended time on the mountaintop. And God was about to pour out all those blessings on me big time.
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