Appalachian Trail update #3: The Recovery
I have a saying: “If you’re smiling you’re crispy, if you’re frowning you’re soggy.” Well I’d been feeling pretty soggy since March 1st. Thankfully though, things are looking up!
I don’t know what was more excruciating, walking 11.7 miles on a freshly torn quadricep or hiking a distance of 29 miles that should take only 2 days and instead doing it over the course of 5 days. After 4.5 days of solid rest at the NOC, I departed northbound on the AT on March 6th and arrived at Fontana Dam on March 10th, no day being longer than 7 miles. My shortest, 3.5 miles.
I’ll be getting back on trail to take it relatively slow through the Smokies, but I’m starting to think I can begin to creep into double digit miles again. The leg is feeling repaired, getting stronger, and my stride is returning to normal.
Having very few injuries in life, I am usually quite alarmed when I do suffer one. Other than IT Band Syndrome and a hernia, I don’t have much precedent to go on. For these reasons, I tend to be quite nervous about their impact on my body and experiences and can become impatient over the course of a recovery. It took a lot of restraint for me to stay the course and slowly allow myself to recover. It was difficult for me to watch others hike by as I was sitting around shelters all day feeling like a chump. But patience pays off and it feels as though my muscle has repaired itself.
Just like any trying experience, I learned a lot because of this injury. Most notably, I believe, are these two points:
1. I’m my own harshest critic.
2. There is something very compelling about people pushing themselves in nature.
Allow me to explain:
1. I knew this fact already. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t break this destructive habit. When I got injured, I felt really guilty. Guilty for the decisions I made that may have contributed to my injury, mainly not giving myself enough rest. Guilty for letting myself down and putting my thru hike at risk, and guilty for letting those down who wanted to follow my journey all the way to Maine. But then I felt guilty for feeling guilty because I understand that just being able to lead a life that allows me to do things like attempt the AT is an incredible privilege, and in the larger scheme of things a strained quad and a failed hike is really not a problem at all. Nonetheless, the injury consumed me and it was about all I could think or talk about for days. However, not once did anyone else make me feel like I was complaining or just a spoiled kid who only had “first world problems.” As I shared my story and circumstances with those around me, I found genuine sympathy and empathy from everyone, including the likes of a former Marine clinically diagnosed with PTSD and a young guy who has ridden freight rails since the age of 17 and is actively trying to overcome a heroin addiction. Not once did they make me feel my problem was small. They never said, “your problem is nothing compared to what I’ve seen,” a reaction I may have feared. Instead, they validated my feelings and consoled me, checking in regularly to see how I was doing. This meant a lot to me, and proved that other people are not as judgmental as you (or I) are insecure or self critical. It is an important lesson, and you can’t beat yourself up all the time over mistakes, because most likely no one else will. I guess that’s the magic that everyone talks about, and I’m yet to walk even 200 miles.
2. I was also overwhelmed by the support of people outside of the Appalachian Trail. Whether through phone, text, facebook, my blog, and snapchat, countless people reached out to extend words of encouragement. Once again, the problem I was facing was ultimately trivial, but people found enough interest in my life and cause to root me on, wish for my recovery, and even offer medical advice. My friend Elysia even sent me a care package while I was recovering at the NOC! The contents included all good things needed to heal from a sports related injury, such as a hand written card, Tiger Balm to relax the muscles, a baseball and golf ball to massage the muscles, stickers (because we all know free stickers equal an increase in happiness), dried ginger, and of course…beer. Thanks Elysia! While some of the people who reached out were close friends with whom I have steady and strong relationships, many others were folks I haven’t spoken to in a long time, some just acquaintances. I think this speaks to how compelling and interesting it is for people to push themselves in an outdoor setting. AT thru hiking is certainly not a new frontier. I am not even close to the first person to attempt what I’m doing. I certainly won’t be the last. I am not setting any records. But to a lot of people, attempting to walk over 2,000 miles in the woods is an extraordinary feat. Whether it’s Alex Honnold’s gravity defying rope-less ascents on granite slab, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ability to decode the Dawn Wall, almost any ascent of Everest, Scott Jurek’s record setting stint on the AT, or my silly little walk, people feel compelled to pay attention, and they can’t stop watching. I think that says a lot. It shows that, though most people have a deficit of nature in their life, they still feel connected to it and intrigued by it. It shows that despite the many ways we insulate ourselves from the elements, we are still fascinated by and aware of humans’ ability to withstand them. We are captivated by those who push their mental and physical limits, because their successes and even failures – more specifically overcoming failure – shows us that almost anything is possible. And it doesn’t hurt that nature is beautiful. Can there be larger consequences to outdoor recreation? Yes, those who like to enjoy nature will want to protect nature, which can in turn directly affect the health of the planet and the quality of human life. But it’s cool how something like long distance backpacking that can seem so frivolous on the surface can be so absolutely captivating, and I think it somehow, whether consciously or unconsciously, taps into our primal roots in a way in which we can all relate.
Tomorrow, March 13th, onward into the Smokies! While still at a reduced pace, hopefully I can begin to hiker longer and faster just a bit each day. Still, I have to remain focused, disciplined, and humble to ensure my health and chances of making it to Maine. Hopefully the rest of North Carolina and Tennessee don’t beat me up as much as the early parts did.
Most importantly, thank you so much for the love and support. I am forever grateful for all the gestures of kindness and encouragement. They really helped lift my spirits when I was in the dumps, and the interactions provided me with positive distractions from my injury, and a way to spend time reconnecting with people I haven’t spoken to in a long while. Much love.
See you on the trail!