I’m home. I can hardly believe it. I’m showered, clean, wearing clean clothes, clean cotton clothes. My ribs still jut out, my beard is ragged, remnants of dirt stain my ankles and toes, and my face shows the exhaustion. But I’m home. It seems surreal. I was supposed to be in New York somewhere, some woods, getting splashed underneath my tarp from the heavy raindrops landing next to my head, legs aching, asleep and ready for another 5am start in just a few hours. But instead I’m here, legs still aching, in the room I grew up in, sitting on my bed, clean, the Appalachian Trail many miles away.
Was it a dream? Were the sleepless nights all a fiction? The insane rain, the impassable blowdowns, the 37 mile day in the Whites, the late night raids from hungry porcupines, the exhaustion so extreme I was able to fall asleep standing? Did all that actually happen? The leg cramps so painful I couldn’t sleep? Wasn’t it just a couple days ago I announced to my closest friends and family that I wanted to go for this?
I vowed before I left that I was going to keep that record in sight and hike until I could hike no more. Some days exhaustion slowed me to a crawling 2 mph pace, most days the weather and trail conditions made the going tough, but the final blow to put me out of contention was a torn calf. Whether from compensating for some tibialis anterior tendinitis I had been dealing with for over 100 miles, or from a pretty hard fall while descending some slick, rain-soaked rocks in Connecticut, I am unsure. Whatever the cause, no amount of limping or anti-inflammatories could relieve the pain, and the pain was unbearable.
I felt the twinge on July 1, late in the day and it came on fast. Within a couple miles I was slowed to an excruciating limp. I gimped my way into town and rested in Kent, Connecticut for the night, ate a big dinner, got a good night sleep, replaced my socks and pole tips, and headed back out refreshed and excited for the possibility that the 40 miles per day necessary to break the record was still completely feasible. The trail immediately kicked up a steep grade which I eased into. But within half a mile, my calf was aching. By a mile in I was doing everything I could to fight back tears the pain was so bad. Each step was a burden, and my leg started refusing to hold my weight, no matter what I was telling it to do. Up on the ridge on flat ground the going got easier, but within another mile it hurt to walk on flat ground, and soon even on the short descents the pain became unbearable as well.
I called my parents after limping for another three miles. My mom had given me a pep talk the day before and I had become so excited for another day, a reset, and the possibility that the record was still within reach. I had dreamed of Georgia, of my friends and family waiting for me on Springer, of the feeling of finishing a thru-hike, of accomplishing a long sought goal. Any incident when the record was already slipping away was going to push it closer to impossible.
I was still too stubborn. Couldn’t walk, could hardly even stand, but it wasn’t over. I blew up my sleeping pad alongside the trail, unfurled my quilt, because, really what else was I going to do? I couldn’t walk so I figured I might as well make the best of the time and catch up on some sleep. I spent the rest of the day stretching, massaging, sleeping, eating, taking ibuprofen, and dreaming up ways to increase my efficiency in order to be able to tackle what was becoming, with each passing hour, a monumental task.
I woke up early the next morning, deceived myself into thinking I would get walking and everything would be alright. A new day, another fresh start.
I made it a mile.
I waited and eventually called my mom, who was certainly anticipating my call, for better or for worse. I did my best to keep my composure but lost it nearly as soon as I heard her voice. My leg hurt, but mostly I was sad because I knew if it hadn’t healed after two nights, that it wasn’t going to heal. Even if I did wait another day and watched the necessary mileage grow to an absurd level, I’d probably just have my naive excitement shut down again 24 hours later and I didn’t know if I could take that anymore. The record was slipping away, and now the possibility of even completing the hike by August 10, the first day of classes, was becoming impossible.
I wasn’t ready to come home. I talked about staying in a hotel for a couple nights, resting, icing, compressing, elevating, everything recommended, and a little hope that my body which had brought me this far could heal another time. But I was so sad that the thought of being alone in a hotel for two days was scarier than the abandonment of coming home. I decided to limp out, hitchhike to the nearest train station and ride home. In the end I made it Bull’s Bridge Road in Kent, Connecticut, some 720 miles or so, in little over three weeks. It did happen. And I may be home, but it’s certainly not over. If anything, I learned that it’s possible, but no matter the preparation, will always take a great deal of perseverance and a significant dose of luck. Time to get some sleep, heal this calf, and relax for a minute just to remember exactly how much I hate relaxing.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”