Thowback Thru-Hike: The Long Trail (1998)

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In 1998 my brothers and I set off on an end-to-end hike (a thru-hike) of the 271.1 mile Long Trail in Vermont. For the majority of the hike the three of us wore matching blue shirts, and we were nicknamed the blue crew :) It was an awesome adventure. On that 19-day backpacking trip I came to the conclusion that I would enjoy thru-hiking. Although I dreamed of an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike, I never could have imagined that 20 years after that first thru-hike I’d completer the triple crown of long-distance backpacking with the completion of the CDT (2018), PCT (2014), and AT (2013).

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Easter Dinner (PCT Days 17-19)

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I think this may be the first Easter that I haven’t spent with my family. Growing up Easter was always one of our biggest family holidays… The only holiday where relatives from both my mom and my dad’s side of the family would all come together for one festive meal at my parent’s house.

As Easter grew near I found myself getting a bit homesick. It looked like I was going to be somewhere out in the middle of the California desert by myself on Easter Sunday. A few days before Easter, however, I was at the hostel in Big Bear Lake. My feet and knees were a bit achey and it made sense for me to take a day off from hiking, but I didn’t want to go stir crazy!

On the trail, the other hikers sort of become family after a while, and the hostel had a full kitchen, so I offered to prepare an early Easter dinner for anyone that was going to be there that evening.

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We definitely had to dye Easter eggs, have ham for dinner and an angel food cake with peeps on top for dessert! To round out the meal I made homemade baked macaroni and cheese (one of my favorites and definitely a comfort food) and roasted root vegetables.

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Everyone pitched in and before we knew it we had a veritable feast on the table. Everyone at the hostel joined in and we celebrated new friends, new adventures and the spring. The group of ten of us included people from Scotland, Denmark, Australia, and different places around the US.

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We talked about Easter, Passover, and other spring traditions that we were familiar with as we ate. Since our Easter dinner was actually on Maundy Thursday and it was our last supper before heading back out into the desert it seemed somehow fitting. Someone was quick to point out that a dinner effectively celebrating Passover (however far removed) featuring ham was rather strange though. How is it that ham became the traditional meat for Easter?

With our bellies full of food we headed off for bed, missing the friends and family that we weren’t going to get to see for the holiday this year, but thankful for the new friends that we’ve met along the trail.

The Silence

Earl Shaffer

In 1948, a combat veteran named Earl Schaffer set out to “walk off the war” and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (from Georgia to Maine), becoming the first thru-hiker on record. Since then, hundreds of combat veterans (recently aided by the Warrior Hike “Walk off the War” Program) have hit the trail as they try to decompress from their wartime experiences and come to terms with civilian life. For many, one of the things they struggle with is post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which effects at least 7.7 million American Adults, 31% of Vietnam Vets, and 20% of Vets from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shady at the top with both arms raised in celebration!

On October 4, 2013, I celebrated the completion of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike with my fellow thru-hikers and trail family. Zach “Shady” Adamson, a fellow thru-hiker and a United States Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom War Veteran was one of the friends celebrating with me. It had become apparent to me as we hiked together that Shady had left the war, but that the war hadn’t left him. Like many combat veterans I’ve known, Shady didn’t sleep well, had vivid flashbacks (more back story here), and seemed to be suffering from PTSD. I saw that he was struggling, and I tried to help but I didn’t really know how. I hoped that maybe my dad, a Vietnam combat vet, would know how to help, but I didn’t get the chance to introduce them to each other. That afternoon as we parted ways at the summit of Katahdin none of those struggles were evident. He was on top of the world, full of hugs and smiles, and celebrating just as much (if not more) than the rest of us.

On January 9, 2014, just 3 months after completing his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and less than a year after completing his military service, Zach “Shady” Adamson committed suicide (his obituary). The hearts of all of the people that he had even known collectively broke. We learned in the harshest possible way that sometimes it takes more than walking 2200 miles to “walk off the war.” As I struggled to wrap my head around Shady’s suicide, I learned that  22 veterans a day commit suicide and “the number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011.” Holy sh**!

On March 21, 2014, what would have been Shady’s 25th birthday, there was no mention of the War in Afghanistan in the news. The media silence about the war that started in 2001 may, in part, be because of the changing demographics of our military force, the nature of modern warfare, and the nature of it’s casualities. “As of December 2008, more than 4,200 troops have been killed and over 30,800 have returned from a combat zone with visible wounds” and “an estimated 25-40 percent have less visible wounds—psychological and neurological injuries associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).” What was perhaps the most disturbing thing that I learned about our modern wars is that “since 2009, more soldiers have died from suicide than combat.

A silent war, with invisible wounds, and a higher death-toll from suicide than from combat… I just couldn’t make sense of it all. As I tried and failed to put my thoughts in order, I started doing something that I hadn’t done since high school. I started writing poetry and came up with these verses before finally putting my laptop away for the night:

There are heroes that walk among us
Carrying burdens we cannot see
Silently we thank them
Using words they cannot hear

They’ve seen the horrors for us
They shield us from the pain
They are our strength, our soldiers
They will never be the same.

There are heroes that walk among us
They look like you and me
But inside they’re empty, hollow
Shells of who they used to be.

Silently we love them
Deafened by their pain
In silence they can’t hear us
And peace they cannot claim

The silence it surrounds them
Yet silent we remain.
But our silence is betrayal
Our silence is our shame.

There are heroes that walk among us
carrying burdens we cannot see.
Let’s break the cage of silence
And talk about PTSD.

It is a silent killer
Our heroes are its prey
It seeks the strong amongst us
And whittles them away.

It hits our soldiers hardest
Though others aren’t immune
Survival shouldn’t be a crime
It shouldn’t be their doom.

suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Complications: The 0.1%

Before the trail even ended, I was already starting to miss it. I was almost reluctant to finish up the 100 mile wilderness and to summit Mt. Katahdin because it would mean that my amazing adventure and awesome thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was done. Then again, I was cold and hungry, and I missed my family, my friends, indoor plumbing, buildings with four walls and heat, and all of the tasty tasty food associated with civilization.

As I got into the car with my mom to leave the mountains and head home, I was in a state of shock. It was over. I had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and was officially a thru-hiker. I was awash in the sights, the sounds, the foods, and the people of civilization, and it was overwhelming. Most people take some time to get used to all of this and transition from their carefree (only concerned about their own survival) life on the trail to the stresses and demands of modern society where there are a myriad of things that are constantly competing for our attention.

Per usual, I found myself taking the crash course… I went from hiking the trail one minute to sitting in the hospital reviewing CT scans and consulting with my fathers surgeon the next minute. The minor issue that had landed my dad in the hospital as I headed into the 100 mile wilderness had gotten complicated… complicated enough that when I researched it I was only able to find a couple of cases similar to his in the literature. Research was what I did for a living before I headed off on my Appalachian Trail adventures and now, less than 24 hrs after I summitted Katahdin, I had unlimited access to high-speed internet and was researching my dads condition. It felt good to be learning and using my brain in ways that I hadn’t been using it for a long time, I just wished that the circumstances had felt less dire.

I remembered a lot about my dad’s general condition from some courses that I’d taken at Harvard Medical School, but now I became a self-proclaimed expert in all of the nuances of his particular complications and his particular case. By all accounts he should have been getting better and improving day by day, but instead he was slowly getting worse. Why?! With my dad’s permission I reviewed his CT Scans, his medical history, his current lab reports, and his current medications before delving into the literature. I was determined to solve this medical mystery and to save my dad!

It wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning that I finally figured out a potential reason why he wasn’t getting better. They had told us that the IV antibiotic that he was on was the ‘top gun. It was the newest, latest, and greatest antibiotic out there and there wasn’t anything better, stronger or more effective out there. Normally, roughly 99.9% of the time, that would be true for people with my dad’s condition, but things with my dad had gotten complicated. It’s not always good to be different and unique, he was the 0.1%, and they were wrong. The fancy new antibiotic that they were using was the only antibiotic in it’s class that the literature said would be completely ineffective when it came to treating my dad’s case.

I knew that my dad’s case was unusual and complicated, but was it possible that a simple misstep in the choice of antibiotic was responsible for his deteriorating condition? The more I looked into it the clearer it became… it was not only possible, but probable. When I returned to the hospital the next day I double-checked the antibiotic hanging from my dad’s IV pole, it was as I remembered and was definitely the wrong antibiotic. We paged the nurse and told her that we wanted to talk to the doctor as soon as possible and then we waited… and waited… and waited for the doctor to come and speak to us.

Waiting for the doctor to come and help ease the suffering of someone you care about is almost impossibly hard. In my experience pain does not breed patience, and if someone I know and care about is in pain I want to fix it and I want to fix it NOW! Unfortunately the doctors usually have at least a dozen other patients that are all looking to him/her to ease their suffering, so we had to wait our turn.

The surgeon was the first doctor to wander into the room. He came to tell us some good news, whatever was going on with dad, it wasn’t going to require surgical intervention. Since he was there I told him my thoughts about the antibiotic. He was willing to discuss it with me, but he said that the hospitalist was the person in charge of that aspect of my dad’s care. He and I looked through my dads chart again and verified that I was right, the IV antibiotic they were giving my dad was not not the right one for his infection. The surgeon offered to back me up, and then helped me get a hold of the hospitalist.

We found the hospitalist and before long the hospitalist and I were having a high level discussion about the nuances of each antibiotic in the class of antibiotics that my dad was taking. The hospitalist insisted that the antibiotic that was hanging was the correct antibiotic for my dad. I was frustrated, but I understand where the hospitalists was coming from. The antibiotic he was using was from the right class of antibiotics, and under normal circumstances it would be the right antibiotic, in fact in 99.9% of cases it would be right, but my dads lab reports showed that his case was different and in his anomalous case that antibiotic was ineffective. It was becoming obvious (both to me, my dad, the hospitalist, and the surgeon) that I knew a lot more about this class of antibiotics and this antibiotic in particular than the hospitalist did. This wasn’t at all fair to him since I only had one case that I needed to be an expert on and I had just reviewed all of the information about my dads case and all of the antibiotics in question the night before. I understood that this was an unusual case, I just wanted it to get fixed and wanted my dad to get better. Eventually the hospitalist switched tactics, hedged his bets, and reluctantly agreed to look into it the nuances of the antibiotics that we were discussing. I had made my point and then some, and though I didn’t think he was handling things with as much grace as I had hoped, I did have the feeling that he was going to go look into the antibiotics issue as soon as he left the room. At that point we quickly wrapped up our conversation, and the hospitalist left (hopefully to go look up the damn antibiotics).

After the doctor left, my dad squeezed my hand and said, “I thought that you handled that well.” I looked at him with confusion, “What do you mean?” “Well, you didn’t get angry, you didn’t call him an idiot, and you gave him a way to save face. Not everybody would have handled it that way.” I wasn’t so sure, the wrong antibiotic was still hanging, and my dad was still sick.

20 minutes later (lightening speed by hospital standards) the nurse came in and switched my dad’s antibiotic from the ineffective one to the one that I had suggested. Would that be enough to turn the tides and set him back on the path to recovery?

The short answer was yes, within 24 hours both quantitative and qualitative measures showed that my dad was getting better, but the complications didn’t end there. To our surprise when the weekend shift came on we had a new hospitalist, and a new plan of care. They were going to send my dad home that day, and even more surprisingly, they were going to send him home without any antibiotics at all! (I could only assume that the insurance company and the hospitalist that came in over the weekend didn’t realize that dad had only been on the effective antibiotics for 24 hours, they just saw that he’d been on antibiotics for over a week and was doing better now). I was skeptical (at best) about this course of action, but I hoped that I was wrong and that all would be well. Unfortunately, I was right and in less than a week dad was back in the hospital and undergoing emergency surgery. That should have been the end of it, but once again my dad was special. He was the 0.1% and ended up having complications from the surgery. As soon as they started getting those complications under control they decided to send him home again.

I was skeptical. Sure he was improving, but he’d undergone some major interventions just the day before and I wasn’t convinced that he had really stabilized, but they assured us that he would be fine. Once again, within a week we had to bring dad back to the hospital where he was readmitted and put under the knife. You’d think that that would be the end of it, but no, dad ended up having complications from this surgery too. We were now dealing with layer upon layer upon layer of complications. I was definitely getting very, very tired of complications, but sometimes the road is long and arduous, and there were still a couple more complications that were going to crop up before they finally released dad from the hospital for what we hope was the last time.

Instead of getting off of the trail and focusing on me and what I was going to do next, I was completely occupied with advocating and caring for my dad. I felt very lucky to get to spend this time with my parents, though the circumstances were far from ideal, but now that dad is starting to improve again, it’s time to start thinking about what’s next for me again.

As the days since Katahdin have turned into weeks and months, I find myself missing the trail more and more. I miss the simple sense of purpose that hiking the trail gives me, I miss knowing that I am going to wake up every morning and do something that I love… I miss walking. Life on the trail was simple, it was beautiful, and I loved it.

So, what do I want to do next? The answer is obvious, I want to return to the woods, I want to explore, I want to wake up every morning and walk. I’ve decided that I am going to continue to follow my dreams, which for now means heading west to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this spring to embark upon a new adventure!

The Beginning (Days108-111)

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People are always asking me when I decided that I wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Until recently I’ve said that I grew up hiking and backpacking and have always wanted to hike the AT. As I approached the final section of the AT in Massachusetts and the start of the AT in Vermont I realized that that wasn’t exactly true… There definitely was a start, a beginning, a place, and a time when the dream of hiking the entire AT was born.

It was right there… The trail I was walking on was the trail that gave birth to that dream. It was the first backpacking trip that I went on with my family when I was 11 years old. We hiked from Massachusetts all the way into Vermont and it was awesome.

One of my strongest memories was of sitting around the campfire and sharing a meal and stories with a couple of thru-hikers. I was entranced by their stories and in awe of the fact that these people had walked all the way from Georgia to sit at a campfire in Vermont with me. It was unimaginably cool that you could spend that much time in the woods and survive!

Walking along the trail in southern Vermont felt like walking through a land of memories. Not only was my first backpacking trip in Vermont, but my first long distance trek was also in Vermont. In 1998 I hiked the long trail from end-to-end with my brothers.

Having my brother and his wife meet me and hike across the Vermont border meant that by the time I finished hiking through Massachusetts I’d gotten the chance to hike with all of my immediate family. It was a great way to go through my home state.

My brother’s feet weren’t quite as used to hiking 20+ mile days, but after a little doctoring he wasn’t any worse for the wear.

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White Rectangles (Days 102-106)

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Hiking into New England has really felt like hiking home to me. The rocks, the woods, the streams, and the trails all feel familiar. This sense of coming home was heightened by my family coming out and meeting me on the trail. My parents met me as I crossed the border from New York into Connecticut and then my brother, his wife (my friend), and their two kids met me as I crossed from Connecticut into Massachusetts. It was great seeing everyone again.

Per usual, the two kids stole the show. It was their first camping trip and their first hike on the AT. Having a 1 year old and an almost 3 year old in my tent was a novel experience for me. I spent the next few days finding hidden Cheerios everywhere, but they were so cute that it was worth it!

One of my favorite parts of the visit was taking my niece for her first walk on the Appalachian Trail. I pointed out the white blazes on the trees and told her that that was how I knew where I was supposed to go and that I’d followed the white blazes all the way from Georgia to Massachusetts.

Finding the blazes soon became a game. My niece would see one of the blazes, then she’d smile and yell, “white rectangle”, as she ran down the trail to point it out to us. It was soooo cute! The game was especially fun because we were in an incredibly over blazed section of the trail, so there were blazes every ten feet.

Trail Angels (less than 12 hrs to go)

Tomorrow morning I’ll actually be at Springer Mountain! I’ve been luxuriating in the creature comforts that I’m about to leave behind like: showers, soft comfortable beds, family within a stone’s throw and well, anything that I can’t fit into my backpack.

Even though I didn’t think I had family in Georgia, It turns out that my new sister-in-law does. They are the “trail angels” that have swooped in to help me out even before I set foot on the trail. They have a cabin near the start of the AT and are letting my parents and me use it as a base camp while we’re here in GA. The crazy thing is that we just met them this weekend and here we are, in their amazing cabin in GA just a few days later. They’ve made me feel like I have family here, and have reminded me that the trail is full of amazing people that I look forward to meeting.

I am thankful to them and everyone that has helped me get to this point, where my dream of hiking the AT is about to begin. Springer Mountain here I come!

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