You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated (CDT Days 10-12)

“6 miles, it’s only six miles to the next tree,” I murmured to myself trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that far. I only had to hike six miles through the unrelenting heat and blazing sun of the New Mexican desert before I’d get to a tree and some hope of shade, after the tree it would be another 14 miles to get to the next water (a cattle trough).

I popped open my chrome dome (a shiny silver desert umbrella), tied it to my pack, and adjusted it so that it would shade as much of my body as possible. I would try to create my own shade until I got to the mythical tree which I hoped was up ahead somewhere. This was definitely not the tree-covered landscape of New England where there is so much water it’s in the air. Here there wasn’t enough water to sustain even one tree, not one!

As the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and the landscape got more and more desolate. The trail was littered with the bones of creatures that had learned how unforgiving the desert could be. People started decorating the trail signs with bones and then making trail signs out of bones. Too much time in desert or maybe too much sun was giving us a wry sense of humor.

Although I’ve done desert hiking before (including ~700 miles of Mojave desert on my PCT thru-hike), the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico was a whole new beast. The temperatures were in the low 100’s, but the real kicker was the abysmally low humidity ranging from 4% to 8%. The extremely low humidity meant I was going through a lot more water than I anticipated (1 or 2 liters more each day).

Eventually I made my way to the mythical shade tree and discovered that despite being a tree it didn’t provide much shade. Once again my chrome dome came to the rescue. I tied it to the tree to create some shade I could sit under and then checked in on my poor overworked feet.

In these extremely hot and dry conditions with 15-20 mile stretches between water lots of us were surprised to discover that our feet were developing blisters in places we’d never had blisters before: between the big toe and the next toe over and following down into the ball of the foot.

I ran into tons of hikers on the CDT that “never get blisters” yet all managed to get a variant of this blister, so I started calling it the “CDT special.” When I started developing the CDT Special I tried all the tricks I’d learned on my AT and PCT thru- hikes, but I couldn’t seem to prevent the blister on my right foot from growing, and I wasn’t able to prevent the one on my left foot from developing. I ended up taking a break for a couple of hours in the shade to pop the blister on my right foot, and let it air out before bandaging it up with lots of bacitracin and then hiking ever northward.

Later, I learned that the solution to this problem is toe socks, which keep your toes separated and keep the blisters from forming between them. I borrowed a pair from my friend Peru and didn’t have any more problems with blisters between my toes.

Labrador, pictured below, had the worst case of a CDT special I’d ever seen. To distract him from the pain of walking I made up a silly song about toes:

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

I used to feel 10, now I’m only feeling nine.

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

(During the peak heat of the day the desert is brutal, but everything is beautiful and awesome in the mornings and evenings when things are cooler.)

Of mountains and marathons

Similarities between thru-hikes and marathons:

* strangers offer you food, water, and candy, which you gratefully accept and nothing about the exchange seems weird.

* it is common to see men facing the trees/bushes and peeing unabashedly.

* your feet ache at the end of the day.

* training in advance makes it hurt less.

* If you are crazy and walk into it with no training it will hurt more and take you longer to finish.

* your friends think that what you are doing is awesome and hope that they could do it someday, but chances are that even if you paid them they probably wouldn’t join you if you were to do it again.

* blisters and chaffing are common side effects.

* you bring your own toilet paper with you because even though you desperately hope that you won’t have to poop until you reach the end of the day, you’ll settle for a stinky, toilet paperless hole.

* you find yourself dreaming about water/Gatorade and wondering why there isn’t any available right here and right now.

* people quickly decide that they don’t want/need all the gear they started with and just toss it aside as they go.

* you can instantly identify the hikers/marathoners the morning after a long, hard day because they are walking like they’ve aged 50+ yrs overnight.

* at the end, even though you are tired and hurting, you find yourself starting to plan the next one.

Things that are different about marathons:

* everyone cheers you on and assures you that you can make it no matter how slow or far behind you are.

* for a marathon you do all that work just to end up right back where you started.

* they give you a metal.

* at the end of the day you get a hot meal, a shower, and a soft bed.

Fallen Arches (Days 37 & 38)

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Like many thru-hikers, my feet are getting bigger even as my waist is getting smaller. I just got new pants that are six sizes smaller than the pants I started with, and I just bought new boots that are almost 2 sizes bigger than the ones I started with.

My feet have been hurting for a while. I’ve experimented with switching socks, with blister remedies, and with different kinds of insoles, but my poor little toes still seem to be grumpy about all the walking that I’m doing. The last time I was in town I decided that I needed to get new boots…

As I was sitting and contemplating new boots at one of the outfitters, the owner came over and offered to help. Since the outfitters was literally on the AT, he had a lot of experience with thru-hikers. He pulled up the little foot measuring device and started poking, pushing, and smooshing my foot trying to get it to line up with the measurement parameters. A few times he poked at painful spots and I couldn’t help but grimace a bit. In response he said, “if it hurts too much, just hit me.” He then continued poking and prodding my foot. This measurement session went on for so long that I started to wonder if perhaps he had a foot fetish of some kind.

Eventually he paused, looked up at me and asked, “Are you big boned?” I have to admit that I gave him a blank stare in response to that. Was he serious? Does anyone actually ask that in the hopes of getting an informative answer? Apparently the answer to the above questions is… yes. He was earnestly awaiting my reply. I was sufficiently taken aback that I fumbled my answer a bit, “Ummm, I don’t think so,” I said as I pointed to my scrawny arms. He then continued poking and prodding my foot.

Eventually he came to the conclusion that I have really high arches, which are falling, causing me pain, and mashing my poor little toes up against my boot. He recommended much larger, wider boots, and custom insoles since none of the pre-form ones have high enough arch support for me.

I’ve actually ended up buying a couple pair of boots hoping that one will magically alleviate all of my pain and make my toes happy. I’ll add them to the parameter space of the ongoing happy feet experiments (I think I’ve found the best socks, blister remedies, and over the counter insoles for me at this point).

The theme of this post is fallen, so the picture at the top of this post is thematically related because it is from a tulip poplar that had fallen over the trail.

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Late in today’s hiking I came upon a section of the trail where the birds were falling all over themselves and making tons and tons of noise. Peering up into the tree branches I spotted the source of the trouble…a six foot long predatory looking snake hanging on a branch over the trail. I wouldn’t want that to fall!