Part 2: Failure
My second backpacking trip came a couple weeks after the first. My plan was to section hike all of the 41 miles of the AT that pass through Maryland. I planned to hike for three days, going 10 miles the first day and a little over 15 the following two days. Obviously this was a drastic increase from my first trip, as I planned on doing more in a single day than I had in three. My reasoning is that all three days would be full days, while on the first trip, we left around 5pm the first day and needed to be out of the woods by 8am on the third day. In addition, I was undergoing this trip independently so my pace was likely to be faster than the group trip. As you may have guessed in my tone and the repetition of the word “plan,” this trip did not go as intended.
In this instance a bit of background seems important. For whatever reason, I haven’t been feeling terribly well over the last month, meaning I was experiencing a flair in my depression and anxiety. It had begun to set in just before my first trip, so I was able to stymie my negative emotion enough to function normally on the trip. When I returned I spent nearly a week on my couch. My eating habits were declining and the apathy was extreme. There was no specific cause for the spike in depression and anxiety, and sometimes it’s just like that. I decided to take this trip because I am not certain when I’ll have the ability to do so again and I thought perhaps it would be enough to jar me from my mood. With the mindset of self exploration and a hope for an overdose on endorphins I walked into the woods on Wednesday morning, intending to be picked up at the other end of Maryland on Friday.
So, here are some of the things I learned.
1. Maryland privies are horrendous.
Get on board MD, NJ is doing a much better job on this front. Honestly, I almost died when I went in there.
2. Audio books are great entertainment, but companions are better.
I know that my trip next year will be a solitary one, and I am prepared for that, I would even go so far as to say I’m happy about that, but it is a far cry from a gaggling gang of family surrounding you. I’ve hiked alone plenty of times, but with a full pack and no one to commiserate with, it can be a bit more trying on the resolve. In addition, groups set a pace and inspire competition; a solo hike requires large quantities of self efficacy, because you are the only one determining how far you go. Given my mental state, self efficacy did not abound at the time.
3. Sometimes it’s better to be surprised by what’s ahead.
I had hiked a couple miles into Maryland when I ran into an old man, clearly a backpacker based on dress and gear. He stopped me to ask about the terrain ahead of him and I told him it was rocky, but not terrible. He responded by informing me that I had some hard rocks ahead that he had difficulty coming down. It was with a bleak outlook that I continued ahead. It was indeed hell to climb those damn rocks. I’m not sure of the incline gain, and I’m certain it is not difficult I’m comparison to other parts of the trail, but my weeks of apathy took their toll in that climb. Knowing about it did not help, in fact the dreaded that built prior to the steep part of the trail made it all the worse.
4. I really need to invest in some legitimate hiking clothing.
By the end of the 10 mile day my clothing were drenched with sweat. A combination of increased pace and humid and hot conditions caused much more drastic perspiration on this second trip. I know I will have to adjust to a less than pleasant scent while on the trail, but appropriate sports wear may help with the odor of a hard days labor. Not to mention the discomfort of wearing damp clothing while hiking.
5. Everyone warns you about how cold a hammock is but no one mentions how fucking hot it can get.
As I lay in my hammock I thought I might die of heat exhaustion. Honestly I was more hot lying in my cocoon than I had been carrying my pack all day.
6. Blisters are the devil.
For real, they may be the most evil thing in existence. At about mile 2 I could feel one of these malignant growths forming on my left heel. As I had on shoes I’d gone over 100 miles in and the same Wrightsocks I have always worn (if you’ve read my other posts you might be asking why I haven’t replaced them yet, the answer: I have no idea) it was a surprise to me to see the magnitude of my blister. At about mile 6 the worst happened, it popped. I stopped around mile 8 for lunch, at about 3pm, when I removed my shoes and socks I was horrified to see the monstrosity on my heel. It was dirt clogged and the skin was barely attached. Of course in this moment I recall exactly where my first aid kit is, under my bed at home. I did the best thing I could think of in the circumstance and poured hand sanitizer on it. Jesus fucking Christ. The pain was awful. So I sat for about a half am hour airing it out, then I closed the skin back over the rawness and continued on my way. It took about 2 hours to go the remaining two miles due to frequent brakes and a slow limping progress.
7. First aid kits are really fucking important.
As I’m limping along, I can literally fucking see the shelter when I roll my right ankle. There was this amazing popping sound and my immediate thought was “wow, that’s probably not good.” It didn’t hurt all that much though, so I got busy setting up camp. I got fresh water, had dinner, and set up my hammock. I tucked in early to wake up and get a head start. I woke up with a raging need to pee and every intention of asking one of the other hikers at the shelter if they had a spare bandaid so I could continue on my way. Yeah fucking right. I tried to stand up from my hammock and nearly fell and peed my pants as my ankle refused the weight of my body. As I limped my way to the privy I had the dreaded realization that I didn’t know if I could do it. I pondered what to do as I slowly broke down camp. When I finished I sat down on a rock and cried because I’d made the determination that there was no way I could walk 15 miles with both damaged ankles. The only thing to do was to call for a ride out. I made the less than half mile walk to the car stumbling as I couldn’t decide which ankle needed me to limp more. It took about a half hour to make it to the road.
8. Mistakes happen.
Sitting on that rock I was devastated. Telling myself I was stupid for forgetting bandaids and clumsy for rolling my ankle. But I have to forgive myself, because mistakes happen. Yes I forgot bandaids, but it’s unlikely a bandaid would have prevented my ankle sprain. With the limping and exhaustion and my already well developed talent for tolling my ankles, it was bound to happen.
At one point the trail crossed a river and I failed to see the white blazes and so followed a side trail for about half a mile. While on that path I found one of the more beautiful sights I’ve seen from hiking. Well, aside from overlooks, nothing beats the view from above. My point is that if I hadn’t made that mistake, I never would have found the pool. Plus I found some amazing raspberries along the way.
9. Knowing when to withdraw is not weakness.
As my left ankle is still raw and my right ankle is still swollen and it’s been over a week, I would say both were serious enough to warrant ending my trip. As this was intended to be a learning experience anyway, what I figured out is that I need higher boots, better socks, and to bring my first aid kit. I have to forgive this failure as it does not set the tone for my thru hike. An injury is not actually a failure and taking the time to recover requires strength. If I had kept going it would not have been strength, it would have been stupidity.
Overall it was not a bad hike, but it had its hardships. I got some amazing views and spent my first night alone in the woods. Each time I push myself I grow stronger and more ready for a longer commitment.