The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Part 2

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. 

Almost at the top!
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.

Gross, I know. This was the blister in the morning.

And this is the blister after another night following some first aid.
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. 

I mean, it wouldn’t make the cut for middle earth, but damn I thought it was pretty.
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.

The amazing view from High Rock, MD.

Me, Myself, and I

So this is a post I’ve been considering for a couple weeks now and it will be a bit different than what I’ve written previously. I know its been quite a while since I last posted and ny only excuse is the struggle I felt in deciding what was important for me to write about here. Hiking will be a tangential subject in this post. I would also like to add a couple disclaimers before diving in. First, for those who know me in real life, nothing I say here is targeted at a specific person or meant to comment on a specific situation. Second, I want to provide a trigger warning for mental health and trauma, though nothing I talk about is terribly graphic, it may be upsetting to anyone who has dealt with or is dealing with a similar situation. Third, despite my status as a social worker, I am not even close to an expert in mental health, what I choose to discuss is based on my own experience and every person will have an entirely different perception of their mental health. Finally, I want to say that this is not an easy subject for me to write about and I have never discussed most of these things in such a public forum, please understand that I feel a certain amount of discomfort in the telling.

I am not entirely sure where I want to begin, so I will dive right in. I have often struggled with my mental health, beginning in high school I experienced a number of episodes of depression. This was compounded by a difficult time at home. I am the youngest and as my elder sisters left the nest, I found myself the outlet for frustration in an unhappy relationship. I have no desire to speak poorly of my mother or step father, but I would categorize my final two years of high school as some of the more difficult years of my life. I believe this is a common feeling for many teens, but the general unhappiness of this time left me ill prepared for appropriate functioning when I finally left home.

At 18 it was politely requested that I remove my remaining belongings from my childhood home, I was graciously taken in by my sister, L. An unfortunate reality of watching an abusive relationship for over a decade is the lack of opportunity to learn what a healthy partnership looks like. I spent my first few months of independence from home deeply involved with a young man who was not well at all. His mental health issues inspired jealousy and suspicion which caused him to attempt to control me and the decisions I made. Eventually he was hospitalized and gave me the impossible choice of ending our relationship while he was in a safe place or fearing that if I were ever to feel unhappy in our partnership and choose to end it, he would end his life. Ultimately I decided his life was worth far more to me than our relationship and I wished desperately that he could focus on his recovery and not me. He chose to end all communication with me and the experience left me with terrible guilt over my apparent abandonment of someone I loved.

If I hadn’t already committed to social work as a career, I would have then. I felt a complex mix of emotions, guilt certainly, sadness over the loss, but also overwhelming relief because I no longer felt responsible for another’s life. The second major event which damaged my mental health is much harder for me to discuss. If you know me in real life, I would like to request that you do not reference this in our future conversations. I believe this came about due to the vulnerability caused by my first relationship. I felt I had to commit to someone who wanted me simply because they wanted me and I did not wish to be the source of any further pain. In my freshman year of college I was raped by someone I trusted and had begun to develop a romantic engagement with. I was left with no physical damage of any kind, it was not overly violent or traumatizing, but it was a clear violation of what I had verbalized and physically communicated. Following this occurrence I had a great deal of confusion about what actually happened and whether my recollection was accurate. I made excuses and rationalized my feelings of violation away. I remained dating him for a few more weeks while he became increasingly more insistent that we spend the night together, something I refused to do following his assault. I ended our relationship, but continued afriendship while suppressing my memory of his violation. Unfortunately my confusion was only compounded by the reaction of my friends. The only thing I can say is that they were likely uncomfortable and did not know how to respond to what happened. I received little to no support from my closest confidants which engendered even greater feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness. The result was the ending of a close friendship as one of my suite mates chose his company over mine in order to facilitate her rise in social standing. She routinely placed herself in a vulnerable state, drinking heavily and placing herself at the mercy of him and his frat brothers. While they remain close, I have not spoken with either in years. I do not believe he is overall a bad person, I think his actions stemmed far more from a sense of entitlement to my body than a violent desire for control. It is only in the last 6 months that I have been able to accept and begin to heal from this experience. I would like to say that I did not for a moment consider reporting the event to any authorities, I am not naive enough to believe that it would result in any repercussions for him. If anyone else is harmed as a result of my silence, I am so sorry.

My depression after this became far more intense. There were times in which I wanted to stay in bed for days. I was often afraid of myself, I could no longer trust my own mind. I was afraid to drive a car because I wasn’t sure if I would be capable of resisting the urge to intentionally wreck. I contemplated overdosing on over the counter medicine and I committed acts of self harm. I think depression is a difficult thing to understand if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ll try. It’s the feeling of hopelessness that you’ll ever be ok. It’s the grieving for the person you once were. It’s shame that you can’t make yourself better. It’s the guilt you have for making loved ones worry for you. It’s the frustration you feel when others don’t understand. It’s the worst pain imaginable without any obvious cause or solution.

The fear for myself was compounded by the knowledge that my father committed suicide. I often fear that I am like him because of my depression. I avoid using drugs or drinking heavily because I fear evoking the part in myself that is his daughter. The one benefit of my family history is the protective factor of an understanding of exactly how suicide impacts a family. Eventually I sought help. I was medicated and I improved. Despite the dissipation of suicidal ideation, I was still not myself. As I delved deeper in my education I gained a better understanding of my mental health. An unfortunate reality is that understanding does not always lend to improvement. I eliminated all self harm, but began to use food as a comfort. I began to work overnight, this combined with full time school left little time for sleep. I once more experienced a decline in my mental health. At this time I was also in a terrible relationship characterized by infidelity and emotional abuse. I pushed my body too far at work while consuming the most unhealthy food I could find. The result of this was a serious back injury, leading to surgery. The end of my relationship and the opportunity to end our cohabitation was the beginning of my self care. I sought treatment for my back injury and my health ranked higher in importance. Surgery and the termination of my job were further milestones in my journey to self improvement.

I was eating better, I began to exercise, (finally something about hiking!) and I started therapy. My time in therapy has vastly improved my mental health. As I began to recover, I also began to think about my dreams. Beyond the boring ones, like career and education. I started a journey of self discovery. If I had considered hiking At at any other point in my life, I would have dismissed it because I did not believe in my own ability to accomplish anything, let alone a 2200 mile hike. Though I can attribute my far more stable mental health to therapy, hiking is the foundation for the new self I am creating. The confidence engendered by a successful hike is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I was unable to hike over the last week, my therapist commented on a noticeable change in my demeanor. I feel more alive, more like me when I’m on a trail. I am truly looking forward to what I find on my thru hike.

I fear that in our world it is so easy to disregard the feelings of others. Technology allows us to disengage from the real person behind the screen, facilitating unkind words and degrading exchanges that were previously impossible. The phenomenon of ghosting in a relationship, or ceasing all communication without explanation or warning, leave people feeling hurt and confused. People use social media to paint a picture of bliss and success to mask the pain and suffering in their lives. People lie and cheat while claiming to love and honor. Each of us has only this one chance to live in this world, why is that we choose to act for ourselves? We are social creatures, we crave companionship and closeness, but push others away. I am no exception, I have hurt people and I am likely to do so again, all I can do is make a conscious effort to be good to others. The other day I took to the trail in a fit of frustration due to a number of poorly managed social interactions. The time to myself allowed me to contemplate the importance of one shitty person in the scheme of my life. The peace and understanding I gained from a simple 5 mile walk in the woods revitalized my patience for the world. I want to experience what life is like on the trail, to return to a more primal existence. I want to feel that community and support. I want to smile at people as I pass them and I want to talk to strangers without fearing their intentions. I believe that the AT will help to accomplish these desires and make me into a better person, someone more capable of kindness and appreciation for a fellow man.

I know this post has been both convoluted and a little irrelevant, but I thought that it would provide further insight into my motivations and the foundation from which I am beginning. Thank you for reading and bearing with me. I just believe that this was a necessary, though difficult, part of the story.