Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Decision

I was going to devote my next post on the Pacific Crest Trail to a discussion of resupply and trail logistics, but something else has been on my mind lately - the choice I made in late June after 3 months of hiking to leave the trail.  Like the initial decision to hike the PCT in 2018, my decision to quit after 3 months cannot be isolated to a single reason.

Looking back on it retrospectively I can see how one thing led to another, where a singular event initiated a chain reaction that inevitably led to my departure.  That event alone would not have been enough to cause me to abandon my goal - it was the cumulative effect of what came afterward that decided the matter.  So in this post, I’ll try to elaborate how it all unraveled.

How it's Supposed to Work

Many people approach hiking the PCT as though it were a job.  Basically for 10 hours or more a day, you are walking in pursuit of the holy grail of miles.  Miles are what define your progress each day, and all through hikers know in the back of their mind that success (reaching Canada) will only be achieved by making those daily goals.

To complete the entire trip in the time allowed (usually 5 months) a daily average of around 17 miles is needed.  Some start out trying to hammer out as much mileage as possible each day, while others ease into it, giving the body time to adjust to the rhythm of trail life.  Regardless of how you approach it, there will be pain and suffering at first simply because hiking 15+ miles a day while carrying a pack is not something most people do on a regular basis.

If you are in reasonable shape most of the aches and discomfort will gradually disappear as the muscles begin to adjust to the rigors of life on foot.  By the time you have been on the trail for a couple of weeks slinging a pack over the shoulders and walking all day is no longer such a daunting prospect.  That’s not to say you won’t feel it – it just becomes background noise that is easy to ignore.

Fortunately for me I have been very active in exactly the right ways for many years now, with hiking and backpacking being integral to my life.  In addition I began "real world" training several months out, carrying the actual pack with simulated loads and increasing the mileage to reflect actual distances.  By the time my start date arrived I felt comfortable facing the physical challenge, and had no qualms about my ability to “do the miles”
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I will admit that at first I pushed myself harder than was necessary.  I attribute this to my excitement and enthusiasm, as well as the overall “alpha” nature of my personality.  I wanted everyone on the trail to know I was not your average 56 year old – I could hike with the best of them.  Of course this was foolish and more than a little egotistical, as I was soon humbled by the throngs of 20 – something kids who jack rabbited past me without breaking a sweat.

I inevitably paid the price for my pride, and within weeks was forced to take a slightly more moderate approach.  There is a saying on the PCT (and probably all long distance trails) which is reduced to the acronym “HYOH”, or “hike your own hike”.  It is an incredibly simple and sensible idea, based on the concept that we are all different, out there for our own reasons, and trying to keep up with or out hike others makes the entire endeavor meaningless.

Once that lesson took hold I adjusted my pacing and mileage to my comfort level.  I found my groove so to speak, and in spite of a few blisters I managed to make good progress, day in and day out.

The Injury

Fast forward 6 weeks and about 600 miles.  I had yet to reach the Sierras and was still threading my way through the semi-desert ranges that define southern California.  These are not especially rugged, but they do feature plenty of up and down, with long traverses bisected by steep valleys.
 
It was a typical trail day and I was cruising along in my hiking "zone" following an extended traverse when out of nowhere I felt an excruciatingly sharp pain in my right foot.  I can only describe it as though someone had pushed a large nail or spike up through the bottom of my sole, between the 3rd and 4th metatarsal (the long bones of the foot).

I immediately dropped to the ground, breathless with the intensity of the sensation.  It took several minutes for the hurt to subside enough for me to start thinking rationally.  I took off my shoe and examined it and my foot, looking for the cause.  I saw no obvious injury and began checking the section of trail I was on for an explanation.  Other than scattered stones I could see nothing that offered any clues.

The sharp pain had faded but there were definitely still unpleasant sensations.  I sat there for a bit massaging the foot, and after about twenty minutes decided I had no choice but to go on.  I put the sock and shoe back on, and using my pack levered myself off the ground.  I put most of my weight on the uninjured foot and very gently began to test the usability of my right foot.  Unsurprisingly it hurt to put it down, but I began to ease myself onto it until I was on both feet.

Swinging the pack over my shoulders, I began “limp-hopping” down the trail.  For the record I am no stranger to pain.  For years I have had a condition known as peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage in my feet.  This is a result of my occupation in the winter recreation industry, and it has caused me challenges with overall foot health.  Because parts of my feet lack sensation, it wreaks havoc with my balance and I am more prone to damage them.

Past experience with foot issues has led me to adopt the attitude that if you suck it up for a while, eventually the brain copes with it by releasing endorphins, which can mask or reduce the discomfort.  It also helps to take some ibuprofen, which I promptly did.  As I made my way slowly along the path I was hopeful that the combination of natural and man-made chemicals would gradually ease my suffering.

In this particular region of the mountains the trail contours along the slopes, sometimes for miles.  As the path meandered through the pleats and folds of the terrain, it remained canted or tilted downwards leaving my right foot higher than my left.

For some reason this really aggravated the pain.  To compensate I began placing my right foot perpendicular to the slope with my toes pointed uphill, and walked in this fashion whenever the trail tread angled down to the left.

"Duck-walking" with the right foot at a 90 degree angle
The pacing was awkward and slower than my normal gait but it helped somewhat to minimize the pain. At this point I hoped that some rest would give me relief, but I was still a day away from "civilization" so I kept on hiking.

Once I reached the next stop (a KOA campground in the middle of nowhere) I went about taking care of the necessities - laundry, a shower, and food that did not require boiling water to rehydrate.  I relaxed as best I could but my thoughts were never far from my foot and the implications of what might be wrong.

The following morning I set out again, determined to keep moving.  I discovered the pain was worse in the morning and eased up as the day progressed but never went away completely.  I did a lot of "duck-walking" with the right foot at an angle as I continued through the brush covered hills.
 
After a couple of weeks and a few "zero" days (zero days are days where no hiking occurs - usually time off trail in towns) there was no improvement, and I realized if I planned to keep going I was just going to have to live with it.  Of course with lots of alone time and only my thoughts for company I wondered if I was making it worse by hiking on it.  Someone suggested it might be a stress fracture, which is apparently fairly common on the PCT.  I didn't know and I didn't want to take time off to see a doctor -  I just wanted it to go away.

The Valley of Doom

I am a desert rat, raised in Arizona in the land of little water.  I’ve been conditioned to a life of aridity and all that entails.  On the plus side, no water means very little in the way of mosquitoes – not a bad trade off in my book.  Sure, I’ve lived other places, notably Wyoming, Utah, and Washington where blood sucking parasites are a fact of life, so I’m not completely inexperienced .  It’s just that mentally I’m probably not as tough as someone who grew up where that kind of annoyance is commonplace.

The first couple of months on the PCT were amazing, and I really appreciated the semi-arid landscapes, unlike many of my fellow hikers who simply could not wait to leave the desert and hit the Sierras.  To them southern California was barren, sere, and devoid of any charm.  I also was anticipating the big mountains, but along the way I was content to enjoy the diversity of lower elevations.

The beginning of the "real" mountains
When the country began to gradually change with the appearance of creeks and streams, I was glad for it since the ever present problem of finding water all but disappeared, and places to fill water bottles became as numerous as stones in the trail.  But as they say, be careful what you wish for. 

The first couple of weeks in the mountains were a visual feast, with scenic vistas around every bend.  Water was plentiful and the biggest problem was the feeling that you just wanted to stop all the time and soak it in.  It seemed nearly criminal that the demands of the trail forced you to keep moving to stay on schedule.

Over time, it became obvious that melting snow that fed creeks, rivers, and lakes also fostered ever increasing numbers of mosquitoes.  The appearance of these bloodthirsty aerial avengers coincided with areas of poor drainage and standing water, but at first the numbers seemed relatively trivial.  However as the trail continued deeper into the fastness of the Sierras, it was harder to pretend that they would remain a minor distraction.

The first time I remember thinking about how unpleasant the little bastards were was when I had to stop and change shoes at one of many stream crossings.  I am one of those people who hate wet feet, and while others would simply wade across with whatever they were wearing, I am not one of them.  I carried water shoes just for this purpose, and the necessity to stop moving long enough to swap shoes made me the perfect food source for any hungry swarm lurking nearby.

I began to dread these frequent crossings, to the extent I would travel hundreds of yards up and down the banks looking for some alternative means to cross without getting wet.  In most cases I was unable to find what I was looking for, and every time I sat there fumbling with socks and shoes I went a little crazy as hordes of bloodsuckers converged from all sides.

I carried mosquito repellent along with a long sleeve shirt, pants, and a head net which as the problem grew surely preserved my sanity.  But these measures only go so far, especially when the mosquito’s only purpose in life is to take your blood.  I was particularly vulnerable on my shoulder blades and on my back (exposed when my pack was off) as biting through your shirt is perfectly acceptable mosquito behavior.

In the big picture mosquitoes were just something to put up with, and I’ll say in my defense I did not spend all of my time thinking about them.  They were for the most part manageable, although I have learned a valuable lesson for the next time I'm visiting mosquito central.  Hint: Treat your clothes with Permethrin.

What finally sent me over the edge was a particular day towards the end of the hike, where I had already considered giving up multiple times only to force myself back on the trail in stubborn persistence.  In retrospect what I put myself through was self inflicted and completely unnecessary, but you obviously don’t realize that at the time – that is why we call it retrospect.

I had been hiking along as I did every day, conscious mainly of where I was and where I needed to get to.  Without really looking at the map or making an effort to understand the terrain, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  At around 4:00 in the afternoon I passed by a place called Dorothy Lake.  Experience had taught me that camping in proximity to a lake was bad for a couple of reasons, mainly nighttime condensation and of course the likelihood of mosquito breeding grounds nearby.

With that in mind I wanted to make another 4 or 5 miles for the day and reasoned that surely a place would be found further down the trail.  After the lake, the trail entered a long valley with steep ridges to either side.  At the bottom of the valley was a stream filled to overflowing with recent snow melt.  Because the valley was narrow, water that spilled over the banks created a giant marsh, and the trail which was routed along the stream was mostly underwater.

It soon became obvious that following the actual trail was impossible, and I could see where others had tried to skirt the bog by moving upslope, but this was also impractical because of trees on either side.  The best one could hope for was to walk as close to the trees as possible, but even this was a muddy obstacle course where walking in water much of the time was unavoidable.

As if this wasn’t enough fun, the presence of so much standing water led to the highest concentration of mosquitoes I had seen yet.  Previous encounters with relatively high numbers of the flying vampires were made possible by the simple effort of forward motion.  Here, the clouds were of such density that it felt like walking through a fog bank.  To keep them from draining me dry on my unprotected flanks, I put on my rain jacket as an additional barrier.

I’m not sure when I realized I had made a dreadful mistake in entering the valley so late in the day, but it might have been when I had gone the 5 miles I had originally intended and I could see ahead of me for many more miles.  The valley stretched on and on, and the map revealed it was at least 8 more miles before the trail climbed out away from the stream.

 Although it was June, the sun had already disappeared behind the ridge to my left, and by this point I had walked over 20 miles.  Not seeing any place in the valley bottom where a tent could be pitched, I struggled on trying not to focus on the incessant high pitched whine of millions of mosquitoes
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I walked until it was very nearly dark, and I knew I had to make a choice.  I could hike on as night fell, though by now I had covered 24 miles and was tired and discouraged, or I could climb up towards the ridge in the hopes of finding drier ground and hopefully fewer bloodsuckers.  I opted for the latter thinking that surely higher up away from the valley the numbers of bugs would be fewer, or there might be a breeze to keep them at bay.

I scrambled several hundred yards up the slope, looking for a spot for my tent.  No luck.  Worse still, despite getting away from the marsh the numbers of mosquitoes did not seem diminished at all.  I kept climbing.  After going up even further, I looked around at the slope above me and saw nothing that looked remotely like flat ground.  In desperation I decide to do some terraforming, and begin scraping out a perch with my foot.

With some effort I "leveled" a small patch of earth that accommodated most of my tent and would at least keep me from rolling down hill in the middle of the night.  All the while impatient hungry insects were frantically seeking any opening, and I knew I couldn’t let my guard down for a second.  I erected my tent in record time, and as fast as possible threw my pack and myself inside while madly fumbling for the zipper to keep more than a few hundred from coming in with me.

Once inside my flimsy but blessed cocoon, I spent more than a few minutes hunting down the mosquitoes that had managed to get in.  It was with no small sense of victory that I squashed the last little bastard, but it was impossible to ignore the thousands who still hovered menacingly just outside the no-see-um netting.  They seemed in no hurry to abandon the possibility of a meal.

I then did something that is considered a major violation of good judgment and common sense: I cooked dinner inside my tent.  Why is this such a big deal?  Well, if you think about it there are some pretty horrible things that can go wrong.  First, your tent is made of nylon, and although treated with fire retardant chemicals it will definitely melt if not burn if exposed to flame.  By using my stove I'm risking the only thing between me and death by massive blood loss.

The other possibly really bad outcome is spilling the contents of your cook pot inside the tent.  If it’s boiling water, the resulting burns might constitute a major medical emergency, with help a long ways off.  If all you dump is whatever dish you’re preparing, then the interior of your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, etc. will now be covered in some sticky mess, which by the way would also be very attractive to any nearby bears.  But in spite of all the potential disasters, at this point I really don’t care.

After avoiding any calamities and eating dinner, I arrange everything so that I have room to lie down. Once inside my sleeping bag I lie there for a while listening to the very audible sound of tiny predators outside and contemplate what I’ll face in the morning.  It’s not a comforting thought, but eventually I’m tired enough that I descend into restless slumber.

Morning comes and a glance outside the tent confirms the worst.  The mosquitoes are just as numerous and determined as the day before.  Grimly I armor myself with a fresh coat of repellent, all the layers I have including the head net and rain jacket, and emerge from the tent with the intent to pack it all up and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

Once I have my belonging on my back I return to the squishy valley floor and move with intent to find less infested territory by noon.  My pace is such that I am making great time, but not as fast as others.  Along the way I am passed by a young European typical of many that I have met on the hike.  He is moving at a rapid clip, and a glance at his attire provides all the explanation needed.

He is dressed in a ball cap, short sleeve print shirt, short-shorts, quarter socks and running shoes.  It is obvious he is one of the many “ultralight” hikers on the trail, carrying the bare minimum in weight to maximize his hiking speed.  He has no head net, and carries no repellent.  The cloud of mosquitoes that accompany him realize this, and they show no mercy.  His look is frantic, and I barely get three words out of him as he has no interest in stopping to chat.  He is almost running.

As planned I get to drier and rockier ground by mid-day, and although the swarms of mosquitoes don’t quite disappear, the air no longer looks like it is alive.

The Monotony of Food

Something I never considered until the hike was well under way is the long term effects of trail food.  Since I had a great deal of backpacking experience prior to the PCT, the issue of food seemed pretty straightforward.  Initially most of the issues appeared to involve the ability to resupply at regular intervals, and by all accounts there were relatively frequent opportunities to detour into outlying communities to meet the need.

The problem is not so much availability, but in the type of food that you can get.  A backpacking trip of a week or longer is pretty easy to plan, as long as you don’t expect fresh food.  There are options ranging from freeze-dried backpacking specific entrees to supermarket type items like pastas, dried beans, ramen, etc.  While not as appealing as what you might get at home, with some planning and preparation it is possible to eat fairly well in the backcountry for the short term.

Once you start thinking about months of living out of your pack, what you can carry and eat consistently suddenly becomes very limited.  For instance, while most backpacker specific freeze-dried meals might appear reasonably appetizing, after a few they all taste the same.  In addition their availability is usually limited to specialty outdoor retailers which aren’t found in smaller communities, and they get expensive.
 
I personally don’t care for the majority of the freeze-dried food category, finding them gluey and indistinctive.  My preference has always been to shop for items like quick cook pastas, hard cheese, peanut butter, tortillas, energy bars, and stuff that I’ll actually want to eat at the end of a long day.  With a large supermarket that offers a range of products, finding something that works for a week or more is challenging but doable.

What becomes especially problematic over the long term is the repetitiveness of options available.  It did not seem too onerous at first, but after a month or so I began to wish for more choices, even in the big markets.  Where it became really hard was when a resupply town had a small retailer with a bare bones selection, or worse yet a place that was so small the only option was an actual convenience store, with lots of snack type foods but nothing to speak of in terms of actual groceries.

My experience was not atypical.  Many through hikers had the same complaint and there was always talk about what other people ate.  The lack of variety and limited availability constantly stoked the desire to gorge on pizza, burgers, ice cream, salads, or whatever your craving happened to be when reaching a trail town.

The Energy Deficit

Complicating the monotony of trail food is the caloric equation.  When I started the PCT in April, I was in pretty good physical condition.  At 5’10” and 165 lbs. I was fit and trim, without a significant amount of body fat.  And although I kept in shape by keeping my activity level high, still it was nothing like hiking 20 or more miles day after day while carrying a pack that weighed between 40 and 60 lbs.

The government publishes dietary guidelines estimating that the average male needs 2000 calories per day to sustain basic metabolic processes.  This of course varies from person to person, but it serves as a baseline.  When you engage in an activity like through hiking, your caloric needs will increase accordingly, with some estimates suggesting a daily intake of 4000 – 5000 calories per day.

In the field it is incredibly difficult to carry that much food on a consistent basis.  With resupply often 5 - 7 days apart, a hiker has to carry all the food they will consume in that time, and when leaving a town the pack can weigh 40+ pounds (or more depending on your menu choices).  I tried to maximize my payload by choosing calorie dense foods like cheese and peanut butter, but you've got to have other options as well.

In practice, I think I might have been able to consume around 3000 calories per day in the backcountry, but the actual number was probably less.  Even without being especially particular about the types of food I ate (which I am very much conscious of at home), I had difficulty finding things I wanted to eat that met my daily caloric needs. 

In short, what I discovered after two months was that I could not eat enough on the trail to fuel my energy needs, simply because I could not carry enough.  By the time I reached the Sierras my daily energy expenditure had already been exceeding my food intake for weeks, and the incessant up and down of the rugged terrain only increased the gap.  Inevitably it began to take a toll on my stamina and strength.

I remember being puzzled at the weakness I felt, because physically I was in the best shape I had ever been in.  The constant challenge of hiking had toned my muscles and I had grown accustomed to not even being aware of my pack, even after a resupply when it was heaviest.  It never occurred to me that I was in a downward spiral, slowly cannibalizing my body to keep moving.

At one point I thought I might have contracted Lyme Disease, because I had noticed a suspicious looking welt on my thigh in Tehachapi which I suspected was a tick bite. Bolstering that supposition was that a few weeks later in Lone Pine I developed a swelling of the lymph nodes behind my left ear, which I had no explanation for.

It wasn't until I returned home that it finally dawned on me that my body was struggling because I only had so much available fuel to burn, and when it was gone the body turned to itself for the reserves it needed.  When the hike was over, I discovered I had lost 13 pounds, and it was easy to see that I had lost muscle mass in my legs.

The Miles... Always the Miles

I mentioned earlier that the focus of through hikers is the daily requirement to make the requisite number of miles each day.  It's an unfair but necessary component if the goal is reaching Canada before the snow flies in the fall.  Near the end of my journey I had become acutely aware of how my pace had slowed, and it was becoming obvious to me that I might not get there as planned.

The pain in my right foot had not gone away, and in fact had been somewhat aggravated by the rugged nature of the trail through the Sierras.  The terrain is very rocky, with large steps and a great deal of elevation gain and loss every day.  As I favored my right foot with the odd gait I had adopted my pace had become slower than before.

Rocky trails in the Sierra
Another factor influencing my progress was the lack of energy, particularly in the last 2 weeks of the hike.  I found myself struggling in ways that were unfamiliar and frustrating, and as time went on I became less aware of the grandeur that surrounded me and more intent on how hard everything had become.  Basically I wasn't having fun anymore.

Bringing it Home

I had nearly quit the trail at several points after I injured my foot.  The first time was at Vermilion Valley Resort, where after limping in I approached one of the staff and asked if there was a way to get to a town where I could make transportation arrangements home.  When he told me someone would give me a ride for $300.00, I decided I could continue hiking until Mammoth Lakes, the next “big” population center along the trail.

In Mammoth Lakes, I learned that I could get to Reno, but I would have to wait until the following Monday (I arrived on Friday afternoon) to get the bus.  Instead I chose to keep walking until I reached Yosemite, where I knew there was bus service to San Francisco.  As luck would have it just before I got to Tuolumne Meadows, I dropped my cell phone on a rock and shattered the screen, leaving me incommunicado.

This complicated things quite bit as I had no way to make reservations for a flight or even talk to friends and family about my situation.  Even though someone let me borrow their phone the service was so awful in Yosemite I decided to leave the Park and travel to an outside community where I could buy a new phone.  While I was in town I talked myself into returning to the trail, just another couple of weeks.  I really did not want to quit, and although I was hurting and starting to really feel the effects of the energy deficit, I just felt like I had to keep trying.

So once again I returned to the trail only to encounter the Valley of Doom and the nearly two days of mosquito hell.  The experience was the final straw for the proverbial camel, in that food monotony, lack of energy, and being in chronic pain had finally worn me down.

When I reached Sonora Pass and caught a ride to Bridgeport, I knew I was done.  It was still a very difficult decision, but I was tired, discouraged, and had lost all of my enthusiasm for continuing.  If I'm completely honest about that moment I can’t see how it could have been different.

Epilogue

I went to the doctor upon my return, and was told that I had suffered an “acute soft tissue injury” in my right foot, which is just a way of saying they think I strained a tendon or muscle.  I was supposed to stay off of it for 6-8 weeks, but I didn't do that.  It still bothers me when I hike, so I know I can’t say it would have gotten better if I had gone on.  And the test for Lyme Disease was negative, so at least there’s that.

I've recovered my energy, gained back the lost weight, and continue to hike as strenuously as ever.  And thankfully here in Flagstaff we have almost no mosquitoes.

In the not too distant future I am going to hike the PCT again, from the beginning.  I learned a few things, and although I will face the same challenges, at least now I know what they are.  In the beginning I may have only seen the PCT as a physical challenge, but it has to be considered equally as a mental one.  And I can say I know one thing for sure: This time I am going to make it.

Update 9/11/19

A month ago I was hiking one the trails around Flagstaff as I do almost daily when my right foot slipped off a rock and I came down on it awkwardly.  I knew immediately that the "old" injury had returned, and the sensation of pain was just as I remembered it.  I limped back to the trailhead and went home.

Although painful like before I never considered not using it or not going for hikes simply because that's just the way I am.  After all, I had continued my activities upon returning home from the PCT despite the doctor's instructions to give it a rest, so why would I start now?  Except this time my foot let know in no uncertain terms that it was not happy.

A few days after the most recent injury I went for a hike, but found myself really struggling to use my foot in a way that did not hurt.  I freely admit that I am stubborn and pigheaded, so I kept at it despite the discomfort.  I got about two thirds of the way up the mountain when I finally had to admit that there was definitely something wrong.  I retreated in defeat and limped my way back down, knowing I could not afford to ignore the issue any longer.

The following day I went to the orthopedic clinic, where x-rays finally revealed the partly healed but now re-fractured metatarsal bones of my foot.  This time I was given a boot and told to wear it for 4-6 weeks.  Which I did, not because the doctor said to but because next week I am traveling to California so I can backpack 130 miles of the John Muir Trail through the Sierras.  And believe me when I say this time I will be more focused on the scenery and in less of a rush to get through it.

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