I thought being sick away from home while I was in college was hard. Now that seems like a walk in the park.
On Thursday, April 27, my friend and I were hiking 18 miles for the day so he could meet up with others to do a 33-mile hiking challenge the next day. It was relatively easy terrain, so it seemed rather doable– except that the previous few days had been 16+ miles with poor sleep at night.
Halfway through the day, we stopped for lunch. I ate summer sausage with cheese on a tortilla, all from brand new packages. After lunch, it was 9 miles of a slow, steady climb to the top of the ridge.
Over the next 7 miles of intermittent rain and my desire to keep moving and make it over the mountain to camp, I forgot to snack. All I had was good ol’ water and a few sips of some gross drink made with a blue mix packet. Upon reaching the water source 7 miles up, I came upon my friend, Munch, and a group of hikers that I’d recognized from before. I knew I needed a break and a snack, but they were just about to leave, it was about to storm, and I didn’t want to get caught alone.
Less than a mile from the shelter, the sky darkened, the wind picked up, and the rain began to fall. I stopped to put on all of my rain gear, and at this point I’d fallen back so much I couldn’t see the hikers ahead of me. While I was stopped for a moment, I figured it was a good of time as any to eat a snack for that final push to camp. I took a bite of my favorite bar– a chocolate caramel Gatorade protein bar– and it didn’t taste good. This should’ve been a red flag, but I didn’t think much of it, packed it away, and kept hiking. I was exhausted and desperately wanted to get to camp.
I got to camp as soon as the rain was letting up, and was relieved to hear there was still a spot in the shelter. I was not in the mood to set up my tent, and all of the remotely flat spots were taken.
Feeling pretty off at this point, I just wanted to be alone. I felt awful, had no appetite, was tired, hungry, and as a result: emotional. I took my mopey self down the steep, awful 0.5mi decent to the water source. (Any water source over 0.1mi from the shelter has hikers complaining; 0.5mi is unheard of.) Once I arrived at the spring, I laid down and pathetically cried. The light rain falling on me only added to the mood.
After composing myself enough to preform the simple task of filtering water, I felt almost too weak to squeeze just 16oz through the filter. It all came to a head when I realized why I felt like crap. I quickly jumped up and sprinted as far away and downstream from the water source as possible. I threw up what was left in my stomach from lunch. Feeling a little better, but not great, I filtered the rest of my water and began my sluggish ascent back to camp.
I passed my friend’s tent on the way to the shelter, but I didn’t have enough strength or courage to tell him what exactly happened. All I said was I wasn’t “feeling well”. I didn’t want to say I threw up because: a) the whole camp would’ve heard, and b) I was so emotionally weak I probably would’ve started crying.
I had no idea what I had, so my mind floated to worst case scenario: Norovirus? 24-hr stomach bug? Waterborne illness? Or just food poisoning or exhaustion? I didn’t want to instill panic in myself, much less others.
Feeling weak and nauseous, I couldn’t get myself to eat dinner. I felt better than before, but still awful. I forced myself to drink some water, a few sips of a Breakfast Essentials shake, and a nibble of a ClifBar.
By 8:30pm, the entire camp was in bed. I’d told a few people I wasn’t feeling well, but no one knew to what extent. I woke myself up at 10:30pm and 12:00am with the urgent need to throw up. Getting out of bed to a trashcan or toilet is one thing. Unzipping a sleeping bag, finding a headlamp, putting on camp shoes, and running as far from camp as possible is another. After midnight, I didn’t sleep well. I was fearful I’d have to sprint out of bed again and again. Luckily, that awful internal alarm to quickly get up never went off again.
I woke up in the morning feeling tired and depleted, but no longer nauseous. Others left camp early, but I took it easy, slowly gnawing at my Poptart and drinking water and the rest of my Breakfast Essentials shake. Between bites, I was plotting how in the world I was going to get off this mountain.
By the grace of God, I had service at the shelter. I’d been texting my mom all night. She was willing to drive 6 hours to meet me if I didn’t get better. I told her I would be fine, but secretly I really, really wanted my mom.
At 10am, I was packed up and ready with a plan. I had an 11 mile trek to the next road crossing, where I would get a ride to a cabin/campsite area. The cabin was $40 cash only; I had $39. (My mom called the nice owner, and he said he wasn’t going to squabble over a dollar. Thank goodness.) My pack felt 30lbs heavier than the day before, the sun felt like it was melting me, and I couldn’t go faster than a strolling pace.
Half a mile in, I called my mom to share I was finally hiking… very slow. She shared the news that she was leaving town in an hour to meet me for the night. I started crying out of relief, and so did she. Now I truly had a reason to hike.
With any small incline, I couldn’t go more than 20 yds without stopping to take a breather. It took me almost an hour to hike that first mile. Arriving at a good shady spot with a view, I told myself I earned a longer break. For an hour I sat there, eating the slightly more appetizing protein bar from yesterday, calling Kyle, and relaxing to the point of almost napping.
I knew I needed to keep going to get to a water source sooner rather than later, so I heaved on my pack and continued at a snail’s pace. To keep myself moving forward, I played a game with music: I could only take a rest at the end of each song. This kind of worked, with many more added breaks in there.
I struggled to the water source, took a 45min break, and pushed on to the shelter– a whopping 6.8mi from the morning’s location. It took me a total of 5hrs to get there, and I was purely motivated by the promise of a nap at the shelter.
Within minutes of arriving at Iron Mountain Shelter, my pack was off, an alarm was set, and I was fast asleep on the plywood surface with only my clothing bag out as a pillow. I awoke to my alarm, begrudgingly got up, drank some fluids, and slung my pack on. Only 4.5mi of a slight downhill to the road crossing! If I was traveling at my previous pace, I’d arrive at 7pm. Luckily, I was feeling better and my body was grateful for the downhill. I felt like I was hiking, not just strolling (and struggling) along.
The miles went by quickly– well, relative to the previous 6.8mi. My mom only had to hike in 1/4mi to find me. I was overcome with relief seeing her, knowing that my struggling was almost over and she was there to love and care for me.
We went back to the cabin we were staying in for the night. (A one room structure big enough to fit two twin beds, a nightstand, and a camp chair.) I was in heaven there. My mom brought a plushy cotton towel to shower with, cotton clothes, my pillow, my teddy bear, almond milk, pedicure supplies, and other comforting things from home.
After a long shower, my appetite was slowly returning. It was 8:30pm, and the sleepy town of Shady Valley, TN was asleep for the night. We drove 30min more to Damascus, VA for dinner. That night, I slept the best I have while on the trail. I felt like royalty in my cotton pajamas with a real pillow on a low quality mattress.
Before my mom took off to Columbus at 1pm the next day, we enjoyed the morning over breakfast and pedicures on the lawn in front of the cabin. You can’t beat warm sunshine, fresh air, a good view, and the best company. I regained my appetite and hit the trail that afternoon. As much as I despised the trail the day before, I was willing to forgive and happy to be back.
Long story short, getting sick and hiking 11 miles is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That, and mom’s are superheros.