Saturday, 9 March 2013

The End of a Journey

Well, unfortunately my journey on the Appalachian Trail has come to an end much sooner than I would have liked.  I hurt my knee on the climb up Albert Mountain and pushed way too hard the next day.  Looking back I probably should have spent a few nights in Franklin resting up, but no one has ever accused me of being the brightest headlamp in the woods.  Out of Franklin I had a big climb up Siler Bald and a 1000+ foot climb over Wayah Bald.  After the climb up Wayah I felt pretty good and thought I could keep going, but something happened on the 700 foot climb to Cold Springs Shelter that completely messed up my right knee.  I'm still not entirely sure what is wrong with my knee, but the last mile or so before the shelter it felt like something in my knee popped or snapped (or crackled... now I'm hungry for Rice Crispies).  After that I could barely use my right leg.  I've never experienced knee pain to that degree before, and I knew something was seriously wrong.  Doing 15 miles on a bad knee was a very bad decision, and ultimately ended my hike.

I set up my tent in the shelter (it got painfully cold plus it snowed through the whole night) and went to sleep, hoping I could walk it off the next day.  Unfortunately, when I woke up I could not stand up.  I ended up spending the entire day stuck in my tent (luckily I had the foresight to camp with my food in my tent since I'm a sucker for midnight snacks), and when I looked at my knee I saw that it was incredibly swollen and sort of looked like a paint by numbers.  I tried to get out of my sleeping bag many times throughout the day, but it was just too painful.  I decided that if it was still as bad the next day that I would get off the trail and look at coming home.  Ordinarily I would have gone to the doctor and tried to get back on the trail, but I had a few concerns.  Since I could tell this would probably be a long recovery, I didn't want to end up living in a hotel for several weeks.  I was also concerned that if I tried to return to the trail that I would re-injure my knee and end up stranded.  The idea of being stuck in the Smokies which are notorious for bad weather was quite frightening.  In that situation, hypothermia, frostbite, and even death are real possibilities.  The thought of having to leave the trail so early was incredibly painful and a little heartbreaking, but I didn't want to die on the trail or permanently injure myself when I can always come back and try again.  When I woke up the next day still barely able to move, I accepted the fact that my time on the trail was likely over.

I thought I would have to hike back 15 miles to Winding Stair Gap to get into Franklin, and in my condition, that could have taken 4+ days.  I got really lucky since John, one of the hikers who stayed at the shelter with me, was willing to walk with me 1 mile to a Burningtown Gap where there is a road crossing.  I wouldn't have been able to hitch a ride, but he phoned the people at Aquone Hostel to pick me up.  This was a huge life saver and I can't say enough how grateful I am that he did this for me.  I understand now why hiking with a phone is so important.

The people at Aquone Hostel were very good to me and went out of their way to figure out how I could get to the bus station in Ashville without paying ridiculous money on a taxi.  Ultimately, one of their friends who goes to university in Ashville was willing to let me spend the night at his house and drop me off the next day on his way to school.  Not many people would be willing to do that, and there again, I can't say enough how grateful I am.  The kindness of strangers really saved me.

Getting to a major airport would have been incredibly expensive and logistically difficult, so taking the Greyhound seemed like a reasonable choice.  I knew it would be a long and uncomfortable trip, but come on, how bad could it be?

After 4 days of basically no sleep, only eating at McDonalds and gas stations, and having to deal with a colourful variety of nutcases, I was incredibly happy to get into Canada.  After dealing with two 3+ hour layovers and many, many other layovers over an hour, I was so ecstatic to get to Vancouver where I would take one last bus to Princeton.

I got into Princeton today, and despite being incredibly disappointed that I came up short on my thru-hike, I was very, very happy to just be home.  At this point I think I'll look at my hike as a successful section hike rather than a failed thru-hike.  I still made it farther than a lot of people make it.  I've heard stories of people quitting part way up the 600 stairs on the Approach Trail.  I've heard that something like 25% of people quit by Neel's Gap, and a very large percentage of people don't make it out of the state of Georgia.  I think if I would have stayed healthy, I would have made it all the way, but I guess I can't know for sure.  Sometime in the near future I'll try to upload some of the pictures that I took, in case anyone is interested.  I am very hopeful that I'll get another shot at thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but until then I'll just remember the good times I had on my trip and the great people I met.

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