I’m at a turning point, a major fork in the road. The going’s gotten tough, and the tough have gotten going. Going where, though? Well, let me tell you what happened.
Lentil and I stayed with friends in Brooklyn through Independence Day. Almost four full days off the trail. We had intended to leave the morning of July 4 but allowed ourselves to be convinced into staying and watching fireworks instead of getting sweaty and sleeping in the woods. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I got to spend quality time with my close friends and to relax for one more day.
The following morning we took a train back to Peekskill and a cab from there to the trail. We arrived and began hiking at 11:15. The forecast had called for over 90 degree weather with 99.999% humidity (give or take), and we had stepped off the train right into the thick of it. Having tentatively planned to hike 17 miles to a marked campsite, we weren’t messing around. As per usual for how we pace, Lentil hiked ahead.
A couple miles in, the sweat was pouring out of me unforgivingly, and I began struggling on the slightest uphill. And despite the mild terrain, my heart was pounding in my chest as if I were climbing Dragon’s Tooth again. I felt nauseated and lightheaded. I’ve already experienced overheating a few times on trail, so I feel like I should have known how to deal with it. But stopping for a couple of minutes every so often wasn’t cutting it, and I felt I had to keep moving since we’d planned to go 17 miles.
Five miles in I came to a brook (thank goodness, water!) and found Lentil sitting on a rock.
“I was hiking along and realized how much I was sweating, so I decided to wait for you to check how you’re doing in the heat.”
At this point I was feeling stubborn, maybe stoic, so I thought to mask the truth. But my misery got the better of me, and it was written all over my face. Mostly I was just relieved he hadn’t hiked ahead. So instead, I said,
“I’m doing OK, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hike 17 miles today. I’m so hot, and I don’t feel that well.”
When he responded, “Do you want me to hike with you for a while to make sure you’re OK?”, the first thought that hit me was, “I don’t want Lentil to see me cry.” So I told him that it was OK; I could hike on alone. There must have been something in my demeanor that deceived me because he reiterated, “I’m going to hike with you for a while. You lead.” And it didn’t take much at this point to make me crack. I whimpered “OK” and took the lead.
Over the next five miles I physically and mentally deteriorated. Several times I stopped mid-stride, threw off my pack, and borderline collapsed onto a rock. Lentil dunked his bandanna in a nearby stream and draped it around my neck. He gave me water and told me to drink. These measures helped for a minute or two, but I felt measurably worse every time I stood to continue on.
Jor: “I’m not having fun today.”
Lentil: “Not every day’s going to be fun.”
I eventually did throw up. I’m pretty sure it was my body’s way of saying, “This is too much effort trying to cool off. Don’t even think I can deal with digesting anything.” And then, of course, I was crying. Well, so much for pride.
After putting in ten miles, we decided to camp by an unmarked stream. We sat in the stifling but cooler evening air with our feet submerged in the water. After about an hour, I was starting to feel better.
The next morning it was Lentil’s turn. We hiked a couple of miles before I passed him taking a break. When he passed me a few minutes later, there was something in his facial expression that put me on my guard.
It didn’t take long to catch up as he was hoisting his pack. When I asked if he was OK, he immediately responded that he didn’t feel well. Now Lentil’s not a complainer, and he’s relatively hardy. So when he voiced this and I could see in his face the misery I’d been feeling the day before, I became instantly concerned. I was still not feeling 100% myself, but it was my turn to be in the caregiving role.
Generally, his belly was not happy…and he was sweating more than he ever had (me too) and his clothes were soaked through (mine too) and chafing on his back hurt (don’t even get me started) and the mosquitoes were torturing him (ditto! You have no idea) and he was feeling miserable (can’t say I felt much better). Are you seeing that we were being beaten down, and morale was sinking with us?
We took it slow that day with many breaks. The previous day I had been lethargic and foggy, and Lentil let me pace and kept an eye on me. This time the roles were reversed. About nine miles in, we took a two+ hour break at a shelter. It was much needed but left us to start the second nine mile stretch in the hottest part of the day.
At some point during the day, the following conversation ensued:
Lentil: “I’m not having fun anymore.”
Jor: “Not every day’s going to be fun.”
Lentil: “No, I mean hiking the trail hasn’t been fun for a while. The first three months were fun. The last month was questionably fun. I’m not sure I want to keep hiking. Maybe I’ll finish it as a section hiker.”
Jor: “Maybe you should take some time off trail…go visit your family and think about it. There’s no shame in leaving, but you don’t want to regret not finishing.”
That night, after hiking 18 miles, we tented near a shelter area crowded with weekenders. I scarfed down some dinner and ran to my tent to get away from the fog of mosquitoes. I then spent a miserable night trying unsuccessfully to air out my chafed hips, thighs, and back. The night air was muggy and warm, coating me in a blanket of moisture.
When I woke up the next morning to equally wet clothes, I swallowed a lump in my throat and hiked on. After the first few miles, I caught Lentil taking a break by a steam. Before opening my mouth, I hesitated because I knew I’d be opening a can of worms. But ultimately I couldn’t control myself.
Jor: “So whatcha thinking? You have to have better thoughts floating around in your head than I have floating around in mine.”…Pause… “OK, I’ll go first. I’m thinking I wish it were socially acceptable to hike in my underwear because the bunched cloth of my too-big-for-me shorts is driving me crazy. And I’m also thinking maybe I’ll get off trail for the month of July and go back to Virginia Beach. Or maybe get a ride up to Maine and hike south. Who says I have to hike this trail any particular way? I’ve been bordering on heat exhaustion for weeks and I’m not having fun and if I’m not having fun, what’s the point? Anyway, these are the crazy thoughts going through my head.”
Lentil: “Want to go to Syracuse?”
Lentil: “OK? Just like that? Didn’t have to think about it?”
We left the conversation like that and hiked on. As far as I was concerned, we were being whimsical, as in “Wouldn’t it be great if…?” But at the same time, it gave me something else to focus on than my own misery as I hiked along, the idea of getting off trail for a little while.
A few miles later, I found Lentil taking a break at another stream. (He actually saw me pass nearby and yelled for me to backup; I was in lala land.)
Lentil: “There’s a train station directly on the trail in a few miles. Want to go back to Brooklyn?”
Jor: “We were just in Brooklyn. I don’t think that’d be a good idea. It would be like going backward.”
Lentil: “I want to go to Syracuse. I haven’t seen my family in over a year. Go visit and take some time to think about the trail and whether or not I want to finish.”
And just like that, we blazed a new path for ourselves. Just a few hours later – on both of our four month trail-iversary, no less – we took a train back into NYC, stayed the night with my friend Nicki in Queens, and got on a bus to Syracuse the next morning.
I’m not much of an impulsive person. I might have a bit of an adventurous streak, but I prefer to have a loose plan in mind. However, I’ve learned over the last four months to take this experience one day – sometimes even one hour – at a time. And ultimately there’s no one right way to hike the trail.
Yesterday, Lentil asked me how I was feeling. I said that my wounds were healing up pretty well, and hopefully my newly purchased shorts will keep the painful chafing at bay. He pressed, asking about my mental state, and I said I was cautiously optimistic.
The truth of the matter is that, as we are nearing the end of our week of R&R (and, yes, Lentil’s feeling reenergized after a week with his family and is going back to the trail too), I’m beginning to feel pretty anxious. The weather this week around the trail has been about ten degrees cooler, but the forecast is showing another spat of 90+ degree days as soon as we are set to begin hiking again. And my mind wanders to the mosquitoes, the pain in my right foot (could I be doing permanent damage?), the real potential for heat exhaustion.
I have confidence that I’m going to successfully complete my thru-hike. However, I can’t help but wonder how I’ll (we’ll) maintain morale and enthusiasm. I have been known to be so stubborn as to follow through on my goals for the sake of owning the accomplishment, but I don’t want to look back on my AT thru hike that way.
But then again, I’ve never been the best at anticipating change, and here I’ve been sitting on my butt for a week in Syracuse enjoying cooler weather and doing nothing too taxing. I’m sure it’ll take a few days to get back into a groove, but then I’ll start liking (loving?) trail life again. In the meantime, I’ll try not to dwell on my self doubts. That’s definitely never served me well.