Monday, July 28, 2008

Decision Time

A solid eight hours sleep in a comfy bed did little to make my leg feel any better. Absent balm from Gilead I wasn’t going to be able to hike 20 miles, let alone two. It was decision time and really, there was no decision to make. I was on an 11AM bus bound for New York. I entertained the thought of using crutches on the trail until I was feeling better, but I don’t think that would have been a realistic possibility, not in the steep rocky north anyway. The real uncertainty was what my plan of attack was going to be going forward. There has been a fun and interesting change to the kayak trip (more on that at a later date), so I had to start thinking about when I would fly to Winnipeg to begin paddling. If I waited too long, I would need ice skates and not a kayak.

To be considered as having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, one has 12 months from their start date. Some people take eight months of continuous hiking or longer to complete the trail. In my case though, it gives me until April 25, 2009 to finish the trail. The thought of taking on the kayak trip and returning to finish the trail following it, is certainly a possibility. It would be significantly colder in Winter/Spring, but I would get to see the trail from another, colder, perspective. That being said, I have no interest in being on the Mount Washington, NH, portion of the trail in the month of January; the place where the highest surface wind speed was ever recorded.

I just have too many things to consider right now. Another possibility is to knock off a couple hundred more miles of the trail, kayak and then finish the trail. I just don’t know at this point.

On the bus back to New York I sat next to an honest to goodness Hobo. He was a modern day hobo and carried a backpack instead of a bindle, so he wanted to talk gear with me when not regaling me of tales of riding the rails and attending the annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rain...and Lots of It

The hiking through northern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts remained fairly steep in general, but had a few sections particularly so, such as that heading down into Sages Ravine, CT. I took my time descending into the ravine so as to not have a repeat performance of my previous tumble. It certainly didn’t help that a massive rain storm had come through the previous night and was still raining steadily upon my descent. The rocks were slick and the foot holds were at times precarious. Were I to fall on the way down, it would have most likely involved a hospital visit, if not a body bag. I was however able to successfully negotiate my way down into Sages Ravine.

The walk in the ravine was a pleasure; not just that it was relatively flat but that it was a scenic walk along the valley floor next to a thundering river. At one point I met a crew doing some trail work, so I said a quick hello and carried on. Before long though, I had the sneaking suspicion that I took a wrong turn. The alleged white trail markers I thought I was following appeared a very light blue. I was glad that I turned around and asked the trail crew if I was heading the right direction as my initial suspicion of being on the wrong trail proved correct. When I asked the whereabouts of the Appalachian Trail, I was told, “It is right over there. You can’t see it because the river is swollen and is running over it”. The trail followed the river, but with the heavy rain, sections of the trail were underwater.

I was able to keep my feet relatively dry by doing some bushwhacking just above the trail. At one point though, the trail just seemingly ended. As I looked around I saw the trail continue perpendicularly through the river and into the state of Massachusetts. The section of river wasn’t running particularly hard, so I decided to remove my boots before crossing; generally a no-no when fording a river. I also unbuckled the straps from my backpack. In the event I got swept down stream I would be able to quickly ditch the bag. I had been swept downstream once before while fly fishing in New Zealand, so I have some experience there. I can remember the feeling of being pulled down river and trying to swim to shore. It was almost a helpless feeling where, as much as I swam I just got pulled further down river. I came out unscathed and it taught me to be more cautious. That being said, I was still going to remove my boots to ford the river. Many hikers carry “camp shoes” such as sandals or Crocs to wear around camp and to wear while crossing rivers, but in hiking lightweight I sacrificed them.

As I marched through the river and into Massachusetts, thunder began to rumble and the rain picked up. On sloped sections of the trail water was running along like a stream. On the more level sections puddles began gathering. Between the rain pounding down and the water on the trail, I gave up trying to avoid the puddles. It was far easier to splash right through them. It seemed that my feet were spending more time underwater than not. It was exactly what I dreamed about as a 7-year old: stomping through puddles for an entire afternoon, some nearly up to my knees. My raingear was easily outmatched, so I was drenched from head to toe. It later seemed kind of pointless that I had taken my boots of when crossing the river. It was one of those heavy driving rains where if I were standing inside I would say, “Man, I‘m glad I am not out there” and then would have borrowed a line from Carl Spakler in the movie Caddyshack, “I don’t think the heavy stuff will come down for a while.”

The temperature turned decidedly colder, which caused me at least a little concern as I was drenched; more pressing though was the lightening that pierced the sky. I had two sizable mountains to cross, including Mt. Everett (the second tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts), before descending back down into a valley. The idea of being struck by lightning monopolized my thoughts for several hours as I crossed the nearly bare mountain tops. It was like my run across the Max Patch bald down in North Carolina all over again. There I was in a storm crossing the top of a mountain, crouching as best as I could. Walking with two metal hiking poles did nothing to ease my concerns.

While I did manage to avoid being struck by lightening, my leg was not cooperating. Not only was my leg not in better shape than the previous day, it was actually worse. It was getting to the point where I could barely bend my knee. In the evening I came across a road that would lead me to the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts and a hotel. For the first time in my hike I wasn’t able to hitch a ride to town and had to limp the three miles along the road. I checked into a hotel and couldn’t even make it back out across the street to get some dinner. When I called the restaurant across the street and told them I was looking to have food delivered across the way they asked me if I was serious. I was.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wipeout!

The nice thing about pushing further north is that there seem to be far more lakes and rivers in which I can swim. After a full day hiking in 90 degree weather, or even in the middle of the day, it is a great way to cool and wash off. The terrain is getting much steeper in places, a far cry from the rocky, level ground in Pennsylvania. There are a growing number of places along the trail where I have to use my hands to climb up or down a section of the trail.

Not only is the elevation getting steeper, but it is slowly working its way up in elevation as well. A large portion of New York and New Jersey have been in triple digit elevations, but in Connecticut the elevation creeps over 2,000 feet. While the change in elevation isn’t really much, nights are significantly cooler than they had been in New York and New Jersey. Initially I was going to wait until Vermont to start carrying a sleeping bag again, but I decided to take it with me during my last hiatus and I'm glad I did. I certainly wouldn’t have frozen to death without it, but I would be slightly under gunned with my silk sleeping bag liner and garbage bag blanket.

It took 1,600 miles, but had my first wipe out of the trip. As I can do nothing half-assed, I made sure it was a spill in grand style. As I was crossing a downed log lying across a fairly steep section of the trail, I planted my hiking pole behind the tree before crossing. When I stepped on the tree itself to cross over it though, my left leg slipped out smashing my knee on the trunk of the tree and sending me tumbling over the top. In quite spectacular fashion I scattered some gear along the trail that had fallen from the outer pockets of my backpack, looking like a forest yard sale. I also managed to wrap my hiking pole around the downed tree, giving it an interesting, but relatively useless crescent moon shape.

While I found my ineptitude marginally amusing and a fall quite overdue, it had its consequences. I was somewhat bloodied and worse for the wear, but the bigger problem was that my knee began swelling quite significantly. I stopped at the very next river crossing to get some cold water on my knee to reduce the swelling. The cold water helped to a point, but the damage was done.

I continued hiking throughout the day with varying degrees of pain in my knee. Towards the end of the day though, it felt as if with every footfall someone was jabbing a dagger in the side of my knee. I had grave doubts as to whether I could continue hiking. I ended the day in a town where I could have gotten off the trail, but I told myself that I wasn’t going interrupt my hike at that point. I didn’t have very high hopes, but there was at least a chance that I could continue on, so I wanted to push it for at least another day before making a decision.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Back at it...Again

It felt fantastic to get back out on the trail. It took some time to get into a rhythm again, but that was partly due to the fact that I was hiking right near a town for a better part of the first morning. I was also hiking in a fairly steady morning rain, which I was hoping wouldn’t be a harbinger for this leg of my trip.

I started out walking tentatively, hoping not to aggravate my leg injury. It was like walking on eggshells. It was frustrating to move along so slowly. What would have taken me eight hours to hike in the past would now take me ten hours or more. It made the days seem very long, even when not covering many miles. There were also the usual distractions that came along with the trail slowing me down. This time it was the numerous patches of wild blueberries, raspberries and blackcaps (black raspberries). All were ripe and easy to find. I would pause for a few minutes at a time to scarf down a few handfuls of the tasty berries and continue on. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Moseying along the trail, there was some discomfort in my leg still, but it was tolerable. As my leg was feeling OK and I like to keep things interesting, I went ahead and decided to develop a little tendonitis in my left knee. It is not excruciatingly painful at this point and I am hoping it will pass, but I have some serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. I have had tendonitis in the past and it took some rest for it to subside.

Along the way I met a retired doctor with whom I had a supremely interesting conversation regarding healthcare in the United States. I expressed my frustration with the inefficiencies and waste in the medical system. While we both agreed that the Federal Government should not be involved in universal healthcare, or the healthcare business in general, the suggestion was made that it might work on a state level as there would be more accountability. There would be other obstacles, but if I had to choose between healthcare being provided at a Federal or State level, I would choose State. My doctor friend also suggested that perhaps medical insurance/care should not be provided by profit-making entities so as to remove moral hazard from the equation; this being one case. I see the sense in that, but don’t think that would really work in the United States. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the matter.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Medical Circus

At the behest of one of my orthopedists, I went for a single physical therapy session before setting off again. I was somewhat uncertain as to what the benefit would be other than making my wallet lighter by relieving it of another co-pay, but I went. As it turned out, the therapy clinic that was recommended to me was the official physical therapy provider of the New York Islanders. Further to my post on July 9th where I was questioning how professional athletes can have a major injury and yet be ready to play nearly immediately; I had my answer: a strong medical team. It’s not any different then a sports team. Each member plays their role and the team is only as strong as the weakest link. And sometimes, one player can pick up the slack of another.

During my physical therapy evaluation, the suggestion was made that my ailment may be Compartment Syndrome. Oddly enough, I also had a write in diagnosis from a doctor who happened across my website and also posed compartment syndrome as my potential malady. Were I in the professional sports ranks, I would most likely have had a definitive diagnosis that very afternoon and may have even gone under the knife shortly thereafter. Then some physical therapy and viola, I would be back in action in a week. Unfortunately for me though, my medical team is somewhere in the middle of the standings overall, so I will trudge on through the mountains with uncertainty. Had one of my orthopedists taken the time to evaluate me as did the physical therapist, my team could have moved up in the standings and I might have had a definitive diagnosis. I have to start thinking about trading some of my team before next season.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Game On!!!

I have been bounced around between Orthopedists and a Neurologist, but the long and short of it is that no one has any definitive answers as to what is going on with my leg injury. With that, it’s game on. I am getting back on the Appalachian Trail and continuing my march to Maine. I have 800-miles to go and fewer than five weeks in which to do it. While it certainly doesn’t feel like it in New York, the mercury is slowly dropping across the border in Canada. If I don’t begin my kayak trip soon, I am going to have to retrofit the kayak with skate blades. The deadline I had in my mind for starting the kayak trip has been September 1st, so that is what I am up against.

As is always the case before setting off on the road I have a bunch of loose ends to tie up. I have kept my social calendar to a minimum so as to try and finish everything early, but like my days on Wall Street, I work best under pressure.

Hiking resumes in Peekskill, NY on the 23rd…

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Progress Report

My Orthopedist informed me that I could get on my bike to keep up my level of fitness while taking a rest from the trail. That was all I needed to hear to get me back out there. I had to reassemble my bike, as after the last cross-country ride I had dismantled nearly every screw and bolt on the bike so as to clean and store it. It took me a couple of hours, but I got the bike back together and it's running like new. I haven’t been doing any long rides, but I have been trying to push my pace. I have been hitting a 21-mile loop that I used to ride when I only had an hour to spare. I have discovered that my cardiovascular fitness is laughable in comparison to what it was, but the leg strength is still there. It felt a bit odd at first to be hunched over the bike after hiking, but it didn’t take long to feel comfortable on the bike again. The bigger problem is that my feet don’t really fit into my bike shoes as comfortably as they did as my feet are still somewhat swollen. I’m just fired up that I can get out there and get a little exercise. I am hoping to get back out on the trail as soon as possible.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thoughts on New Jersey and New York

I have been sitting around and have been thinking about the trail, not only how badly I would like to get back out there, but also the last week I was on the trail. This is what I was pretty much thinking…

Following New Jersey, the trail in New York has been a bit of a let down, first and foremost being that there was quite a bit of debris on the trail. I usually pick up any litter I come across on the trail, but had I done so in New York, I would still be out there collecting garbage. The worst section by far was near Bear Mountain State Park, a heavy day use area. It probably didn’t help that it was the July 4th week, which brings far more people out on the trail.

My favorite part about the trail in the New Jersey/New York area is that I could do the deli dash. For some reason, in those two states there are a number of places to get meals at the road crossings just off the trail. On one particular day I was able to have both lunch and dinner at a restaurant/deli. Having those food options available allows me to carry even less food than I would normally (providing I planned properly) and as a bonus I can usually end my meal with ice cream. The other nice thing about having the services near the trail is that hitchhiking is illegal in both New Jersey and New York. I generally try to stay on the right side of the law, but I think drivers would be less apt to pick up a hitchhiker in a state where hitchhiking is illegal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Medical Update

For the last few days I have been running around to various doctors in a hurried effort to find out what is going on with my leg/foot. To be perfectly honest, I am really frustrated with the whole medical care situation. I guess part of my frustration though is from being off the trail and getting no closer to accomplishing my goal of hiking up to Maine. Having to pay out of pocket to see an Orthopedist in short order was also an minor annoyance. I pay a good chunk of change every month for health insurance, but it seems that the good doctors and those that aren’t booked solid for the next three weeks don’t take insurance. I knew it wouldn’t be easy finding the medical care I was looking for on or just after the Fourth of July weekend, but I figured, hey, you never know. Perhaps there would be a cancellation.

By ponying up some good cash I was able to get in to see an orthopedist who did his best to get a definitive diagnosis for me in short order. X-rays were negative, so I went for an MRI, which showed that at least one of my ailments is Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome of the distal left leg. It wasn’t a stress fracture, but I was told that it wasn’t necessarily far off. That was actually the good news. In addition to that I have nerve damage in my leg and/or foot. My big toe is partially numb and when I press on the area where I was showing the Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, a good part of my foot tingles. Are there any neurologists out there that can offer some assistance? Bueller? Bueller? The soonest I was able to get an appointment with a neurologist was the 16th. I even tried the pay cash scheme without success. Being the Capitalist I am I tried to take it a step further. I offered to pay a premium on the visit in addition to the normal doctor’s fee in an effort to get them to fit me in. The concept bounced off the receptionists like bullets off Superman.

Perhaps my expectations are a little unrealistic. I keep thinking about pro athletes that have some crazy story like: being shot several times, involved in a head on collision, have a barrel of hydrochloric acid poured over them but yet are somehow ready to play the following day. Then again, professional sports teams have a full staff of specialists and medical equipment on hand to evaluate the injury within hours and answer the question: “What is my goal and what am I willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal”.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

I had run into several people early in the day that I queried about the trail in that one infamous location. They all had difficulties finding the trail as well. One guy told me he just gave up and walked through the swampy area out to the road and found where the trail continued from there; the advantage of hiking during daylight hours. While that may have been the case, I have no one to blame but myself. I have always liked being in charge of my own destiny. There are no excuses. I didn’t make the right decisions to get me to where I needed to go. It is that simple. While people can claim they have learned from their mistakes, I really had the opportunity to let it sink in throughout the entire next day. I went over various scenarios in my head and bounced around some other ideas to hopefully safeguard myself from this happening again, on the Appalachian Trail or otherwise.

The pain in my leg had become very sharp and continued throughout the day. While I don’t necessarily mind pain (I have had dental work done without anesthetics of any sort), pain is the body’s way of telling you that there is something wrong. As I get older I am more in tune with the types of pain I can push through and that which may leave me with permanent damage in some way or another. I was starting to think that if I would continue hiking for the next month, my leg would fall into the latter category. Each time I set out on an adventure I have to ask myself: What is my goal and what am I willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal? As one of my biggest motivators in life is fear of failure, the answer the second part of that question is: a lot. With that, I have every intention to continue hiking, but I also think it would be prudent to seek medical attention. I made the decision to take a break and find out what was going on with my leg.

I still had to finish my day and get to a place where I could catch a train to New York City. The latter part of the day took me right through Bear Mountain State Park…on July 4th. The park was packed to the brim with people up from the City. I felt just a little out of place walking through the middle of the park with my backpack and hiking poles. I doubt that more than a handful of the thousands of people in the park had any idea what the Appalachian Trail was, much less that it was routed right through the park. To them I probably looked just as odd as someone going to the supermarket in a space suit.

I came to a road crossing in Peekskill, NY where I was able to catch a ride to the train station. My timing is somewhat less than ideal that I am looking to see a doctor on the July 4th weekend. Wish me luck…

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Just Like the TV Show…Lost

I had been a little down on myself as the pain in my leg was steadily increasing. As it was getting late in the day though, I ran into a guy by the name “Paddy O” who was dishing out some trail magic. I mentioned before that trail magic is generally some type of goody that a hiker might enjoy but not have access to in the woods. This trail magic though was everything a hiker might enjoy and not have access to in the woods. Paddy O had the back of a pick up truck filled with all kinds of food and drink, including a fully stocked bar. While the food and drink hit the spot, it was in our conversation that I found the motivation to make a hard push that night on the trail. I had initially planned on hiking about another half dozen miles that night but I was inspired to hike further still. That was the plan anyway.

I hiked on into the dark and was fired up as I was initially making good time. The problem soon became that the trail signs were far and few in between; or at least out of the range of the beam of my headlamp. The trail was obviously not walked at night by the folks that signed it or there would have been more guidance. The poor signage began slowing me down significantly. On the trail in other states trail signage wasn’t much of a factor when night hiking as there was a very definitive trail. In New York though, the trail crosses bare rock and patches of leaves at times, none of which lend themselves to suggesting a hiking path.

I had found the shelter in which I was going to originally stay, but I pressed on. It was July 3rd and there were several townships celebrating July 4th a day early as I could see a number of fireworks shows from my perch up in the mountains. It was pretty cool being up and away from the fireworks displays. While they were entertaining, they looked so small and insignificant.

As the night wore on rain began to fall and that did little to add to the enjoyment of the hike or to my ability to find the route, but I was still fired up. As I hiked across a wet, slippery, rock section of trail I had a little trouble finding my way. As I looked to my side I saw the unmistakable eyes of a bear shimmering in the light of my headlamp. I yelled at the bear with all I had, but it wasn’t moving. It stood in the rain about 20 feet away, watching me. I could make out the silhouette and while it wasn’t the largest bear I had ever seen, I still wanted no part of it. I took a guess as to which way the trail continued and slowly moved on, shouting the whole time in an effort to keep the bear at bay. Luckily I had guessed correctly as to the direction of the trail and continued moving away. For the next half hour I kept looking over my shoulder. It was the first time I had encountered a bear during a night hike. I am sure they are out there; I had just never come across one at night.

I continued along the trail for another hour until I came upon a somewhat swampy area where the trail seemed to just end. I made a few marks on the trail in the event I got turned around I would know I was going back the way I had come. I had also just crossed over a small wooden bridge, which would also notify me that I had taken a wrong turn. I spent a good 15 minutes trying to locate the trail, but eventually found my way back on to the trail. As I continued on I wasn’t entirely sure I was going in the right direction. I had been expecting to cross a small road and hadn’t seen it. My compass was of little assistance. That while in theory I am hiking north, long sections of the trail could run any compass direction. Certain places on the trail looked somewhat familiar, but in a rain storm in the dark, I couldn’t definitively say I was heading the wrong way...or the right way for that matter. It was an hour later that I saw a water tank which confirmed 100% I had been walking in the wrong direction for the past hour.

I was faced with the choice of making another U-turn and trying to negotiate the trail once again, or go with certainty back to the original shelter in which I was going to stay. I felt it the most prudent decision to backtrack to that original shelter, not least of which because it was nearly midnight and the rain was starting to come down even harder. The only benefit of the rain was that I was able to lay out my rain jacket and collect a few liters of water overnight. I was also fortunate that on my way back to the shelter I didn't run into my bear friend again.

So there you have it. Not exactly my proudest moment in the woods. The following morning I was intent on figuring out where things went wrong. Before I even got to the swampy area I could see a car in the distance just beyond it along that small road I was supposed to have crossed. Had I been able to see that at night, it would have shown me the direction in which I needed to travel straight away. I crossed over the small wooden bridge as I did the night before and once again was stumped as to which way the trail led. Armed with the information of the whereabouts of the small road, I was able to locate the trail, but still only after 10 minutes. I was also able to figure out how I got turned around the night previous. I had made one wrong move where there was no signage and ended up being routed back on the trail, heading the wrong direction and beyond where I made the marks on the trail and the wooden bridge. I calculated that I had hiked a total of six extra miles to net me a grand total of zero trail miles. Nice work.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Almost Home…My Home State That Is

While it is true that the trail is rocky in Pennsylvania, getting worse the farther north I hiked, it is not like the rocks were told that they couldn’t cross the border into New Jersey. The Pennsylvania rocks just turn into New Jersey rocks. At least the crossing between the states was somewhat sweet for me.

As I was hiking the last few miles of the trail in Pennsylvania I was hiking down into the Delaware Water Gap. It was significant to me as when I first left my job on Wall Street; my first major trip was the cross-country bike ride from New York to Los Angeles. The ride took me right through the Delaware Water Gap and on Route 611, a road I walked across while hiking the Appalachian Trail. It just seemed like things were coming full circle. It brought back a flood of memories of the 2005 bike ride. I visualized myself pedaling along the road, picturing what I must have looked like had I been someone watching me ride along. It put me in such a good place mentally, even with my leg throbbing. It brought the biggest smile to my face.

I have never really been a fan of New Jersey. It could be that I grew up on Long Island and there is the inherent battle between the two: Jersey Shore versus the Hamptons, Bruce Springsteen versus Billy Joel, the Nets (you can keep them). It could also be due to my being most familiar with the industrial areas of New Jersey that are around Manhattan, but I was quite pleasantly surprised with the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. Only about 70 trail miles run through New Jersey, but I found those 70 miles to be quite diverse as compared to Pennsylvania. First off, there were once again hills to climb. In Pennsylvania, pretty much the only time there was any sort of elevation change was heading down into a gap where a road would cross. Absent that, it was a level walk, albeit a rocky one. New Jersey also had a one mile walk along a road, which wasn’t all that much fun, but it did lead to a walk through a National Wetlands Preserve. As part of the trail in and near the Wetlands Preserve, there were long sections of boardwalk, probably a couple of miles in length all combined.

Another notable point about New Jersey is the population density of bears per square mile is the highest of anyplace on the trail. I saw bears on a daily basis in New Jersey. In one instance I saw bear and was able to get him to run off over a hill by yelling and banging my hiking poles together. The only problem was that the trail circled around the back of that hill and I met up with him again as I rounded the corner. I was able to convince the bear to once again run off but in an encounter the following day, when I began yelling at a bear, it decided to come over and check out what was going on. It took some persistence on my part being as loud and obnoxious as possible, but eventually the bear halted its progress and wandered away. I have confirmed that there are in fact bears along the trail, but I still have my doubts though that I will see moose up north. Now that would be disappointing.