Monday, October 1, 2018

Home Just in Time

Well, I didn't expect to be talking to you so soon, but I realized you should know what happened the night I left the Trail. Right after my wife and son picked me up a little after 8 p.m., I downed a Coke and a bottle of water and had a cigarette, and Forest had his Kong with a meat treat stuffed in it. Then, we drove about 15 minutes to a Subway to chow down; they hadn't had dinner, and I had my usual case of hiker hunger. Before I could even get my food, though, I passed out in our truck in the parking lot, apparently had a seizure and vomited all over myself and the truck while I was out. When I came to, I was being put into an ambulance. Confused and disoriented, I started yelling, "Don't separate Forest from me," as I'd been trained. My wife ran over and reminded me that Forest was with her and my son and that they would follow me to the emergency room in the truck. She realized that the EMTs needed room to work, and I wasn't exactly conscious enough to make sure Forest was out of the way.

The EMTs checked my blood sugar and heart, and both seemed fine. When we got to the emergency room, they immediately started working on me, trying to get a line started for an IV and to take blood, which they needed to determine what was wrong. It took them an hour and a half just to get a line in, with two nurses and a doctor each trying in my arms, hands and feet. Finally, just when they thought they would have to try the groin (Wait, what????? That woke me up!), the doctor finally succeeded. They also did an EEG to check my brain because of the seizure.

They ran about three IV bags into me rapid-fire, using a pressure bag. The diagnosis was pretty much that I was completely run down, extremely dehydrated (more than anyone they had ever seen before) and all of the related blood levels (e.g., electrolytes, which can negatively affect the heart and brain, hence the seizure) were very low. They also said I had some type of infection and low blood pressure. My wife had previously made an appointment for me to see her primary care doctor on Monday, so the ER doctor decided to let me go after the fluids finished. They said that we could stop at any ER on the way home if I started to feel bad again (that didn't reassure my wife very much!).

Fortunately, we already had a hotel reservation made in Pittsfield, MA, for Friday night (thanks, Bear!). We checked in at 2 a.m. The next morning, my son woke up at his usual 7 a.m., and he and my wife went out to clean up the truck and let me sleep a little more. We went down to walk Forest at about 9. When we returned to the room (I had planned to shower again), we found that the maid had bagged up all of our belongings and cleared them out of the room! We got everything back, and she apologized, but they definitely need to improve their internal communications. After that, we went back downstairs to have breakfast. The only upside was that it got us back on the road a bit faster.

I was seriously wondering if I could make it the whole way home in the truck (about 12-13 hours), when a friend of a friend offered to cover dinner and another hotel stay Saturday night (thank you, Dawn and Jim!). You see, this all happened at the very end of the month, and I get paid on the first, so I was flat broke. I have been so very lucky to have had such a generous troop of my very own Trail Angels helping to support me and cheer me on when things got rough. They've reminded me that people can be kind, without expecting anything at all in return other than to share my journey. When I look back on this, I think that will be one of the best memories.

At about 6:30 we decided to stop in northern Virginia, where we found a Quality Inn with a Denny's Restaurant nearby. My wife was happy to have a veggie burger (it's often hard to find vegetarian options when you're eating fast food), and I literally inhaled my dinner.

On Sunday we climbed back in the truck to go the rest of the way home to Charlotte, NC. My parents were there to meet us (with home-cooked FOOD), and my wife's two older kids were there as well. It was a little bit of sensory overload for me after being isolated for so long, but it felt good to see everyone and settle back in. Forest is good, too. He seems to be glad to be home and is listening well; we'll be working to polish his home commands, if they need it, once I get my strength back.

Today, I had my appointment with the doctor. They did more bloodwork and ran a test for Lyme's Disease. It will be a little while before they have the results. Once again, they had to stick me twice to get enough blood. My veins are more evident, but my blood is apparently thick. I guess it will take a while for me to get back to normal. My weight today was 158. I could tell I had put some on just since I was picked up on Friday, since the pants I was previously holding up with a belt won't close now.

It might sound stupid, but I am kind of glad this all happened. If it hadn't, I would have always felt like I did not give it my all. Now I know that I could have ended up in serious medical condition or worse if I hadn't called my hike off when I did. I'm also so fortunate that my wife made such fast arrangements to come get me. Who knows what would have happened if I had gotten on a bus.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Final Decision

Here are some important statistics for you to understand, when you think about my hike:

  • Out of about 4,000 people who attempted an Appalachian Trail thru-hike this year, only about 20% will complete it.
  • Of those 20%, the number that will finish with a dog can be counted on one hand.
  • Of all of the people who I have seen thru-hiking with dogs, 100% make their dogs carry all of their own food and supplies. I pack almost all of Forest's stuff (i.e., hammock, under quilt, top quilt, straps, five days of food, coat, rain jacket, service dog vest and gear, canine first aid kit, tons of water, ear cleaner, paw care stuff, nail care stuff; I am certain I forgot some). When we walked into and out of towns and Forest was in his formal Canines for Service vest, I also carried his pack on top of my pack. He only carried a two-day supply of food and a first aid kit in case of emergency. 
  • All but one dog that I know of that have finished the thru-hike were white. Only one was a black dog. Black fur means they overheat more easily, so they require more caution, slower paces and shorter days when it's warm. That's what took us off the Trail in June.
  • Almost all of the dogs I have seen were allowed to wander off leash at all times. My dog and I hiked connected by leash the entire time. Where I had to be careful for my own safety, I had to be doubly conscious of Forest's safety. The other dogs ate anything they were given or found on the ground, and if they got hurt or couldn't make it, they were sent home and the hiker continued. That will never be an option for me with Forest.
  • I have a plastic disk in my back with two fusions. On a good day, I typically am in pain. On the Trail, if I slept wrong (especially when I wasn't able to sleep in my hammock or a bed), carried too much weight or distributed it or lifted it wrong, or just had an overly difficult day where I was climbing up and down and around boulders or other obstacles, that pain was multiplied.
  • I was in need of surgery for a cataract in my right eye before I left for my hike. That meant that I was operating with impaired vision every day.

None of that mattered to me, and I went into this hike fully aware and still doing it all willingly. Forest does so much for me, the least I can do for him is to make sure he is happy and healthy every step of the way, and not overburdened in a way that could damage his joints. I'm not as young and agile as I was when I first did 1,200 miles of the Trail, but I still had the will and desire to hike. All of these things did slow me way way down, though.

To compensate for the extra dog supply weight that I was carrying, I found myself (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) packing less and less food for myself. As a result, my personal weight is now down to 152 pounds; a 20-pound weight loss, when my friends and family said I was thin already. Still, "Can do," I said.

However, I have had two major issues on the Trail that were completely beyond my control:

  • One: repeated access issues and the general attitudes I have seen toward Forest in most towns. Shuttle drivers from the Trail to my resupply points in town have turned me away because I have a service dog. Hostels have refused me. They don't care that Forest is a legitimate, trained service dog that I rely on for not only my overall peace of mind, but also for physical support. They only see yet another big, hairy dog in a long line of pets, emotional support animals and fake service dogs that have made it harder for them to do business.
  • Two: I started my thru-hike March 2nd. At the slow pace we have been going, we would not complete the thru-hike until mid-December. This is just too much time away from my family.
Anything that is added to this list in terms of additional pack weight, or barriers or logistical SNAFUs really, really, really compounded things for me. And I haven't coped well with that.

So, after days of thought and indecision, it is time to stop. We gave it one hell of a shot. I now have about 2,500 miles of this Trail under my belt, combined by my previous start and this attempt, and Forest has almost 1,400 miles (including, by far, the toughest miles on the Trail) on his paws. I texted my wife yesterday and, as always, she dropped everything to come get me. About six more hours as of this writing, and I will be in our truck with my wife and son on my way to a hotel in Pittsfield, MA, for the night. Tomorrow, we will drive back home to near Charlotte, NC. Right now, I feel like I have won a million dollars, but I have to wait for the check to clear before I can have it.

Thank you all for your support. I know you have all been invested in my journey, or you wouldn't have been reading this blog for months. I'm sure you share my mixed feelings. Please know that your time was not wasted. I learned a great thing. I thought I hated all people. Now, I know I just hate most people. 🙂 Seriously, though, I cannot thank you all enough. least for now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wrestling with Myself

Today I had a near meltdown after my gracious hosts delivered me back to the trailhead. I announced to friends and family that I was calling it quits and taking a bus home when I got to Great Barrington. Then, I texted my wife to see what it would cost to get to the nearest bus station (there was actually one closer than Great Barrington, in Pittsfield) and the cost to get home.

When I was wrestling with myself, I wasn't really clear on what was making me crumble. Looking back, I realize there were a few things. The really minor one was that when I picked up my resupply package yesterday, it didn't include things I had asked for and I got upset. As it turns out, the package had been opened and retaped, either as a result of an accident with the package or an intentional theft. Definitely not enough reason by itself. The really major cause centered on things that had been happening at home. First, my son started Kindergarten, and I wasn't there to encourage him. Second, he got sick several weeks ago with croup and strep throat and had to be hospitalized for several days, and I wasn't there to console him. Third, Hurricane Florence threatened Charlotte with flooding, and my wife had to handle all of the preparations herself, and evacuate my family at 8:00 at night to higher ground as the river behind our house rose. All of the feelings that had been lurking in the back of my mind for the past weeks suddenly became overwhelming. They almost broke me.

I really wanted to quit and maybe I should have, but something in me wouldn't let me and that is really aggravating. After many texts back and forth with my wife, I decided that I am going to keep going until either that thing lets me quit, or I finish the hike. I was just so over it today. I miss my kids. But like I said before, I need to have the ability to back myself when I say to them, "Don't quit."

And this is the challenge of the trail. For a while the battle is with the weather and gear and terrain and your legs and all the other small things like cooking and getting water and planning and executing that plan and so on. Then, you conquer those things one by one and that is when the real challenge hits: yourself.

I remember seeing NOBOs (northbounders) with about 400 miles left and saying, "Hey, congrats! You're almost done!" They had an absent look about them, and they would say what I feel now, "Only 400?! I don't feel like I'm almost there." Sometimes the finish line on the trail feels farther away the closer you get. After 1,300 miles, 1 mile equals 10. Small towns become big cities; misery gets magnified. I'm sure that at some point closer to the finish line that will flip, and I'll get a second wind, like I did before the Mahoosuc Notch and before the White Mountains. Until then, whenever that is, ugh...I push on.

Body and mind say quit loudly. but I knew the doubts would come. I really thought it would happen sooner. I began to think it might not happen at all, but clearly today it did, and now I have to laugh. Because all right then, to hell with whatever in me is telling me to quit. Show me what you've got, and I'll show you what I've got. It's not going to be a pretty fight, but I'm gonna win. The finish line is mine. I know it because I saw it before I started. 😆

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

And Another Day in Dalton

Once again, control of my schedule is in the hands of the weather. A front is moving in that is supposed to bring heavy thunderstorms through Wednesday. I picked up my resupply box today and redistributed my pack. For the remainder of the day, I looked over the Guthooks maps for the next 50 miles and tried to plan. The terrain didn't look too bad, so hopefully I'll be able to make up for lost time. As much as I appreciate the hospitality of my hosts, I'm keenly aware of every delay in my hike home.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Dalton, Massachusetts

Over the past days we made our way down to Dalton, Massachusetts, through Cheshire, the Cobbles, North Mountain and Weston Mountain. The nights in the upper elevations have gotten much colder, down in the low 40s, with an even lower wind chill. By the time I got to Dalton, I just wanted to warm up. Forest didn't have his warm jacket yet either, it's being sent to our next stop after Dalton. One thing I've learned from this experience: I don't ever want to be homeless. I'm just too old to live like this long-term.

Speaking of Forest, he finally ripped a hole in his hammock. I can't really complain; it lasted almost a thousand miles.

I decided to take the friends of a friend up on an offer for food and a real bed. They picked us up and took us back to their house, where a private room and bathroom were waiting for us. After a long, hot shower, I felt more human again. Dinner was great, grilled salmon. I hadn't had that in a while. They even told me I could let Forest sleep in the bed, too. Good people.

I slept hard for 9 hours. I can't remember the last time I slept that long. And, I woke up to real coffee and an omelet. My hosts offered to let me stay another day to pack in some calories and do my laundry, and I decided to take them up on it. Tomorrow morning, they'll take me back to Dalton to the Post Office, where I'll pick up my resupply package, repack and head back out on the Trail.

Oh, and by the way—we've gone 1,330 miles, with 770 to go! Home is beginning to sound much more real now.

How It All Began

In August 2017 Canines for Service Inc. in Wilmington, NC, provided Service Dog Forest to me (U.S. Army Veteran "Fisher"). It was ...