17 May – 19E Shuttle to Damascus, VA Trail Days

On 17 May, I split a shuttle with 9 other folks to Damascus, VA to see what Trail Days was all about.    

“Damascus is the home of the annual Trail Days festival, and is known as Trail Town USA due to the convergence of four scenic trails in the town, including the Appalachian TrailU.S. Bicycle Route 76, The Iron Mountain Trail, and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus also is on the route of the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail and the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail. The Trail Days festival is held around the middle of May each year and draws in excess of 20,000 tourists, making it the largest single gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers anywhere.

Well, it’s a big fun party. . . a parade, games, all the relevant equipment vendors helping people with their equipment (really: repairing [sewing, adjusting], replacing, giving advice, etc.), all kinds of carnival food, etc. . . and many charitable organizations, usually religious, offering free showers, laundry, and food for the Hiker community.  Really, just a nice big ‘Trail’ celebration.

On Friday night, I took a walk into the woods to see the ‘Drum Circle’.  This was actually arranged by some Trail acquaintances of mine and they insisted I go, so on Friday night I marched to the sound of the drums. . . In the (dark) video, -hang with it-, you’ll see that the woods where everyone tented out is a labyrinth of people, lights, sounds, and who knows what else is going on in the dark!  (Not that I don’t trust co-ed 20-somethings with all the time in the world on their hands, a carnival tent city at night, beer, marijuana, and hormones all generously available . . . )  

In the daytime video, you can see the stage where music played all day and night. . . they had performers lined up for the whole weekend and they were all good. . . 

I set up in the supposedly ‘quiet’ section of the Tent City but it turned out to be not so quiet as one might expect . . . 


10-11 May – No Business Knob to Erwin Tennessee (6.2 miles)

Had a good morning run into the town of Erwin Tennessee to resupply; I got a room and waited out the rain the next day while my equipment dried… (I got to clean all of my equipment in a bathtub for the first time and it feels good to get the dirt, smoke, dead bugs etc. scrubbed out!)

Speaking of equipment- time for some analysis this far: 

[First a big thank you to Ashley and Tim Coates of Real Cheap Sports, (36 W. Santa Clara Street, Ventura, California 93001): Ashley and Memory are sisters and I got some great deals on some high-end equipment from them as well as encouragement and support of course!]

Trekking poles.   I got Black Diamond Distance Carbon trekking poles and I use them constantly. It’s hard to believe I have ever hiked without trekking poles; they are always in motion carrying weight, redistributing weight, and preventing slips and falls.   I give them an A+.

Tent.  It is a Seedhouse SL2.  Another great thing and I’m an expert at setting up my little domain every day.  Its the adult version of having a little ‘Fort’ to erect and play in every day except Mom doesn’t deliver grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup when I get hungry.  A

Sleeping bag.  (I got this at REI). I got too lightweight a bag for the task and have been cold more times than I can count.  Oh well… I give myself a D and same for the ‘experienced thru-hiker’ at REI who recommended it.  Have been so jealous of the folks with big fluffy warm sleeping bags. 

Shoes.  Altra Lone Peak 4 Trailrunners have been perfect.  Lightweight, waterproof, good grip on rocks, etc…  I will stick with these not-one-blister shoes… A+. (They are all that and a bag of chips, a pickle and a cookie.)

Rain Jacket and Rain Pants from North Face… a begrudging B.  I dont know if there’s a more breathable version available but when I wear these I sweat too much and end up soaked inside with sweat instrad of rain…  and if it’s cold, I’m in trouble..

Thermarest Sleeping Pad. I punctured this early somehow and dont know if I ever got one night fully inflated… will be trying to fix/correct at an upcoming Trail Days event where all the vendors will be present. (Recuse on grade)

Backpack.  Osprey Atmos AG 65.  Has been excellent with all the bells qnd whistles.  Fellow hikers refer to it as the ‘Cadillac’ of backpacks and it seems to be true.  A

Jetboil Stove.  Amazing technology.  Such a fast boil time that I can’t attend to other tasks while the water is heating up- if I turn my back it boils over! Makes hot coffee and cocoa always two minutes away.  A+

9 May – Hogback Ridge to No Business Knob campsite (20.7 miles)

Long nice day on the Trail.  Lots of water and snack breaks to fuel the machine as I went up and over Big Bald Mountain… about 10 miles on the ascent and another 10 descending to my end campsite for the day… had just enough light to set up properly and make something to eat, hang my ‘bear hang’ food bag, etc… then, into the warm tent to sleep! 

I feel like I really have my ‘Trail Legs’ now…  I rarely stop out of sheer fatigue like in the beginning; usually it’s to take a deliberate food or water break now…

2 May – Brown Gap to Deer Park Mountain (20.1 miles)

Long great day.  I was moving.  Up and over Max Patch Mountain, Walnut Mountain, and Bluff Mountain before a 7.5 mile gradual descent to Deer Park Mountain.  I set up near a water source and had the place to myself for the night, though many other hikers were set up within walking distance.  It was nice to have the water and the frogs for company.

This was the first day I put the earbuds in and listened to anything from my phone while I hiked.  Hey- I lasted a long time (5 weeks) out here listening to just the birds, the wind through the trees, the rushing of the waters over the rocks in the green glades, (and, when I lay down at night, I can hear the mice just outside my tent making un-Christian-like comments about my ancestry [since I hang my food bag up in a tree]).  

I listened to an interesting podcast for a good hour today; it was a conversation between the great Sam Harris (an American neuroscientist, philosopher, author, critic of religion, blogger, and public intellectual), and one Daniel Kahneman (notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making).  This conversation added an interesting postscript to something I’ve been thinking about recently.  I’ll tell you about it, but strap in, this doesn’t go in a straight line.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is:  the ‘Q’ word.  If there are delicate ears in the room, please feel no shame in leaving, –and by all means, usher the women and children out.

Ready?: The word is ‘quitting’. 

I don’t now (remember this word) believe I’m going to quit this AT thing, but I’ve been thinking about the concept, and the role it’s played in my life, in the past and recently.  The reason it’s a recent line of thought-inquiry of mine is because I was recently privy to an email wherein my brother Keith expressed pride to a couple of my friends that I didn’t quit after the sickness episode.  And I was indeed proud that my older brother Keith, known as the ‘responsible’ twin (and nothing in all these years to disprove it), was proud of me.  Yet, I have a couple of things to say about this issue, and I believe I am well-positioned to speak upon it given how many times in my life I have been tested in this regard.  First, everyone thinks of quitting.  Indeed, I was a little shocked when I started going to great Army schools with high attrition rates and saw people quit, and occasionally thought about quitting myself.  I sought out every tough Army school they had, and went to most of them, and never quit.  But, I did often think of quitting.  Now- here’s the main point to my recent ruminations over it:  although I remember wanting to quit, I don’t really remember very much the long sequence of experiencing the misery that drove me to that point.  I can intellectualize it, I can quote the attrition rates, I can tell you about the food and sleep deprivation, I can tell you about getting hurt, freezing in the mountains, passing out in the jungles, the morale crashes and despair, but I don’t really feel it very much . . . now.  I more-so feel the happiness of having graduated that school, that test of whatever sort.  I just know that I ended up always not quitting.  I know that I learned the adage long ago to ‘never quit on a bad day’.  Many people did, but I try to wait a day.  If everything’s going great and you really want to quit that thing, then you really want to quit.

Now, to bring this full circle:  I’ve wanted to quit twice already on this AT trip.  When I couldn’t walk and was sitting down in the middle of the ice-rain massaging my calf, and limped 2.7 miles to a shelter over the course of several hours, I arrived fully hypothermic and was convinced that if I warmed up- that was it! That one didn’t last very long . . . I eventually warmed up and the calf healed quicker than I thought it would and it turned out not to be a permanent injury. 

The second one was the sickness of course …when the Forest Service people showed up, I was convinced that I was going home, and, believe me, it seemed like a decently defendable position.  I was really actually mentally helpless balanced perfectly on the top of a peak, where the merest breeze of despair or hope could push me over on one side or the other of giving up. 

But . . . a couple of days later… I was back on the Trail.  And when I saw Keith’s email, I began to wonder how we so much  ‘forget’ the misery over time, and often even over a very short time, of bad experiences.  They say that a woman will never have a second child if she really remembers the pain of labor, but somehow it is diminished over time.  People forget.  So, I was walking these past days occasionally wondering how people can forget bad times to such an extent and even:  does it serve a useful purpose?  Does this also go back to Cave-Man days?  Note that I am no more an anthropologist than I am an astronaut but,- isn’t there something good in remembering the feast at the fire after the kill versus remembering the terror of being charged by a giant mammoth before it was felled?  And remembering that feast would keep one hunting and serve survival. Always back to survival!  So, you can see that I’ve framed the issue in my mind as one of ‘Forgetting’ . . . how is it that we forget bad experiences so, not even conveniently I’d say, but deliberately, as a process of the brain and the way we’ve evolved?  How/why do we forget like that?    

And now the relevance to the Podcast:  The intellectuals discussed the idea of The Experiencing Self and The Remembering Self.  Absolutely fascinating.  Here’s how it works.  We all have our selves that are actually in the world experiencing things, it is heretofore what I’ve always thought of as simply ‘me’; I’m experiencing my life every day and that is me and that is all there is to it.  But, ah, there is also The Remembering/ed Self, which is the way you remember things about your life versus what actually happened.   They don’t perfectly overlap.  Here is the concept as not only proposed, but proven in controlled scientific experiments:  

The 60/90 rule. (On a scale of 1-10, 1 is the least pain and 10 is the most pain.)  If you give a person 60 seconds of pain at level 10 and stop, that person will remember that event.  If     you give another person 60 seconds of pain at level 10, followed by an additional 30 seconds of pain at level 5, that person will remember that event. And, you guessed it, the person who endured 90 seconds of pain versus the 60, will have a much better memory of the event–despite having endured 50% more time of pain! 

And here’s how it worked on me recently: the thing I most remember about the hypothermia event is when, in the sleeping bag, I felt like I was turning the corner from hypothermia to warming up.  And more revealing, in my recent blog post about my recent illness I state, not knowing this podcast was coming, that the thing I’ll really remember was the IV hanging above me with medicine, lights and compassionate ambulance people about me!  That ambulance ride was 35 minutes but I’d been throwing up in misery for three days!  (I really won’t milk this sickness episode any further- but I hope you can see how it fell nicely into the context of this essay.🙄)

This actually presents an ethics question for doctors:  should you let a person experience more pain in a procedure (do the 90 second thing), actually rendering more pain overall if you know that the person will have a better memory of the event for the rest of their lives than if you had spared them this Experienced-Self/Remembered-Self trickery? If you can manipulate someone’s memory of an event to the better, should you do it, at all costs?  (And my thought is that weighing decades of the memory against a short worse event is dispositive toward manipulation; how weird is this territory now?)

Another question: is this self-trickery useful as a human tool?  I’d argue it has outlived it’s usefulness.  Shouldn’t we make coherent decisions based upon our experiences, as they actually happened, versus how we remember them?  Isn’t that the rational course?  Example:  aren’t addictions this concept run wild?  People will remember the highs and not so much dwell on or remember stealing money from Grandma’s purse, or throwing up all night, or other humiliations attendanct to severe substance addictions.  Perhaps erasing this Remembered-Self dynamic from the addicts’ hard-drive would lead to more rational behavior.

Of course, the Remembered-Self dynamic might be positively contributing to having babies and not quitting Army Schools or the Appalachian Trail.

I give up. 

I’ll bet you thought you spent most of your time experiencing things versus remembering them disingenuously.  Not so fast!  Congratulations, and Welcome!  I introduce you forever to your Remembered Selves!

29 April – Cosby Knob Campsite to Standing Bear Farm/Shelter/Campsite/Complex (10.7 miles)

Nice easy day hiking these 10.7 to get to the well-known and anticipated Standing Bear  Farm…

Health holding up very well…it’s great to feel strong again.

Set up my tent to await some follow-on folks I’ve been traveling with, had a great pork-chop dinner! that they served here, and talked with other hikers a good piece of the night around a fire. 

Quite a mix of ages, gender, backgrounds and nationalities…  all viewpoints are mostly Trail-friendly joking and discussing Trail Thru-Hiking stuff… occasional discussions evolve around social issues and discussions are respectful and intelligent …

We’re all starting to get the feeling that most of the people from this point forward are probably serious about trying to complete this thing…

18 April – Locust Cove Gap

I woke up around 7 a.m. and went down a short trail to get water for the day.  As I passed one guy, he said simply “We have the same shirt. . . ”  Normally– who cares?  But he knew it was significant.  This is a highly prized very warm ‘waffle’ undershirt that you only get issued if you are deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, so of course I stopped and we talked.  He is a fellow Army veteran and has gone on two deployments to Iraq: great guy.  Again, everyone I met at this campsite and others are people really worth meeting. 

The morning started off well.  I commiserated with a few people I had met last night as we were setting up.  I made some Ramen noodles which felt like they were going to stay down this time.  I began to pack up my stuff and we were talking when one guy mentioned an Australian who had been annoying at their last hostel because he was drunk and ‘couldn’t find his clothes’.  Then he said casually “I quit drinking a long time ago.”   I then said “I quit drinking almost 7 months ago and I go to AA.” 

He looked at me and  said “Yeah, I still go to meetings once in awhile but I quit 37 years ago.  I quit drinking because I ended up in a tree.” 

Now we all stopped and looked at him.  And this begin a general discussion of AA, and drinking in general.  OK: let’s have it– what happened?”  He was blacked out while driving and flew off an embankment that had a drop-off on one side so steep that his vehicle wrecked in treetops and stuck there.  He remained blacked out, woke up the next morning, surveyed his predicament carefully and shimmied down the tree.  He walked away with barely a scratch and quit drinking that day.  A few others begin to talk about drinking and AA and of course everyone had nothing but good things to say about it.  One woman’s husband was in AA, etc. and we were talking casually when the gazelle spoke up.  

This guy had loped into our campsite last night and set up as we were all settling in and was fairly quiet as is usual when moving into a new site and setting up initially.  It was late and no conversation really happened beyond ‘Hey’.  I had noticed him, however, due to his unusual black-and-white vertically striped shorts, his long red hair in a ponytail, and his long legs.  So, on the heels of this drinking discussion the next morning he suddenly volunteers as he’s packing up “Yeah, I was a bartender for 10 years, I had to get out of that, wow, we were pretty much expected to drink!”  He told us a couple of fun stories about how all they did was drink and so that got him into the discussion. 

We exchange names with him as we had done among ourselves the night before, and then we asked him the usual opening banter question “Where did you come from last night and how far do you expect to make it today?”  He told us where he had travelled from yesterday and we all stopped packing and eating and looked at him.  It worked out to about 29 miles.  We were stunned.  And that included the hellacious mountains we’ve all been struggling with.  We pressed him- What?  “Yeah, that’s about what I’ve been averaging.”  Unpretentiously.  OK.  Now we are really talking to this guy. 

It turns out that he’s an ultra-marathon runner and is just doing the Appalachian Trail for the fun of it:  his real next goal is to win a race called Last Man Standing.  This is a race where all entrants must complete 4 miles within an hour, every hour, and the last man standing wins.  Of course,  4 mph is easy for the first couple hours, but here we are talking about hard-core ultra-marathoners and last year he dropped out at 185 miles.  Do the math.  What’s interesting is the sleeping and food component here.  If you complete a circuit of 4 miles, (it’s a 4 mile circuit that you keep doing over and over), early and have, say, 10 minutes left in the hour, then you may eat or sleep during those 10 minutes before you have to start the next circuit.  If you make it just in time, then you must keep going. 

You can see how this would wear people down, but, now get this, he’s entering this race with an ulterior motive:  if he wins, and he thinks he has a shot at it!, then he might! qualify for yet another race called the Barkeley Marathon that he told us about. 

Jesus H. Christ.  You have to Google that one. 

Well, it was awesome talking to this monster athlete and things eventually died down and people started moving back onto the trail. 

That’s when the stock market took another downturn. 

As I was packing, honest to God, the last couple items into my pack, I felt the horrific dreaded God Please No nausea return and I sat down for a moment begging the powers that be for this not to be happening. My head started to swim again, I staggered into the woods and began to vomit violently for the third day in a row, and I felt my strength leaving me rapidly. 

With great and soon delirious effort,  I set my tent back up again.  I knew I had to lay in my tent yet again all day to ride this out but as the day progressed I knew that something was even more different today.  I was having less and less strength to dart out of the tent to vomit and I begin to consider throwing up just outside my tent by just sticking my head out which is gross and stupid of course.  Hour after hour goes by and it’s now early afternoon.  My last urine was brown.  I’m writhing in the tent, can’t get rid of the nausea, can’t eat or, more importantly, drink, as nothing stays down.  I know I’m in real trouble here.   I’m in and out of strange quick bizarre disturbing dreams. 

I slowly and carefully considered all my options and came to the following conclusions: nobody out here can help me unless they’re carrying IVs; nobody can carry my pack so that I could stagger out of the woods as their own packs are too much already; if I stay here all day I will be in real, real, trouble.  Finally, I realized that if I just got up in my shorts and shirt, leaving everything behind me, I would probably not make it to the nearest road which was 3.7 miles of tough Trail from me. 

I finally decided mid afternoon that I probably need to get some medical help.  But I still thought about it and really just kept trying to go to sleep to get rid of the sick and awful feeling in my whole body.  Given that this was my third day in this situation, and today’s degradation of condition was increasing in pace, I realized that this wasn’t funny anymore.  I rolled to one side mid afternoon and called my Insurance plan’s military nurse advice line.  The nurse talked to me at great length and was greatly concerned.  She got her boss on the phone who was equally alarmed. 

They asked all the right questions of course, food and water intake, medications I was on, the amount of time I had been there, what I was doing,  where I was,  etc. and then the boss said simply “You’re gonna call 911 and get to an Emergency Room right now and we’re gonna figure out a way to get you out of there” so I decided to do it.  This was an interesting decision for me because I only call 911 every 60 years or so. 

Nevertheless, I felt a surge of emotion about the thought of IVs going into my system without triggering nausea.  We got the 911 call going.  I was on the phone for a long time with a really nice person who hooked up the following sequence of events:  Forest Service folks would find me.  (Here they asked me the question gingerly if I could walk out on my own if someone carried all my stuff; they were going to carry me out otherwise.  Knowing it was 3.7 miles to the nearest parking lot, I hesitated but said ‘Yes’ knowing that I’d drop within the first mile easily, but they would at least know they weren’t wasting their time with me.) 

The first Forest Service guy arrived way quicker than I thought he would.  I heard his radio static outside of my tent!  Add two parts elation with one part humiliation in a large bowl.  Add sincere help, mix, and Hope rises.  It turns out that they had an amazing shortcut to get me to a logging road to start the process.  Their EMT told me I needed to get to an Emergency Room.  They helped me pack my stuff and they carried my stuff to their trucks.  They were very nice in all regards.  A military guy there saw my Ranger patch on my backpack and they all treated me with great deference and professionalism.  From the logging road I was transferred to an ambulance which quickly started an IV. 

That was the moment I won’t forget- just seeing that IV hanging above me in the ambulance was amazing because I knew I was getting fluids that I would not throw up and that would be the beginning of the end of this nightmare.  She also gave me an anti-nausea medication and 35 minutes later I was at Swain Hospital in Bryson City North Carolina.  The whole trip from the tent to the emergency room bed I was in was dreamlike and I was in an out of it having strange thoughts and snippets of dreams the whole time.  It was interspersed with lucidity and casual conversation with the folks attending to me.

So, at the Hospital, they did all kinds of tests,  gave me morphine,  more anti-nausea medication, and more IV fluids and I begin to feel better.  Ultimately the Doctor, who was also extremely nice and patient, diagnosed a virus, severe dehydration, and sunstroke. 

Note that we also talked at length about Lyme  Disease -which I got in 2007.  And the fact that I believe my immune system has been compromised ever since to the extent that whenever I get a little bit sick crazy stuff happens.  And I was feeling the crazy stuff throughout this entire three day sickness; for example, my spine and the bones in my arms and neck were very cold and they could not put enough blankets on me.  This was a classic symptom I endured during my Lyme Disease in 2007.  He seemed to believe this though it is controversial medically- the fact of chronic versus acute effects.  He prescribed not just the anti-nausea medication upon my release,  but also Doxycycline which is specific to treating Lyme Disease.  I very much appreciated this. 

So yes I was released that evening having had two IVs and morphine and anti-nausea medication.  I was able to get to a nice little hotel where I am now.   I still have no interest in food but know I should start eating food.   I’m drinking a little bit of ginger ale mixed with water and taking the medications and getting tons of sleep and, well,  what a strange day.

We’ll see what happens next.

As they say, “Happy Trails!”

17 April – Locust Grove Gap (a ’zero’ day)

Last night during a phone call Memory suggested I stay here all day to ride out the sickness.  And she was comforting and helpful at a time when I really couldn’t think due to the violence of the sickness.  I took that advice and gradually recovered here at this campsite today, all day. (I am the white bubble behind the blue and above the brown.)

She’s been at the receiving end of my complaints as I adjust physically and mentally to this venture.  

I brought a decent amount of medicine with me on this trip- everyone packs some sort of a First Aid kit.  But my best medicine is Memory.

16 April – Wesser Bald Shelter to Locust Grove Gap (10.6 miles)

This is the task today:  the first stretch of 6.9 miles is up, up, up!  

The green elevation profile picture shows the deal and is a cool feature of an App I have that helps me track the way.

I never thought there was a 7 mile stretch of uphill anywhere, but of course it’s lying right in the path of the Appalachian Trail -quite a challenge.  Not too many problems going up except for the toughness of it, and the time it takes.  Weather was good and the calf, astonishingly, was not hurting too much.  I got to the top and it was beautiful.

Check out this picture-find two deer-  camouflage at its best!

Check out the short movie of another cool section of the Trail.

Here are some more purple wildflowers-different ones- and even yellow is starting to pop here and there also.

So I tented up at Locust Grove Gap and things took another turn.  

Right after my dinner meal, I wasn’t feeling good and went into the tent to lie down.  It was about 5 pm.  I spent the next 12 hours throwing up violently, and walking around in the moonlight afraid to go back in the tent and risk an in-tent episode.  Fell asleep about 5am….woke up at 9am…depleted and weak as a baby.