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My office was plastered with pictures from my favorite backpacking sights. I put up a big map of the Appalachian Trail not as decoration but as a declaration that I planned to hike it soon. Co-workers no longer asked “what are you doing this weekend”, but “where are you hiking?”. My packing system became routine. My husky dog, Aurora, danced with excitement whenever I got into my gear closet, knowing it was trail time. She and I escaped into the woods together as often as possible, sometimes with friends, our terrier Gryphy, or our puppy Honeybee, but often just the two of us. I loved being in the forest and felt put back together after hiking, ready to face the long hours and sometimes difficult days of the work week

I was conflicted. I liked my job as a physician assistant and had worked hard to learn to do it well. I had a good working relationship with my co-workers: my fellow PAs, the doctors in our practice, office staff and the great team of people in the hospital. Patients liked working with me as well and I felt the value and privilege of helping to take care of them. Could I really walk away from that?

I made quite an effort to balance work and the idea of an AT thru hike. As mentioned in my last post, I was able to negotiate a three-week break from work in order to do a long section of the AT. I enjoyed it very much and it was a great learning opportunity, but upon returning I realized that at 3 weeks a year, it would take a minimum of 10 years to complete the whole trail! More importantly, my lengthy absence had been rather a burden on the other PAs and I doubted that an annual leave of this kind would be either sustainably granted or fair.

Another thing I discovered on my section hike was that I had bouts of sometimes intense homesickness, missing my husband, dogs, and home more than I expected. This was over just a few weeks! How could I possibly imagine six to seven months away from home?

My husband, for his part, was very supportive of my desire to thru hike. Our professions in healthcare influenced our perspective: we both had many experiences of delivering news of difficult or devastating diagnosis to patients and realized that good health is a blessing not to be taken lightly. He encouraged me not to delay indefinitely, but to take advantage of having strength and health to tackle such a feat.

I did more reading and research and discovered that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a thru-hike as “a hike of the entire AT in 12 months or less”. Knowing this took some of the burden off. If I took a whole year to hike, I could be gone several weeks in a row but still come home periodically to participate in family celebrations like weddings and graduations, spend time with my husband, and continue leading trips for Adventures in Good Company.

Finally, I realized that I would need to actually leave my job so that they could replace me and so that I could be free to take an entire year to hike.  A milestone birthday was approaching at the end of 2017, so I announced that my last day would be in mid February 2018, as a birthday gift to myself. This would give me time to get organized and on the trail for a sectioning/thru-hike starting in March. Also, it would give my job a whole year to find a replacement for me! I was excited and buckled down to work, feeling relieved that at last I had a plan in place.

As the end of the year approached, however, one of the other PAs announced that she was leaving to pursue other work. Then in January, another made a similar announcement, with her final date in February 2018, almost exactly the day I had chosen a year before as my last day. Keeping to my original plan would have left my remaining co-workers impossibly short-staffed. More work-related upheaval occurred over the next several months, including the happy circumstance of training new PAs, but my thru-hike was tabled once again.

As always, work stress was balanced with forest time and my pups and I continued hiking Kentucky’s beautiful Sheltowee Trace. I took Aurora and Honeybee on a particularly beautiful section in the Big South Fork in April. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many wildflowers! We were out again in May, and it was so hot that we were wading into any creek we could find in order to cool off.  We even saw our first bear on this trip, which I mistook for a large German Shepherd at first! We viewed it from a safe distance and both it and we happily went our separate ways.

Then, in late June, I came home to find Aurora displaying some alarming symptoms. Her eyes were dilated and she was confused and nauseated. I rushed her to the vet, but neither x-rays nor blood work revealed anything abnormal. Fluids and nausea medicine restored her and I hoped desperately that she had ingested some random toxin or had a treatable tick-borne illness. She was just seven and a half years old and up to date on vet visits with no history of prior problems. Her symptoms looked all the world to me like a seizure which, as a new symptom, are sometimes caused by brain tumors. Over the next several weeks, she had occasional similar episodes punctuated by stretches of normalcy. Further work-up revealed nothing and I stopped short of an $1800 MRI, knowing that I would not opt for brain surgery if a scan did happen to reveal anything.

Just six short weeks later, my worst fears were confirmed. My husband met me at the door one evening with crushing news. He had come home to find that Aurora passed away that afternoon and a subsequent autopsy confirmed my suspicion of brain tumor.

I was devastated, unable to believe that my sweet girl, my best, best dog and follow adventuress could be gone so suddenly. Her joy and energy while hiking made mine even greater. She had helped me bridge from a full house into our empty nest years, had hiked hundreds of miles with me as I became a backpacker comfortable with being in the woods. She had shared thunderstorms, heat, cold and amazing beauty. She was more than just a dog; she was part of my heart.

Grief truly overwhelmed me. My friends and co-workers did their best to comfort me and gave me thoughtful cards and gifts. My sweet husband wished he could find some way to help me carry the pain this loss caused.

It is a cruel fact that the world around you does not stop when times like this hit and responsibilities continue unabated. We were particularly short-handed over the next couple of weeks, and I was double-booked by scheduling. This would be taxing under normal circumstances, but I had no reserve. It became very clear that I needed to decide what was important and make a decision accordingly.

Over the next day or two, I conferred with my husband and give the situation much thought and prayer. Ultimately, I decided that I needed to choose a last day, soon, and stick to it. I gave four months notice to allow the practice to find a replacement for me and started a literal countdown on my phone.

This turned out to be the perfect amount of time. I was able to help train my replacement before I departed and felt confident that when I left, things were well in hand and I could focus on getting my thru-hike started at last.

Next: Sectioning thru: December!