About the Author, Mary Patterson: “I’m a rock formation loving dog mom, military spouse, college professor and roller derby referee. When I was a child, I hiked the Approach Trail with my family from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain and always wondered what it would be like to just keep going. So, 25 years later, I’m feeling called to embrace the suck, bloom where I’m planted, and take on the challenge of a thru-hike. My favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, wrote, “Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.” This is my mantra for the AT.” You can also find her on Trailjournals.
To see more posts from Mary, click her name above!
Well, I said I was going to do it and a few days ago, I celebrated one month on trail. In 30 days on trail, I have hiked 300 miles, starting with New Jersey since it was closest to home in New York and then flipping south to hike Harper’s Ferry to Smith Gap Pennsylvania, where I am currently stalled out due to injury and hoping to get back on trail in July.
In the six days of shakedown hiking, I completed all but Delaware Water Gap to the Mohican Outdoor Center in New Jersey and successfully purged my pack of a bear can, extra clothing, too much food, and an umbrella (it sounded promising at the time). My friend Haiku who is quite knowledgeable about boulder scrambling, accompanied me on this section, which we completed in two long weekends, one of which involved searing heat and sun and the other that involved being very close to hypothermia. In hindsight, it was good that the weather presented these extremes, because we got to test our gear and our own resolve. There’s nothing quite like huddling in the Sunrise Mountain Pavillion under a piece of groady Tyvek while being pelted with wind and freezing rain to make you realize your thru-hike dedication.
Shakedown in Jersey with Haiku
In the past month on trail, I’ve met a lot of amazing people, stopped smelling myself so I know the funk is bad, and learned a lot about how much stronger I am than I originally thought. Honestly, I was completely unsure of what to expect when my husband dropped my friend Kit and I off at Harper’s Ferry.
Our first day in West Virginia, we somehow managed to walk the wrong way out of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and get lost down a side street and wandered around the old college buildings. Thirty minutes later, we figured out that we should have just walked down High Street. Not a good look to get lost on your first mile! We found the bridge, climbed the cliffs which weren’t nearly as bad as others were telling us on their way down, and made the mistake of getting water at the Ed Garvey Shelter and being too exhausted after the climb back up from the depths to move on. It’s a good thing we stayed, though, because we met a third member of our tramily and ended up hiking together off and on for the next month. We also started checking Guthook comments more carefully.
The Tramily forms at Pen-Mar
Over the next week, we added a family with two small children and two girls just out of college to our group. The weather stayed warm and dry and we tented rather than stayed in shelters the majority of the time. Kit and I got the experience of staying in a seedy trail motel and being those weird people who loiter outside of gas stations on town resupply missions (even the weird people who loiter outside of gas stations were trying to avoid us). Eventually, Kit had to return home, but I continued on with our little group and made it successfully to Palmerton, Pennsylvania where I had to hit pause on my hike.
What happened? Rocksylvania happened. I first noticed pain in my Achilles tendon on the steep descent into Port Clinton. The final hill down to town was loose gravel and dirt and though I was being careful, one of the locks on my trekking poles that had been needing constant tightening finally broke and I spun a complete 360 while sliding down the hill. I landed on my pack and had a few moments of flailing like a turtle before standing up and realizing that something wasn’t right with my ankle. Taking a zero in Port Clinton was supposed to help, but icing and elevating proved a temporary fix. To top things off, I had developed a constant runny nose and hacking cough. Sleeping in a wet tent, packing up a wet tent, hiking all day in the rain, and setting up a wet tent weren’t helping matters. By the Allentown Shelter, I was keeping everyone up with my constant nose blowing and choking. I couldn’t prop up both my leg and my head, so I hacked half the night and then propped my head up on my pack and tried to sleep off the ankle pain. In three days, I hiked The Pinnacle, Dan’s Pulpit in the driving rain, and Knife Edge. But, being driven to finish Pennsylvania on principle, I wasn’t thinking about slowing down.
Leaving Boiling Springs, PA with the Westcapades
Finally, after limping along for a few days and stopping every mile to blow my nose and calm my burning lungs, I decided to stay at a Bed and Breakfast just past Palmerton and take a zero. One of my tramily members brought me cold medicine from town. A trail angel, hearing about my never ending snot, put a bunch of tissue packs in his car and told me to pick them up at a trail head while he was out for a run. Ramdino said maybe I should rest. My parents said I sounded like crap on the phone. My husband was worried I was going to develop pneumonia and that something serious might have happened to my ankle.
However, being the hard headed person I am and being addicted to type-2 fun, I kept pushing. I struggled up the boulders of Lehigh Gap, feeling not just an annoyance now, but sharp pain. By the top of the Superfund Detour, I was limping along, using my trekking poles as crutches and had coughed up my electrolyte water at a few points, prompting a friend to create an “I Puked Over Palmerton” t-shirt. A couple who had wandered up from the parking lot to check out the rock pile, talked with me as I limped north toward the road. My ankle was producing disturbing crunching sensations, but I was still smiling because I had always wanted to complete Lehigh Gap and was able to do it with a full pack and on my own. For some people, Katahdin is their main goal. At that point, I just wanted to make it to the shuttle, but I still didn’t realize how hurt and sick I was.
If you lose the trail in Duncannon, look for the most rocks.
After a zero involving ice, a compression bandage, pizza, elevation, and not being able to get up and down the steps of the bed and breakfast, my parents decided to come get me and take me to urgent care. The doctor smacked me and called me a dumbass. The nurse winced when I took off my sock. Thankfully, I didn’t tear anything and it’s just a bad strain, but because I ignored pain and kept pushing, I’m now off trail for ten more days while my tramily moves north. A week of antibiotics and steroids have significantly improved my sinus infection and bronchitis that I had been writing off as bad allergies for three weeks. Allowing my ankle to rest and getting a new pair of shoes has helped improve pain and mobility significantly. Lessons learned: listen to your body and if you are sick and hurting, let everyone move on while you rest. This is where “hike your own hike” applies.
I imagine starting back will be a mental game as much as a physical one and am hoping to regain my trail legs, but not push myself as much as I had been and now that I’m not keeping up with a tramily. I probably won’t be doing any 15 mile days for a while. I plan to slow down and enjoy my time on trail more over the rest of the summer, take some more zeroes, and get to where I get to. 300 miles in 30 days is respectable, but I’d rather remember my time on trail having lunch at overlooks in the sun and spending rainy days chatting with locals than remember being in immense pain, slogging along in the mud to crush miles. Yes, I’m going to let myself heal, but I’m also going to still work toward being a 2000 miler even if I don’t complete an entire thru-hike in one year. I’m also vowing to write more, because this update is long overdue! So, tell Rocksylvania I’m coming back for it, but a little more carefully this time.
Made it up Lehigh Gap!