Well, it was bound to happen. After dealing with inclement weather, ornery wildlife, and difficult terriain, it was time I dealt with disease. I wouldn’t be getting the full Appalachian Trail experience if I didn’t get sick at least once. Getting sick is common among thru-hikers, and it’s not hard to figure out why. We’re pushing our bodies to the limit day in and day out, eating poor-quality food, and living in close proximity to hundreds of strangers without running water or proper sanitation. It’s a surprise more hikers don’t get sick. However, like bear attacks, lighting strikes, days upon days of cold, miserable rain, and many of the other dangerous or unpleasant things we have to deal with out here, falling victim to some illness becomes a badge of honor:
“Bro, did you get Norovirus?”
“Hell yeah I got Noro. Had to hike with it for, like twenty miles and then got off the trail for three days.”
“That’s really hardcore, bro.”
And so on. I’ve had two bouts of sickness since the Smokies, one subtle and mysterious, the other violent and sudden. In the days before I reached Hot Springs, I kept getting more and more tired, and had more and more trouble making the miles. I chalked it up to the bad weather (it is noticeably harder to breathe when the air is mostly water), and the fact that I hadn’t taken a zero since Fontana. As y’all already know, I spent the weekend in Hot Springs with Kayla, so I didn’t notice the fatigue again until I started back hiking. For any number of reasons, Hot Springs, NC is a hard town to leave. It’s like a black hole. Thru-hikers orbit its event horizon like wayward planets, sucked in by the inexorable pull of its convenience, great food, and friendly small-town feel, emerging out the other side a week later and $400 poorer without a clue of how they got there.
After saying goodbye to Kayla, I was invited by two separate groups of thru-hikers I knew to stay with them another day or three in the hobo camp outside of town under the railroad bridge that crosses the French Broad River. I knew I had to leave if I were going to at all, so I continued on, winding my way up the steep, burnt-over cliffs above the river.
A few weeks before I passed through, a wildfire scorched several thousand acres north of Hot Springs, closing down a forty-mile stretch of the AT. Hiking through this burnt-out hellscape was nothing short of eerie. The damage ranged in scope from some brown and brittle underbrush in an otherwise intact forest barely touched by the flames, to areas of total devastation – rocks like hunks of coal permanently charred black, streams dried up, and bare, blackened trunks of huge oaks standing like spent matchsticks. Other areas were untouched, like islands of bright, vibrant green in a charcoal sea.
I struggled to make the short hike to the nearest campsite, but I figured it was just because I was starting back on the trail after a few days off, which is never easy. I camped on the shore of what had once been a farm pond, abandoned sometime in the last century along with the orchard of gnarled fruit trees up the hill from it. I saw three more bears on the way in, a sow and two cubs, and they ran when they caught sight of me, like bears are supposed to. After my last bear experience, it was a refreshing change.
I got up the next day planning on making about sixteen miles, not an unreasonable expectation by this point in my journey. I was barely able to make six. I couldn’t breathe, my muscles were on fire, and my heart pounded with the slightest uphill. I felt like I had re-set back to square one, and I was climbing the approach trail up Springer Mountain. I hoped things would get better by the next day, but they didn’t. My stomach felt fine and I didn’t have a cough, but I was definitely running a fever. This wouldn’t have been a problem, and I could have kept this pace, were it not for the fact that I was quickly running out of food.
On day four out of Hot Springs, I had to make a sixteen mile day to Hiker Paradise Hostel in order to pick up my respply box so I could have something to eat the next day. The trail took me over a long, naked ridge of house-sized boulders called the Firescald Rocks, one of the few places in AWOL’s AT Guide that actually has a warning about how strenous it is. I woke up feeling terrible. I was feverish, my muscles were cramping, and I didn’t want to move. So I prayed for strength. I prayed that God would give me the energy and hiking ability to make it where I needed to be, and that I would be safe along the way.
The first climb out of camp was a difficult one, but after a short while, I started to feel okay again. I could breathe, my heart rate was normal for conditions, and I had an energy in my step that I hadn’t felt in a while. The Firescald Rocks really weren’t that bad. In fact, they were kind of fun. I had to strap my trekking poles to my pack and climb, mountaineering style, with hand and toe holds. A moderate drizzle made it a little tricky, but the technicality of it was a nice change of pace from mile after mile of mindless walking. The views from the ridge, and the nearby Blackstack Cliffs, were excellent. After a few days down in the trees, it was great to get some scenery again. I breezed by AT mile 300 at Jerry’s Cabin in the late afternoon and kept on trucking.
On this trip, night hiking is something that I haven’t typically enjoyed and have tried to avoid whenever possible. Now that the weather is changing, I’ve realized that my aversion to it stems not from the dark, but from the cold. Up until now, nightfall means that temperatures plummet, sometimes twenty degrees or more, and the wind starts to howl without ceasing. But now that the weather is (relatively) warmer, it’s not bad. This day, I had my first night hiking experience that I actually enjoyed. As I gradually made my way downhill to Devils Fork Gap, the sun was setting and the moon was rising on the opposite horizon. Warm, friendly light filtered through the trees, while crickets and frogs provided a background of gentle forest noise. As it got darker, the moonlight became bright enough to see by. At North Carolina route 212, the trail crossed the road and climbed over a stile into an expansive mountainside cow pasture and I was forced to pause, arrested by the moment. It was one of those scenes that gently grabs you by the wrist and makes you stop whatever you were doing to take it in. The moonlight illuminated a patchwork quilt of pastures unrolling down the valley, up to the feet of jagged, wild mountains backlit by the pale orange of the sun’s last afterglow. Far down in the valley, the lights of a remote farmhouse were barely visible. Fireflies, lighting bugs to us from the South, flashed and twinkled in the treeline by the thousands. Time ceased as I took it in, allowing the moment to flow freely around me. A curious cow started checking me out, which was my cue to hike on.
Hiker Paradise is a tiny, redneckish, hole-in-the-wall place with five dogs, two cats, and a retired fighting rooster. I spent that night and the next day there, eating freezer cheeseburgers and drinking Dr. Pepper with a few other thru-hikers, the owner, and his nine-year-old son. Not a bad way to spend a day. And the sickness never came back.
My second experience with illness on the trail was neither subtle nor mysterious. On Memorial day weekend, Kayla came up to hike with me from Erwin, Tennessee to Beauty Spot Gap. Up until the final hours, we had a wonderful time, doing four miles the first day and eight miles the second, making for an easy, chilled-out weekend of hiking. The weather was perfect. On the second day, we started late to avoid the afternoon heat, making most of our miles in the evening and at night. We stopped to watch the sunset at a power line cut that offered a narrow window to a hundred miles of mountains. Rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and azaleas bloomed under high-tension wires that cracked and sizzled with hundreds of thousands of volts of energy – enough ambient electricity, I’ve been told, to light up a fluorescent bulb held in your hand. We reached our campsite at Beauty Spot at around 11pm, with the lights of Erwin visible as a bright streak at the bottom of the hill, while the expansive glow of Johnson City sprawled across the horizon. I’m not sure why, but it seems like the worst things on the AT happen in the most beautiful places. Spence Field, where the bear attack happened a few weeks ago, has to be one of the prettiest spots on the trail. A trail buddy of mine sprained his ankle coming off Big Bald, a huge grassy mountaintop with 360-degree panoramic views. And this was no different. Beauty Spot truly lives up to its name. A long, open ridge, it has spectacular hundred-mile views in three directions, and has a clear view of spruce-covered Unaka Mountain to the north. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is due to the fact that the AT has so many pretty places, or that so much bad stuff happens. But at any rate, everything was fine until around 3am.
In the middle of the night, Kayla woke me up saying that she needed to throw up, and to unzip the tent RIGHT NOW. For the next six hours, she vomited in spectacular fashion about once every thirty minutes or so. All this time, I was still feeling fine, and tried my best to clean her up and make her comfortable. At nine in the morning, I was able to call in a shuttle from Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin, and began to break camp as quickly as possible. Even though I still felt okay, I had a foreboding premonition that it wouldn’t last.
I was right. Just as I finished packing up our stuff, I began to feel queasy. Kayla was too weak to get out of the tent unassisted, so I carried her pack and helped her down the hill to the waiting jeep shuttle. I had already made the decision to drive her home, since I didn’t feel safe letting her drive home alone in her condition. It’s a good thing for both of us that I did. On the shuttle ride into town, it hit me. In the span of less than a minute, I went from feeling a little sick to “Hey, I hate to be a bother, but would you mind pulling the car over? I think I might need to throw up” to “PULL OVER! I GOTTA PUKE NOW!” It kept thinking of a routine Jeff Foxworthy does about having a 48-hour stomach bug: “You ever have one of those stomach bugs that starts out with your stomach waking you up in the middle of the night like: ‘Dude. Hey, dude. You got about eight seconds to get to the toilet… Seven. Six. Five… Better run.”
It was the kind of retching where your body keeps purging itself long after there’s anything left to purge, just so it can be sure. It’s not like normal throwing up, where you feel instantly better afterwards and can move on with your life. This kind fills you with a sense of uneasy dread because you instinctively know that it’s far, far, from over.
Charlotte, the shuttle driver, who is a saint of the highest order, offered to take us to the CVS in Erwin. We politely declined, in an effort to go ahead and get on the road. The drive from Erwin to Canton usually takes a little less than four hours. It took us eight and a half. I’ve been sicker, but I really can’t recall when. Our first stop was the Walgreens in Erwin to pick up Emetrol, Gatorade, and some sort of ginger gum that’s supposed to calm your stomach. At this point, Kayla was feeling better than I was, so while she went inside to get the supplies, I took the opportunity to get out of the car, get down on all fours, and proceed to heave my guts up in front of God and everybody in the grass at the corner of a four-way intersection. None of the medications worked. We couldn’t keep down water, much less anything else. Thirty minutes later, we were taking turns leaning over the guardrail on the side of the interstate.
Norovirus, also known as the Norwalk Virus, first showed its ugly face to the world in a 1964 outbreak at Norwalk Elementary School in Norwalk, Ohio. In the decades since, it’s become one of the most prevalent gastrointestinal diseases in the world, present anywhere lots of people live in close proximity to each other. It’s probably most famous as the official virus of Carnival Cruise Lines, but it’s also common in prisons, hospitals, military barracks, summer camps, and, in the past decade or so, the Appalachian Trail. Peak Norovirus hit in 2011 and 2014, when the CDC sent control teams to several locations in the southern Appalachians to contain the outbreak. Norovirus is highly contagious, and kills tens of thousands of people per year, mostly in the developing world. The worst of the virus runs its course in 48 hours, however, the human body develops no immunity to it, so it’s possible to catch the stuff again as soon as you recover from your last infection. If I had to choose between getting Norovirus and getting shot, I’d start asking questions about things like bullet type, caliber, range, shot placement, etc. before I made my decision. Because I’m really not sure which would be worse.
What struck me the most about it was the desperate, bone-aching fatigue that accompanies the vomiting and diarrhea. Half the stops Kayla and I made on the way home were simply to sit in the car and rest. Walking across the parking lot to a gas station restroom or to buy more Gatorade was a serious endeavor that took a great deal of mental preparation. One blessing was that since the virus hit us a few hours apart, Kayla and I didn’t generally feel our worst at the same time. Norovirus symptoms come in waves that last about an hour, so we were able to switch off driving and take care of one another fairly well. Although I wouldn’t go through it again, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, Norovirus makes for great couple’s therapy. When you spend forty-eight hours going through gastrointestinal hell with your significant other, you learn a lot about them, as well as yourself. You learn how well you handle adversity together (really well), how far you’re willing to go to take care of each other, and you become a lot more comfortable doing, well, anything and everything around them. But back to the road.
I really have to brag on my parents at this point. I called my mom when this all started to go down and I made the decision that I was coming home, and she and my dad flew into action. They went to the store to get Gatorade, ginger ale, crackers, and all the other food we thought we could keep down. They got out all the alcohol wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizer they could muster, and did a pretty successful job of turning the upstairs of our house into a quarantine room.
At last light, we finally pulled into my driveway. We had made it, and from here, our fortunes could only improve. I staggered out of the car and laid down on the front porch, bundled up in all the clothes I had and still shivering uncontrollably in the 85-degree heat. Taking a hot shower and getting cleaned up made all the difference in the world. We took some stomach meds, ate a few crackers, and promptly went to sleep. The next few days saw steady improvement. The stomach symptoms were gone, but the fever, chills, muscle cramps, and fatigue persisted for a few more days. After day two, it was actually kind of nice. Kayla got the week off from work and was able to telecommute, so we spent most of our time watching movies and napping. My parents continued to look after us, and miraculously, their containment plan worked. Neither of them got sick. By Friday, I was feeling good enough to hike again, and knew that it was time to return to the trail.
On Saturday, my dear friend Robert and his friend Holly picked me up and drove me back to where I had left off at Hiker Paradise Hostel. The trail gave me a great welcome back gift of a torrential downpour that filled my boots full of water faster than I could get my rain pants on, and turned the trail into a flowing slurry of mud. I’ve been back a few days, and some of my gear is STILL wet.
Overall, my experience with Norovirus was an easy one. Most thru-hikers have it much worse. To me, it’s just another reminder of how God has been taking care of me on this trip. If I had stuck with my original itinerary, the virus would have hit me at a trail shelter fifteen miles from the nearest road. I would have been forced to deal with it alone, in the woods, without medicine or proper supplies.
It’s another good life lesson, as well. Oftentimes, when trying to accomplish a goal of any size, whether it’s starting your own business, managing a major project, or hiking a long-distance trail, you’ll hit setbacks you never saw coming. Not the romantic, noble challenges of glory, either. Not the kind that make dramatic stories, but the boring, icky, or just plain miserable ones. Bear encounters and electrical storms are terrifying, but they’re also thrills of an epic magnitude. They’re a rush. Even though they’re a challenge, in their own way, they’re also fun. They’re the kind of experiences you don’t necessarily seek out, but secretly hope for.
And then there are the inglorious challenges. Sickness, crappy weather, blisters, tendonitis, etc. All guts (sometimes literally), and no glory. They have no redeeming value, there’s no thrill, no good story at the end of the day. They just straight-up suck. It’s the same soul-crushing feeling you get when your boss tells you that your grand vision for the project you’re working on is out of the bounds of your job description, and you need to scale it back. Or some government bureaucracy tells you that the new product your company has spent the last few months developing doesn’t meet some tiny, insignificant regulation and needs to be redesigned at great cost.
But it’s these moments that serve to truly test your dedication. It isn’t the great, dramatic adversities that kill dreams. More often than not, major challenges strengthen resolve and can make your determination even more powerful. What kills dreams are the little, nagging, unpleasant challenges that come at you day in and day out, wearing you down and eroding your morale and your desire to carry on. When you’re miserable, cold, wet, and hungry, or when you don’t see any meaning in the blow that just hit you, sometimes you have to create your own meaning. There might not be any tangible outward gain from this experience, but the inward gain can be tremendous, if you allow it to be. There’s no surer way to build perseverance than to endure what seems meaningless, unfair, or just plain annoying. Mental and emotional toughness, the endurance to accomplish anything worth accomplishing, doesn’t, and can’t, come from pleasant experience. It can’t be taught in a classroom or at a weekend leadership conference, and it can’t be bought with all the money in the world. It has to be earned. The hardest steel spends the most cycles in the forge.
I’ve hit a point in my trip where what kept me going in the beginning isn’t sufficient to keep me going any longer. Most of the romance of what I’m doing faded about a hundred miles ago. For the past few weeks, it seems like I’ve been stuck in a kind of 200-mile purgatory between the Smokies and the Virginia state line. I haven’t been making the progress I’d hoped to be, and there hasn’t been much to show for it. So I’ve had to turn inward for my inspiration. What’s keeping me going now is the knowledge of the man I’ll be when I come out on the other side of this experience.
The Smokies, as well as lower Carolina, taught me courage. The crazy, near-death experiences forged a calm confidence inside of me that I don’t think I could have gotten any other way. I don’t foresee anything else happening out here that I can’t handle, although I need to be careful saying that. This section is teaching me determination, and perseverance. I’ve never taken on a true long-term challenge before. I don’t think most people my age have, and many never will. Yeah, college was four years, but everything there still happens in the length of a semester. No matter how hard it gets, you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most corporate environments I’ve been involved in operate quarterly as well.
So to take on a challenge where the payoff is still a near-unfathomable 1,800 miles away is entirely new to me. I’m learning so much about self-discipline, goal setting, and perfecting the daily process of what I’m doing, and again, I’m not sure if I could have gotten this anywhere else. I’m praying every day, and also trying new things like writing words on myself that hold power for me. It really helps. Honestly.
Before I go, I want to reiterate, word for word, something I posted the other day. When the romance of a challenge fades, and the raw edge of reality cuts into your flesh as you realize how daunting the task you’ve set before yourself is… What will you do? Will you give up because it isn’t “fun” anymore? Will you falter because there’s no one around to inspire you? Will you tell yourself it isn’t worth it, that when you walk away from it, you never really wanted it that badly to begin with, or whatever lie you have to tell in order to live with yourself? Will you let the obstacles in your path turn your feet homewards? Or will you feel the iron in your spine and the steel of your resolve that gives you the strength to stand up, and the power of your convictions that keep you putting one foot in front of the other? Will you HOLD FAST when everything in you is screaming for you to let go? Will you carry on when your false self, the liar inside that seeks to doom you, is telling you to turn back? Stay the course, and be your own inspiration.
I wrote most of this from Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel, probably one of the few 420-friendly Jewish trailside bunkhouses out there. It’s an interesting little place – it’s not everyday that you see a Bob Marley poster a few feet from a menorah and a copy of the Torah. The hospitality I received there was incredible, even by AT standards. Sadly, the hostel is in danger of being shut down by a pack of heartless government bureaucrats. In order to bring it up to building codes and remain in business, it needs a new roof, which is currently out of the budget. If you’d like to help, go to www.greasycreekfriendly.com and check out their GoFundMe page. Today I climb Roan Montain, my last 6,000+ mountain until I get to New Hampshire. I’m excited, and I’m ready to move forward. From what I was told by a dude named The Fisherman, there’s a major Norovirus bubble ahead of me that I’ll need to dodge in order to keep from getting sick again. Once was quite enough. Virginia’s so close I can almost taste it, and I don’t want anything slowing me down.
So here’s to health, perseverance, and most importantly, not throwing up every half hour.
Donate to my GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/25kjt5jg