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An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 29 - Getting Sick on the Appalachian Trail
"Dave and I turned and looked at each other with wide eyes, but we both held our tongues."
A Can Even We Wouldn’t Carry
Early on the morning of July 6 we woke up in our tent about a mile or so north of Williamstown, MA. We quickly had some breakfast, then broke camp and started hiking. Within minutes we came to a sign that notified us that we were crossing into Vermont. At that point the AT coincides with the Long Trail which is a hiking trail that travels the north-south length of Vermont from the border of Vermont and Massachusetts to the Canadian line. Our picnic with my parents the day before in Williamstown, MA, was to be the last meeting with either of our parents until the end of the trip. We had one more rendezvous planned though. It was to be with a bunch of our buddies at Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Our plan was to meet up with them later in the month and hike the Presidential Range in the White Mountains with them. The visit would last for three days. We figured there would be five friends to join us and we were looking forward to it in about two or three weeks.
For now we found ourselves hiking through the Vermont forest on a warm day under a blue sky. We didn't come across many views, but the woods were very pleasant. We stopped at a shelter for lunch. As we were eating, two other guys showed up who were about our age. They walked up to the picnic table that was just outside the shelter. They slid their packs off their backs, and propped them against the table. One guy was a little overweight and he was sweating profusely. He looked very tired as he flopped down on the picnic table bench and mopped his brow. His friend seemed to be giving him a few words of encouragement. Dave and I greeted them from where we were eating inside the shelter then we just observed quietly as we finished our lunch. It looked like the big guy was not too happy. We couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but it appeared that the big guy was not as enthusiastic about the hike as the skinnier one. Finally they opened their packs to take out some food to have for their own lunch. We watched them rummaging around in their packs for a few seconds and then we saw the big guy pull an entire 1 gallon metal can of Coleman fuel out of the top compartment of his pack. He set it on top of the picnic table.
Dave and I turned and looked at each other with wide eyes, but we both held our tongues. I couldn't know exactly what Dave was thinking, but I was trying to decide whether or not I should tell them about aluminum fuel bottles that could hold about a tank and a half of extra fuel for a stove, could easily fit into a side pocket of a backpack, and only be a fraction of the weight of the 1 gallon can of Coleman fuel. I didn't feel like I could tell them that without coming off like I was a know-it-all or that I was trying to show them up, so I didn't end up telling them anything. Dave might've felt the same way because he said nothing about it either. After a few more minutes we just packed up our stuff and headed off up the trail.
If you want to read this series from the beginning, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-hike: Part 1 - Deciding to...
Two teenagers hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end in 1982. This episode describes how they decided to hike the trail and their preparation for the trip.
For the rest of the day we hiked along without too much enthusiasm. We had experienced the feeling before where the first day of hiking after a stopover at a town, or visit with relatives caused us to lose our hiking rhythm. It was as if the urgency we had felt over the past week leading up to our meeting with my parents was suddenly gone and we felt directionless. Without a short-term goal spurring us forward, our footsteps seemed to drag. Even though it was fine hiking weather, our minds couldn't engage with our journey and, as we often did in similar times, we started looking at our maps and guidebooks for a fun distraction. We found it in the form of Bennington Vermont. We saw that in a few miles there was an intersection with route 9. A few miles down Route 9 was the town of Bennington, a small, charming Vermont town that I had visited a few times. It was just over the Vermont-New York border. We knew we would be able to find something to do there – at least we would be able to find a restaurant to eat at. Route 9 was 17 miles from where we had started that morning so it turned out to be a good day’s hike. Near the intersection we decided to hide our packs in the woods next to the trail. From there we walked into Bennington and found a Friendly's to eat at. We also ate at a pizza place. While we were walking around the town, we saw a movie theater that was showing the movie "Blade Runner" starring Harrison Ford as a futuristic cop trying to hunt down rogue androids that were indistinguishable from humans. We decided to see the movie – I enjoyed it, but Dave did not. After the movie, it was late and we decided to take a taxi back to the trail intersection. Once there we walked back into the woods in the dark and found our packs. Right near the intersection, the trail crossed a wooden plank bridge over a rushing stream. It was a drop of at least 25 feet to the stream below. The bridge had fencing on either side to protect people from falling off. Neither of us wanted to set up the tent in the dark and the bridge provided a nice flat spot, so we decided to lay our sleeping bags out on the bridge. That is where we slept, trusting to fate that no one would decide to come across the bridge in the middle of the night.
" I wasn't feeling well. My energy level was down and by the end of the day I was feeling sick."
We had more good weather the next day. Dave seemed to be over his motivation problems but I was still dragging. This day there was more to the dragging feeling that I had than simply a lack of motivation. I wasn't feeling well. My energy level was down and by the end of the day I was feeling sick. One boost we had during the day was that we saw Connie, a New Jersey schoolteacher who was hiking the trail. We had first met her and her friends early in the trip. It was good to know that she was still plugging away just like us.
We ended up at Story Springs leanto at the end of the day. We had traveled 17.5 miles. We were starting to notice that the blackflies were becoming annoying. Dave and I were familiar with blackflies from our trips to the Adirondacks. They didn't bite as often as mosquitoes, but when they did it stung more. Their chief irritating characteristic was not their bite. It was their swarming. Blackflies attack in small clouds. They land on you and try to crawl into crevices and holes such as eyes, ears, and nostrils. After a while a person develops a strange habit of swinging arms and flapping hands all around their face when they are enduring an extended period of exposure to blackflies. Dave and I had reached that point.
That night at the leanto I took a couple aspirin and I made up a large pot of Ramen noodles with some extra vegetables thrown in. I ate that and went to sleep early. When I woke the next morning I felt better. The streak of good weather continued and the hiking was easy. Midway through the day we came to route 11 near Manchester, Vermont. At the intersection we saw the Chalet Motel and after a few words of discussion, Dave and I decided to see how much it would be for a night. When the answer came back that it would be $20 for a room, we plopped our money down. The manager was a nice guy. He took an interest in our trip and after we got settled in our room, he offered to bring us into town for a few hours.
"I hadn't even been considering going home, but as soon as his suggestion was out of his mouth, I knew it was the only practical thing."
Sick in Manchester, VT
In Manchester we found another Friendly's and walked around the town. The ride into town was a stroke of good fortune, but my pleasure was tempered because while I walked around Manchester, I could feel the cold symptoms seeping back into my body. I thought that I had shaken it off, but now it was back with a vengeance. I let Dave know and when we got back to the motel I got in bed to get some rest. During the night it got worse. I had chills and fever – it made for a long and sleepless night. I kept taking aspirin, but it was of little help. In the morning we asked if we could get the room again, but the manager told us it was reserved. By then he knew that I was sick so he took pity on us and said we could pitch our tent in a small yard behind the motel. I spent most of the day lying in my sleeping bag inside the tent. At one point the manager (his name was Mr. Katz) came by to see if I was okay. He offered to let me go across the street where he was having another motel built. The place wasn't open yet, but some of the facilities were already working. He said I could use one of the showers there. I took him up on the offer and the shower did make me feel better for a little while, but in spite of the shower and all the rest, my condition worsened. The bug that had hit me went to my stomach and I started having diarrhea. The night I had to spend in the tent was bad. We didn't have access to a toilet so I just had to find a place outside. When camped in the woods there were always trees around but in the motel's yard there was very little cover. At the back of the motel yard there were a bunch of tall weeds that had grown up about 4 feet high. I ended up going into the midst of the weeds and just squatting back there to do my business. I hoped that no one would have a reason to go back there anytime soon.
Finally morning came and one of the motel rooms was available again. We took the room and I transferred from my sleeping bag on the floor of the tent to the bed in the room. I had no energy. The times I wasn't in the bed, I was sitting in the bathroom, and I was still dealing with fever and chills. Through all this Dave was just sitting around helpless to improve the situation. He didn't really know what to do. Most of our conversations consisted of speculation about what had happened to me. Giardia was one of our theories. Giardia, otherwise known as beaver fever, was a parasite you can get from drinking bad water. Dave also suspected food poisoning, because I had eaten at a Mexican restaurant in Williamstown without him. I didn't think that was too likely. I thought Giardia was a distinct possibility though.
Later in the day Mr. Katz came by our room to see how everything was going. He asked what I was planning to do. I told him that I figured I better go see a doctor. Mr. Katz appeared uncomfortable. It seemed like he didn't want to interfere with my decision, but he felt it best to make a suggestion, "Why don't you call your parents to come get you. We’re not that far from where you live. Then you can see your regular doctor at home and be able to recover there. Once you're better you can come back and finish the trip."
I hadn't even been considering going home, but as soon as his suggestion was out of his mouth, I knew it was the only practical thing. Even at $20 per night, I couldn't afford to keep paying for the room every night until I was well enough to hike again. Just a few days earlier I had felt invincible. We had flown through Connecticut and Massachusetts and it had been almost as if we could smell the north woods of Maine. Now everything had gone haywire. I realized that my goal of an uninterrupted hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine was slipping away. I remember feeling disappointed, but I was so sick at the moment that the disappointment was a remote feeling. It seemed like I could hear Dave from a distance telling me that I could come back to the trail with our friends in a couple weeks when they came to Mount Washington to hike the Presidential Range. It all made sense. I nodded my head and went along. Going home to get over my illness and recover some strength sounded like a good plan. I would be connecting back to the trail at Mt. Washington in no time. It wasn't so bad, I told myself, but I couldn't quite shake that far off feeling of disappointment from the back of my mind. Early the next morning, my father arrived to pick me up. It was another bright sunny day. I trudged out of the room and got into the front seat of our Ford Fairmont station wagon. My father carried my pack for me and put it in the back. I said goodbye to Dave. He looked relieved to finally be able to hit the trail again after an unexpected three-day layover. Then we were driving off toward home.
It was good that I went home. I was pretty sick. When I got home and weighed myself I was down to 156 pounds from an already skinny normal weight of 165. I could see the outline of my ribs and hip bones when I looked in the big bathroom mirror at home. I went to the doctor and he tested me for parasites. The tests came back negative - so no Giardia, just some kind of a stomach infection or virus. The doctor prescribed some antibiotics and some prescription Imodium. I had never heard of Imodium before that, but now it is readily available in drugstores as an over-the-counter treatment for diarrhea. The Imodium worked almost immediately and the antibiotics had me back on my feet within a few days. As it turned out there were still about four of the pink antibiotic capsules and a few Imodium capsules left after I recovered. I ended up bringing the leftover pills with me in my backpack when I returned to the trail. Of course I ate a lot of good food to get my weight back up. One highlight during my time at home was when I went over to Dave's parent’s house to see the slides that Dave had taken of our trip so far. Dave had been taking lots of pictures and mailing the rolls of film home. His parents had been receiving them and developing them. By now they had several boxes of slides, but there had been no one to explain what the slides were of or where they were taken. One night my family and I went over to their house and we all saw the slides together. Dave's parents and all his brothers, and sisters were there, along with my parents and sister. It made for a large audience. It was the first time I had seen the slides, but I was the narrator anyway. It was fun seeing the pictures on the screen for the first time and then deciphering where they were from – most were easy and I could tell everyone about the situation, but some shots were a mystery, even to me. I figured Dave had taken some pictures when I wasn't around.
Another thing I did while at home was to bring my boots to a cobbler for repair. I had gotten a repair for my boots in Damascus Virginia where a cobbler had tacked metal plates on to the toes of the Vibram soles to keep them from peeling away from the bottom of the boots. The metal plates had held up well, but the Vibram soles were now wearing thin throughout. I brought them to the cobbler to get the Vibram soles replaced. Unfortunately when it came time to return to the trail, the boots weren’t ready, so I had to go back with a different set of boots – a pair of Herman work boots that didn't even have Vibram soles. In fact they didn't have much of a tread at all.
"Dave had paid attention to the signs of the dangerous situation forming around him, and he made the right choice."
Dave on His Own
While I was away, Dave had his own adventures. He moved fast – he was able to cover the 200 miles between Manchester and Mt. Washington in 11 days, which is close to 20 miles per day over some of the most rugged terrain the Appalachian Trail has to offer. He later told me that the weather had been hot and humid during that time. The most noteworthy experience turned out to be the most disturbing incident that occurred during the entire trip. Dave had progressed into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The trail in the White Mountains is maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which cooperates with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to maintain the AT in New Hampshire, but it predates the ATC. The AMC also maintains a string of well-known and well-used huts in the White Mountains. The AMC huts are a network of lodges that are constructed along the trail. They are accessible only by hiking. These huts are like rustic hotels in the middle of the woods – some are above timberline and extremely difficult to get to. They are very popular destinations and their rooms get booked up months in advance. Still, all hikers can stop in and sit in the common rooms of the huts where candy bars and drinks are sold.
A few days before Dave reached Mount Washington, he had been on the long steep climb from Franconia Notch up to the crest of the long Franconia Ridge. He had been hiking through the heat and humidity for days and lately it had felt like a thunderstorm was brewing. At one point he passed a group who were hiking in the same direction, toward the crest of the ridge. He talked with them briefly and found out that they were an Outward Bound group – a bunch of young people with some leaders that were on a trip together. Dave went on by them and as he approached the top of the ridge thunderheads started darkening the sky. He had just passed a side trail that led down a steep slope to Greenleaf Hut. In fact, since the spot is just about at timberline, the hut was visible hundreds of feet below from the intersection of the side trail. Facing the distinct possibility of a thunderstorm on top of the completely exposed Franconia Ridge, Dave decided to turn back and go down the long side trail to the hut to wait out the storm. He got into the common room and holed up for a while. Sure enough, the storm hit. He was there for a few hours when suddenly there was a disturbance at the hut. People came in carrying someone who had apparently been injured. After a while Dave recognized some of the people as part of the Outward Bound group that he had passed earlier in the day. Later he found out what had happened. The group had gone past the side trail to the hut and had been above timberline when the thunderstorm had hit. One of the leaders, a young lady, was struck by lightning, and Dave found out that she had been killed. Once the storm was over, Dave shouldered his pack and headed back up to the ridge. He passed over it safely and camped somewhere beyond it that night. Luckily, Dave had paid attention to the signs of the dangerous situation forming around him, and he made the right choice. There was nothing he could have done about the Outward Bound leader, but the thought of her death so close by must have weighed heavy on his mind as he traveled across the Franconia Ridge that afternoon.
"My one solace was that I kept telling myself and everyone else that cared to listen, that I would be going back and hiking the section I missed the next summer."
Back to the Trail
The day finally came to return to the trail. I was going back with our friends who'd been planning for months to meet Dave and I on Mount Washington. There were five of them plus me. I felt strange. They were supposed to be coming to meet with both Dave and I. I was supposed to be one of the guys on the big trip, not one of the guys visiting for a little while, but it felt like the other way around. Also my friends kept asking me things about the AT. I answered the questions as best as I could, but each time they asked something it served to remind me that I had to give it up for a while. When I came home from Manchester, I had been so sick that the disappointment about not completing the whole trail in one trip was a dull feeling in the back of my mind. Now that I was feeling better and returning to the trail, the disappointment was more acute. My one solace was that I kept telling myself and everyone else that cared to listen, that I would be going back and hiking the section I missed the next summer.