Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Foot injury- Stillness among the Giants

The largest remaining grove of ancient redwoods are around Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California. The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic drive through the park and redwood groves. The trees are so massive and close to the road that you totally feel like they are hugging you.
Ancient coastal redwoods towering up to 350 feet.
Coastal redwoods are the world's tallest trees, and despite my passion for big trees (which gave me my trail name of 'Hemlock') this is the first time I've seen the redwoods.  I hadn't been planning on this visit though. But I am on my fifth week of recovery after getting off the PCT for a stress fracture. Steph suggested this trip because it is one of her favorite places (Thanks Steph!) and because I would be able to get outdoors without needing to walk.
Making peace with the boot.
Stress fractures are an overuse injury caused by doing too much activity, repeatedly, with not enough rest. So now I'm on a mission to learn patience and how to rest. Not at all easy for someone whose happiest time ever was hiking 12-14 hours a day, day after day.  I love to travel, to move, to explore, and to physically push myself.  I get antsy being still. But because I'm off the trail because of this, I'd better figure things out and learn some patience, so I can have a lifetime of healthy backpacking.
Redwoods fracture too.
At the Avenue of the Giants, Steph and I drive to one of the many pullouts along the road. I slowly hobble in my boot to a big tree close to the car, stretch out on my sit pad, and let my toes breath in the air. I touch the fallen leaves, feel the trunk against my spine, listen to the birds and crickets, and settle into the stillness.
Massive.
It's been years since I've meditated but beneath these redwoods, the practice comes right back to me.  I let go of my longing to venture up the trail or down the cliff to the river. (but at first, oh how I long to go play!). I make peace with not seeing the end of the path, not looking around the next bend for a bigger and more wonderfully gnarled tree, and not turning over rocks in the river. I breathe.  I let all my thoughts go.

What if I can see everything I need to from right here? What if the tree I'm sitting against is just the right one. What if I can enjoy the stream without knowing if there are caddisfly larvae in it? What if its ok for me to just be here where I am?


I can hear traffic of the road and sense encroaching civilization.  But right now the forest is incredibly still, and bursting with life.

I lie sprawled out on the ground gazing upward at the soaring trees, my leg anchored by the heavy boot at a funny angle. Steph and I exclaim how wonderful the light is, and laugh at how child-like we feel goofing off in the woods.
Doubled over in laughter at being sprawled on the ground in my boot looking up at the trees.
I temporarily lost that which I believed defined me and the one thing I could always rely on to make me happy. My darkest fear has been loosing my ability to hike, and now that's happened. It has been like going through a divorce or loss of a loved one. But here in these redwoods, I am able to dig deep and see that the inner peace remains. Then I am truly free. Sure it's a different freedom than the one I so easily find on the trail but this is a freedom that glows within me and that external forces and circumstances can't touch. I will carry this with me when I leave this incredible place.
Picnic shelter in the Women's Grove.
Check out these awesome videos about the redwoods:
Tallest tree found in Redwood National Park (part 1) (part 2)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Foot injury- Still living the dream?

I just went to a sports medicine doctor who took another x-ray of my foot and showed that my injury is actually a stress fracture.
The halo around the third metatarsus indicates healing of a stress fracture.
This means my foot needs more time to heal. The doctor said three more weeks, on top of the four weeks I've already been off the PCT.  Being off the trail due to my foot injury is the hardest thing I have faced on this trip so far.   I ache to be back on the PCT, back with my wonderful hiking buddies, back where I had never before been so happy in all my life. I struggle too with thinking about why this happened to me. I have a million questions about how to heal, how to stay sane while staying off my feet, how to recover, how I can ever hope to trust my body again. ;

When things got really tough out on the PCT, I'd remind myself: "I'm living the dream.  I'm hiking the PCT." Saying those words out loud cheered me up.  It reminded me that no matter what I was facing, that hiking the PCT was exactly what I'd been wanting to do for years.  I've never been so certain I was on the right path.

Out on the trail, sometimes, it was still mentally difficult.  Like when I drank my last sip of water in the heat of the desert while I was still a few miles from the next spring. After that, it took me a long time to trust myself judging how much water to carry, and how to deal mentally with the uncertainty of how much I drank. Another example was when I was standing on top of snow-covered Glen Pass, unsure how I would get down the incredibly sheer slope, footprints going in several directions all of which looked like they would fall off the face of the earth. In those moments, I had to pull out all my techniques for believing in my abilities, and trusting that it would work out even though I couldn't see how it was possible in the moment. But I always kept going, I always ended up being surrounded by friends who helped me through it, and I always amazed myself that I COULD DO IT.

Those struggles are part of the experience of being on the PCT- it isn't all splendid scenic vistas and coolers full of trail magic.  Many of the experiences were achingly painful or just plain terrifying.  The PCT takes you to your edge, or drives you past it.  In those moments, instead of wallowing in self-doubt or being scared, I learned to step outside of myself for a moment.  I would remember that I was exactly where I needed to be.   I'd look around me and discover that the friends I'd met could teach me lessons to help me through. The really tough parts were my preparation for the the next section.  I accepted that all my experiences on the PCT- even the ones that hurt like crazy- were what I was out there for.  I reached new levels of self-confidence.  I was a bad-ass PCT hiker who could do anything that I put my mind to.  Having that realization felt life-changing.

This way of looking at and accepting hardships let me face my fears head on while I was on the PCT.  I trusted that I was growing and learning something about myself.  I remembered to welcome the ever-changing challenges, rather than experiencing them as something that sucked.

Now that I am off-trail due to this injury, I try to tap into the skills I felt like I had mastered on the trail- that trust and assurance in myself- but it's not comming as easy as it did while I was on the trail.  Whenever the tears stream down my face, I attempt to say to myself "I'm a bad-ass PCT hiker and I can do this."  I only half-believe it.
Still a bad-ass PCT hiker, even in my boot.
 But then I think of myself on Glen Pass looking down those impossible slopes, how I took one careful step at a time, how I did that thing that terrified me the most and how awesome it felt to make it. This stress fracture will heal. I will figure out how this injury fits in with my journey. I'm going to do what it takes now so that I can keep hiking in the future. And when the time comes, those first steps back on the trail will be awesome.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Foot Injury- Update #4

After nearly three weeks off the trail, I haven't been cleared by my physical therapist to hike or backpack, but my foot hasn't been hurting so he says it is OK for me to walk a little.  As long as I'm careful and don't overdo it.

It was such a relatively small thing, and yet, it calmed my restlessness.   A night in my hammock at the Donner Pass trailhead on the PCT, dropping Arizona off after he took another zero day.  It gave me a new appreciation for everything I love about backpacking.
My happy place: my hammock.
Sometimes it is said that there are two types of backpackers- those that prioritize the hiking part of backpacking (and do long miles and carry fewer camp comfort items) and those that really like the camping part (and that roll into camp early and spend a lot of time in camp).  I always thought of myself as the former- I love to move and don't like to sit still much.  But this night made me realize how much I love the camping part of backpacking while I have been on the PCT.

I love the feeling of having everything I need on my back.  Being able to select my own spot for the night.  How the place is ever-changing, but it transforms into my home the moment I set down my pack.  Such freedom.

I delighted in the simplicity of camping.   I have learned an economy of motion in setting up camp from my time on the PCT.  I am quick and the setup is uncluttered.  Everything is where I need it.   Everything in my pack has a purpose. 

Just for the night, I attempted a few changes in my setup to see if I could save weight- including cutting down my foam mat/ leg insulation to 4 segments instead of 6.  I could tell it wouldn't work long-term- my feet stuck over the edge too much (oh darn it long legs!), so if it had been any colder I would have had frozen feet.  But it gave me a satisfying feeling to keep trying new things, to keep trying to optimize.

The last glow of evening light faded on the granite.  The tree branches were silouetted against the darkening sky.   There was a persistant hum of mosquitoes.  They were everywhere, circling and biting.   My heart filled with joy for being on the PCT.  Yes, I'd missed even these pesky blood-sucking beasts.

 I fell soundly asleep moments after zipping up my hammock and tucking my quilt around me.  The comfort and familiar hiker-funk smell of the hammock a huge reassurance, and sense of calm filled me.  I had that clarity that I am on the right path for me, that I will get back to the trail in due time.  That I will not take any part of this experience- the delight in making camp, savoring everything about night on the trail- for granted.
I am NOT backpacking. I am just carrying my pack very slowly a short distance to camp.
The alarm sounded even before first light. I fell into my morning routine, with the added benefit of enjoying it with new appreciation. Breakfast in my hammock. Then packing up in just a few minutes. Arizona's stuff was still all over the place. "What are you doing standing around with your pack on waiting around for me when you aren't even hiking?" It's not even 5 AM. My legs are antzy. My body thinks I am going hiking.  Instead I drove back to town in time for my physical therapy appointment. Arizona set off down the PCT.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Foot Injury- Update #3

Two weeks and three days since I've been off the trail for my injured foot.  I'm still on a roller coaster of emotion.  Today I went to visit Arizona at Donner Pass.  He wasn't at the trailhead when I got there, but I did run into Brett and Lee!  WOW hadn't seen them since Kennedy Meadows!  Met them at Mt. Laguna and leap-frogged with them for weeks.  Seeing them brought back so many good memories of SoCal.

I decided to walk south on the PCT to meet Arizona.  I've only been cleared by the PT to walk, not carry a pack and not hike.
Probably NOT what my physical therapist had in mind when he said I could go for a short walk.
The wildflowers were nothing like I'd seen since I'd entered the Sierra.  It was as if in these few weeks that I've been off the trail, everything has exploded in bloom.  And I'd been missing it.  I walked slowly, one careful step at a time, pausing to look at every single flower.
Lilies.
Yippee!!!  Thimbleberries!!  I haven't seen them in so long!!! 
Sitting on a cold rock at the end of a switchback (where I realized that I should not go any further even though I really adore climbing switchbacks- and no I'm not kidding), I wiggled my toes in the breeze.  My optimism slipped away when I realized this was the first day my foot didn't feel better than it had on the previous day.  Guess I over did it walking around too much the previous day.
Oh foot, why are you causing me all this trouble?
I sat on that rock for over an hour thinking.  Funny, when I was on the PCT, I never just sat and thought.  There was always something to do- eat, foot care, eat some more, look at maps, have another snack.  But now that I am off the trail, time creeps by so slowly.  I have more time to think.

I've been off trail for 17 days that have felt like the longest 17 days ever. And what have I done with all this time?!?!  I still don't have an answer for why this injury happened and how to prevent it from happening again.  I still have doubts about the diagnosis- is it really an inflamed joint (like my physical therapist says), or could it possibly be a stress fracture?  I'm incredibly frustrated trying to navigate the insurance and health care system.  And all I have to do with my time is to solve this problem, and I haven't figured it out and my foot still isn't better.

Finally Arizona rounded the bend and my downward hate spiral of self-loathing and despair came to an abrupt halt.  It was time for burgers and ice cream and laughing about this crazy life on (and off) the PCT.  I never expected my journey to be like this.  But I just keep on going, finding ways to stay positive.  Maybe after this is over, I will figure out what I am learning from all of this.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Foot injury- Update #2

When we dropped Arizona back off on the trail after his zero day, I took a 45 minute stroll (no pack) on the PCT from Carson Pass.  No foot pain at all and it lifted my spirits.  Flowers were everywhere, snow lingered in patches at higher elevations.  I breathed in the fresh mountain air, and said hello to the gnarled mossy trees.  I relished the feeling of coming home (if only for a short time!) after exactly two weeks off the trail.  Oh how I've missed the PCT!
See, I'm staying off my injured foot.  Really...
Levels of optimism reached new heights as I strolled on the PCT.  Maybe I will be able to make it to Canada after all!  Arizona told me how he has noticed that other hikers out there are beginning to struggle with the monotony of the trail at this point. The excitement of the Sierra is over and energy reserves are dwindling.  When I get back on the trail (hopefully next week- fingers crossed!) this sure won't be a problem for me-- I've got all this stored up excitement and exuberance. I'll be carrying with me an even deeper appreciation for the trail.
Yay for trees!
Yay for flowers!
But I know I will have other mental struggles due to coming off this injury.  How can I trust my body not to break again?  Will I be less inclined to push myself physically?  I constantly think about how I can maximize the health of my foot- limiting my miles as frustrating as that may be.  What will everyone think (and what will I think of myself!) if I only do 15 miles a day when everyone else is doing 30's!?!  What if everyone is always passing me? I wonder about my shoes, but after going to five different outfitters and running shoe stores, I can't find any alternatives.  I also antagonize about how I can reduce my pack weight further so as not to create undo strain on my foot.  Should I buy cuben rain pants to save 4 oz?   Or send home my down jacket?  Or cut down my sit pad/ leg insulation from 6 panels to 4 panels (unless my feet freeze at night- since I already sent home my down booties already- oh my!)  The real way to save weight would be to ditch my hammock and sleep on the ground (especially if I just carry my tarp).  Oh my that would be horrible now that I am finally into areas where the hanging is so very good.  I love my hammock too much.  I love being able to sleep so soundly.  What if I just bring less food?

Where the PCT crosses 50, we ran into Coppertone making up root beer floats for Acorn and another PCT hiker. He recognized me from when I saw him back at mile 315.   It felt awesome to be recognized as a PCT hiker- I realize I have become so attached to that identity.  So happy to be called 'Hemlock'!  I haven't seen Acorn since the beginning of the trail- he was off a week for shin splints.  Acorn and I commiserated about how slowly time goes when we are off the trail.  

Back at Carson Pass, there just happened to be a geology talk going on right after I got done with my stroll.  I've been hoping to run into someone to explain the geology of the area since I started the PCT.  It was fascinating to learn about the plate tectonics that shaped the region and why the Sierras are so unique geologically.  
At Carson Pass.
My favorite part was learning about the glaciers that carved out the U-shaped valleys and left lateral moraines that help form lakes.  I hadn't understood the geological process that explained the landscapes I had been seeing on my hike before, so this made me really appreciate the Sierra in a way I hadn't before.  He also recommended a few excellent youtube videos by Wendy VanNorden that talk about Sierra geology (be sure to check out "The Geologic History of Southern California" and "Glacial erosion").  Way cool!!!
On the geology walk.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Foot injury- Update

I've been off trail for a week and a half, and in physical therapy for a week.  I'm finally seeing some improvements in my foot. Yay! (For a while I was thinking they were just going to have to cut the darn foot off and give me a replacement- haha!) The pain while I walk is significantly reduced.  I am optimistic about getting back to the trail in the not-to-distant future once it stops hurting completely.
Last application of cortisone (applied with iontophoresis).
While it sucks to be off the trail, I cannot imagine a more ideal situation than the one I have found myself in.  I've been warmly welcomed into the home of my hiking partner's friend/ roommate Steph and it has truly been a joy to stay here.  We've cooked incredibly delicious meals together, had conversations about every topic imaginable, and toured grocery stores in the area. We saw Fault in our Stars (about two kids with terminal cancer)- a total tear jerker of a movie. What a nice change to be in a theater with everyone collectively sobbing.  I've cried a lot over the past month (about this darn foot), and there was something carthartic about not having to cry alone.

Steph has been doing resupply for both Arizona and another PCT hiker as well.  So there is hiker food everywhere.  Steph offered that I could prepare resupply boxes and food for myself for the rest of the PCT from here while my foot heals. Before I started the PCT, I prepared enough food for myself to get me the first 1200 miles of the PCT, so this will be ideal.  I have the advantage of knowing what I like to eat on the trail.
Dehydrated shrimp and sushi rice, plus other Asian-inspired meals.
I've been stocking up on the foods I've been craving  and I can find some new foods that I'm not already tired of.
I crave vegetables.
 Yesterday, Steph borrowed two dehydrators from one of her friends. How cool is that!?!? Trail food prep just got kicked up an extra notch.  Both dehydrators have been running non-stop on the back porch.
Cranberry-Orange fruit leather and mandrin oranges.
Another thing that's been great is that my physical therapist said I could exercise on a recumbent bike. Trying to stay off my foot to let it heal was really tough after being used to exercising for 10-14 hours every day.  Going to the gym has been such a relief- especially to get my heart rate up and feel my muscles burn.
It's not the Sierra, but at least it's getting my heart rate up.
I've also been really happy to connect with a few other friends who are or have been off trail due to injury or illness. Talking to them makes me feel much less crazy because they understand what I'm going through. It's really tough mentally being off the trail, and it helps me stay sane to talk to them.
Bella always cheers me up.
Though of course I miss the trail terribly, it's been fun to enter into this world- I drive someone else's car, wear someone else's clothes, have been adopted by someone else's dog.  It feels like I'm playing a game or like I've stepped into a movie.  Quite an experience!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hammock Gear on the PCT: SoCal & the Sierra

To compliment my post on hammock hanging on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California and the Sierra, I will review the hammock-related gear (and relevant apps) that I have used on the first 940 miles of the PCT.  Overall, I was very happy with my hammock setup.  I used a hammock with integrated bug net, 20-degree top and underquilt, short foam torso-pad, and a cuben tarp.
Sunset after the hailstorm in the Sierra.
The Conditions
The weather I experienced was cold but mostly dry.  There was precipitation only two nights: snow while I was heading out from Kennedy Meadows and rain/ hail briefly in the Sierra.  Winds were often strong in SoCal, but night temps were mostly in the 40's.  In the Sierra, it was usually in the 30's (or 40's) at night, but sometimes got well below freezing.  I'd tested my gear into the 20's in Georgia, and the temps in the Sierra always felt warmer than the coldest nights I practiced in in Georgia- I think it was because it wasn't as damp.

When I entered the Sierra, the only change I made to my hammock setup was that I added an extra foam insulating pad (Gossamer Gear thinlite pad) that I found in a hiker box and cut to 2' x 2' .  I put this under my shoulders and torso and it added warmth especially in the wind. I also picked up a warmer set of long underwear that I wore layered with my hiking long underwear and fleece hoodie at night. I carried down booties the whole time which were probably overkill in SoCal, but I still wore them every night and wasn't too hot.  A few cold desert nights would have been miserable without them.
Hanging in a ravine out of the wind.
The Gear
Hammock- Dream Hammock Darien UL, 10 foot, 10 oz.  Loved this hammock! Comfortable lay and lightweight. The integrated bugnet kept the mosquitoes out. The fabric seems impossibly thin so I'm very careful not to snag it. SlowBro, a fellow hammock hanger on the PCT this year (check out his awesome blog here), also had this hammock but had them make it in a slightly heavier material- he still got a small hole in it but showed me how he taped it and it's held OK. Randy at Dream Hammocks provides excellent customer service- he fixed the ends of my hammock which had worn before I started the PCT. If I were to hike a long distance trail again, I'd bring this hammock with me.

DIY Hammock Bishop Bag- This is an extra large double end stuff sack that holds my hammock, underquilt, and sleeping clothes. To make setup fast and simple, I attached my underquilt to my hammock and just leave it on there.  I also leave my sleeping clothes zipped inside my hammock.  So when I pack up it all goes into the bishop bag, and when I set up, nothing touches the ground and everything is instantly right where I need it- simple and easy.
My green, oversized bishop bag at the end of the hammock.
Hammock suspension- 10 foot Dutchware tree straps and 6 foot whoopie slings with Dutchware whoopie hooks, and arrow shaft toggles- I wanted an extra long hammock suspension system to accommodate long hangs and large trees.  This was largely overkill, and I rarely used the whoopie slings.  Instead I looped the hammock ends directly over the marlin spike hitch/ arrow shaft toggles.  This was because I found many more short hang sites- places that barely fit my hammock.  When I tried widely spaced anchor points, I was often unable to push the tree straps high enough to prevent the hammock from sagging onto the ground.  Though a few times I used my hiking poles to push the tree straps higher up the tree when I was really desperate.  I could have saved weight by bringing shorter tree straps, but perhaps they will come in handy when I get to Oregon and Washington.

Tarp- Hammock Gear Standard Cuben Fiber Tarp with Doors (11 foot), 9.2 oz.  I love this tarp because it provides excellent protection and is incredibly lightweight for the size.  However, this tarp was bigger than I needed.  I only set it up twice in precipitation and another two times for extra warmth and protection from wind.  If I'd been caught in really bad weather, I would have been glad I'd had it. But if I were to do SoCal again, I'd bring a smaller tarp. 
The tarp on the day it snowed.
Top quilt- DIY karo-style quilt, 19 oz. I loved my quilt!  I was thrilled with the design of my quilt- it was a narrow cut and that kept it lightweight.  I was always warm in it too.  It sure felt good to use a piece of gear I'd sewed myself.  The DWR Argon fabric from Dutchware was soft and was nice for repelling condensation the few mornings I woke to droplets on my quilt, I just wiped it off.  

Underquilt- 3-season Warbonnet Yeti (3/4 length, 20 degree), 11 oz.  This kept me warm as long as I stayed out of the wind.  If there were large gusts, the underquilt suspension was not sufficient to keep the quilt tight to me, and I experienced drafts (i.e. cold butt syndrome).  Not a problem with the quilt of course.  I solved this problem by stuffing my extra clothes or gear around me, and by adding an extra piece of foam insulation under my shoulders.  Otherwise, this quilt fits me well and is high quality.  I've also had great customer service from Brian of Warbonnet.

Leg insulation/ ground pad/ sit pad/ backpack frame- Thermarest Zlite sol, 6 sections, 6 oz.   This was my most versatile piece of gear!  While hiking, it fit in the sleeve of my Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack, and functioned as a cushion against my back.  At every rest break, I would pull it out and 
sit on it.  At night, it was insulation under my legs (since my underquilt is 3/4 length).  And the one night I went to ground, I slept on it (though rather uncomfortably).  
Rest break sitting on my Zlite.
Ground sheet- I ended up switching from tyvek to a Gossamer Gear polycro ground sheet (1.6 oz) to save weight. I had a medium sized sheet in case I had to go to ground.  But I mostly used this under my hammock as a clean place to sort gear and as a mat.  It has gotten a few holes in it since I also use it to push down vegetation or brush so I don't damage my hammock, so I now only use it folded in half.  Overall, I'm happy with the polycro.

Apps for Hammock Hangers

Apps that I used on my iPhone were really helpful for finding hang sites.  I would plan ahead where to camp by inferring locations of trees.  I annotated my printed Halfmile maps with a lists of hang sites that I got from other hammock hangers (like Luke Sierrawalker's list here) or from a fellow hammock hanger's google earth files that he made from looking at trees from satellite images (Thanks Jim (PITA) for sending these to me!) But those were not complete lists of sites, so I relied heavily on two apps to find trees.

eTrails is a free app for the PCT.  It was my favorite!  It describes campsites and often says if there are trees or if a site was shaded (ie. had trees!) and usually says locations of burns (not places where you should hang).  I loved it because it would sometimes tell the types of trees in the area, and provided lots of excellent and entertaining natural history and historical information.

Guthook's guides are apps that have elevation profiles, maps, and water and camping information.  They are excellent for navigation, though I tended to use Halfmile's app more often.  For the hammock hanger, Guthooks guides were useful because they have photos of campsites but these often don't show trees even if they are present.  It was worth consulting for the rare times eTrails didn't have a better photo though.  Other times I would find hang sites by going to water sources listed.  Even seasonal springs tended to have bushes or trees around them.  

Overall, this gear was versatile and served me well out on the PCT.

Disclaimer: I purchased for all this gear with my own funds.  (Or sewed it myself or took it out of hiker boxes myself.)  The opinions expressed in this review are my own.