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On the trail in Connecticut and New York I kept feeling low on energy and an inability to move quickly. Even when I felt I was moving quickly, objective measures showed that I was crawling by thru hiker standards. I took four short days of less than ten miles each but I felt no better. And I was having a devil of a time getting hydrated. I took a zero day and even though I slept most of those 24 hours, more symptoms showed up. Cramping in the abdomen. Unsettled intestines. A sensitive stomach. Diarrhea. I looked up the symptoms and confirmed a dreaded trail illness – giardiasis or something similar. I was slated to meet up with my friend Sweet (formerly known as Sweet n’ Sour) in Vernon, New Jersey some 70 miles away. I decided to go for it.
I made it ten miles that first day before symptoms started becoming more severe. Since four short days and a complete zero had done nothing to improve my situation I decided to go ahead and use the nuclear option. My body was slowly losing the fight and I had people to see. I took metronidazole, an antibiotic often known by the trade name Flagyl. One hour later, all my active symptoms disappeared. I mean that. It was remarkable. Thank you modern medicine! From that time forward I sped along. Nineteen miles that day. Twenty the next. The last day I intended to hike twenty-six miles to reach striking distance of Vernon, NJ. I hiked twelve miles by 16:00 but I was going slowly. Even with the antibiotic, my stomach was sensitive so I had been eating mostly bread. My energy again was low and I had fourteen miles still to go. I reached for one of the athlete’s tools: caffeine.
Dropping a bag of yerba mate peppermint tea into each of my two small water bottles, I hiked on. Soon I began sipping, just a little at a time. Fourteen miles down and I’m starting to feel the effects. I’m walking quickly now. I climb the Pinnacle in New York, look out, and sing my goodbyes to the state. And hike on. Faster and faster. My mind is starting to feel strange. I am getting odd sensations, almost out of body experiences and a quick rushing. Everything is moving quickly. Okay, I have felt this before. Time to back off on the tea – I have too much caffeine in my system. Hike on, faster, faster, faster. I want to hike only the last four miles in the dark so I still have two to go before dark. I’m hungry. My body is slowing down again, time to break for food. I’m still feeling strange. It’s been an hour. Give it one more hour and then start to panic – I’ve never had any caffeine reaction last this long and I am taking antibiotics – together they might have caused a reaction. Hike. The sun is setting, this is my last bailout point at eighteen miles. The town of Greenwood Lake is just one mile down a side trail. The headiness has not changed. It’s time to call for help.
First: is there any possible reaction of yerba mate and metronidazole? The antibiotic carries all sorts of warnings against ingesting any alcohol while using the drug. I can’t imagine that the tea contains alcohol, but I call up Sweet and ask her. She doesn’t think it could be alcohol either but she checks. Nothing. I think about calling the Poison Control Center and have their number typed into my phone, ready to go. But the strange feeling is slowly subsiding and I feel comfortable enough to wait it out a bit longer. But, second: if I jump down to town just to be safe, can Sweet pick me up tomorrow from Greenwood Lake instead of Vernon? No, she’ll pick me up tonight. Many, many thanks to Sweet. She drove an hour, one way, to pick me up after working all day and thought nothing of it. And then the Hartenstein’s let me crash on their wonderfully comfortable couch for the night. After hanging out with Sweet the next day, catching up, and swapping photographs, my parents drove from Elizabeth to Dover and picked me up. (The Dover train station has it in for me: when heading north to Maine, Sweet and I missed the train by less than a minute, which nearly torpedoed the whole trip. This time, I tried to take a train from Dover to Elizabeth, and missed the train by thirty seconds. The next train would arrive late, so my parents offered to drive up. They too were working all day and made a fairly long unplanned drive to pick up their son. Many thanks!)
For the past week I have been resting my body so that it can fight off the invader in my gastrointestinal system. It’s had some luck but it’s slow going. The proof will be tomorrow when the last dose of the antibiotic wears off. I hope to be back on the trail Friday, heading south and entering New Jersey. While I was hiking 20 mile days, my body simply couldn’t both repair my muscles and fight off the bug, so I am playing it safe.
Here’s what kept coming out while I was trying to write a journal entry:
This week in civilization has brought about some realizations. Foremost, I have changed, a lot. Sure, I have changed physically.I am lighter and faster and have more energy. I eat better. But mentally, or as I prefer, spiritually, I have changed much more. I have more poise. I am calmer. I don’t require external validation. I am not afraid of my own convictions. I am happier. I am joyful. My day to day life, even in the city environment, has changed. This does not mean that I magically don’t need to perform mundane tasks. It means that my attitude towards those tasks has changed. And these changes have survived a week in civilization unscathed. The true proof will be carrying it through my whole life. There will be failures. But I intend to triumph.
A little more than halfway through the trail, I realized I was still tied deeply to external vicissitudes. If it was metaphorically raining, I was unhappy; metaphorically sunny, I was happy. I always reacted to my environment instead of acting. For me, it took a great deal of time, effort, and mental and spiritual anguish before I was able to choose to be joyful regardless of the environment. I won’t say that it’s not a struggle at times. I go through disagreeable moments but I choose to not let them bother me, I deal with it better. And I’m not a zen master (yet, I hope – I have aspirations). Sometimes I have to remind myself that suffering is optional.
For instance, this might be me before the trail:
I got sick, this sucks. I’m in Elizabeth NJ for rehab and there’s nothing here for me, no friends, no folks taking part in activities I like, no greenery. I don’t dare exercise too much because it could hinder my recovery. The air here is polluted and hard to breathe. I have good friends on the trail that I will probably never catch because I have been off for over a week. I have good friends off the trail who are moving far away; I may not see them for a long time and that sucks too. My lightweight pack that I got specifically for this thru hike has broken and that increases the load I have to carry by a significant amount. I may have fallen so far behind all the SOBO thru hikers that I will be solo on the trail and lonely.
I don’t think I was quite that bad, but some of those things would certainly bother and worry me. And to be honest, I was close to that bad. Now, this is how I have felt every day, even while I recover:
I am alive. Breathing. Inhaling creates feeling. I feel. This is wonderful. I am going to live today. Every choice I make I will do my best and once the choice is made, I will move on. This moment is precious because I am alive. It’s possible that I may not be breathing twenty-four hours from now. If I were to die today, then I die. I refuse to worry about dying but instead focus on living now as best I can. I am alive. I love life. I love me. I love feeling. I love you. I want you to feel alive too.
And that is true. I love me. I love life. I love you. I want you to feel alive too.
The man known as Meriadoc the Halfling and/or Eric Azriel is currently making his way down the trail and writing about it along the way. Check out his blog right here!
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