So. Lockout Week rolls along towards its inevitable conclusion. Our iron-fisted (not Danny Rand or Orson Randall though) EIC demanded my contribution go up even in light of the somewhat disheartening (to me at least) logo news this morning. I thought about writing a scintillating article on racist Dracula and his battle with Captain Britain and MI:13 or maybe delving into my love of Roger Zelazny's writings (including his Tupac-like, postmortem releases) or how I wish I could play violin like Sherlock Holmes (I did learn to fence as a result of Sir Conan Doyle's writings though). Maybe a piece about the divine flavor combination of grilled peanut butter sandwiches and cream of tomato soup? Nah, too niche. Foo Fighters? David already touched on music this week. Portal? M:TG? Halfawaffle dropped some knowledge on games on Wednesday. I could talk about how Journeyman was cancelled by short-sighted TV execs and how it represents the most visceral "Firefly" experience of my TV viewing lifetime except NOBODY knows what show I'm talking about. Discuss disc golf and break down the various types of discs and shots? Only Bibby and his hippy friends in Boulder would read it. Maybe go on and on about structural engineering or my love of submarines and samurai? Again, limited audience on those (mostly the other staff writers...) Recap a Justified episode? Nope, Joe would be offended by all the jokes I make about his home state. So, in the end, I just decided to tell an actual story.
The Mrs. and I had been in Sooner Country for about a year when I Challenge: Accepted! an idea from my younger brother. He, two of his friends from law school (GoTHOM), and my other brother (not named Darryl) decided we should all hike the Georgia portion (or at least a good portion of the Georgia portion) of the Appalachian Trail over Spring Break. Now, I wasn't in as less-than-stellar shape then as I am now and I figured if I could play a very demanding position (in a sport we shan't talk about) two-to-three nights a week, I could handle some hiking. It was really only supposed to be a few days and us three brothers hadn't had a ton of time to just hang out since I finished Grad School and the other two started Law and Medical School respectively. So I figured "What the hell! Camping is fun!" Both of my brothers were really into ultralight backpacking at the time. They had all the super light sleeping bags, hand-made hammocks to sleep off the ground thus conserving body heat, and dozens of little tricks to help a noob like me. They promised it would be fun, the lying bastards.
So we loaded up and headed to Georgia, leaving Northern Mississippi early in the week. (Did I mention I first had to fly to Mississippi and buy/borrow almost all the gear from my brothers? No? Cuz I did.) We made it to the visitor station at the base of the approach trail in the evening and unrolled our sleeping bags in the little shelter they had set aside for hikers. I ate some delicious warm tuna from a sealed bag and some instant potatoes. Drank some water and tried to sleep on a "bed" of wooden slats. I was already experiencing the fun! The next morning we refill the water bottles, strap on our 30+ lb backpacks and start up the approach trail. For those that don't know, I'm being 100% literal with the phrase "up the approach trail." The trail from the ranger station/shelter site to the southern terminus of the AT is over 8 miles long and is almost completely vertical, especially the end. It zig-zags its way back and forth across various mountain slopes on its way to the actual beginning/end of the AT at the top of Springer Mountain. Everything I'd been told up to that point had failed to include much detail about this portion of our journey. Other than helping me pack my shiz, making some trail mix, and telling old baseball stories, my brothers hadn't told me much of anything about the hike. I do remember them saying that they KNEW I could do it and the Georgia Portion of the AT wasn't that difficult. Turns out it was brutal.
Lawyer Brother has a medical condition and the medication he takes causes a pretty wonky electrolyte imbalance at times so he assured me that he wouldn't let the more experienced hikers in our little group dictate the pace too much because he'd kill all the Gatorade he had in too short of time and be in trouble later in the day due to cramping. And let me tell you, that's exactly how that shit went down. His ego (and mine too for that matter) wouldn't allow him to maintain a leisurely pace. We had the whole day and we didn't use it. The most experienced guys in our group (including my youngest brother) set a much faster pace than us other three hikers were anticipating. I didn't learn about balancing my steps until well into the ascent when my right knee started twinging due to over-use on the stair-step portion of the climb. I did manage to pace myself on the food and water though: it was almost mid-day before I blew through my stash of Peanut Butter M&M's. By evening, my right knee was throbbing like a 15-year-old's morning wood.
The pain wasn't so much excruciating as much as it was a dual mental and physical loop that I couldn't seem to escape. Don't get me wrong, it hurt like hell. It felt like the tendons in the front of my knee were being ripped apart with one of those three-pronged gardening tools and then sewn back together with razor wire and Japanese fighting kite string. That happened every other step. The steps in between were dominated by thoughts that I had done serious, irreparable damage to my knee and I'd never be able to rob a D3 wannabe in my league back home. My days on skates were over! Then, just when I'd tricked myself into thinking I just needed to balance my steps and get some rest that night, I started over-using the other knee and it started a mild ache. Good times. I wanted to quit but I didn't want to ruin the trip on day one.
We finely reached the summit of Springer Mountain and made camp for the night. Even with our too-rapid-for-me pace, we didn't make it to the hiker's shack in time to claim enough spots for the entire group, so we prepared to bed down in the world. Al fresco. I got to share a tarp-like contraption of Doctor Brother's invention with the other hiking virgin in our group. We ate some dinner as the winds picked up and the temperatures dropped. Nobody felt like shooting the bull or reminiscing so we trundled off to our sleeping bags as full night descended.
I fell into a fitful sleep before being awoken by the of-course-it's-a-thunderstorm in the wee hours of the morning. The tarp thing didn't work worth a damn (I KNEW there wasn't much engineering in his Bio Engineering degree!!) and most of the other guy's stuff was soaked, especially his not-that-light-to-begin-with sleeping bag. We made the best of it with a breakfast of body temperature beef jerky, granola bars, and instant hot chocolate. We packed our soaked belongings, decided how many layers we were prepared to peel off as the day wore on and started out. We were now on the AT proper and could begin the fun!
I was in good spirits and looking forward to the day, even after the rough night. I felt better and hoped I could pull myself together enough to continue to enjoy the scenery (which was spectacular by the way) and the time with my brothers (who are ubercool). I naively hoped that the predominately downhill and level hike that was to monopolize our day would help with the still painful (thanks for nothing Aleve!) knee. Wrong! The downhill steps were worse since the weight of my lower leg would swing the knee joint like a rusty gate hinge (sharp pain!) and then all my weight would come down on it (sharper pain!!).
Everyone promised that, given my knee and my brother's ever-present cramps, we'd take it easy and by and large, we did. Didn't change the pain narrative though. Within an hour of beginning, my right knee was swollen up to softball size and gave off its own radiological heat signature. Agonizing as an adjective for the pain doesn't have nearly enough syllables to adequately encompass the sensation. Using a walking stick as an ad hoc cane/crutch didn't do diddly. Frequent breaks and popping Ibuprofen like Dippin' Dots didn't make a dent. Doctor Brother took one look at it about three hours into the hike and immediately started trying to get cel phone reception to try and figure out a way to get me off of the trail. He started talking about crucial this and meniscus that and I have to admit I wasn't enjoying our bonding moment.
At this time we were a few miles into the hike and we'd stopped by an old logging road for the impromptu medical exam. As Doctor Brother wandered off a ways trying to get a signal, a random dude and two older ladies just cold walked out of the woods. It was surreal since this wasn't the end of a porno or the beginning of a horror movie. Random Dude was carrying a contour map and some binoculars. None of them had packs or other equipment aside from a couple of plastic bottles of water. My pain-riddled, yet highly deductive mind, intuited that they hadn't hiked into this spot. Turns out Random Dude was a 100% Pure Army Ranger who taught wilderness survival training for the military nearby and was showing his mom and his aunt some of the waterfalls and other scenic attractions in the area.
We asked how far it was to a paved (civilized) road.
"About 10 miles," he said. I wept inside.
"But we've got a SUV parked just up the road a bit. We can take you into town." I wept outside.
Praise JEBUS! Random Dude, his mom, and his aunt walked me and my stanky self to the car, helped me load my backpack, assured my brothers that they weren't gonna Deliverance my ass, and drove me to the nearest motel where I could shack up until my super-loyal hiking group finished their trip and could then come pick me up. Turns out Mom and Aunt were from...wait for it...Oklahoma. Strange world, right? Anyway, they hauled me into town, helped me get checked in, insisted on carrying me over to Subway so I could eat fresh, and then returned me to the motel. Thus began my one-day hiking convalescence.
Wait, one day you say, Mike? Wasn't this a multiple day trip? Like four or five? Why yes it was, dear inquisitive reader. However, the next day, Lawyer Brother slipped on a mossy creek rock while washing the mud out of his shoes, broke his toe and lacerated the skin beneath said toe and its little piggy neighbor. So he had enough of nature, walked to the nearest hiker station, hitched a ride back to the parking lot at the approach trail, got his car, picked up the rest of the group, and came and got me in the midst of a Charmed marathon on TNT. We headed back to Mississippi and I got back to the sweeping plains two days early.
My doctor looked at the knee a few days later and told me I was an idiot, but a lucky one. Severe hyper-extension and repetitive motion damage, but I'd heal up with rest and common sense. No surgery. Lawyer Brother buddy-taped his broken toe and Doctor Brother put some stitches in when they got back to civilization. He basically walked it off. We haven't been hiking since.