Pacific Crest Trail Week 8: The End?

Imagine how fast I could hike the PCT if my legs were really this long. (Photo Suzanne Hessler)

My knowledge of wilderness first aid is limited. Small batches of elderly ladies from the Red Cross have taught me the basics again and again. There are two things I have found useful to remember. First is the ever-useful R.I.C.E.  (rest, ice, compression, elevation). The second, which only applies if R.I.C.E. doesn’t work and C.P.R. isn’t necessary, is to pee on it.

As I passed the 1,000-mile mark on the Pacific Crest Trail, first aid became a theme and possibly the end of the trail for me.

The northern California section of the PCT is a hot, waterless bit of trail. Even if you feel amazing, it can often be difficult to stay hydrated and stay motivated to hike lots of miles. Because I had taken some “zeros” (days without hiking) and met some visitors in southern Oregon, I felt obligated to start stamping out the northern California part of the trail so that I could make it through the Sierras.

Everything felt great and the first days went quickly. I was free to get up early, hike long days, and stop when I felt like it. Except for a twinge of pain in my foot and some pesky blisters from my new shoes, I was feeling good.

Aches and pains are common on the trail — you hike through them, take some ibuprofen at night and wake up feeling perfectly invincible. I dealt with my blisters in the evening, but I wondered why the ache in my left foot wasn’t going away. It was making me slower and seemed to be getting worse.

One evening, as I was limping to camp, I met a couple who happened to be doctors. They gave me some advice and I was off. It was very lucky to run into them. What were the chances? The next morning my foot was swollen, but I decided to continue on.

The following day a couple, whom I had camped with previously caught up to me. They also happened to be nurses (some more strange serendipity). We would pass each other multiple times on the remaining 68 miles of that section.

Photo by Suzanne Hessler
Just a bit more to go… (Photo Suzanne Hessler)

The day we were all to hike out to Burney, one of them got very sick and was having a really tough time pulling himself along on the trail. Sometime in the afternoon, I also started feeling sick adding to my already slow pace. Nausea and faintness — what I diagnosed as either heat exhaustion, a virus, or bad water — hit me as I stumbled through the last couple of miles. I was able to reach Burney Falls State Park, meet up with the hiker couple, and get a ride into town to a motel.

(An aside: Thanks to the fishermen that gave me a soda and a candy bar at a particularly faint moment and the two couples that squeezed the three of us into their truck.)

After two nights in the motel I felt better, but my foot was consistently swollen and I couldn’t put my weight on it. It was time to go to the doctor.

The hospital was 12 miles away — a short distance for a healthy PCT hiker, but a daunting adventure in 90-degree weather for a PCT hiker with a sore foot. I was able to hitch there in two rides. The doctor and nurses seemed optimistic that it was a sprain and were about to show me how to tape my foot and relieve pressure to keep hiking. But then the x-ray came back.

Photo by Suzanne Hessler
The end of the day (Photo Suzanne Hessler)

The doctor broke the news that I had a fracture and couldn’t hike for 4 weeks. I had to go home. My thru-hike was over.

The nice staff of the hospital made sure I had a ride back to the motel. One of the nurses drove me after her shift had ended. The nurse/hiker couple waited till I returned to say goodbye before they left to get back on the trail. My adventure in wilderness first aid and medical professionals had also come to an end.

A very sweet friend of mine drove seven hours to pick me up and return me to the Bay Area where I have been quietly recovering in my boyfriend’s home.

I fantasize about how I could return to the trail. I live in a sort of strange transition world in which I’m not exactly sure what of the last two months was reality, or what I should be doing with myself. I am happy yet unavoidably disappointed.

One day I hope to finish the trail (maybe even part of it this year). But the biggest lesson I have learned so far has to do with limitations. My body has limitations, my soul has limitations, time has limitations, and even the PCT has limitations (a huge chunk of it is being threatened by wildfire). We are all born with internal weaknesses, but living is often testing these limitations while trying to grown and explore.

Happy trails.

Read the rest of Suzanne’s adventures:

Week 1: Approaching the Adventure
Week 2: Falling Down, Climbing Up
Week 3: The Pulse of Humanity
Week 4: Beware the Grouse
Week 5: Being Zen (or Not)
Week 6: Crouching Bobcat, Hidden Mosquitoes
Week 7: Appreciation

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About the Author

Suzanne Hessler is a connoisseur of odd jobs and misspent adventures. She can often be found wandering the countryside or hiding from everything in her tiny mid-city apartment. She is currently attempting a long-distance backpacking trip starting at the Canadian Border of the Pacific Crest Trail and heading South. You can find her on Google + and Facebook.