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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

The most beautiful white blaze on the Appalachian Trail


Author’s Note: This article describes one of my scarier lessons in insulin management on the trail. I want to stress that I am safe now, and as with all lessons, I am even more prepared having been given the gift of this learning experience than I was the first 1800+ miles of trail.

I knew going into the White Mountains that it would be difficult terrain and I would not get as far each day as I have been used to. The AWOL trail guide even suggests you may only do 1/3 to 1/2 the miles you are used to, but luckily it hasn’t been that bad for me, although my longest day has been only 15 miles.

When I started the first section of the White MountainsĀ I carried more food, mostly snacks, than I think I’ve ever carried in anticipation of this. I figured I was well-prepared, even given the tough terrain. Going into it knowing my mileage would not be what it has been has allowed me to set miles aside for this brief period and instead focus on each mountain range at a time, enjoying the beauty and hiking at a pace safe for the conditions.

Still, two things did slow me down that I did not expect. The first was that there are many stretches of trail that are above treeline or with dense underbrush where you cannot camp. This meant you may get ten miles and not be able to go further even though it’s 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The second was that I would need to eat so much more because of all the energy required for the steep climbs, using up food faster and causing blood sugar to go haywire.

So, inevitably, I went even slower than I expected and I knew probably four days in advance that I would run out of food before I reached my first stop. This would not have been as much of a problem in the Whites because there are many “huts” that sell cookies, brownies, and even full meals sometimes, if it were not for the fact that my debit card had expired. You know you’ve been in the woods a long time when you have to start worrying about things like that! My new card came at the last possible minute, and was forwarded on to a hiker center 3.5 miles off trail 60 miles ahead.

Of course having the card itself would not have been much of a help anyway since everything was cash only (so my guide said, I later found out this was not true!). I also now know that the huts are usually dying to get rid of food because they must pack out any food that is not eaten. Still, between my agoraphobic tendencies and my difficulty in asking for help, I didn’t know this at the time.

I took a one-mile side trail to a tourist attraction with a snack bar, using a different card that happened to have a bit of cash in the account. There wasn’t much to carry with me, but I ate a pizza (good long-lasting carbs) and bought a couple overpriced pop tarts.

As I was hiking back to the trail there was a couple having a picnic on the grass next to parking lot and the guy waved me over. He could tell I was a hiker and probably that I was a thru-hiker. He said he saw me eating pizza inside and said I was probably full (ha!), but asked if I would like any food to take with me. I didn’t tell him I was basically running out of food, just that hiker’s are always ready to eat, but it’s like he knew. He was rummaging all through his car, pulling out Kind bars, mixed nuts, two apples, and a wonderful orange. The orange was important, because juice is the best way to handle low blood sugar.

So I continued hiking on, rationing what I had. I had stopped taking insulin and assumed that the worst I faced was just having only 1500-2000 calories a day of food very low in carbs. I wasn’t going to starve, I wouldn’t starve in four days even if I had zero food, I just wouldn’t have the normal amount of energy to climb. By the second day without insulin, however, I noticed that because of how much exertion was required, the tiniest traces of residual insulin left in my body kept my blood sugar just about normal. Normal was scary in this position because normal is one hard climb away from low.

Finally, I awoke one morning with just 26 miles left to go, plus the 3.5 along the highway. Anywhere else on the trail I could probably shoot for doing the 26 in one day, but here I was worried about doing it in two. And I absolutely had to do it in two. The first half was mostly uphill, the second half mostly downhill. I was determined to do all the uphill on day one because downhill burns up much less glucose, and I wasn’t sure how much food would last until day two

I made it 14 miles the first day, definitely feeling the lowered energy. The climbing was hard but the views were gorgeous. I hiked fast all things considered, but had to stop frequently to test blood sugar, hoping to keep it above 200 to give me a safe cushion.

On the last day, I started getting ready at 4:30 AM and was hiking shortly after six. I had nothing left except tortillas, summer sausage, and my emergency orange. Tortillas have a lot of carbs but are incredibly slow acting, far too slow to help a low or provide energy. The good thing was that they take a long time to metabolize, so they would continue slowly raising my blood sugar for a long time.

The White Mountains are very touristy and crowded, so I knew if I really got in trouble I could probably stop a day hiker and tell them it was an emergency and I needed something with sugar. Still, I’m not very good at asking for help, so I saw this as an absolute last resort. I think it was the first time I truly felt real fear on the trail, with images of me getting a low and the orange not being enough… and seizures… and worse…

Here is another area where I will be scolded. I keep forgetting to get a medical ID tag. I have no valid excuse for putting this off, I just have not been sure where I would get one offline, and every time I reach a town everything feels so rushed. In any case, given this lacking I hiked with a sharpie in my pocket, ready to write Type 1 Diabetic on my wrist if things started to go bad.

Everything I have told you has been so you can understand my state of mind my last morning of hiking out. I was actually in relatively good spirits, but in the back of my mind there were many dark thoughts. I knew I would be going downhill, but I didn’t know if it would be an insane rocky climb that would take forever, having to take every single step cautiously, or something a bit easier.

I went through the first few miles relatively easily. It was rocky, but not so steep so I maintained a good pace. Then all of the sudden the trail turned and it was pure soft sand, flat and straight as far as I could see. Now, this has happened to me several times in the Whites already, and each time it has meant the same thing: I missed a turn on the trail. The AT is constantly crossing other trails in the Whites, and the other trails always seem so easy in comparison.

So it was, in horror, I wondered how far I had gone the wrong way. The AT does not have as many white blazes in New Hampshire, so this happens sometimes, but I always notice within .1 or .2 miles. A tenth of a mile seemed like a long way today, though.

And then I saw it. The tree. The tree with the white blaze on it. This was my trail, and it was easy and beautiful and flat.

I felt like crying. It was like I suddenly realized all of the pressure I had been under for days, the hunger, the lethargy, now that I had finally caught a break. I didn’t know how much longer the trail would stay easy, and I didn’t care. I felt so much relief to have even a small stretch of nice, easy trail. The feeling was indescribable.

It lasted at least five miles, and I flew like the wind. Toward the end there was a bit steeper downhill climb, but I had renewed energy and it was still easier than all of the trails I had done in the whites so far.

I did the 12 miles before noon, and at 11:45 I was walking down the highway to food, to my debit card, to safety.

And as I walked, I realized that even on this day, the only time on the trail where I truly feared for my life, that it was all still amazing. I was still in awe of the beauty, and I can look back and see that I was still stopping to take pictures.

And after I reach Katahdin, the picture of that easy trail with the tree to the side embroidered with that beautiful white blaze will hang on my wall for the rest of my life, wherever that wall may travel.

More Stories From Diabetes

About Kevin McCourt

Kevin McCourt is an entrepreneur, writer, and reformed geek who challenged agoraphobia and insulin-dependent diabetes by thru-hiking the entire 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in 2016. He is currently working on his first non-fiction book, a philosophical and scientific look at how modern life became so complicated and the persuasive influences that created the world we live in today. He currently lives in Ocean View, DE and wherever his tent is set up.

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