The sudden searing pain shooting up my left leg knocked the air out of me. I stood quickly and took off sprinting into the darkness. Without a headlamp, I had only the light of the moon to guide me as I raced down the trail to our hammock. I dropped to the ground sobbing, shrieking as I pulled down my thermals and sat in the darkness bellowing. The pain was so thick it kept me gasping for air between involuntary whimpers and sobs. I was afraid to look down. Stupid stupid stupid, why had I done that? Why hadn’t I been more careful?
It was one of those things that was totally avoidable, something that, as it is happening, you realize how easily you could have avoided it, and if you could go back in time, you would do that one little thing differently.
We had just pushed out a 27 mile day, zigzagging our way between Tennessee and North Carolina as we continued south during our Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail. We had hiked into the night, getting to camp late and hurriedly throwing up our hammock and swapping our sweaty hiking clothes for our thick warm thermals as the temperature dropped. As always, I was ravenous.
When you are thru-hiking, eating is not a ritual, it is a task that is tackled with high efficiency and rapid pace. You usually spend 8-12 hours hiking every day and during those 8-12 hours all you do is think about food. It torments you. You daydream about cheeseburgers and ice cream, pizza, french fries and steak. Food becomes an obsession, and meals are often taken in silence as everyone shovels their respective rice or pasta into their mouths; conversation can wait.
When Ale and I first started the trail, we had civilized things like bowls and pots; and we even used them a few times. But if there is one thing you obsess about more than food, well maybe it is second to food, it is the weight you are carrying on your back. Weight in your pack has a huge impact on your comfort and soreness levels. So after a few weeks on the trail, we realized we didn’t really need those pots and bowls if we could find food that came in packaging that we could eat directly from. This cut down on our need to carry more stuff in our packs and also saved us from having to wash dishes after a meal- win win.
After setting up the hammock and chucking our packs underneath it, I grabbed the Jet Boil and a bag of Lipton noodles, my water bottle and a spork. I couldn’t find my headlamp but didn’t want to put any more time between me and those noodles, so I trotted off in the darkness after Ale, Santana, Spoon and Cubby. When we got to the picnic table a few other hikers were there already. I slid onto the bench, attached the Jet Boil to the fuel canister, poured water in and let the flame burst forth, rubbing my hands together to ward off the cold air. Several minutes later the sweet sound of boiling water filled the air, I grabbed my Lipton, pulled the tab, opened the bag and disconnected the Jet Boil, ready to pour. Then it all went so terribly wrong.
As the boiling water began pouring, the lip of the bag tilted inward, causing the water to instead pour directly down onto my leg. Because I didn’t have a headlamp I didn’t even realize it was happening until quite a bit of boiling water had scalded me. The Patagonia thermal pants I was wearing had an intense insulating affect and essentially held the heat of the boiling water on my leg as it was pouring. Cue the screaming and running.
My first aid kit at this point on the trail essentially consisted of a few Band aids and Duct tape. Even if I had a more robust kit, I didn’t know how to deal with the wound. I was a 14 mile hike from the nearest road, it was late and I was exhausted. Any hope of treating my leg properly would have to wait until tomorrow. That night I lay in my sleeping bag beneath the hammock, the searing pain making it impossible to lie in a confined place.
As sunlight spilled into the woods the next morning, warming my face, I rolled my sleeping bag back to finally survey the damage on my leg. The skin around the burn was a greyish black color, and a large blister has raised itself off of my thigh, a smaller one forming just to the right of it. It ached; oh how it ached. Luckily a few miles into our hike we met some day hikers out for the weekend, they had a full first aid kit and came to the rescue with a roll of gauze that helped protect the blister a bit.
After 14 painful miles we arrived at the road and hitchhiked into Hot Springs. Hot Springs is a tiny little mountain town, without many facilities, and upon arrival I was torn about what to do next. I didn’t have any health insurance and really did’t want to go to the emergency room. My biggest concern at this point is infection. I had to be realistic about the fact that I was living outside, hiking everyday and often going a week without a proper shower- keeping the burn clean and dry might be a difficult task. More than that, I didn’t know if I should break the blister or if the blister was protecting the wound and therefore better left alone. I decided to try my luck at the local pharmacy, hoping they could offer some advice.
The pharmacist wore large round glasses that sat low on her long pointy nose, secured by a chain that wrapped around her neck. She was nice enough, but she didn’t really know what to do either. Do I put the burn powder on it? Or the cream? Or is it better not to put anything on it and let it heal on its own? Do I wrap it or do I leave it open? How should I clean it? She stated that she didn’t actually know what the best options were for this kind of burn, and simply suggested I get off the trail, thinking it too risky that it would get infected out in the elements.
I left without buying anything, feeling more shaken about how I was going to make it through the last two weeks on the trail. I had been walking for 138 days straight. My feet had carried me from Maine, through 13 states to get to very spot in the mountains of North Carolina. I had fourteen days before I reached the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. Getting off the trail was not an option.
I walked back to the motel where we were staying for the night. As I approached I saw Ale speaking with a guy who was also dressed in hiking clothes. I caught the tail end of their conversation and found out he was out for the weekend section hiking this part of the Appalachian Trail. Over the past four years he had dedicated countless weekends and vacation time to completing a different section of the AT- hoping to one day complete it all. Although he dreamed of doing the whole trail in one shot like us, he loved his job and couldn’t get the time off. We swapped a few trail stories, and then he asked me why my leg was wrapped in gauze. He nodded as I described the accident and asked me, “Would you mind if I take a look at it? I am an ER Burn Medic.”
Of course he was.
My jaw dropped slightly and tears welled up in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with relief. I unwrapped my leg and he examined the burn, advising that it was a second degree burn and I would need to break the blister because of its size, and scrub it hard to be sure that no dirt had gotten in. It was going to be incredibly painful, but he thought I would be able to continue with my thru-hike as long as I treated it three times a day and kept it wrapped. I must have turned slightly white when he mentioned breaking the blister because he next offered to prep it for me. I was taken aback by his kindness.
The next morning there was a knock on the door, as we opened it we found my ER Burn Medic Trail Angel standing there, he passes me a bottle of prescription burn cream he had gotten filled that morning and the instructions to care for my leg. I tried to offer him money for the cream, to which he refused, saying simply- “Finish the trail. All I ask is that you email me some stories and let me know when you guys get to Springer. Meeting people like you inspires me to keep going with my goal.”
Sometimes life catches you unprepared. Actually, much of the time life catches you unprepared. Sometimes it is in a bigger way than others. Often times it is frightening and overwhelming. In the same manner in which something scary might unfold, sometimes the thing you need the most is also revealed to you in a similarly unexpected way. And it is almost impossible to describe what that moment feels like. It inspires the feeling of being embraced by the universe, of being cradled by something bigger than yourself, greater than your feeble capacity to “problem solve” your way out of any challenging situation. I will never forget this chance meeting with a beautiful stranger, who was there when I needed him most. Even to this day, I draw gratitude from his selfless act, his gentle kindness and encouragement, and that feeling of the warm embrace of the universe.