AT Day 34 – Making Friends With My Headache

almost Jenny Knob Shelter to Doc’s Knob Shelter
Plastic Water Camp
to Porch Water Camp
AT miles: 25.7
Total miles: 635.9
Elevation change: 5223ft gain, 4744ft loss

In the heat of yesterday afternoon, I took a gamble. I decided to risk dehydration in order to avoid drinking as much of the plastic water as possible. I survived the dry stretch, but as soon as I woke up this morning, I knew that I had still to pay the price. I scrambled to drink all the water I had left, but the headache was here to stay. What could I do? My objective for the day was ahead, headache or no, so ahead I went. That’s what I could do.

It looks the way I feel.

Lying in bed, out of water and still feeling a little funky, I nibbled on some chocolate hoping that the slight amount of caffeine might give my brain the boost that it needed to surge forth from the sludge of dehydration. I watched the horizon burn orange under a ceiling of gray clouds while waiting for the chocolate to do its work and while grazing on some other foods. None of the food was helping and I was feeling antsy, so I decided to get an early start, delaying the rest of my breakfast until the shelter in two miles. There, I could also begin the arduous process of rehydrating.

Quick and easy leaf kicking to the shelter.

The two miles was an easy leaf kick. At the shelter, I met Left Field and another guy, both tootling around on the AT between Harper’s Ferry and Damascus. A thin tendril of smoke rose from the small pile of twigs in the fire pit. I filtered water and resumed breakfast at the picnic bench, my mind in a haze, as the two coffee drinkers talked a mile a minute while they slowly packed up. I mixed some coffee of my own, adding a packet of chai tea as well, to concoct a trail version of a dirty chai. I hoped it would act like rocket fuel and blow my headache into oblivion.

With recovery measures underway, I continued the easy trail down to, then across a paved road, then up to the opposite ridge on gentle switchbacks. Pine needles whispered in the canopy above and squeaked with a muted crunch under my feet. On top of the ridge, a rocky limestone trail transitioned into that really easy, old roadbed flat before I could become too frustrated with the slow progress and uneven footing. I gulped liquid religiously, ever time my watch beeped to tell me that I’d hiked another mile.

Boioioioing. It’s springing.

Flowing down to another road under the bright and warm sunshine, I noticed the unmistakable signs of spring beginning to spring. A greenish tint surrounded the trail, and tiny baby leaves sprouted from the slender branches of a trailside tree. I couldn’t help but feel a surge of energy and hope for the rest of the day. Renewal was what I needed, and it was all around me.

The temptation to walk up the road to a known convenience store was strong. I knew, deep in my bones, that an ice-cold can of fizzy sugar water was the antidote to all that afflicted me. But I resisted. Instead, I forged on, skipping the hot bonus miles, practically tasting the cherry coke on my tongue, feeling the sticky fizz on my teeth.

Over this big ol’ bridge, thinking of Cherry Coke.

I did take the next short detour to the highly rated Dismal Falls, which was anything but. I dropped my stuff for an early lunch next to the rushing Dismal Creek as it slid, wide and glassy, across smooth steps of limestone on its way to plunging down a steep staircase into the churning pool below. I gathered water, soaked my feet, then put them up while watching a local cast for fish from the opposite bank. I just made out “they’re hitting corn!” over the rushing of the falls. Sure enough, an open can of corn sat next to his tackle box.

Watch out for corn.

I lounged at the idyllic spot for a little bit longer than mileage responsibilities deemed prudent, but I was in recovery and enjoying myself. I finished my potato chip crumbles, utilizing a little more dignity than yesterday, and smeared peanut butter on a tortilla. I poured a cherry electrolyte packet into one of my bottles, chugged another bellyful of the mighty Dismal, then got hiking into the heat of the day.

The hour and a half break was just what I needed. My headache was still present, but the edge had dulled and the walking was just too darn pleasant for pain to be the focus. The next six miles were as easy as they come, up a flat valley of rushing creeks and wooden footbridges. The flora flickered repeatedly between rhododendron tunnels, open oak, and shady pine. The temperature swung significantly between each. I sweated through the sun-drenched oak forest, then felt the sensational chill as my sweat cooled under the pine. Every mile, I took a swig of cherry drink, chasing that with a peach tea flavored icebreaker. It was a salubrious rhythm and I made great time.

Nice and cool under the pine.

The shelter at the head of the valley was the perfect place to regroup (read: poop) before the major climb of the day. Two dudes sat on a bench in front of yet another barely smoking campfire. A tobacco pipe lay on the rocks and there was a homey vibe about the older gentleman. There was no hurry here, just a long sit before a long, restorative night. I told them that I was going to the next shelter. It was nine miles, they warned. I looked at my watch, 4pm. Perfect timing.

The first two of those nine, climbed 1500 feet out of the cul-de-sac valley. It was steep for sure, and hot, and sunny, and steep, and hot, but I had spent all day mentally preparing, so I was almost ready for it. My head pounded with my rising pulse rate. I sucked hard on a peach tea mint. Something I learned the hard way when it comes to headaches, is that it is sometimes possible to outwork them. Vigorous physical activity paired with stubborn attempts to rehydrate has wiped away many a headache for me over the years. I think that maybe, causing more discomfort and then pushing through it, tires out the pain response, leaving it numb. That’s my theory at least, and it’s the strategy I employed on this climb. By the time I reached the top, I was dripping sweat and feeling almost alright. I caught my breath and swigged some cool water. My appetite was back and raging, always a sure sign that recovery is moving in the right direction.

Those good feelings combined with the stupendous view from the summit of Sugar Run Mountain joined in harmony to create my favorite moment of the day. I took a seat with my pack on near the edge of a limestone cliff, gazing down at a wide valley of dotted farmhouses and pastures. A fantastic ridge shot straight ahead of me, one that I would follow tomorrow, and parallel siblings repeated this to the horizon left and right. The late afternoon glow was just beginning to settle over the world. The harsh brightness of day had softened, making the scene easier on my eyes and more peaceful for my soul. The hard work was done. Just a few more miles to camp.

The fantastic view from Sugar Run.

Corporate America rocked in my head for the second evening in a row, but this time I did not indulge the temptation to dip into my music collection. Not this time. My headache-fatigued brain was going to some interesting places and I was digging the ride. All the anglofiles out there will appreciate where my mind went for a few miles when I considered the etimology of the phrase “brand new.” What value does the word “brand” add to “new”? How is “brand new” different from just plain “new”? Naturally, this line of thinking led to the question, does the word “brand” have its roots in ranching, as as in branding cattle, or does it go back further than that? Paying homage to a time before smartphones brought the world of knowledge to one’s fingertips, I kept Google in my pocket and mulled these thoughts over, knowing that there would only be more questions, without resolutions.

The last rocky miles moved slowly, but I made it to Doc’s Knob Shelter before dark. The lollygagging at Dismal Falls hadn’t cost me in the end. Another thru-hiker was already at home, and we made some awkward chitchat while I gathered and filtered water from a piped spring under the porch. He wasn’t expecting company so had pitched his tent inside the shelter to keep the mice from running over his face like they had done the last time he slept in a shelter in the Smokies. There was still plenty of wooden floor for me, but I opted to tent it in the nearby rhododendron thicket instead. I would have done the same even if the shelter had been empty.

My spot was almost flat, and I lay back, cradling my bowl of couscous, grateful to have survived the day. And I was actually pleased with how things went down. It could have been a lot worse, that’s for sure. Dismal Falls was a life-saver and I thanked my body for being gentle with me. Nope, nothing dismal about the day at all. I ate. I considered. I slept.

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