Off the Trail 

The tiniest of moments can change everything.

I was about five miles from the nearest road when I felt something give in my heel. The trail was covered with leaves, a thick carpet of autumn colors, which makes for a pleasant walking experience until you step on an unseen rock in an unintended way, and your foot briefly attains a position it wasn't built for, and then you're sitting on a stump thinking, "Gee, I've never felt pain there before."

I rubbed it a bit, had some water, figured it would be fine. I had already walked 100 miles since Franklin, through rain and cold and solitude and running out of toilet paper. What's a little pain in the heel? I was young and still thought the solution to most problems was to just keep moving.

So I stood to start again, took one step, and was back on the stump.

It's funny how a simple piece of news can change everything. Moments before, I was enjoying a long-planned solo hike on the Appalachian Trail, with nobody around to slow me down, five days' worth of food in my pack, and no responsibilities beyond finding my next campsite.

And now, one odd step later, I was barely able to walk, with no help available, 40 pounds on my back, and no shelter for the night. The difference between solitude and loneliness is purely attitude.

I was on a section of the trail that offered no big views, no waterfalls, no challenging climbs -- no reasons to be there, in other words, unless you were just trying to put in miles. And at this time of year, not many people were putting in miles where I was. So sitting and waiting wasn't much of an option. I hadn't seen anybody since the morning before, when a couple of long-legged kids from Kentucky turned to wave back at me and yelled, "Okay, we'll see you tonight!" I figured they were 10 miles ahead of me at this point.

Besides, even if somebody had showed up, I was still gonna have to walk. So, again, the answer was simple: Keep moving.

It's funny how a little problem grows into a bigger one, or divides and multiplies into lots of them. A heel injury -- I found out later it was a strained Achilles tendon -- affects how you walk just enough to expand into leg, hip, and back pain. I put my foot down, and it hurt. When I pushed on the ball of that foot, it really hurt. So my brain said, Okay, next time we'll keep the leg stiff and push with the heel -- the path of the least pain.

Take a few steps that way sometime and see how it feels. Then imagine doing it with a 40-pound pack on your back, up and down long hills, on leaf-covered rocky trails, when you have no choice but to do that for five miles.

As the pain began to spread, and after I'd nearly hyper-extended my knee a couple of times, I decided that intense pain in the heel was better than less intense pain everywhere else. So I started taking "normal" steps again. Normal, in this case, was a standard human step, a bit wobbly, with a "shit" or a "god-dammit" in the middle.

I was probably making about half a mile per hour. Five miles to the road seemed a lot longer all of a sudden, and my decision to go without a watch had transformed from "getting back to nature" into "I wonder if I'll make the road by dark?"

The road. That's what it was all about. Get to the road. At the road, I could sit down and wait for a car. The map said it was a county road, and in the northeast corner of Tennessee that meant there wouldn't necessarily be a car, especially late in the day on a Tuesday -- and I wasn't even sure it was a Tuesday anymore. I'd been in the woods, except for two food runs into two tiny towns, for three weeks.

Get to the road. My heel actually started to feel better, or just feel less; I didn't care which. It wasn't long before I could take fairly normal steps again, with a little less cussing. I was walking with my head down, hands in my pockets, heart in my throat, and my mind on that road.

When the sun was down in the trees, the crickets were starting to sing, and my breath was becoming visible in front of my face, I found myself looking at a fencepost. I looked up and saw the fence. Beyond it, through the trees, was something flat and open. I couldn't figure out what had happened to the forest there, because my mind had turned the road into something mythical, something magical, something huge. I had forgotten that roads are just flat, open spaces.

The moon was over the little valley when I dropped my pack on the gravel shoulder. Other than the crickets, there wasn't a sound. Other than the moon and a few stars, there wasn't a light. Other than me, there wasn't a soul. At least the sky was clear. Somebody would come along. It didn't matter now, anyway. No more walking. I had made the road.

I figured I would go to town, get a room, lie down, and watch TV. I thought about how that mattress would feel. I thought about warm water, soap, and a towel. I thought about how it would feel to walk on a cold tile floor. I thought about looking out a car window and seeing the miles fly by, with no pain at all. That was the solution, after all; just keep moving.

I looked up the road into the dusk. Somebody would come along.


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