I was full of excitement when I started the seven mile, 2,900 foot ascent up to Sassafrass Gap Shelter. I had just left behind the comforts of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. It was my fifteenth day into an attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. On days thirteen and fourteen, I was hit by a snow storm that slowed my pace down to one mile per hour. With the company of my new friend, Risscuit (pronounced “Risk-It”), we both managed to hike 17 miles so we could have a warm meal, a shower and bed at the NOC. It was an empowering feeling, having trudged out the miles in knee deep snow, wearing frozen shoes and stiff jackets.
It was late in the morning when Risscuit and I started the hike up to Sassafrass Gap Shelter. Snow still blanketed the ground, but the sun was out, and the thought of Winter seemed distant once again. The uplifting feeling of conquering the storm still filled my body with adrenaline. We hiked on crunchy snow that had been packed down by our best friends ahead of us.
Risscuit and I reached the shelter by 6:30 PM. We cooked dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags around 8:30. The weather report called for temperatures in the low 20′s that evening. Sassafrass Gap Shelter sleeps fourteen people, seven on the ground level and seven on the loft. We had sixteen people in the shelter that night. Risscuit and I were sleeping on the loft. Everyone in the shelter let down their personal space barriers and welcomed the extra body heat.
Risscuit was busy writing in her journal, when she whispered to me “My stomach is really hurting”. She added that it was cramping horribly too. I figured it was the soup she ate for dinner. We both laid our heads back and tried to fall asleep. The freezing air froze my lungs as I began to drift off.
Suddenly, I heard Risscuit rise up very fast. I saw her grab a plastic bag, the one she kept her journal in, and dumped the contents on top of her sleeping bag. I then heard the splash of beef stew vomit coating the plastic bag. I cowered in my sleeping bag, trying not to smell what had just left her body. She called out my name “Salad…Salad…”. The bag she tried to throw up in had ripped open. The contents of her stomach was now on top of her sleeping bag.
I climbed down from the loft and ran to the tree where I had hung our food bags. I of course was not after the food, but the wet wipes I had stashed inside the hanging bags. In my dead on sprint to the tree, I slipped on some ice and banana peeled, landing onto my tailbone.
When I came back from fetching the wipes, two other hikers (Turtle Tracks and Two Sticks) had offered her camp towels to help her clean up. Since her sleeping bag was down filled, and was now soaked, it was unusable. The vomit would soon freeze to the outside of her bag.
In a bit of a panicked moment, where I kept repeating out loud “Ok…Ok…Ok…”, as to try and think of what to do next, we came upon the idea to share her one person tent. I would lend her my sleeping bag and I would sleep in my thin, sleeping bag liner and an emergency blanket. We shared her air mattress and put mine against the wall of her tent.
I had never set up her tent before, and since it was pitch black outside, I needed her help. Midway through setting up, she got sick again. I felt so bad. We managed to squeeze into her tent, our heads were at opposite ends to maximize space.
We managed to get comfortable and close our eyes. Not ten minutes later, she unzipped the sleeping bag, unzipped the door of the tent, mashed her feet into her boots and took a few steps away before getting sick. This would become her ritual. Every half-hour, on the dot.
By the sixth time she got sick, I was feeling a bit worried. It was nearly midnight, we were on top of a mountain and dealing with freezing temperatures. The closest known civilization was a seven mile hike away. Now was not the time to panic, but the night can seem so long when you are wishing for the sun to rise. Risscuit came back into the tent from dry heaving a few times. There was nothing remaing in her sore stomach. She was left at the mercy of her body’s natural process to eliminate whatever it wanted to exhume.
Before starting the AT, Risscuit had shaved her head. I thought about making a joke to lighten up the mood, “I’d hold your hair, but there would be nothing to grab.” I refrained from making the comment, thinking she would not be in the mood for laughter. Instead, I made a comment that I should have kept to myself, “You’re really starting to worry me”. It was the truth, but I needed to be the one telling her everything would be fine. Being the brave soul that she is, Risscuit said back “Maybe the sixth time is the charm!” Unfortunately, she was wrong. Number seven, eight and nine were all right around the corner. She finally stopped getting sick around 6:00 AM. She had thrown up nineteen times in a span of ten hours.
The other hikers in the shelter started to wake up around 7:00 AM. They asked how she was doing and if there was anything they could do to help. One couple, in particular, noted that I had done a courageous thing, but then added I would probably get sick a few days later. Great, thanks for the daunting premonition.
I decided to make some hot water for her. I poured it into my Nalgene bottle and brought it over to her tent. She nestled the bottle like a five year old holding their favorite teddy bear. She would wake up later that afternoon, bearing the resemblance of a zombie, or a thru-hiker nearing Katahdin. I guess they are close to the same thing. Later in the day, she managed to eat and drink without getting sick.
It was now a mystery as to what made her violently ill. Was it food poisoning? A 24 hour bug? Maybe it was the flu? Could she get sick that soon from being in contact with another hiker? Maybe Giardiasis? All we knew was that we needed to hike. We had enough food to make it to Fontana Dam, which was a little over 20 miles away. The other option was to hike South, back to the NOC. It was not in our personal interest to backtrack though.
After taking a zero day at the shelter, we planned to hike nine miles the next day. In the morning, we started out late. It was 9:00 AM before Risscuit was packed up. She needed to take breaks from stuffing her pack full of her gear. On her way back to the shelter from fetching water, she sat down on the floor, out of breath. I was now worried. She had not been sick again, but she was zapped of energy. I suggested that we take another zero day at the shelter. She quickly obliged.
Being sick in the woods is nothing like being sick in the comfort of your home. The food you have is what you need to eat. Risscuit’s stomach was not craving mac’n’cheese, beef jerky or tuna fish. She needed energy though. She had luckily packed fruit strips and lived off of those.
On the third day, we hiked out. Risscuit wore her lady brawn, as she always did. She dreamed out loud about fresh fruit and vegetables. We joked about the possibility of trail magic and it being at a road crossing. We listed all the foods that we wanted to eat, in hopes someone was listening.
As we approached Stecoah Gap, we could see what looked liked a tent near the base of the highway. Could it be? Was it trail magic? We sped up our pace, trying not to get too exited at the oasis. As we we turned a corner, two tents were revealed. Two former thru-hikers, Video and Whitewater, had set up the most amazing trail magic. Fresh fruit, hot dogs, hamburgers, soda, chips and medical supplies. Risscuit’s dream had come true. She devoured some fruit and also packed some to-go. This burst of energy would push her up Jacob’s Ladder and to the shelter we planned on staying.
We had learned a valuable lesson that would repeat itself over the next several months of hiking. “The trail giveth and the trail taketh away.”
The next day, we hiked thirteen miles and stayed at the Fontana Hilton. After setting up inside the shelter, the prophesy that the couple bestowed on me at Sassafrass Gap Shelter started to come true. My stomach began to churn. Not two seconds later, I was down on my knees, covering the dead leaves with the force of a fire hose. Risscuit bounced into action and grabbed the wet wipes so I could wash my thin, pre-pubescent looking beard off.
I set up my tent and laid down inside. I did not have the normal “I just got sick and feel much better” feeling. Remembering back to Risscuit’s night of nineteen times, I knew I was in for a miserable evening.
I managed to drink some water and relax. Laying on my back, I tried to enjoy the stars through my no-see-um netting. My stomach was rolling though. I decided to get out of my tent to walk around. As soon as I motioned to do so, I was ready to get sick again. I was barely able to scramble up a short hill, trying to get away from our tents.
I was the lucky one, though. I got sick at the Fontana Hilton, where they have restrooms with flush toilets and warm showers. I stumbled up to the restrooms with vomit spray stuck in my beard. I cleaned up my face and made my way back down to my tent. As soon as I laid down, I felt sick again. I was at the point of anger now. I just wanted this nightmare to be over. I decided I’d be better off to sit in the restroom for the remainder of the night. There was a bench, there was light, and it was warmer inside than the outside.
Inside the restroom, the sinks were coated with hair and mud from dozens of hikers having washed their clothes in them. The walls were permanently dripping from the moisture of the hot showers. It was hell that felt like heaven.
During the first half hour of sitting on a small, wooden bench inside the dank bathroom, I watched a fly’s final moments on this earth. It was on the tile floor, laying on it’s back, doing a Michael J Fox impression from Back to the Future when he’s performing “Johnny B. Goode”. It finally passed on. I then focused my attention to a roll-polly who was doing his evening errands. He would walk within an inch of an object and his little sensors would tell him to turn away. I watched him for about an hour. Around 5:30 AM, a hiker came into the restroom, so I decided to leave. I crawled back into my tent and slept until 10:30 AM.
Risscuit had filled up my water bottle and made Jell-O (yes, it was cold enough that we could make Jell-O) and put a pack of Tums outside of my tent. I relaxed the whole day, eating and drinking. The following day we would hike eleven miles and enter the Great Smoky Mountains. It would be five days before I felt back to normal.
As we continued north on the AT, other hikers started to fall ill around us. It was now obvious that the hikers were passing a bug back and forth. Little did we know, the Norovirus was the culprit for all of the sickness. For the next three weeks, entering a shelter was like stepping foot into a death zone. There would be signs written, torn from the pages of the log books, stating “Feces and vomit everywhere. Do not stay.”
When we walked into Erwin, TN, we were informed that the CDC had made a visit the day before. They were in town to educate hikers, hostel owners and motels on how to properly clean so they could eliminate the virus. We also heard that CNN had done a story about hikers getting sick.
Risscuit and I kept hiking towards Maine though. During the middle of the day, we would see tents set up in random places. A hiker would be inside, sleeping off the virus. We reached the top of a bald to see a hiker curled over, either praying or getting sick. Probably both. It was like we were passing around the plague.
Most hikers that started in March were stopped dead in their tracks by “The Sickness”. The hikers that stayed out of shelters seemed to avoid it for the most part. Some hikers were not as lucky and got sick multiple times. Risscuit and I stuck to our tents, and stayed away from shelters and hostels. It was not until Virginia when we started to feel comfortable about staying with other hikers.
Risscuit and I hiked the remaining of the Appalachian Trail nearly side by side. We both summited Katahdin on August 26th, 2013.
The class of 2013 had their ups and downs. For those of us who started in March, we saw the outbreak of Norovirus, freezing temperatures well into April (I gave up my winter gear in Waynseboro, VA), the 17 year cicadas, record rainfalls in June and frost warnings in early August. 2013 will go into the books as a class to remember and a year to compare future years to. Wear your “2000 Miler” patch proudly 2013ers, as we conquered a unique year on the Appalachian Trail.