Adventures From The Trail

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Before you meet this amazing woman, there are a few things you should know... When I was contacted by her, she was deep in the wilderness, making her way along the Pacific Crest Trail. She wanted to connect with the Lyme community and share her story, so right off the bat I was impressed by her drive and will to be more than. We had arranged to meet up for a day hike a month or so later when she would be making her way through Bend, and I would then share her story around that time.

Then there's that whole Lyme Disease thing; it has a way of breaking you down and putting up obstacles. Obstacles that at times, are too big to overcome on your own. Not long after we had talked, I got an email saying that her Lyme has made a comeback, throwing her off the trail and into remission. Instead of putting this story aside, I was even more sure that it needed to be shared, because in the end, she is still climbing mountains, she is still conquering each day, and she is still fighting to get her health back. What's keeping her from the trail is not her, it's her Lyme. So, let's take a look and see what someone with Lyme is capable of doing, and how no matter what, she will get back on that trail, and she will conquer it; one step at a time.

June 11, 2015 -- Day Fifty-Eight

I'm sitting just outside my tent, watching the last rays of sunlight light up the deep green valley below me and the blue-green hills beyond. The sun is casting long shadow from the hills onto the meadows, where, no doubt, there's quite a bit of wildlife activity. My tent is down below the trail, tucked in behind a large boulder, and I'm enjoying the quiet at the base of a foxtail pine. The air is almost still, and the birdsong is dwindling; evening is coming. I'm not sure moments get any more perfect than this.

The day was pretty lovely, too. I woke up at 5:00, but I let myself go back to sleep until 7:00. I'd had a restless night the night before, and I think I needed the sleep. By the time I left camp at 8:05, the sunlight still hadn't found its way to the sheltered creek bank I'd slept in, but I warmed up as soon as I climbed up into the light.

The first several miles of the day involved quite a bit of climbing -- nearly 2000 feet! The beginning of the climb took me through a deep forest, where huge red-barked pines towered over me, giving me the impression that they were pillars in an ancient cathedral. Sunlight slanted into the forest, lighting the tree trunks and the boulders and the manzanita shrubs (a stunning contrast to the pines). The soft ground felt wonderful underfoot.

From the forest, the trail climbed up into a meadowy clearing, with rock outcroppings. A tiny stream ran though it; along the stream's borders grew skunk cabbage and a little flowering plant I hadn't seen before. The area smelled wet, and I loved the smell perhaps even more than I'd loved the smell of the world after the rainstorm yesterday.

Rain clouds gathered nearby today, but there wasn't a drop of rain. I'm going to look at the maps to see if there's a way I should adjust my itinerary to account for the chance of afternoon thunderstorms.

...In Gomez Meadow, I saw a coyote. It was a couple hundred feet away and stared at me for a while before slowly walking away.

...After ascending the day's second climb, I rounded a corner during the descent, singing to myself, and suddenly stopped and stood still. Somewhere around mile 735, I'm pretty sure I saw my first mature sequoia. At least, I think that's what it was. All day long, I'd seen and appreciated pines and spruces and cedars, but, spontaneously, I looked at this tree and realized that it looked unlike any tree I'd seen before...I hugged the tree and then walked on.

...The sun is going down now, painting the sky a pastel rainbow in the process. Life is so, so good.

This is, Kristen, known to many as, Rainbow Dash (her trail name).

A little bit about her and her "home"...

I get my mail in a small town in rural Kentucky. I've been told that "my people" are in Asheville, NC, or the Pacific Northwest, but I've yet to live in either of those locales. I'm a bit of a nomad; I had five address in eight months in 2013. But, hey, "not all those who wander are lost," right? I turned 26 on trail this year; I celebrated with a road walk detour because the PCT had a fire closure. I was bitten by the tick that gave me Lyme four days after I turned 22. It was two years before I became noticeably (and severely) ill and nearly another year before I was diagnosed.

Where did your passion of hiking derive from. Was it recent, or does the itch go way back?

My passion for hiking began in the summer of 2010. That was the summer before my senior year of college, and I'd been selected to participate in an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. I got to live in this farmhouse in the middle of the woods of the White Mountain region with twelve other young aspiring scientists. We spent all week bushwacking through the woods near the farmhouse, collecting data for our various projects. But, there's not much else to do in rural New Hampshire besides hiking, so, when the weekend rolled around, we'd all pile into some of the kids' cars and head off to hike nearby 4000-footers. Hiking those giants, learning to recognize and name the region's peaks, feeling a hiker's high, conceiving of nature as a playground -- it all made me fall in love with the idea of backpacking.

I went home from that summer declaring that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail the next year, and I suppose I haven't stopped dreaming of one backpacking trip or another since.

What was the first day like back on the trail after realizing you had Lyme? How did it make you feel?

My first day back in the woods after Lyme was incredibly special. I'd gone on some little hikes near the place I was living in Massachusetts, but my first full day of hiking again took me to southern New Hampshire, where I hiked Mount Monadnock (the most hiked mountain in the world) with an Appalachian Trail friend of mine. Like me, he'd also picked up Lyme on the trail, and it was so easy to spend a day with someone who "got it."

But, more than that, it was just amazing to be back in the forest. I noticed every detail that day: the feel of the warm sunlight and the well-trodden trail, the smell of the trailside evergreens, the mesmerizing sight of the Windex blue skies. After spending 10 months in bed, I couldn't believe that I was there, and I felt so alive.

The hike was also really difficult for me. It was the sort of hike that I would once have done in a few hours on a free afternoon, but I'd spent months rebuilding my strength to be able to hike it. I was winded and tired on the way up and worried whether I'd be able to make it. But somehow I just kept making steady progress until I was above the trees. From there, it was all I could do to keep going past several false summits, but, eventually, I was standing at the top of the mountain.

I just could not stop grinning. The whole way down, I smiled and laughed, even while my leg muscles shook such that I needed to brace myself with my trekking poles. I felt elated and ecstatic, proud and grateful. Every cell in my body felt filled with joy.

"I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery -- air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, 'This is what it is to be happy." - Sylvia Plath 

For a while, I'd felt like I'd lost my identity while I was sick. While I'd eventually come to terms with being me without hiking, it was nice to really feel like me again. At the base of Monadnock, I remember feeling at peace, deeply contended, and I sure slept well that night.

Tell us about your mission behind this hike, and how can we help?

The first time I was sick with Lyme, when I was in bed for ten months and losing faith that I'd ever get better, I vowed that, if I were able to hike again, I'd hike the PCT and I'd do it for Lyme disease research. I feel tremendously grateful (and, honestly, astonished) that I'm out here doing just that.

I'm hiking the PCT as a fundraiser for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS). Just like with some road race fundraisers, I'm soliciting per-mile pledges and then working to hike as many miles as I can on the way to Canada. Just one cent per mile adds up to $26.50 over the course of 2650 miles, and a bunch of one-cent-per-mile pledges really add up. Based on the current sponsorships, I'm raising $1.02 per mile; if I make it to Canada, I'll be able to give $2703 to ILADS in the fall. Knowing that each mile counts is so motivating. When I'm having an off day, I think about how hiking on will help to fight our collective Lyme battle.

Something that I've really enjoyed about this hike is talking about Lyme with other hikers. It's been unsettling to see how many outdoorsy people aren't educated about the disease, and I'm hoping that, in some small way, the casual conversations I have from Mexico to Canada help to change that.

Recently, I've been thinking about ways to leverage the outdoor community for Lyme activism work. Much like the organization of skiers and snowboarders fighting climate change, we have a huge stake in the battle against Lyme. If you're interested in being part of that effort, shoot me an email at makinglymeade@gmail.com.

Where to next? After the PCT do you have further hiking adventures planned?

I like to think that part of the reason backpackers choose to thru-hike is that we each have some questions we're striving to answer over the course of the summer. During each of my long hikes, I've worked through lots of questions, large and small, and that seems to be pretty common among hikers. And, inevitably, one of those questions seems to be "What will my next adventure be?"

I'm not sure whether I've figured that out yet, but I've still got 1850 miles to think about it. New Zealand's Te Araroa is calling my name most loudly these days, but I'm also dreaming of hiking the Continental Divide Trail (and thereby becoming a Triple Crowner) and walking the Camino de Santiago. I'd also love to go on a long-distance water trip -- maybe from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico -- or even a bike trip.

My favorite summer of my life was the summer I spent living out of my old station wagon in the mountains of New England, hiking the region's highest peaks. I've got some serious aspirations of repeating that in the Adirondacks and in Colorado.

In short, I think I'm going to need some more time to think about it...

When I get off the trail, I'll be heading back to my family's farm in Kentucky for a few months, where I'll be helping my mom with her wool mini-mill, HeartFelt Fleece & Fiber, as I get Lyme under control again. Then, I'm hoping to spend next year working as a guide for a wilderness therapy program.

Lyme Disease will not destroy her, just as it will not destroy you. Let's keep on keepin' on as we continue to encourage, motivate, and learn from each other. It takes just one adventure to spread awareness of this disease...