Zero Limits State Of Mind #02:
The Grand Enchantment Fail, A Diagnoses, and Life Beyond
By Kathy “OBAL Unbranded” Vaughan
I spit the toothpaste mixed with blood out of my mouth and then I spit again. Each time I tried to rid my mouth of the blood, I would just spit more. I figured that after a couple of months on the trail with not enough attention paid to oral hygiene, I might be experiencing some gum issues. I spit again and more blood spewed out. It seemed like an unusual amount.
Little did I know, my pancreas had stopped producing insulin and I had become a Type 1 Diabetic. My blood sugar levels were very high, dangerously so. Bleeding gums was only one of the symptoms I had been experiencing. My vision had become blurry, but since most of my time was spent hiking, I hadn't tried to read anything in weeks. I did not realize how my vision had deteriorated as the sugars flowed through my blood stream, causing it to change even the lenses of my eyes.
My thirst was out of control. I could not quench it, no matter what or how much I drank. I was not surprised that during a long desert thru-hike my thirst would be so intense. With these three symptoms being classic signs of diabetes, had I had access to Google, I would have probably known I was diabetic months before my diagnosis.
I had been hiking with Ras since March fourth. We were nearly 1,300 miles into a thru-hike yo-yo of the Grand Enchantment Trail. We were just 300 miles shy of completing our journey, a goal we had been working very hard towards achieving. I was feeling relentless nausea. I had become quite thin. The heat was becoming intense as we got further west, closing in on Phoenix and the Sonoron Desert. Ras and I didn't understand the entirety of what was going on with my health. We attributed everything to the hike and the physical and mental toll it was taking on both of us.
We had been hiking about 20 miles every day since we began from Phoenix in March. We hiked from after our breakfast and morning routine, until between 11 and midnight. We stopped for breaks, filtering water, and shade-time if needed, but for the most part, we were hiking. The terrain was not easy, by any means. The Grand Enchantment Trail is an East/West Route that begins (or ends) in Phoenix, Arizona and travels through deserts, washes, sky islands and mountain ranges, as well as forests to reach Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 740 miles. The trail is very remote and the resupply options are few and far between. Hikers either begin in Phoenix in the Spring and hike towards Albuquerque, or they begin in Albuquerque in the Fall and hike to Phoenix. No one has ever hiked the trail both directions in one push, and that is what Ras and I had intended to do. We set an Only Known Time for this on the Arizona National Scenic Trail and our goal was to complete it on the GET as well.
The universe had other plans for us. Our hike was an adventure from the beginning. We welcomed it with open arms, though. I journaled through the highs and lows of it all. Ras navigated through all the varying types of terrain, following the GPS and setting forth a daily goal for us, based on water sources, places to camp and what lay ahead on the trail.
We hiked in snow pack and had fresh snow fall come down on us. We hiked through canyons, working our way along creek drainages filled with ice cold snow melt. We traveled endless miles on dirt roads. We camped amongst cow pies and drank water from their water tanks. We also shared a water source with a young cougar. We saw wild turkey, horned toads, black widows, Big Horn Desert Sheep, a baby rattler, elk with impressive racks, fish in the streams and scorpions in the washes.
There is nowhere that Ras and I would rather be than on the trails together. We have worked for nearly 5 years to make this happen, full-time, for ourselves. Completing this thru-hike was going to be a step in the right direction for us in achieving this goal. We had sponsorship help from Nathan and Altra Running. We had Trail Butter pouches and Honey Stinger waffles. We had tons of ultra light backpacking gear from Gossamer Gear, including our trekking poles, the Deuce of Spades, Ras' pack, our ¾ length sleeping pads and cuben fiber gear bags.
But the heat and the nausea and the bleeding gums and the weight loss wouldn't let up. My final night of hiking, I had a meltdown. I cried and panicked and wondered how I could go on, but also, how I could stop. It was rough and ugly. Ras and I stopped for a break on some flat rocks, the full moon casting it's glow down on us. The tears wouldn't stop coming. Ras had no comfort for me; it had to come from myself and I couldn't muster any. From behind us, echoing off of the jagged cliffs, an eerie cry resounded in the otherwise quiet night. Ras suggested I listen to a book and that the carefully crafted words could pull me out of my funk. I resisted at first, but finally settled on listening to a book I had already listened to many times on this hike, “Pioneer Grit”. This was a story about a number of strong, pioneer women who had overcome amazing adversity. It was just what I needed. I spoke not a word, but listened for hours into the night. The trail was exceptionally challenging with route finding, overgrown brush, downed trees, narrow trail and a sense of being never-ending. It was one of the harder nights I've experienced.
At dawn, Ras filtered watered from a dank spring, while Harvestman spiders crawled from the old cottonwood trees that lined the water source. I ate something, I don't remember what. Ras and I were still silent with each other. It was a dark time. We continued on the trail with our water bottles full now. The sky continued to lighten and it felt good to have covered some miles in the night. We had another canyon to work our way through before we got to Eagle Creek, where we had over 40 fords awaiting us. Beyond the creek, our friend Gary Householder planned on meeting us with fresh food, water and in the back of our minds, we knew this would be a way to get off the trail if we so decided. This canyon was rugged and scenic, mysterious piles of horse poop led the way, and something dead created an overpowering stench and a feast for a half dozen vultures.
When we reached Eagle Creek, I thought our plan was to find some shade and pitch our tent to sleep. We had hiked all through the night, and now it was time to have a proper meal and rest. Ras had other plans. He wanted to find a really nice shade spot, but only after covering a couple more hours of hiking. I didn't have it in me without a meal. I had come through that middle-of-the-night meltdown and now I felt another one coming on. I was so hungry. I could not believe we were this far off on our needs and plans. I tried to hold it together, but to no avail. I broke down once again,
Ras could now see that I indeed needed to address some of my needs and so we found a decent place to set up our camp alongside Eagle Creek. We had 14 miles and the 40 fords in the warm, cow impacted water, before we reached the spot where Gary planned to meet us that night. We had enough time to eat and nap. But it was hot, triple digit hot. We ate and crawled into our tent, lying just on our sleeping pads. We didn't even bother to get out our sleeping bag, knowing there was no way we would need it. We fell asleep immediately.
I awoke in a pool of sweat. It felt awful. I didn't want to wake Ras up, but I had to get out of the tent and get to the creek. I had to wet myself down. It felt so good to take a dip, get my hair wet and wet down my bandana to put over my forehead when I went back to the tent to try to catch some more sleep. In the time I was gone, my sleeping pad had been exposed to the hot sun and warped. I could not believe it. Ras began to stir. He looked at me and said, “I'm worried about you.”
We went back down to the creek and began to soak in the water. It wasn't the most refreshing water, but it was there and it saved us from the stifling heat. The sound of the rapids was soothing. Ras and I looked at each other and tears began to stream down our cheeks. We knew. We could not hike 300 more miles in these conditions, with my mental and physical health having deteriorated, and the sun melting our gear before our very eyes. (It has taken me five months to even write this, and I'm crying now as I type.) This was hard.
When Gary met us late that night, he informed us of a forest fire forcing closure of the GET beyond Safford, several days of hiking ahead of us. Indeed, our hike was over and the Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-Yo attempt was coming to a close after 98 days and 1,300 miles.
After picking up resupply boxes we had shipped ahead, visiting with our southwest friends, and driving the long stretch from Arizona back to Washington, I finally got in to see a doctor. My A1C was above 14, a number that was immeasurable. I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic at that appointment and given the myriad of prescriptions needed to begin insulin therapy. I weighed 106 pounds. I had been peeing out all the glucose and nutrients my body so desperately needed to survive, let alone hike in challenging terrain day after day. So many questions were now answered, and so many new ones had now arisen.
Fast forward to five months down the road. For three months, Ras and I spent the summer together getting out on some weekend adventures. I started back with the weeding service I worked for right away, having accumulated some debt during our thru-hike and needing to get started on repaying that. Plus, I was hungry and thirsty and I wanted some cash flow to get nutrients in myself and Ras. Needless to say, after being on insulin, which is a weight gain hormone, and having the luxury to satisfy my nutrient needs and cravings, I have gotten back up to a healthy weight. My A1C was down to 9.2 at my last appointment, and my daily readings are almost always in range. I am getting used to this and I am beyond ready to get out on another extended hike.
My biggest accomplishment post diagnoses, was to summit Mt. Adams, a 12,000 foot volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range of Washington. It was amazing. I now want to climb Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak and Mt. Rainier in the Cascades as well. I felt so strong and did well in the high elevations. Ras and I did this together to celebrate my 51st birthday. It was challenging to ascend the steep and rocky North Cleaver. We traversed the summit and descended the South Spur route, steep snowfields all the way to the base. We then had a 25k run back to our car. It was the highlight of my summer.
The summer ended with Ras traveling to South Africa, where he was able to complete the Drakensburg Grand Traverse through the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho. He then continued on to Madagascar to visit our daughter, who is serving in the Peace Corps there. He will be putting together a photo book to document his travels in Madagascar.
I spent the remainder of the summer continuing my yard work job with Mary's Weeding Service and spending as much time as possible on the local trails, as I continued to adjust to my insulin therapy. I am blessed to live only a short distance away from a wonderful network of trails in the Fort Ebey, South Whidbey and Deception Pass State Parks. I stopped at one of these parks on my way home from work each day to run for an hour or two. These miles were for maintaining fitness, creating space for mindfulness each day, and pondering what path my life was taking. To live a healthy life as a diabetic, I need to continue to prioritize these times on the trail, whether I find myself alone while Ras pursues other adventures, teamed up with him, or partnered with other adventures. I will continue living a life of inner and outer exploration.