The wind whistled through the tall, withered grass around me, as I battled with the corner of the tarp being ripped from my hands. “Crap!” I yelped in pain and frustration, as the corner across from me, ripped the titanium stake from the ground and snapped it across my cheek. A thin slice of pain lit up my face, fire knifing though the sensitive skin underneath my eye. I bowed my head and knelt on the whipping silicone beast beneath me. Closing my eyes, I counted slowly to ten, and gathered myself for the next assault.
Having slain the silnylon monster, I laid back inside my Wild Oasis, panting with exertion. Four large rocks anchored down the corners of my tarp – titanium stakes inserted deep into the ground to help anchor the wildly bucking piece of material that snapped repeatedly over my head. These winds were crazy! I welcomed their cooling touch as I walked, but bent my head in frustration as swirling grit and small, sharp rocks pelted my face, somehow finding the tiny slits between my squinted lids, and slowly working themselves underneath my lashes.
Suddenly, a voice filled the emptiness around me. “My stomach is upset. I’ve thrown up twice and I’m not hungry,” the muffled, male voice stated.
“Do you have medicine?” I said. It was probably heat exhaustion. The day had been hot, even with the constant, abrasive gusts of wind. Hot blowing currents had whipped away any of our bodies attempts at perspiration, leaving the skin to burn, dry and crack under the constant glare of the sun.
“No.” he said in a weary, plaintive tone.
“Hold on.” I said as I rummaged around in the small yellow nylon bag where I kept my toiletries.
Rattling the tiny plastic bottle, I shook out what I needed, and reached under the netting attached to the bottom of the tarp. Uncurling my fingers, I extended my arm with two small, crumbled Imodium tablets resting in the middle of a grungy, dirt encrusted palm. Dried fingers plucked them from my hand with a mumbled “thanks.” Everything was muffled in this wind. If he said more, I did not hear, as words were ripped away by the moaning gales. I did not even recognize the voice, nor did I have the energy to lift the tarp and look out into the dying light.
Gritting my teeth, I looked down at my feet. I had already removed my shoes, and my socks were stiff with sweat. In some spots, a lite pinkish liquid had soaked through the wool, where I knew bandages had come lose, and I knew patches of skin were probably missing. I clenched my jaw as I slowly peeled of the socks, knowing these preliminary little spikes of quick pain were a precursor to the forty-five minutes of torture I was about to endure.
On each toe, and the sides of my feet were band aids. Over these were pieces of mole skin with the middles removed to take pressure off the raw spots. Wrapped over these was sports tape, and surrounding the whole mass was my single most important piece of gear – duct tape. Unfortunately, the duct tape had molded to these raw, sensitive areas over the course of the day, it’s sticky adhesive leeching into the bandages, and then drying quickly once my shoes were removed, forming a hard almost cast like structure around the wounds. Lowering my sharp, serrated Gerber blade to the first duct tape cast, I began to saw at the solid mass. I frowned and ground my teeth as the bandages under the duct tape broke lose and slid back and forth over the wounds beneath them.
“Fucking, son of a bitch!” I muttered as I peeled off the first bandage. My language would continue to deteriorate as I peeled off the next 8 coverings on this one foot, and then moved on to groan out even less ladylike language through clenched teeth, while I worked on my other equally disgusting foot.
Ripping loose the last bandage, I sucked in a huge breath, as I felt my tense muscles relax. I laid back between the large, grassy lumps pressed in to my aching back, and peered up at the two bloody carcasses poised above my head. The fresh air felt wonderful on the stinging, aching feet lifted over me. I peered up at the dirt and grime that was ground into the open wounds. The wounds had started as small, seeping blisters, but as abrasive grit had somehow worked it’s way under the bandages, blistered skin had been slowly rubbed away to leave large open, wet wounds on my feet. I grinned at the familiar pain. The beginning of every hike was always tough on my feet, but I knew I just had to walk through it for a week or two.
The final foot treatment required breaking one of my own rules, and lighting a stove in my tarp. With no enclosed floor, I justified this by convincing myself that I could much more easily throw off the flaming mass with no floor, than I could unzip my enclosed tent, thus only potentially suffering from third degree hand burns, instead of a full body bake. I was also using my small pocket rocket stove instead of a wood burning or alcohol stove, letting me control the small flame much more easily. I had lessened my risk from death to painful.
I leaned forward, dabbing at the small wounds with a filthy blue bandanna that had been soaked in boiling water. I tried to gently pat, and wipe away, small pieces of grit and dirt. Air whistled out through my clenched teeth as nerve endings fired beneath every touch of the cloth.
“Why am I doing this?” I whispered to myself, closing my eyes and leaning forward as far as my back would bend. I threw back my head, following the low deep growl that broke from my throat, and then smiled slowly. There was no place I would rather be. There was pain, heat, no water, fatigue, and dirty disgusting everything, but all of these things made me feel more alive than I ever did anywhere else.
Someone recently asked me why I thru-hike. My answer was quick and simple, and it startled me – rising quickly with little thought. The reason I like long distance hikes is the same reason I sit glued to “The Walking Dead.” I like human extreme. When our comfort and security is gone, and we are no longer surrounded by conditions in which we were raised and grounded, how do we react? When every single day is an unknown – heck, when every single turn you make is a surprise, how do our decisions change?
Now, I’m not kidding myself. I can stick out my thumb every few days and make my way back to what is familiar, but in between I experience and deal with situations I will never encounter at work or at home. I can “feel” everything not muffled by pills, air conditioning, TV, radio, media, humans, etc. Out here I just have a series of moments in which to make decisions, often driven by enhanced emotions. Will I rely on past experiences, everything I’ve learned and know – or will swirling feelings, driven by sharp, quick reactions, result in a completely new decision and reaction.
At the end of the day though, as all “Dead” fans know – the question is really – how do I not get eaten?!