Let us do our best to catch everybody up with what has gone down over the last three weeks: Coming off a visit from Brent’s parents, Jeff and Betty, it was back to the trail where we entered the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) portion of the AT, roughly 100 miles long. This was a beautiful stretch full of tourists on vacation, great views, plenty of campgrounds, restaurants, and daily wildlife sightings. It was all you expect from a National Park, except we got to see it beyond the car overlooks and picnic areas.
It was Monday evening, June 24th and we were within three miles of exiting SNP on the north end. We had the dogs on leashes during the entire stretch because of park regulations and also because of the cause for the regulations – the frequency we encountered wildlife (deer, bears, squirrels, etc.). However, for these final few miles we took them off leash to give all of us a break from being tethered to one another. We realized that was a poor decision once we met eyes with our next wildlife sighting: a cat of all things. No, not a bobcat or large feline of any sort, instead a very nonthreatening everyday house cat. Jack and Lewis disagreed with us on the level of danger the kitty cat posed, and immediately chased it up a tree in typical dog fashion. While the two knuckleheads barked from the base of the tree, the cat did exactly what we didn’t want it to do; pounced from it’s safe perch to the ground. We briefly laughed about the chances of the dogs having a cat to chase through a National Park, and then began to worry because the pups were not in their normal hiking form. In the days prior to entering SNP both of their packs ripped, making them unusable and therefore freeing the pups from carrying their share. They would have to be without packs until we could receive warranty-covered replacements from the dog gear company, RuffWear. Needless to say, this made for more of a challenge hiking through SNP. Thru-hikers are usually trying to shed ounces from their packs, and instead we took on pounds of dog food in addition to our own and gear. Jack and Lewis on the other had interpreted their days of hiking without packs as a vacation. Much like a sled dog knows it’s time to work when its harness is put on, our two pups came to learn that when the four of us put on our packs, our task had begun and it was time to hike.
After calling for their return, along came Lewis out of the brush without Jack. This was weird because they both typically run stride for stride. We soon learned why as Jack returned to us at a slower pace, caused by a limp. We examined Jack’s back, right leg and discovered a wound. Knowing we were only 2 miles from our day’s destination (close by our standards), we did some quick first aid, leashed them back up and let Jack set our pace. Anger was probably the initial emotional reaction, and of course concern. Concern for Jack’s well being, for the distance that separated us from the nearest veterinary clinic, and in the back of our minds: concern for our hike. All of those thoughts were interrupted less than half a mile down trail from where Jack got hurt. We were suddenly eye-to-eye with a Mama black bear and her two cubs, a mere 10-15 yards to the right of the trail. We were noticed first, and it was the cubs scurrying up trees and the tug of the leash from the dogs that cued us in to what we had stumbled upon. Mama bear made sure her cubs made it up the tree and then just stared. The three of us parents exchanged a message of “We’ll protect our babies, and you protect yours” as we slowly continued on our way. Mama eventually took off away from us into the woods and we decided it best to move along as we watched her cubs cling to a tree top out of harms way. As soon as we were a safe distance away from the bears, we looked at one another and in unison exclaimed something along the lines of: “that was fricken’ AWESOME!” It was just the encounter we needed to remind us things happen for a reason. Had Jack not gotten hurt, our two 15-month-old pups would have still been off the leash and likely unable to resist the temptation of those cubs. It goes without saying that the outcome of that encounter would be more serve than the result of his cat chase. Shortly after we made it to the shelter and told the story to the fellow hikers we had been seeing quite a bit of that day.
When we examined the wound again at camp we began to wonder how deep it actually went. The next morning Jack didn’t want to put much weight on it either. We had less than three miles of trail to make it to the next closest town, where we initially planned on resupplying and now seeking out medical attention for Jack. After hitchhiking into town and getting advice from some nice locals at the visitor center, we got Jack an appointment at the local veterinary clinic. Initially the vet thought it was just going to be a quick stitch, but after taking off our bandages and cleaning it up, she was worried how deep the wound was too. She had a few concerns, infection, penetration to the joint capsule, and having a stick or debris still in his leg. So with all of that in question, she needed to sedate to take a look. Thankfully it did not hit his joint capsule and there was no visible debris in his leg. So she stitched him up, put a drainage tube in him to lessen the chances of infection, and told us to come back 2 days later to remove the tube and hopefully we would be back on the trail that same day.
We checked into a hotel room, and made sure Jack got plenty of TLC and that his brother Lewis was entertained enough to leave him to rest and heal. Two days later we returned to the clinic and the vet was grateful for what she saw: very little swelling and good color, so that ruled out infection. However, Jack still wasn’t putting weight on his hurt leg so she suggested we wait it out through the weekend to see if it’s just discomfort from the stitches, an outcome we were all hoping for. Being there for two days already just waiting, we were going a little stir-crazy so hearing it would be another four days was difficult news to receive. It wasn’t something we wanted to do but we knew Jack couldn’t hike in his condition. So we looked at our days ahead and wondered how we could possibly fill them without hiking, at all. We didn’t want Jack to do much so we did quite a bit of laying around, plus we didn’t want to spend much so we tried to leave the hotel room as little as possible. On Sunday night, the night before the Jack’s follow up appointment, we were invited to the veterinary’s house for dinner. This was yet another amazing display of kindness shown from people we hardly met – something we had come accustomed to happening along the trail. She wanted to see Jack right away, and was disappointed to see that he still wasn’t putting any weight on his back right leg. Within moments just from looking she was certain that it must be his ACL that was injured. She couldn’t confirm it, but her years of experience had her convinced it had to be his ACL. We quickly changed the subject to something else over dinner because none of us wanted to start thinking about what that outcome meant for our near future. It would be a sure end to our thru-hike for Jack, a long recovery time, and a dent into our hiking funds.
Going to the appointment the next day was a bit somber, expecting to hear the worse, that it was indeed his ACL that was injured. It’s a common injury in dogs, and we knew something like this could happen to any one of us while attempting our thru-hike. What went without discussion was if Jack’s results prevented him from finishing the AT, we would be all be putting our goal on hold. We said from the beginning none of us would be reaching the finish in Maine without the whole crew together. The many strangers we discussed our situation with while in Front Royal, VA commonly asked, “So how are you going to get Jack home?” always with the suggestion that we would go on without him. Those people obviously didn’t know how solid of a group the four of us had become. After three months of living, eating, sleeping, hiking, and just being together constantly it was difficult to imagine life on the trail without Jack. The thought of it still makes us sad, which brings me to the decision we had to make. The Veterinarian in Front Royal didn’t detect any injury to the ACL, but it was still obvious that Jack wouldn’t be putting in any 20 milers any time soon. She thought it might be a hairline fracture, or just tissue damage. Regardless, we left the office for the last time with what we discovered was worse news than a torn ACL, no news. No answers, no explanations, just left with the fact it was time to make a decision and move forward. After watching Jack hobble around for a week as we wasted our days away in a hotel room we felt as if we were left with no choice. Neither of us ever seemed to say what we had decided aloud, we just supported each other as we rented the car, merged onto I-80 south towards Alabama, and begun to pass exits to towns we had already hiked past in the weeks prior. That made it sink in a little stronger; our days of hiking the AT were on hold. No one knew at this point, but we knew family members and friends would be wondering. We made the necessary phone calls, but instead of telling them our grim news, we fibbed. That week happened to be the week of Brent’s family’s vacation in Northern Wisconsin. My (Alexis’) family was getting together for the annual Fourth of July get together near where we both grew up in Minnesota. The only people we didn’t fib to were Alexis’ Aunt Lola & Uncle Tom, and we entrusted them not to spread the news so we could pull off a pretty grand surprise. Back in March we drove Alexis’ car to Alabama, where her Aunt and Uncle live and agreed to store the car while we hiked.
Much to our own amazement, we pulled it off. After over 40 hours of driving, – Virginia to Alabama, Alabama to Wisconsin, and Wisconsin to Minnesota, and a car battery replacement, we managed to surprise everyone we encountered. Confusion was common reaction, and we had to explain that Jack wasn’t able to hike on which meant our thru-hike of 2013 had to come to an end. Emotions were mixed, as people explained how much they rooted for our success in hiking the entire thing, but there was also plenty of excitement and understanding to go around. So to all of you out there reading this now, sorry for the delay on getting you the details but we knew there was a long list of people out there we could surprise that were also hitting the refresh button on our blog.
Amongst all the thrill we never lost focus of what brought us home in the first place: Jack’s still undiagnosed injury. We took him to a Vet that had been recommended to us by many. After being brought up to speed on the history of Jack’s injury she began exploring around the wound and his hurt leg. For the first time in the duration of his injury he let out a big, painful yelp while she did her examination. He let her know, that he had indeed torn his ACL. Why the other Vet could not detect it we will never know, but we can only assume the wound near his ACL was too fresh for thorough examination or that she checked his ACL while he was sedated and unable to react. Although we waited far too long to learn this, we were relieved to know, and to learn that the cost of surgery closer to home was going to cost a fraction of what we were quoted out in Virginia. Jack will have his ACL repaired today, and then it will be weeks of recovery, and then months before he is back to his athletic self.
Are there dozens of things we wish would have happened differently? Yes. We’re bummed, heck even heartbroken that our thru-hike attempt came to a sudden end. But we aren’t devastated, not even taken by surprise. We never let ourselves get “Katahrted” (a play on the words Katahdin and retarded; referring to those thru-hiking that have the sole focus of reaching the finish, all while missing the beauty in the journey). All we did is take the days as they came, faced the miles ahead whether uphill or downhill, and enjoyed our time together, spent exploring one of the country’s oldest trails. The goal may not be met this year, but hopefully in one to come. Plus, we feel pretty good about where we sit – a few steps ahead of hopeful: experienced and determined.