Trying to push on.
During the night I woke up and tested the left arm and hand to find them completely fine. So I tried rolling over onto my left side to sleep. Within a minute the arm started to tingle and go numb. Experiment over I slept the rest of the night on my right.
In the morning the arm was fine. I tried on a near empty pack and the hip belt took all the weight and the straps were left loose, just as they should be. No problems. The pack was then loaded, to just 20lb since I had decanted even more weight into two external bags to carry by hand. Not too many hikers have a 20lb pack (40lb is probably the average). Although I could send some things home when I got to Mountain Crossings it would only be about the same weight as I was now carrying by hand.
Anyway, I adjusted the straps so the right was quite snug and the left totally loose and long. I added my fleece underneath the strap for padding and weight distribution. But after a mere 2 minutes the arm went again. Very disappointing, and my first real clue that this was not a temporary problem.
All morning I had no pressure through the left strap, channeling it all through the right one. To be fair it wasn’t as bad as yesterday, but bad enough to be untenable.
I hiked to Justus Creek (mile 14.4) passing my cheery camp companions from the night before at Cooper Gap rueing an empty water cache of 8 gallon drums left in the past by a trail angel but now dusty and empty. They caught me up just a minute or two after I reached the creek. A rapidly moving bubbling brook after so long without seeing water makes for a great feeling. We stopped and took time to refill our bottles with filtered water and ate ‘brunch’. I hadn’t really eaten since the 7.30am breakfast the day before and I wasn’t too hungry now. I made up a mug of cocoa, coffee, milk powder and protein powder and enjoyed this cool cocktail plus a half litre of straight water. I ate half a protein bar and nibbled some trail mix (having made up 3 day bags of food before I left I was still on my Day 1 bag, my plan to reduce weight the night before by eating it having been stymied by the lack of water).
I pushed on quickly knowing my progress would be slow, still aiming to reach mile 31.7 and now-oasis Mountain Crossings by the end of Day 3 or early on Day 4.
When I reached near Gooch Mountain shelter (mile 15.8) I ran into an elderly couple out for a walk. I first noticed them when the lady tripped over a root and went sprawling, picking up a grazed knee which trickled blood. She was completely unfazed though and waved away my offer of an antiseptic wipe saying she “was a stumbler” and had learned how to fall when skiing. We got talking and I explained why I was holding my left arm like an injured puppy. They offered to drive me into the nearest civilization, Suches, though that ‘civilization’ is limited to a single gas station-cum-country store. I was a bit dubious that I could find the help I needed there but after we had all hiked the next 1.4m to Gooch Gap I was pretty much done in and relented. I just couldn’t see a way of getting the remaining 14 miles to Mountain Crossings on foot and the nagging worry of whether pushing on could cause long term damage, blood clots or something else serious was weighing on me.
After I had already hopped into the back of their pickup truck two quite sketchy hikers with a dog approached and asked for a lift to Woody Gap, which is about twice as far as Suches. The couple said they were happy to take them to Suches and though they tried to push it they eventually agreed so they also hopped on board. They were friendly with me although the guy with one eye and one arm may have lacked sympathy for my problem, understandably, and indeed he offered to blow my arm clean off with the .357 he was carrying. But honestly it was a friendly joke. Pretty sure.
So we reached Wolf Pen Gap Country Store, a wonderful classic country store with hot food, groceries, teeny post office, animal mounts and locally produced goods like handmade knives and jams.
I explained my predicament to the lady owner and she said she had the same problem though not to do with backpacking, just using the phone or sleeping on her right side. So she sympathised. But there were no osteopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists, doctors, physios or similar around there so we agreed my plan to reach Mountain Crossings and seek help there was the best idea. She told me to hang out on their sofa and watch TV with her kids while she kept an eye out for a customer who could take me right there. She even offered me food. How nice.
After 3 hours of watching the Weather Channel I knew more about tornadoes and the construction of the Florida Marlins baseball stadium than ever before but hadn’t made any progress from the sofa.
I was entertained though by a constant trickle of customers into the store, some local who knew each other and others like bikers and cyclists who were just visiting the area on a glorious Saturday afternoon. I was struck, for the umpteenth time, how polite Southerners are to each other, how 4 hours will go by without me hearing a single curse word and how even the gnarliest leather- and tattoo-clad biker will mind his p’s and q’s in public and say, “Yes ma’am” and hold the door open for someone.
In the end her husband Steve drove me to Mountain Crossings, a 30 mile round trip. We reached it about 45 minutes before closing. He didn’t want any money for the ride but I secretly left some gas money on the dash once he had got out.
I explained my problem to a staff member and they looked at my pack on me, saying it was the right size and should be fine especially with just 30lb.
As it happened a volunteer chiropractor, Dr Bill Scott, overheard my story and offered to give me a session there and then. I jumped at the chance since I already suspected the problem was medical not pack-related. So it was that I was treated for 20 minutes on a picnic table on the patio. It must have been entertaining for the customers. He said my upper thoracic (back) and shoulders were super stiff and this could lead to one of the nerves that serve the arm and hand being pinched. But he couldn’t do everything he wanted to because the muscles which ought to be spongy were actually too stiff to work through. He said he could return tomorrow with his table and machines to work on me more thoroughly and I should rest and relax until then. Bear in mind he lives 1 hour away in Alpharetta and was volunteering to come back to see just me. It’s remarkably generous.
I then got an ice pack from the store and iced my shoulder and quickly made up a box of 4lb of gear to send back to Nicole – a desperate bid to slightly improve the odds in my favour if I ever got the chance to hike again.
I then made camp in MC’s very slopey mini campground along with 5 or 6 others.
One fellow camper in particular, Quest, was very convivial with an aura of calm knowledge, like you looked up to him right away even though he didn’t pontificate on big subjects or use big words. After talking with him for a while he brought up the fact that he was actually blind, he was hiking with his dog Vision and was on day 7 of his thru. You could have knocked me down with a feather. He was also a physical therapist so checked my arm for ‘threading’ (no idea what that is but happy not to have it), blood clots and dehydration, giving the all clear on each. He did say that the fact that my thumb and forefinger are the worst means it is the radial nerve being pinched. Apparently that’s the better one to go wrong.
After setting up my tent I went down to the facilities they have here for customers – a 1 stall bathroom and cold water sink – and had a bit of a wash and cleaned my teeth, which made me feel better. I ran into trail legend Baltimore Jack again (who has hiked the AT 7 times) while he was reading outside and we chatted for a while about England (where he has lived briefly in Yorkshire plus his sister lived for several years in Highbury), soccer, Germany and my situation (possibly in that order). He promised to have a closer look at my pack in the morning and let me try other packs on in case they work better for me. I asked if they sold Sawyer Mini water filters since, in my rush to make up a box of stuff to send back to Nicole before they closed, I had accidentally packed up my water filter! Jack said yes, but since it was a Sunday tomorrow they still had the box inside so he would cut the box open so I could get the filter without paying for a new one. Over the two days I hung around Mountain Crossings Jack was so kind and friendly and it made a big difference.
So here I am now in my tent at night on Day 2 at mile 31.7 physically but at mile 17.2 in reality. I feel like I have lived through a week of experiences already. If by some chance I get it all sorted out I will shuttle back to Gooch Gap and hike back to where I am tonight over probably 2 days. Weird.