Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Part 3: Escape from Planet Julian

Carmen McNerney and Brian Dunning on the morning I made my Escape from Julian.

Escape from Planet Julian

After the complimentary apple pie was consumed, it was back to the lovely Julian Lodge, where after just a bit, Mr. Brian Dunning came for me. Since he refused gas money, I needed to fuel the man up somehow – with some lunch! So before we blew town, we were off to Carmen's Place – my favorite for several reasons.

First is Carmen. The woman exudes good vibes, offers all PCT hikers a free Tecate, remembers your name, and, no matter how busy her place is, she sits down, looks you in the eye and asks how you're doing. Then there's her food. The portions are scaled up to address hiker hunger, and rock beyond words. I really shouldn't have kept eating hiker-sized Carmen food after I stopped hiking, but I couldn't help myself. 

(While I didn't try all of Julian's eateries, I was there long enough to have two negative experiences. One place's grub was oily, congealed, blaringly cheap and all but inedible. There I resolved to never again eat at any restaurant that has a gift shop that stocks pennants and stuffed animals. The other restaurant was one I tried on a Saturday night. It was to close at 9:30 p.m., but when I got there at 8:50 p.m., the place was deserted. I inquired about pizza, and the employee made it clear that at that point, he wasn't interested in doing anything but getting ready to close. So I left.)

Following brunch, Brian and I hit the road. On the way to Scott Chatfield's house, we came up on the 15-mile side road to Warner Springs, where I had a resupply box waiting. It had been sent before my feet overruled my dreams, and while I could simply have had the postmaster forward it elsewhere with a phone call, Brian insisted on swinging by to pick it up – a 30-mile side trip.
Brian waits patiently while I buy my duffel. 

En route and at the Warner Springs PO, I saw several PCT hikers headed in for their boxes. I felt terrible, because I should have been among them. But my morale lifted a bit when, along with my ill-fated hiker box, I also picked up a wonderfully supportive and unexpected letter from my friend Julia Green. It certainly buoyed my spirits in that moment. Between her and Brian and Scott, I definitely felt supported in my time of woe.

En route to Scott's, I made a dozen or so phone calls to thrift stores along the way for a cheap duffel bag in which I could enclose my backpack for the bus and train rides to Martinez. Surprisingly, none of them had any in stock. Finally, I reached a shop in Encinitas, not far from Scott's, that did! A bright blue one, and just $6.

Soon we hung a left, hung a right and I was at Scott's, nursing my aching feet, sorting out my camping crap and waiting for Scott, who wouldn't be in until later. So for a few hours, I sat poolside in Leucadia, organizing my stuff for the next day's train ride and beholding the sunset. Now does this view suggest, oh I don't know, any particular Eagles album cover?

Poolside at Chatfield Manor. Such a lovely place...
If there was any musical justice in the world, everyone would be humming Mike Keneally's colossal ode to Scott's place, "Chatfield Manor." Because apart from amenities like the pool, Bennett the wonderful dog and my cordial host himself, Scott's abode also houses Mike's recording studio.

My bunk in Mike's studio.
Eventually, Scott and Bennett came home. We then spent a pleasant evening visiting, solving life, the universe and everything. Scott had set up an air-mattress bunk for me in Mike's studio, which I had previously viewed during a live webcast of a recording session there. While a more capacious bedroom was available, Scott knew that I would want to crash in the studio, "because it has Keneally on it."
And it was true. I'll probably never get to inhabit Frank's Utility Muffin Research Kitchen or Abbey Road Studios, but cutting Z's in the room where Mike iterated out some of his genius musical insights is certainly good enough for me! It immediately captured the imagination of my musician friends, the kinds of folks among whom Mike is a superstar.

That night in the studio, little Bennett came in and checked me out. First a noncommittal sniff at the side of the air mattress, then a tentative foray onto the quilt, and soon the little fellow was curled up beside me. It's always affirming when people's pets accept you, and I was honored! Especially because it was the famous Bennett, a superpooch with a huge following. There's a picture on his Facebook page that shows him staring out heartbreakingly from behind bars at the shelter the day Scott and Claudia adopted him, when his future and very existence was arguably iffy. But Bennett has gone on to a sterling canine career.

Scott and Bennett sharing breakfast.

The next morning, Scott and Bennett delivered me to the Solana Beach Amtrak station, and from there I made my way to the Bay Area, foot recovery and the now-imminent relaunch of my suspended Pacific Crest Trail hike.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Plan B takes shape in Julian

Carmen McNerney and some derelict from the trail.

After my fateful hitch to the Julian Lodge just 10 days into the hike, I said to myself, "Self, bite the bullet, spend the money and take the time hit and stay here through the weekend. If it's going to heal in time to carry on, that should do it. If not, you have to figure something else out."

The nurse at the Julian Medical Clinic was off on Friday, and wasn't going to be in until Monday, so I was on my own until then. I'd already learned through a few brushes with infirmity in 2015 that self-diagnosis is foolish, but having nothing else to do besides pig out on Carmen's Place's insane(ly great) cuisine, I looked up ways to ameliorate plantar fasciitis. 

Foot taping experimentation ensued, with the hamburgered extremities mummified in medical tape to seal in flavor and freshness (and pain). While it sort of felt like helped in the hotel room, it was too elaborate and time-consuming to do on trail. It also introduced its own problems, such as the probability that the tape would peel up inside my sock and cause lumps while on trail. Further, no two YouTube foot-tapers seem to do it the same way, and it's difficult-to-impossible to tape one's own feet without twisting them into the wrong position.

No, taping wasn't going to be an enduring solution. No deus ex machina techno-tape was going to ride in on a glittering unicorn like a magic bullet, to totally mangle a metaphor.

By Sunday, my feet were still oozing and aching, I was still having trouble walking to and from the hotel room's bathroom (I actually crawled on my hands and knees several times), so any notion of putting the backpack back on and hitting the trail again was clearly not realistic. Still, no pain on Earth was going to stop me from hobbling over to Carmen's Place for her sumptuous burritos and supersized sympathy.
There's a burrito in there somewhere.
Also, every hiker gets a free Tecate at Carmen's. 

Pleasant as the village of Julian is, after a few days of my forced idyll, I was crawling out of my skin. And the town seemed to take on a sinister cast, like in a Stephen King novel or Twilight Zone where everything is superficially pleasant but there's something super-unseemly going on under the surface.

Sunday, I walked over to the Julian Library. It's really nice and modern, but smallish and they had no books on Plantar Fasciitis in stock. I wasn't going to be around long enough for an inter-district transfer, but that was OK since there are lots of online resources to read. Besides, I just wanted to get out of the room and see if I could take a moderate walk without pain and walking funny. I couldn't.

At one point in my hotel room that weekend, I realized I was halfway through the third consecutive episode of American Pickers, and enjoying it. Brain necrosis was well underway. Things had gone horribly, horribly awry. 

I did get one useful thing out of all that TV viewing though – the name of my backpack. There's a commercial wherein some nerd lies to his mom that he's had a date with an imaginary girl named "Blarverine." That word made me LOL, so it became my pack's name as it sat staring accusingly at me from the chair in the corner.

For each day I mouldered in the Julian Lodge, I had a distinct, possibly delusional sense of how the trail days, and the "bubble," or herd, of PCT hikers, were passing me by. And every passing day meant that the Mojave section would be that more of a furnace when I got there.

Some PCT hikers eschew the bubble. They hike for solitude, not community. Some camp way off trail, to avoid others. That's great for them, but I really enjoy meeting hikers, and chatting with them in camp. Even when I'm not hanging with them, I love hearing their happy conversation while inside my tent. There's also a safety factor in knowing that if I got into trouble, someone would be along on trail before too long.

But things weren't working out, and drastic action was needed if I was to continue the hike, honor the many charity and personal donors, and enjoy what is for me the main prize – Sierra and Northern California hiking.

So I sucked it up, called my brother Kelly in the Bay Area and asked if I could stay with him for a few weeks. This on the theory that there I could find a hiking-friendly podiatrist or sports medicine physician who could get me back on my feet by mid-June. At that point, I could re-insert myself into the trail in the southern Sierra around the time I would have been there had things gone according to plan. Plus I could see my 86-year-old mom while I'm there. Kel said sure, so I made a Facebook post announcing Plan B. One hole in that skeletal plan was the mystery of how to get out of Julian when the westbound bus only runs Thursday and Friday – four days from then.

There followed a wave of support and sympathy I hadn't expected. Everyone lauded my draft plan, in post comments and private messages. I heard this from people I thought I was in falling-out status with over some newspaper-related imbroglio, and others I've never met.
No one pointed out that I'm a whining titty baby who, after 52.6 miles of the PCT, is running home to mommy. They told me not to be so hard on myself, and to take it easy.

Rise of the super-pals

That Sunday, as I used virtual tweezers to pick the shards of my morale up off the floor, two different princes among men basically demanded to come and pick me up in Julian and drive me to wherever I needed to be. Both of the volunteer chauffeurs are overcommitted entrepreneurs who don't exactly have an abundance of free time, and each hails from one of my two basic cultural spheres of influence – my musical/Zappa world and my science/skepticism world.

Scott Chatfield, manager of supermusician Mike Keneally, called and offered to come get me on the spot. But I wanted to see the nurse at the Julian Medical Clinic the next morning to get some advice and, if I was lucky, properly dress my feet, because it would otherwise be at least two more days before I could get care. The next time that he could drive in from the coast would be Tuesday, so we went with that even though it meant a desultory Monday mouldering in Julian for yet another interminable day and night.

Then who should call but another left coastie, Brian Dunning, creator and host of the Skeptoid podcast. He too offered to come get me, could do so the next day and would even take me to Scott's house in Encinitas! That would let Scott and I close the loop, as we had planned to hang out at the beginning of my hike two weeks previous, but something had come up.

Nurse Lisa stabilizes my feet.
The next morning at 8 a.m., I wobbled over to the clinic with some trepidation. I'd been having such good luck with people – my friends old and new, and fellow hikers – that it seemed I was overdue for an unhelpful encounter. I know, I know – the odds don't have a memory and don't change with each successive trial. But still, I wouldn't have been surprised if some sort of regression to the mean expressed itself in a cold or bureaucratic nurse not giving me very good help.

But Nurse Lisa was great. She patched me up well enough to  proceed with confidence, and at no charge. She said my foot problems are common among hikers, as are hike-related knee, back and other issues. 

Afterward, to drown my sorrows, I hobbled over to Mom's for my free-to-PCT-hikers slice o' pie, something I'd been too depressed to partake of over the weekend. Turns out the nice ladies at Mom's, which is the best-smelling place in Julian – also give you a free dollop of ice cream (I chose cinnamon) and a cup of coffee with your pie. It was great.  

More to come...

Coffee, pie and 'scream at Mom's. No charge.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A painful interruption

Plan B
The Shocking Story Kevin Hoover Doesn't Want You to Know!
Well, that actually doesn't make any sense, since he's telling you every little detail
Whatever. Here's how my PCT hike broke down after 52.6 miles, part 1

On my last day on trail, when I was still foolishly trying to tough it out.

As we all know, adaptation is key to survival. Key! 
And as readers know, I've grown deeply besmitten with Pacific Crest Trail life. I barely sampled its abundant joys when the feet went south as I was headed north.
Just two weeks into the hike, I knew what the nurse at the Julian Medical Clinic was going to tell me – the same thing my throbulent nerve endings were: you aren't hiking anywhere on these bloody things any time soon, boy. 
What she actually told me as she was stabilizing my battered, tattered feet was to get to a town with a podiatrist and have an evaluation done.
As you can imagine, the hike's interruption was painful mentally as well as physically. A year of planning, and with so much community backing and scrutiny, now all sundered by a probably-preventable medical issue.
This followed the initial rounds of something I've been dealing with since then – waves of self-damnation for the now-obvious holes in my planning and training, plus embarrassment, self-doubt, thoughts of impostor syndrome and being the embodiment of Dunning-Kruger over my vainglorious escapade.
But there'd be plenty of time later for wallowing in self-pity – it was time to put into action my hike salvage plan.
But first, some catch-up. 
At an overlook near Laguna Campground. 
After the previous zero day in Mt. Laguna, it was only with incessant Ibuprofen, denial and megadoses of Gorilla tape and gauze that I was able to trudge through the day. I made it just six miles to the Laguna Campground that day, motivated in part by the seriously stunning views of the Anza Borrego Desert. 
There, I was bedazzled by vastness and age if the formations, with shapes and colors along the trail that far exceed in beauty and subtlety anything I remember from my LSD and psilocybin days, because it's real.
These passersby pointed out to me the frighteningly beautiful Poodle Dog Bush, which I might otherwise have overlooked.

I also continued to encounter countless friendly folks of all ages, genders and nationalities. The reason I met so many is that they were all passing me by. My daily mileage was abysmal. I could only go four or five miles before the pounding pain from my feet broke through the invisible Vitamin I shield.
It slowly dawned on me that apart from the breathtaking beauty and lovely conversations with other hikers, most of my consciousness was consumed with managing pain. Every footfall was an explosion of agony, and it wasn't getting better. Everyone has initial aches and pains, but this seemed to be exceptional.
I had to pick each footstep carefully to minimize pain return, so I was basically taking baby steps. Rarely could I take any healthy strides; basically only when the trail was soft and dusty and straight. Sometimes my foot would slip, causing the meat inside my heel to crunch sideways, and it felt like my foot had been jammed into a garbage disposal.
I also came to realize that the Ibuprofen wasn't really helping me. By suppressing the pain, it was allowing me to continue hiking and further inuring my feet. 
Also, one of the side effects of Ibu is elevated risk of heart attack. Lovely. The way my heart was pounding as I climbed those steep ridges, I probably didn't need any risk factors heightened.
Clearly, this is no way to hike the PCT. Or live. It certainly isn't what I had planned for.
Where I awoke on my last day on the trail. A perfectly lovely spot to be depressed.

On Day 10, I woke up in Laguna campground to feet that were throbbing and bleeding. They weren't healing, and even taking down the tent and packing up for the day was difficult to do on the swollen stumps I was using for feet. I was really bummed.
All the other hikers were gone, so it was just me painfully laboring to assemble my gear for what would likely be an increasingly joyless trudge. For foot conservation purposes, I asked the caretaker who was tending the restroom if he could give me a ride to the front gate, and was hoping he'd give me a lift down the road to the trailhead. But he was rules-oriented rather than laissez-faire, and said no for probably very good reasons. So I had to trudge on concrete and asphalt for a mile before I even got on the trail.
You might be able to see the foursome of hikers on the ridge. They paused to behold the stunning view, then passed me after a while. I next saw them as the Pioneer Mall Picnic Area, where I left the trail.

By the time I got to the Pioneer Mail Picnic Area at mile 52.6, I could hardly walk. My labored gait must have been rather comical, but the nice kids I saw there, who of course had passed me earlier, were sympathetic.
I walked up to the road at about 1:05 p.m., plunked down by the sign at the picnic area entrance, pulled out my 2016 PCT Hiker bandana, unfurled the "HIKER TO TOWN" message and started waiting for cars. About five minutes later, a nice mini-SUV rounded the bend. The teenage girls inside heeded their parents' warning about not picking up strangers, and sailed right by. 
The sign where I met my Waterloo, and Astro the Trail Angel. USFS photo

For the next half-hour, no more cars came. Rain was predicted, and dark clouds were rolling in on the stiff wind. It was another one of those, "I wonder what the hell will happen next?" moments. I was thinking that I might have to stealth camp somewhere near the picnic area, where camping is prohibited.
Then two more SUVS went by. Finally, a few minutes later, a small sedan slowed and signaled that it was turning into the picnic area parking lot. But at the last minute, it didn't turn – it continued forward to pull up to where I was standing with my purple scarf. 

The passenger-side window lowered, and a young guy asked what up. "Hey I'm having foot problems, so I'm trying to get to Julian," I told him. Note that this is 30-plus miles from town.
"Hop in," he said.

Turns out the driver, Astro (real-world name Zach) is a PCT thru-hiker on his way back to Texas from a golf tournament in San Diego. He was pulling into the picnic area just to hang out with hikers, because he misses the trail. He'd left the trail on a previous thru-hike attempt due to a medical issue, and could totally relate to my plight.
Astro-Zach delivered me right to the front entrance of the Julian Lodge. I planned to stay one night, then resume the hike. But reality intervened, and it was not to be.
To be continued...