One of the most frustrating things about being diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower leg has been the fact that it’s not that bad of an injury. While painful for the first two weeks, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even raise and lower my foot, my leg has felt pretty healthy since mid-June for day-to-day, normal use. Of course, the PCT is not normal use.
Given that my recovery was happening in Washington, I opeted to reverse course and head south from the Canadian border three weeks after my initial diagnosis. I was excited to get back out to the trail, albeit under different conditions from where I left it, but the call of the hike was pulling me out there. Unfortunately it was too soon.
The details of my three day hike up to Canada and back from Hart’s Pass in North Cascades National Park are for a later post, but the aftermath of the hike left me hobbled for another week, my lower leg still in pain though there had been none for a week prior, and now my feet, and knees aching from compensating for that pain. I was a mess, and terribly defeated. I returned to Olympia and my parent’s house lost and ready to give up entirely. I had no idea how to get back to where I was before my disasterous week in the Sierras.
I still wanted to hike. My three days in the Cascades had inspired me more than anywhere before to photograph the beauty out there, but my body wasn’t cooperating. I needed a plan to get back. I needed to find a way to be sure the pain wouldn’t derail me again.
A week later I was feeling good again, but was wary. In the month I’d been off trail I’d seen several other hikers forced to leave from injury, including my friend Eric, one of the Warrior Hikers who I’d grown close to since leaving Campo. Eric had hurt his knee coming into Tahoe, and had himself been forced to return to Olympia to recover at his house not two blocks from where I was staying with my parents. People were dropping like flies off the trail, but I was determined not to be away for ever. I needed to get back out.
It was Eric who introduced me to the term ITT, Intensive Trail Therapy. Looking to heal as he hiked, Eric’s plan was to rest until he felt better then use the physicality of the trail to work himself back into hiking condition. I liked the sound of it.
But first I needed to test myself physically, to determine whether my body could even stand up to the rigors of day hiking, let alone distance hiking. My parents live an hour from Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places to hike, so I picked a trail not far from their house, a 15 mile out and back hike up to Flapjack Lakes, off the Staircase section of the Olympics, an area I’ve become very familiar with over the years, and a longtime nemesis of mine.
In 2012 I attempted my first distance hike up the North Fork Skokomish Trail, and was soundly beaten by the mountain on the way up. I’d made it 18 miles into the trail when I gave up and turned around, and was so exhausted and beaten up by the experience I hardly moved for two days after. The reasons for turning back: too much weight, snow, and pain in my knees. These seem to be recurring problems for me.
Flapjack Lakes had long been on my list of destinations, though I’d always thought of it as an overnight hike. Though only 7.5 miles from trailhead to lake, the Olympics have a way of exaggerating distances, whether through poorly maintained trails, high elevation gains, or weather, 10 miles seems like 20 in those mountains. My choice of this 15 mile trail, however, was based on my confidence, or hubris, that that distance had been my minimum on the PCT, and I was hiking during the height of summer in Washington, when the weather was warm, the days long, and the trails abundant with berries (a deciding factor for me, for sure).
I set out at 11:30 from the Staircase ranger station, along the mostly level trail for about 3.5 miles til I reached the junction to the flapjack trailhead. I felt good, strong, fast. I passed day hikers and blew past them, and felt no small amount of pride at being a stronger hiker than when I’d hiked this section in the past. The fact that these other hikers were old women and small children meant nothing to me, I was a strong hiker, damn it!
It took me an hour and a half to reach the junction, well ahead of my PCT pace, but I had no weight on my back beyond my tripod and camera, so I didn’t read too much into it. I turned up the hill, and was immediately confronted by the Olympics I knew and loved. The trail climbed up several hundred feet right off the bat, up long switchbacks that drained my enthusiasm quickly. Combined with the increasingly rocky, root-strewn nature of the trail, and I was starting to question my decision to hike up to the lakes, still some 4 miles away.
Thankfully the trail leveled out for a time, but not for long, and soon I found myself climbing one of the worst sections of trail I’d ever attempted. To call some parts of it a trail would be generous, as I clambored over rocks and roots, and generally hated my life. Oh there were highlights, a bridge crossing Madeline Creek, bumblebees on lupines, a waterfall that I spent far too much time (nearly an hour) shooting pictures of, but the trail was pounding my legs, and I still hadn’t reached the difficult section of the trail.
After the water the trail rose precipitously, in some sections seeming to shoot almost straight up the mountainside. I rolled my ankles and twisted my knees, and just when I thought I’d overdone it…the trail leveled out and I was rewarded with the most glorious possible reward. Huge salmon berries, the size of my thumb and subtly sweet on my tongue, lined the trail, and I gorged myself on all I could find. They were delicious, and though I was sore, and tired, I felt buoyed, pushed to get up to the lakes which couldn’t be far away.
Sure enough, I reached the twin bodies of the Flapjack Lakes around 4:30, after another half mile from the berry patch, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the Gladys Divide, a craggy mountain spur along the southeast section of the Olympics, and took pictures along the lakes edge while eating mountain huckleberries straight off the bush. It was peaceful and very rewarding.
I left the lakes at 5:30 and started my descent, and was pounded by the impact of my feet down the trail. Everything ached and hurt, my feet felt ruined, my knees like jello, and my muscles were tight and burning, and I was regretting my life.
I pushed on, though, the thought of a burger pushing me onward. All I wanted was to get to my car and to find somewhere where I could find a greasy, delicious burger and a milkshake to fill my belly. It’s the simple motivations that often work best.
By the time I reached the North Fork Trail, I was exhausted, and it took me another two hours to reach my car, seemingly far longer than it had taken to get up just eight hours earlier. I passed two hikers on their way to the lakes as I descended, and felt sorry for the poor bastards and their 50+ pound backpacks. I tried to warn them about what they were getting into, but they didn’t listen. Such foolish pride…
I reached my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat, taking off my boots and stretching my aching feet. I was not ready for the PCT yet, my body was still not cooperating, but I figured out some important things about the causes for my pain. My boots, heavy waterproof Merrell’s, duplicates of the ones that had carried me from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, had so little cushioning that impacts (like those that had caused my stress fracture in the first place), sent shocks of pain straight into my legs. Also, my lower leg was perhaps the only thing that didn’t hurt, a signal that maybe the stress fracture had healed in the week since I’d retreated from the North Cascades.
As I drove back and pulled into Five Guys for a well-deserved burger (with everything, naturally, and cajun fries), I knew I wasn’t ready, but found myself encouraged that maybe, just maybe, I could make adjustments to get me back on the trail in the not too distant future.