Despite a best effort from one of our coaches to pack days ahead of time, then check, double check, triple check, and quadruple check our bags, I still decided to leave packing for the Ultimate Hike until one hour before I needed to leave. Because I like leaving much to chance.
And also because I forgot to wash my stinky wool socks until the morning of. But I quadruple checked that I had my knee braces. BECAUSE OF PART 1.
Anyway, all us crazy hiking buddies met up and loaded into a couple of nondescript white vans where we ate cookies until the couple of nondescript white vans reached a Cracker Barrel and then we totally carbed up to the max. What worked for my body: country fried steak and gravy, fried okra, hash brown casserole, and turnip greens. What didn't work for my body: the "vegetarian pasta" served at the Holiday Inn Express of Lavonia, GA that evening. I don't know what part of that meal was supposed to encourage us to carb up for the next day, but I assure you, it's nothing that would need quotation marks around something called vegetarian pasta. I would never put quotations around country fried steak. But that's why we hit up the Cracker Barrel first.
'Cuz we smart.
After dinner, we saw a cute video of the kids we were hiking for, which made us forget that right before the video, we were told we were hiking in a county that had more bears or black bears or Yogi Bears than any other county in the country. I'm not quite sure of the specifics because they were playing a video with touching music and cute cancer kids and I forgot all about the bears that we would be trying not to be mistaken for now that it's bear hunting season and OMG ARE THERE SERIOUSLY THAT MANY BEARS??
In fact, "it is unlawful to buy, sell, barter, or exchange a bear or bear part or attempt to buy, sell, barter, or exchange a bear or bear part." Who is trying to barter with bear parts? I'll trade you one bear claw for a bear claw with honey. Can I take my dead bear to Macy's and tell them it doesn't fit and see if I can exchange it? Of course I can't. That's unlawful. So for God's sake, put on your damn neon yellow bandanna and try not to get shot by a hunter. Because it's probably perfectly lawful to buy, sell, barter, or exchange a hiker or hiker part.
After a bunch of prep-talking about how we need to make sure we are downstairs in the lobby by 2:45 a.m. (or six hours after my body is still trying to figure out how exactly to process the "vegetarian pasta"), a video was shared of Eve and her friend, Violet, right before we needed to go to bed.
I often hear myself saying "Buck up- it's not cancer," in my head REALLY LOUD when I hear people complain about things they have to do, like take their kids to the grocery store (the horror!), or give their cat insulin (ohmigod!), or hike 28.3 miles in one day (but, seriously, this one is really hard).
Our original crew from last year's UN summit shrunk, probably because most of them weren't crazy to do this thing again. Either that, or...nope, I got nothing.
For what it's worth, there was another one of our crew who was not pictured because he was off to the left, out of camera range, having a meeting with the other coaches. Which did not stop my friends and I from barging into their meeting so we could get our picture taken in front of the flag. And by "barging in," I mean we just kind of didn't care that we were interrupting anything and WHY THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING AT US WHEN WE'RE TRYING TO LOOK NATURAL IN FRONT OF THIS AMERICAN FLAG?
Oh, 'cuz we smart and we so good looking.
Trying to go to sleep early is hard enough, but trying to go to sleep after hydrating for two days straight proves harder. I believe I woke up to pee so often that I chopped my sweet dreams into 3-eighty minute naps. Which is like WOAH, I have a pee problem. And I'm sleep-deprived. And that can only mean I must be lucky because I didn't pee on myself.
The next morning, or as I like to call it, "the same night," we were up and at 'em. Meaning I was downstairs at a Holiday Inn Express making myself butter and bacon sandwiches, which happens to be exactly what it sounds like.
AND IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
When there was no more bacon nor butter to be had, we crammed ourselves into some nondescript white vans with no regard for personal space and took off on an hour-long drive to the trail head. Which is a long time to consider if you were more nervous last year when you didn't know what to expect or if you're more nervous this year knowing what's ahead of you.
And you'll definitely decide you're more nervous this year.
(It's too late to back out now.)
Here is our group, 4:30 a.m., waiting to be let loose on the trail. There are seven of us and there are headlamps and I kind of want to reference mining for diamonds while a beautiful princess cleans our home and bakes us pies with forest animals.
Groups of hikers are staggered as we get onto the trail so we don't have to hike in a sixty-person single file line. Our group was one of the last on the trail at 5:15 a.m., with only the trail runners behind us who would pretty much blow past everyone else in front of them. I don't pretend to understand their elite kind. I would only go running on a trail if there were a man with a chainsaw chasing me.
Or a bear.
Or if there were nachos in front of me.
Setting off in groups also keeps the bottle-necking to a minimum as we attempt another state-line crossing sign picture in the dark. Because just knowing you hiked from North Carolina to South Carolina feels momentous, even though there are still twenty-five more miles to go.
This year I did. It was way harder. And the first section is only 4.7 miles.
By the second section, the sun had come out. There was beautiful scenery to be had. Most specifically, the autumn colors. We hiked a month earlier last year and didn't get to see so many beautiful trees.
Lots and lots of trees.
Which brings me to another reason the hike was way harder this year: all those trees make all these leaves...
Fortunately, the leaves were dry. Slippery leaves are an injury waiting to happen. Unfortunately, these leaves completely covered all the rocks, roots, and holes on the trail. CAN YOU BELIEVE I DIDN'T HURT MYSELF? Me neither. It was nothing short of miraculous...or that I just kept watching whoever was in front of me falling so I knew where not to step.
There comes a point in time when you get hiker's high and start asking meaningful questions to your comrades. My questions tend not to be about cancer, because I'm sick of talking about cancer. I don't want to hear about cancer. Please to stop the talking about cancer for one day, unless you have something important to say, like, there has been a link between cancer and nacho cheese. Then I'll begrudgingly listen and make an appointment to get screened. I didn't hear anyone talk to me about the c-word so I was all smiles. But only because I was popping pills and sleep-deprived.
Granted, this would probably be the world's worst hike to do and not think about cancer. So I kept thinking of bald kids when I got tired and that got me moving a bit faster. And I thought about them even more when my knees started hurting. And I thought about how I was not going to hurt myself this year. NOT GOING TO HURT MYSELF. And I thought it to myself in caps lock to let myself know I was serious.
When meaningful conversation comes up with my friends, it takes many different forms, many of them not quite as meaningful as for the average meaningful person. But they are important topics, nonetheless, particularly when placed in a perilous situation. And hiking with me is always a perilous situation.
Me: Kacy, if you were placed in a situation where you had to eat someone, would you only eat a vegetable-eater like yourself, or would you eat a meat-eater?
Me: I just remembered those people are called vegetarians and carnivores.
Kacy: I would eat a vegetarian.
Matthew: That's why deer are so much healthier for us, because of their diets. They are such a good source of lean meat.
Brigid: But if you had to eat someone, it's probably because you're in trouble. You would want the meat-eater because they'd have more fat on them.
Matthew: That's true. We should eat the meat-eaters.
Me: Kacy, I wouldn't eat you. You wouldn't make good bacon.
Candi: I would make the best bacon.
Me: We should eat Candi.
Brigid: We should definitely eat Candi over Kacy.
Me: And if she's already been sweating, she'd be all salty and well-seasoned.
Chris: What are you guys talking about back there?
Me: Eating your wife.
I'm not saying I was considering going all cannibal on someone, but what if you had to? We'd all be wise to consider this before the time comes. I'm staying away from athletes because all that muscle would be better suited for jerky, and I'm not packing a dehydrator with me in the woods.
But seriously, I would never eat these people.
Except Candi, because she kind of implicitly said we could. At this point, we only had 20.3 more miles to go. And, whew, that whole who would you eat? situation was already out of the way. Now we know. Now we could hike with purpose, knowing who would wind up as Plan C.
After the second section, we had completed twelve miles and hiked into the aid station. I did not have to eat Candi because there were lots of Slim Jims with cheese, which were disgustingly delicious. I love a good gas station snack, especially when I'm already sweating enough to smell like a cross-country trucker. And since I was sweating so bad, I wanted to reapply my deodorant. Between the pills and the delirium, I couldn't find it, so my pal Brigid let me use hers. And that's a great friend, letting someone else's armpit sweat smear into your own deodorant. Although, there comes a time in hiking when you just stop caring about stuff you might care about when you're clean, whether it be peeing in the woods, changing your tampon in the woods, or using your neighbor's deodorant. For some reason, using your neighbor's deodorant comes between peeing and tampons in my mind on the grand scale of things.
One of the first responders remembered me from last year and asked about my knees. Yes, they hurt. Yes, let's tape them up under my braces. Yes, they certainly are swollen; that's how knees ask you to reconsider your ridiculous plans.
Between the Slim Jims and the Cheetos and the Snickers and the Gatorade, I was able to start bouncing back into the woods, and kept a pretty good pace for the first mile or two. But two miles into a ten-plus mile stretch is nothing to write home about, even if your Christmas card includes your family's secret recipe for Candied-bacon.
The magic tape on my knees helped so much and I trusted the dull pain I was feeling was nothing more than a normal person would feel if they decided to hike that many miles in one day. Even someone as decidedly abnormal as me.
Last year, I kept hearing the Twin Peaks closing theme in my head on this stretch. It is a very lonely thing to have this song in your head for hours at a time. Fortunately for me, I had convinced Candi and Chris to watch this whackadoo show so we could make whackadoo comments on a day just like this. And my friend Candi makes the best crazy eyes that are accompanied by this crazy smile that means she's either going to cuss someone out or say, "I need to brush my teeth." And you can say "I need to brush my teeth" a lot on a 28.3 mile hike, but it will only freak out people who have watched Twin Peaks. Everyone else will think you are obsessed with dental hygiene. So this paragraph was dedicated to the other eight of you reading who know what I'm talking about.
I briefly discussed wrapping myself in plastic wrap, wearing blue lipstick, and horn-rimmed glasses to go trick-or-treating as Hipster-Laura Palmer. Then I would scoff at anyone who didn't get my obscure reference. Which would be pretty much everyone, and they would be wondering who the near-sighted idiot is doing the European Body Wrap.
This third leg of our hike is probably the most beautiful out of all the stretches because you get a lot of one-on-one time with the Chattooga River. The sound of the river drowns out your panting.
Or, as Kacy says, it drowns out the sound of her cussing.
There were tons of backpackers we kept coming upon during this leg. They smelled bad, which made me remember you can't smell yourself. And then I wished I could find my deodorant.
Our buddy Mike was waiting for us in the middle of all of this. How he got to the middle and why I can't say, but he was a long-lost friend from last year who helped Candi, Chris, and I make it out of the woods when everyone thought we were dead. And now he was here because he probably just recognized that we were the most awesome people on the trail and he wanted in on that action.
I kept going as fast and as far as my legs would take me, because as soon as you slow down there is no ramping back up. But eventually, as we are wont to do, we all slow down. Except for Chris and Matthew. Those mofos can keep going like there is a Taco Bell up past the next ridge. I let Mike lead for a while as he distracted me with talk of vacation and injuries. For some reason or another, we stopped, and when I turned around I noticed Chris and Candi were missing. I immediately freaked out because we have a rule: No Mortons Left Behind. Where did they go??
Matthew: Oh, we lost them a while back. Candi hit her wall. I probably should have told you guys.
I like Mike because he can tell us what to do but we can throw bad words back at him until we kind of almost get our way. And our way was waiting for the Mortons to catch up to us. But in the end, when they do catch up, Mike will just keep harassing us to go faster and stop taking so many breaks so maybe it's him who really gets his way. I haven't figured it out yet, I just know that I could breathe a lot easier once we saw Candi and Chris again. Mostly because we had finally stopped to take a break. Breathing is always easier with your hands on your knees and your head between your legs.
On and on again we went.
Kacy: How did you do this last year with a hurt knee?
Me: I went really slow and cried a lot.
Then the tears came and I realized she had hurt her knee. And dude, I know that sucks BIG TIME. I got ghost pains just looking at her. Especially when you feel like you are doing nothing but hiking downhill for the better part of ten miles, because downhill + bad knees = suckage squared. You would sooner give birth on the trail and sever the umbilical cord with your teeth than take another step. But Kacy is really pretty and it kind of made me frustrated that the girl still looked pretty when she cries. She looks better sweaty and in pain than I do showered and on painkillers.
So we stopped to tape up Kacy before trudging on. And I was so tired by this point that she was still faster than me. This year's hike was much less painful for me, but much harder. I had not stopped to consider the fact when you are going three times faster than before, you will feel nauseous. Nauseous, nauseous, nauseous. And hungry. I ate six Slim Jims with cheese. So gross and so good. I couldn't keep the calories coming fast enough and I was sweating so much that I guess I didn't sweat out all the liquid that should have been peed out. Which might mean I was just as gross as the Slim Jims. But again, you can't smell yourself.
Half of our group kept on keeping on while Candi, Chris, and I continued to pause and start our ways to the third aid station. Mike made up a rule that we could hike for five minutes and then take a break for one minute. Then out came more cuss words and I may have threatened to stab him.
We reached the last aid station and all the hikers there looked like they just survived a zombie attack, only because they were the zombies. There was KT tape on every exposed piece of skin. I had shin splints that, thankfully, could be taped up, and a knot in my hip. Instead of dropping my pants to get my ass taped up, I did some stretching on the lovely pine straw. Pine straw can and will poke through your pants and your drawers. Just thought you'd like to know.
The last leg is six miles. I was starting to doubt my memory of events after I obviously failed so miserably at remembering the hike thus far (it wasn't this hard last year!). Most people were looking at Candi and I like we were big, sweaty, liars. We had promised many people during our many training hikes that the Ultimate Hike wouldn't be that hard, just really, really long. Haha! Turns out it is both hard AND long! Make your own dirty joke there- I'm not going to be a part of your filth.
It's like childbirth. You forget the horror. Then you're like, LET'S DO THIS AGAIN!
We got back on the trail. This was only six miles. We were basically at the finish line. When I know we're close to the end of a hike, I start to book it. Every time. Except that one time I gave blood the day before. Talk about cold, sweaty zombie hiker.
So, I booked it. After 22.3 miles, I finally got into a zone. I didn't see much of anything around me, only images of nondescript white vans waiting for me at the finish. I had nothing to say, no care to listen to anything, only to get to those vans as fast as humanly possible without running. Eww.
There is part of these last six miles where you get spit along a road for a brief moment and see a sign that says 4.2 miles to Occonee State Park. At this point, you will have lost all sense of time as you were sure you were hiking at least 3 mph and should have been further along than this. At this point, you remember these last six miles. And that they aren't particularly hard, but that they never end.
I turned around to make this observation out loud to my hiking buddies to find I only had one from our group behind me. Stopping and slowing down really hurts when you have aches all over, so we kept on trucking. And not trucking like the gazillions of bear hunters who got out of their pick-ups to defile the outhouses along the way, but actually getting back into that weird zone where you are sure this is all a bad dream, because if it were an out-of-body experience, you wouldn't feel the blisters on your feet.
The Foothills make your foots hurt. But it was still nice to see the first sign that we were still on the right trail 25 miles into it.
We seemed to get more energy as we passed more people who looked like a parched Moses walking through the desert.
Random hiker: You've done this before. How much farther? We have to be close to the end.
Me: We're not close.
Random hiker: How much longer?
Me: The only thing I remember is that this section never ends.
Random hiker: That's the most disappointing thing I've heard all day.
I know, dude. I know.
And that's pretty much how it happened. It never ended until the very end. I saw a nondescript white van in a parking lot and took off running for it, convinced the finish line was up ahead. It wasn't. I had also forgotten that you think you're at the end of this last leg, but you really have more to go. I don't know who had the white van and I don't know why they thought it would be funny to park it in the parking lot at the not-so-end of the trail but they are A-HOLES.
A while later, we started coming upon signs, so I knew we were close to the finish because the people who put them up weren't going to go hiking too far into the woods.
This is a picture of Eve in her hiking boots, on a hiking trail, wearing a Team Eve shirt with a gold ribbon for childhood cancer. How apropos. Eve, I said I didn't want to talk about cancer!
Can you picture me breaking into another run when I saw this sign? Almost 12 hours on the trail. Actual hiking time: 10 hours, 10 minutes. Average 2.8 mph.
I am quite positive I looked like a crazy person. I am quite positive I really am a crazy person.
I was quite positive I was never, ever doing this hike again.
I was also quite positive that I was going to wet myself because I hadn't peed since the second aid station and I drank nine liters of water, plus four large Gatorades. I held it until we were about ten minutes from the hotel before I begged for mercy and our driver pulled over at a gas station. It was the most incredible pee I've ever taken (or given) in my life, NON-GAS STATION PEES INCLUDED. The kind that makes you want to smoke a cigarette afterward. It was THAT amazing.
Back at the hotel, Brigid and I were comparing our skin-to-tape ratios.
This was the last photographic evidence I had of my ankles for four days. I was rocking the undeniably sexy Fred Flintstone feet.
I also got my first ever blisters, like a really late-coming rite of hiking passage. But that's why I am blessed with feet that can wear flip flops in sub-zero temperatures, for times like these when squeezing your blisters into a shoe just won't be as amazing as that nine liter pee.
Will hike for beer, Cheetos, and childhood cancer research. The rest of the night was filled with more beer and Cheetos, food of champions.
And I am grateful that the good folks at CureSearch put our names on the outside of our doors because I probably would have pissed some people off in the middle of the night trying to break into "my" room had there not been a sign that said "Welcome Joe Miller!" or "Welcome Nicole & Emily!"
I am quite positive that I was quite positive that I was never doing the Ultimate Hike again. But then, ten minutes into the ride back home, I was quite positive that I would definitely be there again next year. Candi and Brigid weren't so keen on the idea. 'Cuz they smart.
Let's sleep on it.