I fretted and killed time until Monday, when I could see a physical therapist for a full diagnosis. The scariest thing about waiting was not knowing how bad it was. The pain wasn't getting worse, but it wasn't going away with rest -- which simply indicates a problem requiring intervention; it could have meant anything from a strain/sprain to a developing chronic problem to a hike-ending injury such as a hairline fracture.
As you might expect, the possibility that my hike might be over hit me hard. But I have a dark confession to make:
I spent a significant portion of southern California's trail miles halfheartedly wishing for some catastrophic injury to befall me.
This is a twisted thing, I know. All I can say is that it made sense at the time.
The hiking often was brutal, and when it was at its worst, all I wanted was to be off the trail. Which I wasn't about to do -- having quit my job, set aside a full season and spent several thousand dollars for the privilege of sweating, cursing, and nursing foot pain. Every step forward was a step toward the mythical End Of The Desert -- and pride, camaraderie, and stubbornness forced me toward that goal as long as I could physically keep walking.
To the best of my abilities, I refused to give any outlet to my tender fantasies of throwing in the towel. So they retreated to the one hike-stopper I could allow myself to consider. Unlike giving up, walking until an injury stopped me somehow seemed like a noble end. If I limped home on a broken leg, I wouldn't have any qualms about giving up and declaring I gave it my best.
I can tell you the exact moment my secret hopes of a hiking Purple Heart evaporated: Day 60, when I staggered to the Kennedy Meadows General Store, the thru-hiker landmark at the start of the high Sierra, and kissed its front porch. I won't say the hiking got any easier after that -- keep in mind the high Sierra brutalized my legs in a way that two straight months of hiking couldn't. But at least I was out of purgatory. The desert was behind me, and the trip was taking a turn for the brighter, into territory more beautiful and more familiar.
By the time my knee gave out, I was having a good time again. (Despite the mosquitoes, which were a persistent frustration but hardly the worst I've experienced.) I had just about settled back into the trail rhythm after the three-week break at home. My hopes of maybe speeding up and finishing the whole trek were reviving, despite being about a month behind schedule. Then this.
The preliminary diagnosis, when I met with the doc on Friday to set up a speedy appointment, was patellar tendonitis. (The patella is your kneecap; its tendons, at the front of the knee, are a pretty common sports strain.) This came as some surprise to me, because my complaint was severe pain in one of the muscles/ligaments on the outside back of my left knee, but she assured me that PT pain could refer out there.
On Monday, she hammered home the diagnosis by digging in to my knee to massage the tendons, to the tune of pain so severe I occasionally had to try to remember to breathe. Tendonitis causes muscle swelling, and the body's response to it is to try to lay down scar tissue over the area; the tissue prevents full function, and the purpose of the massage was to start breaking up the scar tissue. Something sure felt like it was breaking in there, that's for sure, so I'm glad it was in the service of a higher cause.
As a coda, I asked her to check out the other knee too -- and it turns out the tendonitis was just as bad there; it just wasn't referring out to cause the acute muscle pain that it was in my left leg. More massaging ensued.
The bottom line, I was told, is that I should expect to spend anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks off the trail, with another visit or two to supplement home treatment. And, just like that, away melted the fear and frustration, to be replaced by resignation and disappointment.
I guess it didn't really hit home until I got a professional evaluation, but on top of everything else that's happened on the trip, the knee woes are the last nail in the coffin of my thru-hike. This isn't to say I won't return to the trail once I'm cleared to hike again -- stopping now would feel like a waste -- but at this point I have no option but to give up on the idea of finishing the whole trail this year.
I'm trying to talk a good game about finishing California (1,700 trail miles, half of which are done), but right now even that seems ambitious. The simple fact is that by the time I can hike again, I'll have spent nearly a solid month and a half off the trail, broken up only by my three-day outing with kadyg and my knee-destroying week in the high Sierra.
In some very real ways, getting back to my hike will feel like starting from scratch. I'll be in better shape than when I went to the border, but certainly not in peak form (and still nursing that knee). It's been long enough that the rhythm of home life is starting to seem as natural to me again as getting up every morning and having nothing to do but walk. And I won't have the community support of the hundreds of other thru-hikers whose company I came to rely on in SoCal's toughest stretches.
I'll be a lot closer to home, but that's a double-edged sword, considering that both times I've come back here to recover, I've ended up with a weeks-long layover. (In fact, I've promised Kady that the next time I retreat home, it'll be the end of my hike. My other new rule is: When I get back out there, if I can't make it at least as far as Sonora Pass without needing to spend time off the trail for any reason, I need to give up gracefully instead of dragging out the charade. I'm getting as sick of delays and disruptions as she is.)
On the other hand, I just don't feel enough closure on the hike to call it quits yet. Gimpy knee and all. I'm so close to some major landmarks that I can taste it.
When I return to the trail at Edison Lake, I'll have 30 miles to Red's Meadow and Devil's Postpile National Monument -- at which point I'll be walking the only section of PCT that I've previously travelled. (My Outward Bound course in 1995 resupplied in Yosemite and walked southbound on the PCT at least that far.) So it should be a nice 50-mile stroll down memory lane from there to Tuolomne Meadows -- where I can take a jaw-droppingly scenic detour, climb Half Dome, and finish the John Muir Trail, which starts at Mount Whitney and follows the PCT north to Yosemite. If I can't finish the whole PCT this year, I can at least finish the JMT, which is an accomplishment in its own right.
From there, it's less than a day's hike until I complete 1,000 PCT miles.
In total, hitting both of those goals will require about a week's effort. A week, after all I've been through this season, seems like such a trivial thing. It's driving me crazy to be stuck so close to those landmarks.
Of course, if I can get back out on the trail and start walking again ... if I can get back into my rhythm and make my self-imposed Sonora Pass deadline ... there's no reason to hit 1,000 and stop. The next big landmark after Yosemite is South Lake Tahoe, and then Donner Pass, so with another two weeks' hiking I can hit the landmark of having walked from the Mexican border to my house. After that, it's only another week and a half to the PCT's halfway point. After that, it's only two weeks to the Oregon border.
Taken that way, it seems pretty reasonable. But the first step will be getting back out there and pushing out to that first landmark. With my momentum entirely evaporated at this point, and with another full week of thumb-twiddling to go before my earliest return-to-trail projection arrives, that seems daunting enough.