Get My Drift
The following is an excerpt from my John Muir Trail (JMT) journal. The John Muir Trail is traditionally hiked southbound and stretches 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. It passes through three national parks, climbs over nine major passes, rises up to the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and leads the backpacker up and down 47,000 feet of extreme changes in elevation. It is what backpackers deem the finest mountain scenery.
Pounds of Perseverance
I started hiking the John Muir Trail on July 31, 2014.Although I had planned this journey for months, nothing could prepare me for the erratic behaviors the Sierra Nevada Mountainshad in store. I come from sea level where the temperature never dips below 75 degrees and my version of a good lightning show is only accessible via YouTube. I later found out that no matter how much I planned the intricate details of this journey, the most important thing I could bring was an open mind and the ability to adapt.
People seemed alternatively envious and fearful of my fate on the JMT, as a solo female hiker, but I knew my physical and mental capabilities and was ready to go after the wilderness that John Muir has written about so fondly. After about a week on the trail, I was surprised to realize how seamlessly I’d fallen into my daily routine: hike, eat, sleep, repeat, with a few swims and a few new friends mixed in. The anticipation of a “huge mountain” approaching wasn’t so scary anymore, and they came and went with similar jagged granite switchbacks and achy feet each time. But that was before The Great Storm on the 11th day.
Three-one-thousand…four-one-thousand…five-one – CRACK!I shuttered and clutched my ears as the thunder echoed down the canyon. The thunder was chasing me. What once was a far off rumble had followed me closer and louder the past hour. But I was so close… within a mile of my end to an 18-mile long day. Don’t be so picky… you need to find a spot NOW! I said to myself as I felt the first raindrops on my face. I backtracked a hundred feet and ran down a hill to a decently flat spot amongst some small trees. Stay calm and just get your tent up, Sadie. I coached myself as the panic started creeping in. I haphazardly wedged my tent under a tree and jumped in with my pack. Everything was soaked at this point, but a sense of comfort came over me. Deep Breaths… you’re safe now. Safe. No one is safe out here. Especially when you are at 11,000 ft of elevation in the High Sierras in a thunderstorm. Safety is just a word that comforts the soul in times of terror in the Sierra Nevadas. The roar of hail pelting my tent interrupted that moment of comfort. I peeked through the netting to see frozen marbles beating down. What once was lush green was now quickly becoming a blanket of ice. I curled up in child’s pose on the cold, damp nylon floor of my shelter as I saw another flash out of the corner of my eye. One-one-thousand… two-one-thousand… thr—CRACK. Oh lord, it’s getting closer. Just stay calm… it will be over soon. Moments later…FLASH! One-one-th—CRACK! Oh god… this is the closest it’s ever been. I peeked out the netting again just as the lightning exploded the ground just hundreds of feet from my tent. FLASH! CRACK! BLAST! I cowered in a ball and clasped my hands over my ears. The clap of thunder sent a high-pitched bang into the sky and reverberated down the canyon while the ground rumbled below me. Adrenaline pumped through my veins and my heartbeat thumped audibly in my chest. I lay paralyzed on the floor for several minutes as many more strikes touched down and eventually the storm peaked and passed. The hail softened and tapered off over the next half hour before another wave of lightning came. The Great Storm (which clearly made a name for itself amongst the few who met it that day) had come quick butwith a vengeance and I had just nearly missed its fury. Hello High Sierra thunderstorm, it was an absolute terror to meet you.
Human persistence and perseverance is incredible. Yes, the weather was less than predictable this trip. But it doesn’t compare to the mind game and emotional stressors that came with it. When I was curled up in the fetal position while the deafening thunder clapped overhead I questioned everything in life. I gave up so many times in that tiny tent but somehow was able to sleep off the doubt and continue the next day only to be faced with morestorms for 10 days straight. “The worst weather in the 40 years I’ve hiked these mountains,” described Sam, a 69 year-old retired man on his 9th journey through the JMT. The doubt skyrocketed when I’d say bittersweet goodbyes to the trail-mates I’d met along the way, Sam included. The magnificent landscape was just too treacherous now for some to continue. I questioned if I should go on every single day. But the thru-hiking mentality is not one of “I need to go X miles tomorrow,” it’s a long-distance game to the finish. It takes endurance, flexibility and the objective mindset to take what may *look* like a step back (for rest-time or to let the storm pass) in order to make the rest of the thousands of steps ahead.
I completed my thru-hike (backcountry jargon for completing a long-distance hike in one trip) two weeks after The Great Storm on the top of Mt. Whitney at 7:00 am with 10 others whom I’d celebrated the breathtaking moments and endured the calamitywith; they were my family now and we stuck with it until the end. Many of us hiked solo, but we were never truly alone. We earned every mile of the John Muir Trail. Collectively, we mentally gave up hundreds of times during the storms, aches and pains, and bitter cold nights but all found a meager bit of internal fortitude to move on in the morning. We were all colors, ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes joined by a single commonalty; we survived the Sierra, together. No piece of fancy gear got us through the hailstorms, it was the ability to keep an open mind during times of adversity and embrace the grand power of the Sierra Nevadas in all her forms… that we surely did. Out there, we were the student to which Mother Nature spoke and she taught us just how small, and how great we are.
Maybe you are a fellow hiker. Maybe you are not. Regardless, I bet something drives you or draws you in. Whatever it is you want, you could be this uncompromising about the forward motion to achieve it. You can feel a clarity and purpose and innately believe that you are on the right track. My hope for all humans is that we will identify what we crave and move closer to it every day while ignoring the non-believers who think it’s too dangerous, messy or worthless to be passionate about. The journey may be even more beautiful than any reward.
Part 1 - The facts
Today marks 5 years since I got hit by a falling Bay tree on a backpacking trip in Big Sur. My medical records, photos and memories have been tucked away until I was ready to sort through them. And here we are. It's not pretty, but it is a complete passage from my heart about the 1 in 32 Million encounter I had with mother nature on August 26, 2012. WARNING - the photos are not for the squeemish.
Saturday, August 25
My birthday weekend started with the most incredible day long music festival in Monterey that Mumford & Sons hosted. This is before they got really really big, so the intimate gathering was something to remember. I bought a shirt there as a goody to remember. I still have that shirt. It's bloody, dirty, tattered and cut up the side so they could get it off of me in the hospital. Surely a different type of keepsake. But man that shirt was great for the one day I used it.
Sunday, August 26
Morning: A little groggy from the festivities the night before, my friend Jared and I slowly made our way to a yummy breakfast and headed down the 1 to trailhead of Sykes Hotsprings in Big Sur, CA where our 2-day (turned 5 hour) backpacking adventure would begin. We arrived around noon and laid out all of the stuff for packing. We quickly realized there was WAY TOO MUCH. I was wearing my dad's North Face steel framed backpack from the 70's so that didn't really lend itself to a lot of extra weight. But with a birthday to be celebrated, we stuffed little goodies in with the essentials. Our friend Danny was planning to meet us the next day with the finer luxuries. We departed the trailhead around 1PM.
The trail to sykes is a moderate hike with a steep climb in the beginning to kick your booty and then a winding path taking you away from the ocean and up the canyon following the Big Sur River. There are several creek crossings along the way to take breaks.
4PM - Our last break was on a log about where we scarfed a Cliff bar that would hopefully carry us through the last couple miles to dinner. Addmittedly, I was a little cranky. A tad hung over, a tad tired, a tad hungry and ready to be there. But still with 4 miles to go. I tuned on some music to change up the headspace and we continued on our way. If we had just stayed on that log for 30 more seconds...
5:30PM - About a mile past Barlow Flatts camp, I was leading the way up a slight incline. On the right was a bank of hundreds of trees continuing up the mountain. And on the left was a steep slope covered in remnants of trees past fallen. I heard the crack of a tree in front and to the right of me up the mountain. This is all I remember.
I have a brief flash of memory during the fall of getting the wind knocked out of me and feeling a blow to my forehead. The next memory I have is being about 15 feet down the steep slope on my stomach with my head down the mountain. My waist strap had broken and my backpack had flipped over my head with the chest strap choking me. I had no idea what had just happened, but I did know that I was in trouble. I let out some gasping calls for help.
Jared had ended up further down the mountain, but unharmed. Within a short period of time, he had crawled back up to help. We managed to unbuckle the chest strap and get the pack off providing a brief moment of relief. I slowly started to open my eyes and take inventory of what was going on. blood. lots of blood. Without moving my body too much, we took inventory of the situation. Blood coming out of mouth, nose and head. Giant abrasions along most of my body, hard to breathe and intense throbbing in my head and upper abdomen. I passed out and came back a couple times until I was stable enough to comprehend what was going on.
6PM: At this point, I was sitting against a tree when I heard the familiar jingle of oncoming hikers. We yelled up to them for help. Nia, Rachel and their sweet black lab were on their way back from their hot springs day trip when they heard our cries from below. They had heard the tree fall from a ways back, but had no idea what the result would be shortly thereafter. Coincidences that are not coincidences at all:
1. Nia and Rachel are runners.
2. It isn't that common to do a day trip to Sykes. It's about 22 miles round trip, so it's much more common to hike in, spend the night and hike out the next day. Because of this, they didn't have a lot of stuff and were able to get out to call for help fast.
3. These are the last 2 people we saw that night.
Without hesitations, the girls threw down a clean towel to help clean me up. They talked us through the situations so we could evaluate and make a plan. At this point, we realized that the blood from my mouth was from biting my tongue when I hit my head. Phew. Also at this point - shock and adrenaline kicked in. And for whatever reason, I just tuned over on my hand and knees and started to crawl over the fallen tree to get up to the trail. All 3 of them were trying to stop me. I don't remember much, but the tunnel vision to get my ass up onto a flat surface. So I did that. Shock is an incredible thing. I went from writhing in pain and tears to climbing back up within minutes.
Once up on the trail, I decided that I also wanted to keep hiking to the hot springs bc that apparently sounded like a great place to wash my wounds. I'm really glad there were other people there who were more rational. We decided that the best thing to do would be to get to a place where we could set up the tent and get my wounds taken care of while Nia and Rachel ran out to call 911 (cell service was 9 miles away.) So we slowly hobbled back to barlow flats to make camp for the night
6:30PM - Nia and Rachel set off on their way for help - my fate in their hands. Incredibly Vulnerable moment #1.
Jared made a fire and I tried to help myself. Tears of frustration started to fall as the shock faded and the realization of my current state set in. I was 9 miles into the woods, completely mangled head to toe, unable to do anything, pain worsening and I had just gotten hit by a 18in in diameter falling Bay Tree. what. the. fuck. How does one even start to make sense of that. A humbling moment to say the least. As night fell, the shivers that come after you get really bad wounds started to creep in. We had a tiny little first aide kit without bandages big enough to cover the wounds. So they stayed open, raw, susceptible to infection and sensitive to the crisp night air. I tried to stay warm by the fire, but my energy level was starting to drastically diminish.
8PM - by nightfall, I had no other option but to lay down. My breath had become very shallow as there was piercing pain in my chest with each breath. My abdomen and head pounded with an aching throb that worsened as the temperature dropped and time went on.
The next several hours were some of the most humbling, and miserable, of my life. The lowlights included:
1. Another search was going on closer to the road. So a helicopter flew over 4 times. I thought that it was searching for me and couldn't find me. I can't accurately describe the desperation I felt every time I heard it fly off into the distance again as my physical state was getting worse.
2. Coyotes. There was a pack of coyotes nearby that kept howling. All I kept thinking is "I'm a big bloody piece of meat. why is this happening"
3. Bc of my chest pain, I could on;y lay on my side. But both sides had burn wound degree abrasions. I'll let you use your imagination there.
5. Those abrasions started sticking to my pants. Fuck that hurt.
4. As time passed and the temp dropped, my body stiffened. This meant that I could not move to go to the bathroom, change positions bc my legs were numb, or do anything at all on my own.
5. I could't cry. This is the time where my (semi-concussed) head started to wander. It didn't go to many pretty places. Crying made the pain in my chest shoot through my entire body. To keep that in was pure torture.
Monday, August 27
Midnight - One thing that my brain loved to do during this time was calculate how long it would be until help arrived. The girls left at 6:30PM. It probably took them 2-3 hours to get to cell service. Then they would need to organize help and get to me. Midnight sounded about right. Midnight came and went. Nothing. 1AM came and went. Nothing. At this point, my hope was so small. Maybe the girls didn't tell someone - they are strangers (duh - this wouldn't happen, but at the time I was not rational), Maybe they couldn't find me. No helicopters anymore. Maybe we'd have to wait till morning and Jared would need to hike out and I'd stay here alone. Maybe I wouldn't make it until then. The rabbit hole was deep and endless.
1:30AM - In the midst of this emotional low, I was constantly scanning the dark surroundings in desperation to find some life. Someone to help us. It's probably the only time in my life that I will hope to see a human in the woods. And at 1:30 AM, that time had come. I saw a headlamp. I heard the loud footsteps. Like an army marching through the forrest, one headlamp after another rounded the corner. The place we were stationed was down a steep trail off the main trail. SO we started shouting. And this is where I can't quite describe the rebirth of hope. One by one, each of the 14 members *heroes* of the search & rescue team, who were the 2nd on-calls, came from all the way up from Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel to save my ass.
The next hour was spent taking inventory of the injuries, getting vitals/ IV situated, finding stabilization and loading me up on stretcher made to navigate the Big Sur Terrain. They wouldn't use a helicopter to get my bc there were too many trees. So it took awhile for them to assemble a secondary S&R team since the first was on another accident closer to the road (the heli I was hearing earlier), make a plan, get to Big Sur and hike in. Every man had at least 50lbs of gear plus their full uniform. They are truly remarkable human beings.
The next 5 hours were spent on said stretcher. This thing has a rope ladder on the front where 3 guys acted as the accelerator going uphill, and 3 guys on the back who acted as the breaks going downhill, Then one guy right behind my head who held the stretcher up and acted as the shocks while going over trees/rivers/rocks etc. I wasn't allowed any water or pain meds bc they weren't sure what was going on inside. I also couldn't sleep due to concussion. And bac to the chest pain - if I couldn't cry bc the movement hurt my chest too much, imagine what bouncing around on a stretcher for 5 hours felt like - on the wounds that were not completely dried to my pants. Yeah - fucking sucked.
6:30AM - we weren't to the road yet when they finally got cell service. First thing to do was call my parents. To call my parents in this state, after they lost their only other child, my brother, only 3 years prior, oh the heartbreak. I felt guilt for doing this to them, I felt their fear and sadness - everything I had already been experienced was now amplified by the fact that they were now feeling it too. Oh the joys of being an empath...
7:30AM - As the sun started to lighten the sky, we arrived to the ambulance that was waiting in the parking lot. Sandy was the paramedic, the sweetest man to meet that morning. In an effort to not let me fall asleep, he asked me everything on that hour ride to Community Hospital Of Monterey Bay (CHOMP.) He didn't ask how my body was feeling, he already knew. He asked about my heart, my emotions, my fears, my family and Brooklin and the next few days. You know how certain people are just placed for certain reasons? Sandy was placed in my life at that moment to help me process what had just happened and prepare me for what was to come. A transition that was critical in my mental wellbeing. He also asked if we should stop to buy a lotto ticket bc never in his 30 years as a paramedic had he heard of someone getting hit by a falling tree. (come to find out that the odds are 1 in 32 Million - maybe I should have taken him up on the offer. His sense of humor spoke my language and maybe even found a small smile.
9AM - I was checked in to the ICU at CHOMP and immediately scanned head to toe to understand injuries. I was forced to lay on my back in the CAT scan and the pain was so unbearable that I screamed. "Can we get some more morphine, please?" the nurse requested "Oh and by the way, can you try to stay still?" Sure... I'll get right on that.
10AM - The CT scan showed that I was bleeding internally, had badly bruised lungs and had hit my head. The hospital records noted that the liver laceration was a grade 2-3 on a scale of 1-6. A grade 3 or above requires medical intervention within the first hour (the golden hour) to stop the bleeding. Here I am - 17 hours later.
A helicopter was ordered immediately to transport me to the Level 1 Trauma Center at San Jose Regional Hospital where I spent the next 4 days.
The first order of business was getting my internal bleeding stabilized. Little did they know, my body had already done that on its own. Magical. This is where Brooklin saw me for the first time. She cried. I cried. I was unrecognizable. Not the mommy she knew. Not the way I ever wanted her to see me. And apparently my breath stunk - that's mostly what she remembers. Which I think it a good thing. I don't remember much of the rest of the day as they finally let me sleep. Phew.
Tuesday, August 28, My 26th Birthday
Things were almost stable, but they couldn't figure out why I was throwing up so much. Several times through the night I was up. Oh the pain of throwing up in pain. Yuck. Tuns out, I was allergic to Zophran. The medicine they administer intravenously to stop nausea usually caused by the pain meds. Oh the irony... To stop the vomiting, I was given a really intense medicine that put me to sleep. So that's how I spent my birthday from 2PM on through the next 14 hours.
Thursday, August 30
In the afternoon, I was finally able to go home. My dad loaded me up in the car. I looked like I had gotten in a fight with a tree... Ha!...oh wait... Twigs sticking out of my hair, blood and dirt still on my face, 2 solid black eyes. I asked for a burger on the way home. Needless to say, we went through the drive-through...
The next week was spent at my parents house where I was visited by a burn wound care nurse several times. She bathed me and teated all of my wounds including a gnarly infection I had gotten due to a laceration on my right hand. I already feel there is nothing I could quite do to repay all of the sacrifices my parents had made to raise us, but to be laid out on their couch as an independent adult and have them do everything for me again - that's as humbled as you can get, folks.
On day 10 of recovery, as I was just starting to bounce back, I was hit with the first bought of poison oak of my life. It had gotten in my blood and had delayed onset. It was everywhere. Just to throw Salt - Errrrr, Poison Oak - on the wound.
This concludes Part One of this story. Part Two will follow in the coming weeks. I'm sure you think that the actual act of getting hit by a tree is the catalyst of this story, but as the one who lived to tell the tale, I can assure you that the months that followed were just as transformative, tragic, resilient, sudden and juicy as the hours that followed - both physically and emotionally. Both of which I still deal with, I mean - invite with open arms - to this day. Stay tuned...