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End of the trail:
Giardia cuts short journalist's bid to hike form Mexico to Canada

 

by ARNO HOLSCHUH

 

Arno's here and gone [photo of Arno kissing his ice pick]Where's Arno?

Right here, sitting at a computer in Arcata.

First things first: I didn't finish. Finish what? My long-planned and much ballyhooed attempt to hike the entire length of the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail in one summer (see Where's Arno?, July 25). I managed to hike through the parched wastelands of the Mojave and over the icy precipices of the High Sierra, but I failed to make it to my stated goal, British Columbia.

The furthest I got was the café and bait shop attached to small, sleepy resort just south of Crater Lake in Oregon. It was 1,800 miles down, 800 to go, and I wasn't making it another inch. I walked off the trail, set first my pack and then my butt down on the wooden bench that ran along the patio and knew it was over.

I had run out of time and my knees hurt, but there was something much deeper than that going on inside me. I was broken, in a way that one normally only hears about in those old leftist Woody Guthrie songs: Busted flat penniless, tired to the marrow of my bones and dirty with the sweat of hard physical labor.

How did it come to this? How did I change from a swashbuckling mountain goat to a feeble invalid without money, strength or a clue?

First, a biology lesson. Giardia lamblia: A single-celled, microscopic organism that exists as cysts in much of the open water in the United States. It's in our broad rivers, cow ponds and even, unbelievably, in our pristine mountain springs. Ingestion of the cysts triggers a change in the little buggers, which suddenly perk up and start motoring around your lower digestive tract by means of five little flagella.

All very cute, except that those little five-legged so-and-sos cause giardiasis, a mostly harmless but debilitating disease. In the professionally polished words of the National Institute of Health, "the individual will experience sudden explosive, watery, foul-smelling diarrhea; excessive gas; abdominal pain; bloating; nausea; tiredness; and loss of appetite. Upper gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting may predominate."

Believe me, when you have the disease, you find more colorful, powerful and obscene descriptors for those symptoms. "Riding the G train," as hikers call it, can give you a pretty rough time of it -- the disease cut my daily mileage from 30 to 20 miles, forced me to sleep an extra three hours a night and severely taxed the toilet paper supplies of anyone I met.

mountains, meadow, trees and clear sky
The High Sierra - photo by Arno Holschuh

I started suffering from the symptoms (and swearing in ways that do not belong in a family publication) in early August, just after passing through Lassen National Volcanic Park. Having had giardia once before, during a 1999 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I recognized its growing severity with a sense of dread.

To be precise, I felt like I was stuck in quicksand. I could not get myself to take the necessary action to solve the problem -- taking time off the trail and getting a prescription for antibiotics. I chose the lazier route: flagrant refusal to read the writing on the wall. When I stopped eating as much at dinner, I attributed it to the heat. When I started having cramps, I tried to blame it on the chili-dog and nacho meal I wolfed at Burney Falls State Park. When I started getting chills in the 90 degree heat, I got worried.

But -- and this may sound weird -- I still didn't want to stop hiking. Even though the facts of the matter could not have been any clearer, I felt this duty to continue. It was like Me versus the Gradual Onset. I'd coach myself: I'm a damn good trekker, I'd say to myself. I can still make 25 miles today if I start early and stay focused. Plus, I just wrote an article for a newspaper back home telling everyone about how I was going to hike to Canada. No way am I failing at such a well-publicized enterprise.

Then one morning, I woke up, felt nauseous and threw up all the food I had worked so hard to force down at dinner. Life's never without humor, and this moment had its own grim joke: I was sleeping in a beautiful spot, perched on a promontory surrounded by three cliffs. I remember noticing how every time I -- excuse me -- hurled, it would take a full three seconds to hit bottom.

When I finally could, I looked up and saw a surreal scene: bright half moon illuminating the massive slopes of Mt. Shasta. I almost swooned, lost my horizon and fell back into my bag.

Arno's thumbs-down gestureI was safely ensconced in a motel room in Weed within days, taking antibiotics and eating melba toast. I had been picked up at a remote road crossing by a good Samaritan the morning after my vomiting and taken into Dunsmuir. After being rejected by one motel owner who was worried that I might endanger the lives of his family with my (very noncontagious) disease, I hitched a ride into Weed, found the Motel 6 and fell into bed.

I eventually got back on the trail, hiking northward as before. But I knew I'd never make it to Canada; the amount of time and money that giardiasis had absorbed was too great. It turned out that when I inadvertently ate that giardia cyst, I was also setting myself up to eat a lot of crow -- the giardia, in short, had won.

That knowledge made it a lot harder to continue my everyday grind of hiking, ramen and a hard bed at night. I was missing something that the classic mystery writer Raymond Chandler called "that extra inch of steel" -- that bit of aggressive verve so necessary for achieving a long-term goal.

So when I walked up to that resort's little café, I decided to stop. My life took me interesting places afterward -- a hitchhike with Brad the truck driver (who swore that all long-distance haulers secretly lead the life of modern Cassanovas); a drive around the rim of Crater Lake with Japanese tourists; a jouncing trip through the backcountry of Oregon in a 1973 VW Thing. My last week was spent at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, toasting the sunrise with straight tequila and marvelling at the diversity of the human race (for more about Burning Man, see Coffee in the Desert, Sept. 14, 2000).

But my dream of finishing, the image I had carried in my mind like a lover's photo in a locket, was gone. In its place came a large dose of humility. A sad but perfectly self-evident truth hit home with me this summer: You can't always get what you want.

It's hard for a cynic like myself to describe, but my inability to finish what I started has given me a new appreciation for what really counts: not the goal, but the opportunity to be alive, healthy and free. To have fun, go skinny-dipping in a mountain stream, ride around in a classic car with the top down and eat some damned good barbecue. To remember that your life is your own, to do with as you please, and that finding adventure is generally a question of remembering to look.

Which is not to suggest that everyone should, could or would quit their jobs upon reading this account and immediately buy a vintage VW, start an epic hike or -- God forbid -- contract giardiasis. Responsibility is real and living up to your promises is the essence of growing up -- well, at least inasmuch as I have grown up. What I discovered this summer is that when life will not allow you to live up to your promises, you don't have to play dead.

 

Arno Holschuh was a staff writer for the North Coast Journal from March 2000 through April 2002. Earlier this month he relocated to Berlin, where for the next nine months he will study the German alternative press on a Fulbright Fellowship.

 


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