Okay back at it.
We were discussing reasons why the AT is so damn hard.
3. You Can Catch Stuff
This is probably one of the other most common reasons people leave the Trail. GASTROENTERITIS!!! The Runs. Montezuma’s Revenge. Dysentery. Food Poisoning. It goes by many names but its all the same thing. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Think about the idea of having that while on a 6 month hike! What is the most common phrase uttered by victims of gastroenteritis? “I was running to the bathroom all day”. While hiking there is no “running to the bathroom”. You are IN the bathroom 24 hours a day. Running to the bathroom in the woods means- stopping, taking off your pack, setting it somewhere safe, grabbing your toiletry supplies, walking 200 feet off trail, DIGGING a hole 6 inches deep, propping your body so as to avoid crapping on your boots/pants/legs, and then somehow ending up comfortable enough to relieve yourself. In fact its such an intricate dance that there is a whole mantra about it complete with acronym, Leave No Trace aka LNT. Now imagine your worst bout of the ole Backfield In Motion and imagine trying to abide by those rules. I predict horrible, horrible failure. Is there a
lightweight heavyweight version of adult diapers for hiking?
In a past life I was a travel agent. That offered a lot of benefits but the best was discounted travel. As a result a group of co-workers and I were able to take a trip to Thailand for around $500 for airfare and 4-star hotel for 11 days. BTW, I highly recommend this profession if you love to travel and making a lot of money isn’t essential to you. It’s a great college job too. Perfect in fact.
No your mind isn’t playing tricks with you. That is a flushable, floor toilet. I had heard that Asia was going to introduce me to the concept of poo-ing in a hole in the ground but this was different. Immediately my reason for even entering the bathroom disappeared. My body quickly realized this was not going to happen. But wait– didn’t an old guy just come out of here? Didn’t he looks as if he was lucky to be able to bend down to tie his own shoes? If he can do this I CERTAINLY can. So I give it the ole college try.
Step 1- drop pants around ankles
Step 2- straddle “toilet”
Step 3- realize that dropped pants around ankles are now covering the path of entry for what I am about to do
Step 4- be completely dumbfounded about how the hell this is supposed to work
Step 5- remove pants and underwear (yep this is getting George Costanza here)
Step 6- resume previous position
Step 7- realize that the “catcher position” is the least comfortable position for doing something that requires relaxation
Step 8- attempt a more semi-standing option
Step 9- notice legs begin to shake due to unnaturally held posture
Step 10- abort and walk out of bathroom completely dejected, having let my country down and undoing years of progress since WWII
Let’s appreciate for a moment that at a given point someone could have walked in that door and seen a guy with no pants, shoes and a tshirt on, standing over a toilet with his legs shaking like jello. Horrible. So if this was my non-urgent, controlled, clean, private experience with poo-ing in a hole, I am SUPER excited to do this in the woods, surrounded by man-eating bears, death-harbinger tics, and Deliverance Hillbillies. Needless to say the rest of my time in Asia would only prove more
uncomfortable difficult as the quality of bathrooms decreased and the need for them increased. At one point there was the quintessential hole-in-the-ground with naught but a bucket of water and a cup for “wiping”. I was aghast at the quality of this 3rd world “bathroom”. Ironically it was no worse than a privy on the AT. Actually it was probably better.
I think for true perspective into the bowel habits of hikers we need to examen popular culture. Namely, the Oregon Trail. Similar situation, different motivation. Here’s what I know about the Oregon Trail- it started in Missouri and went to Oregon. Three types of people went on this trail- Bankers from Boston, Carpenters Ohio, and Farmers from Illinois. While on the trail they could buy food or hunt. If they hunted they could only carry 200lbs. They had to cross rivers and while they could employ the help of the locals, it often meant they would steal your stuff. Along the way people died. Often it was because of dysentery. So yeah, an upset stomach is serious enough that people died from it back in the day. Maybe another time I will do a post on the interplay of world travel, international espionage, and V.I.L.E. henchmen. (Did you know someone can steal a mountain?!) PS- if you’re confused right now find a person born between 1980-86 and have them read this.
The real trick with dysentery is the cause. Okay, what it boils down to is that you’ve ingested a microorganism/bug of some sort- bacteria or parasite (hopefully not a virus). Its pretty basic stuff- eat or drink something with a bug in it and get sick. That’s the easy version. In reality, its much worse (brace yourself). I’m not going to mix words- if you have food poisoning you have eaten poo. All (most?) “food/water-borne” illnesses are transmitted by poo. But wait you say, “that doesn’t make sense, I got food-poisoning from a burger” Sorry, there was poo in it. Don’t believe me- go watch Fast Food Nation or read The Jungle. Bottom line- there is ALWAYS poo in your food, there’s just a threshold at which it is considered contaminated. Mmmmmmm.
But really don’t lament that point too much, it’s much, much worse. How to do we prevent food-poisoning? We cook the food. Sorry to tell you- the process of applying heat to raw meat does not make the poo stand up and walk out of the meat. The sanitation process just kills the bugs. The poo is still there. But wait, how does this apply to the AT?
Gastroenteritis is extremely common on the Trail. As mentioned above, when it hits its bad, you’re either pooing in the woods or in a wooden outhouse. Couple that with constantly living on verge of dehydration as thru-hikers tend to do and you have a recipe for being very vulnerable to a little diarrhea ending their journey. This year on the AT there has been a tremendous outbreak of gastroenteritis along a section between Erwin, TN and Damascus, VA. EVERYONE is getting it. People are taking weeks of the trail to try to kick it. The Norovirus is assumed to be to blame. It would probably be classified as an epidemic within that area. Remember the part about poo? This means that MASSIVE amounts of people are eating tainted poo in the same area. It’s likely a contaminated water source that is very popular… contaminated with poo. But that alone wouldn’t cause an outbreak. An outbreak occurs because thru-hikers are dirty people.
The most common route of transmission on the trail is shared food. Hikers are always hungry. Offer them food and they will take it without thought. I think its called Yogi-ing. If I told you that a given individual had poo on his hands you wouldn’t sit on the same bench as him much less eat his food!!! In fact I would wager to say if you were sharing a campsite with said poo-handed person you would pack up your stuff and leave. 12am at night, driving rain and you would still get up and go rather than spend time with someone who is at peace with poo on their hands. None of us would stand for such nonsense. Well on the trail I would argue MOST people have poo on their hands.
I will post at some point about how we plan to completely avoid gastroenteritis on our hike. We put a lot of thought into this. Oh and to make matters worse, the aforementioned Leave No Trace policy calls for you to CARRY YOUR REMAINS WITH YOU. For most this only means carrying out your used toilet paper in your trash bag (yes there are zero trash cans on the trail) but some do the whole jam (even urine, weirdos). So add to the baseline grossness of your average thru-hiker the fact that many actually have poo-paper with them at all times. You know, just in case they manage to not have poo on their hands at some point they can reapply I guess. Supposed to be great for mosquitoes.
In summary, the AT if covered in poo, the people on the AT are covered in poo, and many eat it. Awesome!