Living in Limbo

February 11, 2019

Six months ago, a crashing tree branch interrupted our Pacific Crest Trail hike. After choosing foot travel as a major form of transportation for many weeks, we entered the city of Seattle by ambulance.

Thus, our time of limbo began. Recovery in the hospital quickly led to more recovery time in an apartment near the hospital. As I healed, we progressed to visiting family in Oregon, returning regularly to Seattle to check in with the doctors.

That rogue tree branch had dealt quite a wallop. I felt as if I were in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the fractured occipital condyle and carotid artery pseudoaneurysm to heal in order for the surgeon to reassemble the eight pieces of my jaw.

While in Seattle, we explored our new home.

A ride on the ferry provided a porpoise eye view of the Seattle skyline.

The Fremont Troll, one of the better known denizens of the city, lurked beneath a bridge.

Christmas sparkles enhanced an already gorgeous winter sunset peeking between skyscrapers.

Who could resist playing next to the fountain at the Seattle Center?

One day we saw dancers getting filmed in front of a street mural.

A tugboat pushed a barge full of gravel through the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks, much to our delight.

One charming result of limbo time included meeting old friends and hikers from our travels. I still giggle when I think of the dinner conversation we had with Specs, a 2017 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, now living in Seattle.

We traded tales of experiences on the trail. Specs described the odd looks given by other hikers each evening when he pulled out his after-dinner wine, packaged in a juice box with a sippy straw!

“It’s wonderful how hiking a long trail makes one appreciate the finer things in life,” I exclaimed.

Specs burst out laughing. “Yes, the perspective gained on the Appalachian Trail is what makes one designate things like wine in juice boxes as ‘finer things’ of life!”

Each time I visited the neurosurgeon, he told me my body was healing admirably, and then he’d send me off to go heal some more. When the neck brace was removed in December, I celebrated! Maybe now, four months after the accident, I would get my jaw operation!

I could scarcely contain my joy to be rid of the neck brace!

The craniofacial surgeon had other ideas. “The broken pieces in your jaw bone have grown together. Yes, there is nerve damage, and yes, none of your teeth meet, but your body has been creating new bone. We could operate, but it would put your healing back a good bit.”

“But I can’t chew, with my teeth not meeting,” I told him.

“I think orthodontics might help,” he told me. “It’s been such a long time since the accident, it might be better to look at different answers.”

He sent me to an orthodontist who had much experience with trauma victims. She was sure she could give me chewing capabilities again, possibly without surgery at all!

My mouth was measured and x-rayed and photographed. Teeth molds were made. Our most recent visit brought the fascination of seeing a digital model of my skull, with the jaw healed crooked and none of the teeth meeting.

Jay put my thoughts into words. “One wouldn’t even know how to begin to get those teeth aligned properly.”

The nurse responded encouragingly, “That’s why we have Dr. Chen! She’ll be using all this to make a plan for your teeth.”

This uncertain period, awaiting decisions and action, is almost over. My braces should arrive the last week of February, and I’ll embark on the final phase of healing. The orthodontist estimates it will take two years to put my teeth in order.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy a bit of winter in Seattle. And begin making plans for more adventures in the spring!

City people, in general, don’t talk or even smile at one another when walking. But with snow came new opportunities. I found a temporary friend.

Things That Go Whump in the Night!

This narrative was not easy to write. Most of my blog posts are light-hearted celebrations of life. Though this post is definitely a celebration of life, it is not in the least light-hearted. However, I felt it was important to write, in order to let others see how valuable it is to think logically, without panic, during an emergency.

Jay wrote much of the content of this narrative. But I put the narrative in third person, in an effort to bring some emotional space between us and the events of August 11.

August 11, 2018

3:00 a.m.


Jay’s eyes fly open to a confusion of darkness and collapsed tent. “A bear?” he wonders. “No, nothing is moving.”

Suddenly he registers a steady, burbling exhalation coming from beside him. Urgently, he reaches for Sarah. She lays still, face down under his questing hand. Something heavy rests upon the tent material on her back. A tree branch. Jay throws it off, shouting Sarah’s name. No response. He reaches out, suddenly feeling a warm, greasy liquid pooling around her head. Horror envelops him.

Struggling to his knees, Jay lifts Sarah’s face out of the blood. The gurgling noise continues below her, and he realizes he is hearing air escaping from the punctured sleeping mat, burbling through her blood.

Sarah begins to moan and struggle in his arms. Blood is pouring from a large tear in her neck. Thinking he must stop the blood, he presses fingers into her neck. Sarah cries out in pain, and Jay feels sharp bone fragments inside. Blood continues to pour out.

He struggles to lift Sarah to a sitting position. Realizing that he needs more hands, and remembering the hiker camped just a few yards down the trail, he shouts for help. The hiker, Jeff, answers. While he is coming, Jay fumbles through the tangle of collapsed tent, sleeping bags, and gear. He finds a glove, then a buff, which he tries to press against Sarah’s wound. She resists, so he hands it to her, and she holds the cloth below the upper cut.

He finds a flashlight and gets his first good look at Sarah. The bleeding has slowed. “Is she running out of blood?” he wonders. “No, she’s still conscious. That’s got to be good.”

“Do you hurt anywhere else?” he asks anxiously. He’s not sure whether to believe her when she answers in the negative. The tent and sleeping bag are so tangled around her lower torso and legs, he can’t tell if she is hurt there or not.

Jeff arrives with another flashlight. Together Jay and Jeff find the emergency locator and activate it.

“There’s a trail angel parked just half a mile from here,” Jeff tells Jay. “I’ll go see if he can help.”

Sarah is still conscious with only slowly seeping bleeding. Worried about shock, Jay tries to lay her down. She shouts in pain, and the bleeding starts again. Quickly he raises her back to a sitting position.

Jay remembers that there is phone service here. He searches through the jumble of downed tent and supplies, finding his cell phone. He kneels with Sarah leaning against him, and calls 911.

“911. What is the nature of your emergency?” The dispatcher’s voice is calm.

“My wife is bleeding out.” He blurts his biggest fear.

The dispatcher leads him through a litany of questions and answers. Though Jay tells her three times that they are on the PCT, 20 miles south of Snoqualmie, he can tell that she doesn’t really understand. She finally takes his number and tells him she will call back after initiating a rescue.

Sarah’s bleeding has slowed considerably, so he tries to lay her down. Again, the bleeding surges out afresh and Sarah moans in pain. Jay raises her, and this time sits back to back with her, giving them both some rest and support.

Jay sees the first signs of dawn as rain begins. Sarah is getting cold, and he awkwardly holds his sleeping mat over her. The 911 dispatcher calls to say help is on the way, but when asked for an ETA, she doesn’t know.

Jeff returns, but, concerning the trail angel, he can only say, “He’s incapacitated.” Jay figures the man must be drunk. Jeff calls 911 to try to give the rescue party directions. He asks Jay what else he can do to help.

“Do you have an extra tarp?” Jay asks. “Sarah is getting pretty cold.”

Jeff assembles his own tarp over Sarah and Jay as the rain continues, then leaves to try to meet the rescuers at the nearest dirt road.

There is nothing to do except wait. Sarah needs to pee. Worried about moving her and restarting the bleeding, Jay helps untangle her from the tent. As she moves to do her business, he is able to see that there are no other obvious injuries. They settle back together under the tarp, sitting on Jay’s sleeping pad. Jay texts his sister, Nancy, for moral support. She answers, which is a great comfort to him.

Four hours after the tree branch fell, the rescue team arrives with several strong young men, one EMT, and a stretcher/gurney on one wheel.

“You can’t lay her down. The bleeding will start again!” Jay is anxious that they understand. Though the rescue team has never transported a seated patient, the EMT immediately grasps the importance of Jay’s information, and directs the others to prop up Sarah with the backpacks.

A few of the rescue crew look at the branch. About four feet long, five inches at its thickest diameter, one end is a tangled weaving of branchlets and twigs. It doesn’t really look sturdy enough to have caused this much damage. Appearances are deceiving.

They trace it’s fall back to a very tall tree some distance from the tent, with a screen of healthy greenery between the tree and the tent. We would have never have seen this hanging “widow maker”. The crew reckons it was a combination of the extreme height of the tree and the light wind which brought it all the way to our clearing.

“You know, it’s very good that you activated that emergency locator beacon,” the sheriff tells Jay. “It helped us find you, and cut our response time considerably.”

Sarah is transported for an hour on the gurney, up very steep trail, across rocks, between trees. It’s rough work for the rescue crew. Another hour in a four wheel drive vehicle across bumpy dirt roads brings them to an ambulance. There the EMT takes Sarah’s blood pressure, and Jay sees relief on his face.

The ambulance negotiates small back roads, then stops at a major highway. Another ambulance driver comes aboard, and suddenly the vehicle is going at high speed, sirens flashing, often in the carpool lane, weaving down the freeway to Seattle.

The ambulance arrives at the Harbor View Medical Center, an excellent trauma hospital, at 10:00 a.m., seven hours after the tree branch fell. From here, Sarah’s health is in the hands of trained professionals.

There were so many times during this narrative when panic threatened Jay. His ability to think rationally saved my life that night. He is my hero! Calm, logical, rational thought is a skill a person can practice and learn. We will probably never go into the woods again without an emergency locator. But also, from here on out, I am going to try to practice rational thought more often. For one never knows!

Persistent or Pig-headed?

April 23, 2017

While recuperating from my broken collarbone at Merchant’s Millpond State Park, Jay and I met a couple from Quebec. Robert and Liliana were camping from the back of a motorcycle, a feat which aroused my admiration. They, in turn, were intrigued with our goal of walking 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. We enjoyed a morning of conversation, with a smattering of French, lots of slowly spoken English, and a great deal of mime to help bridge the language challenge.

At one point our talk touched upon my broken collarbone, and my determination to continue hiking. Robert told me, “I don’t know the English words, but we say there is a fine line between ‘acharnement’ and ‘entetement’.”

That sparked a lively discussion as we endeavored to puzzle out the English equivalents. For ‘acharnement’, Robert came up with the cognate, ‘perseverance’, which led Jay to contribute the word ‘persistence’. As we wrestled with the word ‘entetement’, Jay and Robert thought perhaps the word ‘stubborn’ might be the translation, but was there a better word? Liliana and I looked at each other, and spoke on the same breath, “Pig-headed!”   “Tete de cochon,” Liliana added, laughing.

That conversation has stuck with me these past nine days as I hiked with my arm in a sling and only one usable shoulder strap on my pack. In order to finish 2,000+ miles in one hiker season, one MUST be persistent. But when does persistence change to pig-headed stubbornness? Many of my family and friends think I am risking too much by hiking after only two weeks of recuperation. And yet, I am following the collective knowledge of our years of hiking experience, and the wisdom of our doctor. (“Do I think you will spend the next weeks doing nothing? Not in a million years! Just limit your mobility, add activities slowly, the way I’ve shown you, and DON’T FALL!”)

Jay and I have hiked 85 miles in the past nine days, dawdling at viewpoints, ambling through flower-strewn forest, picking and eating ramps (a wild-growing Appalachian delicacy), and just taking our time. Daily my collarbone and shoulder have hurt less and become more mobile. It has been exciting to feel it healing while experiencing the beauty of spring and know I am still making small progress upon my self-imposed goal of hiking the AT.

So, to all my friends and family who have told me, “Be careful, be safe, take care, don’t risk,”… thank you from the bottom of my heart for your concern and love. I feel very lucky to have such caring people around me! However, I think of my last words with Liliana, and I know, “It’s time to CHOOSE LIFE!”

On the Trail Again!

April 13, 2017


I saw the doctor today.  She gave me a yellow light in terms of hiking … proceed with caution!  She said my collarbone is healing well, and is much less fragile than a week ago.  I may hike, while taking a few precautions.  Hike fewer miles for a couple of weeks.  Proceed slowly and gently.  Protect the shoulder.  Give it supported exercise.  Don’t fall on it!

I can hardly wait to start walking through spring again!  We leave for Erwin tomorrow!  Hurray!

How to Heal a Cracked Clavicle?

April 9, 2017

  1. Leave the AT.   “If you fall, and jar all those little pieces apart, I can’t put it back together again,” your doctor warns.  Yes, leave the AT while healing.
  2. Steadfastly refuse to answer to the trail name, “Humpty Dumpty.”
  3. Emphatically refuse to take the pain medication prescribed by the doctor because you don’t like the way it steals your brain away.
  4. Complain about how much the broken bone hurts.
  5. Ask for help with every little task, including getting dressed. Wince and make faces of agony as your loved ones help you.
  6. Your husband gets fed up with all this. He rents a car and searches for a campground far away from the AT, somewhere exotic.  He finds Merchants Millpond State Park, very close to the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina.  “That has a nice ring to it!” he states, and makes a reservation.  When asked his thoughts, he explains, “I just wanted to leave the city.  I felt we needed to get some perspective on all this.  And if the campground is that bad, the AT will start looking pretty good!”
  7. Sit in the front seat of the car for the first three days at the campground. Try not to think of overstuffed recliners and bathrooms just down a hall.
  8. Realize that while you are camping, you don’t have to change your clothes, which is good for your shoulder.
  9. Eat lots of sardines and cheese for the omega-3s and the calcium. Hope it helps.
  10. On the fourth day at the campground, realize that the fire and brimstone in your shoulder is starting to die into smoldering embers, with only occasional flare-ups. Do the calculations, and realize that you have been living with this smashed bone for eleven days.
  11. Take a six mile easy hike, with backpacking gear in a fanny pack. The coals in your shoulder continue to glow, but no flames.  Happily begin planning your return to the AT.
  12. Realize that it is four more days until your follow-up doctor appointment. Try to enjoy the Great Dismal Swamp.
Sarah, roughing it at the Visitor’s Center at Merchants Millpond State Park.
Next stop, the Appalachian Trail!

Cracked Clavicle

March 29, 2017

I am two miles from Erwin, TN, our next resupply town.  Jay is a good ways ahead, and I am alone with warm sun in a bright, cloudless blue sky.  My pack is light, birds are singing, the trail is wide and mostly level.  Life doesn’t get better than this, and I am unequivocally happy!

The trail begins a steep slope downward, and I think, “Pay attention, Sarah!  Just because it is a beautiful day, you still need to watch your feet!”  And so I obediently watch my foot land upon some leaves, feel a golf-ball sized rock roll under the leaves, under my foot, pitching me head first down the hill.  Down I go, trying to protect my head as I approach the ground, and I know, right as I land – it’s a bad one.

The world whirls around me as I lay in the dust.  I groan, and take inventory – head fine, right arm fine, right knee bleeding slightly, left leg fine, left arm – not okay.  Fire and brimstone have suddenly taken up residence across the length of my left shoulder, dripping down my back and arm.

Slowly I undo the straps on my pack and struggle to sit up.  There, amid dirt and rocks and leaves, I cry a bit.  It hurts so much, and I can’t believe I’ve fallen on such an easy section!

Jay and I have crossed ridge tops where wind threatened to shove me over the edge.  We’ve hiked through thunder and lightning on mountain balds where the rain made the muddy trail so slick, Jay dubbed it ‘trail snot’.  We’ve slipped down several miles of ice-packed trails, struggling to maintain our balance as physics overcame shoe leather.  HOW could I have fallen on THIS easy section?

I stand, and pick up my pack.  Lucky it is so light, for I can barely swing it across my right shoulder, and there is NO WAY my left shoulder can take its share of the load.  Slowly I limp down the trail, sobbing when I occasionally jar my left side, and sobbing with relief when I finally see Jay, returning up the hill to find out what was taking me so long.

We have reservations with Mike and Peggy at Cantarroso Farms, so we call to ask for a pick up.  Then Jay carries my pack toward Erwin, and I walk, holding my arm against my side.  Mike from Cantarroso Farms hikes in a little ways to check on me, and carries my pack the last few hundred yards.  His comment on the lightness of my pack – “Now this is a lady who knows how to pack!”

Mike carrying Sarah’s pack under his arm while Sarah hobbles behind.

Mike takes us to Erwin Urgent Care, where I am x-rayed.  The doctor there is charmingly frank, “I’m a family practitioner.  I won’t be able to tell you if it’s broken until the radiologist reads the x-ray tomorrow.  I don’t even like orthopedics!  Wear a sling, and go to Johnson City or Knoxville for an expert’s advice.”

March 30, 2017

We spend the day at Cantarroso Farms, drinking in peace and quiet, watching the chickens, listening to song birds, and learning about bees!  The owners, Mike and Peggy, kindly let us watch and assist as they split a bee hive and feed their bees.  It is fascinating!

Erwin Urgent Care calls and I hear the verdict of my shoulder – “You have a cracked clavicle.  Yes, that is your collarbone.  It will take four weeks to completely heal.  You might want to consult an expert.”

March 31, 2017

So, once again, my sister becomes trail angel extraordinaire.  She drives four hours round trip on Friday after work to bring us to Knoxville, and Monday she takes me to see an expert – a doctor at Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic.

The doctor describes the break.  “The skinny part of your collarbone has crunched into the knuckly end part, with several bits and pieces cracked, like a cone scrunched onto a scoop of ice cream.  It’s not a simple little hairline fracture.  You should consider this a thoroughly broken collarbone.”

The good news?  All the pieces are in the correct place, so, as long as I give it plenty of rest, it should heal very well.  However, the doctor does get rather agitated when talking about the importance of not falling.  “Those bits and pieces are almost impossible to put together surgically, so keep it calm, and whatever you do, DON’T FALL!”

A follow-up appointment in 10 days is made.  In the meantime, what am I to do with myself?