I was 12 years old when I hit the wall. I had been hiking all day, walking many miles into the woods to a collection of cabins where we’d spend three nights. I was with about 16 others, but we had broken into smaller groups, hiking with friends or those who hiked at the same pace.
While I was used to walking and hiking with a pack, this day, I had set a pace with a few older friends, and we had gotten lost. After two hours, we found our way and continued onto the camping site. A program leader and a few others started back to find us since we hadn’t arrived and it was getting late. We met up with them, and as we told stories about where we had ended up, I kept chugging along, adjusting my pack on my shoulders and anticipating a break because I was tired.
Then it happened. Without warning, I was lying in the bushes, collapsed and crying. I had no idea what had hit me. I struggled to rise, but the leader told me to stay down.
After several minutes, they helped me to my feet and let me catch my balance. Someone else took my backpack and I was led to the campsite, which incredibly was just around the corner, maybe 300 feet away. I had almost made it.
I rested near the brook that ran into the lake with my younger brother and a long-time childhood friend. I had a drink and a snack, then pulled off one of my Cougar boots. For those not a child of the 80s, that was the popular boot everyone wore from fall to spring. They were warm and relatively waterproof. Great for hiking.
The problem was, walking with exhausted feet for miles meant I had not been picking them up, and I was hitting my toes against roots and rocks sticking up on the trail. The first boot I took off revealed a blood-covered sock. When I pulled the sock off, the toenail of my large toe came with it. The other foot was only mildly better. There was less blood and the toenail was still attached. It didn’t fall off until the next day.
After soaking my feet in the water, cleaning up the blood and putting on dry socks, I was back up and enjoying the weekend. It was surprising how the loss of toenails delivered no real pain to my feet.
The place we stayed had a bunk house for the girls and one for the boys. There was a mess cabin where we ate our meals we didn’t take outside. The lake was right there and canoes were provided. We hiked, swam, canoed, sat around the campfire at night and had a great time in the woods.
Friends from my childhood in one of the many canoes on site.
While I’ve been on countless camping trips, this one stood out because of my toenails, which grew back over time, and the experience of hitting the wall.
Back then, I knew the wall as the physical limit a body could endure. While I’ve exhausted my body since on various hiking and camping outings, I have not hit the wall again. Why I had that day will remain a mystery.
Researching it today reveals this from the old InterWeb: In general, hitting the wall is depleting your stored glycogen and the feelings of fatigue and negativity that typically accompany it. Glycogen is carbohydrate that is stored in our muscles and liver for energy.
Connection with Northern Survival
With this incident in my past, I thought about John, who was not used to hiking, in my novel Northern Survival. He was dragging his feet and bumping his toes against roots and rocks. I knew what would happen if he kept it up.
After a long day of hiking, he pulled off his boot and found a bruised toe with a toenail barely hanging on. He lost the nail while he slept and woke the next morning shocked it was gone.
The scene that reveals the initial damage to Johns toenail.
His sock, wet from sweat and his soaked boot, stuck to his skin, and he gingerly pulled it off. He stared at the mess at the base of his big toe. The blister had long since busted, and puss and blood stained the skin.
“I see two problems.” Olive knelt before him and opened her pack. “The blister and the banging.”
“Both won’t be a problem if we treat them. The blister is chafing from your wet boot.” She unlaced the boot on his left foot. “We’ll let this one air while we break.” She removed it, then peeled off the wet sock. “You have the start of a few blisters on this one, too.”
“And the banging? What do you mean by that?”
“You don’t lift your feet high enough, which means your big toe takes a beating. If you stepped on top of the rocks and roots instead of between them, you’d reduce the damage.” She pressed on the big toenail, and pain shot up his foot. “The nail’s going to fall off.”
“No, it won’t.”
She gently lifted it from the skin. “It will. Don’t worry; it won’t be ugly for long. It will grow back normal.”
“How do you know?”
“I lost both of mine on a camping trip when I was twelve.” She withdrew a small white bottle with clear liquid and removed the cap. “This will hurt a little, but you’re man enough to take it.” She held a rag beneath the toe and poured the liquid over it.
NOTE: The images were from that camping trip. They were taken with the only camera I owned at the time, a 110 pocket camera. I scanned them a 300 dpi, and these are the results.