Follow Cat Pugh as She Takes on the Appalachian Trail
Name: Cat Pugh
From: Wyalusing, PA
Goal: To hike from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail
Diagnosis: Type 1 Diabetes
Cat Pugh, a 23-year-old with type 1 diabetes, recently set out in to hike the Appalachian Trail (or A.T. in hiker speak) with two friends.She's been dreaming about completing the entire behemoth—all 2,190 miles of it—for a few years now; ever since she and a relative hiked an 80 mile stretch of it and she fell in love with the unique hiking culture. Cat, who recently graduated from Kutztown University with a bachelor's degree in biology, decided this was the ideal time in her life to go fo it. (She has plans to attend grad school in the fall.) .
Hiking the A.T. from start to finish is an enormous undertaking that requires as much preparation as it does steely determination. According to the Appalachain Trail Conservancy (ATC) thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike every year but only one in four completes the task. Those daunting stats don't worry Cat who says, "I'm just too stubborn to fail!"
Miles hiked: All 2,235 of them!
Miles to go: ZERO
After nearly 7 months, I am officially an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker! I'm proud to say that I've covered over 2,000 miles on my journey from Georgia (back on a mild day in February) to Maine (I reached the end of the A.T. in early September), through snow, over mountains and under boulders. It's hard to put into word the happiness I felt at achieving my goal but I suppose I'll try.
The last leg of the trail felt relatively easy compared to the rest, which was unexpected because the reputation of the “100 Mile Wilderness” is rather treacherous. In fact, there's a sign at the start ominously warning hikers not to "underestimate the difficulty" of the longest stretch of wilderness on the trail. Hikers are also told to be prepared with food and supplies to last a minimum of 10 days as there are no places to "obtain supplies or get help." I was nervous because hiking 10 miles a day might be tricky but necessary since carrying more than 10 days worth of food would definitely be difficult for me.
However, there were no major mountains, and I had gotten so used to walking 20 miles in a day that my hiking buddies—Baloo, Bodybag and their dog Z—and I were able to knock it out in just 5 days. For the last 20 miles or so, we had a view of Mount Katahdin—the final summit—which was such a thrill! There's something about being able to SEE your goal that really motivates you to keep going!
I always knew that I would make it to the end. It would be a little crazy to go into something like this and not have that mindset, but I also understand the very real barriers that prevent some people from finishing. A lot of people had doubts that I’d finish solely due to my type 1 diabetes, but I never even considered that a barrier.
Of course, it did delay me a few times (like when I had to waste an entire day waiting around for a new Dexcom to arrive after I accidentally got mine wet...whoops!), but it never stopped me. If anything, the snow and the constantly wet clothes were more annoying than worrying about my blood sugar and insulin!
My lack of concern over my diabetes was in part due to the wonderful support system I had, which I spoke about in an earlier post. To any type 1 looking to take on a challenge like the A.T, my number one piece of advice is to assemble a solid support team. If it wasn’t for the people shipping me supplies, my mom dropping off my insulin, friends providing shelter every so often, old friends sending encouragement, new friends providing snacks, and a whole ton of kind strangers leaving trail magic, I’m not sure I would have made it!
You might think I’m ready for a long nap after all that hiking, but the truth is I’m already dreaming about my next major hike. I really do feel like I can accomplish anything now, and I’m already looking into the Pacific Crest Trail (If you’ve read Wild, you know what I’m talking about) and the Camino, a 500-mile walk through Spain.
My experience on the A.T. has prepared me well for any future hikes. I definitely know what to pack and the right food to bring along now. But those are long-term plans. In the short-term, I’m considering participating in some local half-marathons and other ways to keep my body in shape and moving. I've gotten so accustomed to all that daily exercise that I don't see myself putting up my feet and becoming a couch potato anytime soon.
For now, my camping gear is at the ready in case I can't resist the urge to snooze under the stars. That’s the part I think I'll miss the most—sleeping in the fresh air.
This has been such a special journey to share with you all. I hope it's made you feel like you can do anything you set your mind to—regardless of your diagnosis—because the truth is you can! It just may take a little extra preparation and a secret stash of watermelon gummies! Until my next adventure...
Miles hiked: 2,000
Miles to go: 235
Hard to believe but I've made it all the way to Maine, the most challenging, rugged and remote state on the Appalachian Trail. I am totally loving it here! Though Vermont was definitely one of my favorite states and New Hampshire had some incredible views.
My knees are hurting a bit at this point, since a lot of the current terrain includes steep downhill walks, but it feels incredible to be so close to the end. One thing I’m ready for? To be done walking! One thing I’m not ready for? To say goodbye to all the friends I’ve made on the trail. Two of those recent friends include Baloo and Bodybag and Bodybag’s dog, Z. These are all trail names, of course…
Another companion of mine that I’ve loved seeing every day? My boyfriend, Mike! However, I’m going to be missing his assistance when he heads back to school and I’m stuck carting around my own backpack again, instead of leaving it in his car.
In case you're wondering what happened to the friends I began this journey with, Brooke and George, they completed the trail! I’ll be seeing them once I head back to Pennsylvania.
As I’m coming to the end of my journey, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the parallels between hiking the Appalachian Trail and living with diabetes. Sometimes diabetes means hitting an extreme blood sugar low when you least expect it. Sometimes hiking means taking an hour and a half to walk ONE MILE through a pit of boulders, which is something that recently happened to me!
I’m referring to Mahoosuc Notch, a deep gap with 10 foot tall boulders that you have to climb under, over, and in between. Obstacles at every turn! We made it through, though, and only slightly scathed, but I was definitely happy to be with friends, a very helpful and, ahem, supportive (literally, he had to help push me up a few boulders), boyfriend.
As much as I’ve enjoyed all my solo hiking time, stretches of the trail like Mahoosuc make me wonder how people do it alone. I may find out once I hit the 100-mile wilderness, the stretch at the end of the trail that does not pass through any towns. Pure Maine Wilderness! Being able to taste the finish line also has me reflecting on how, exactly, I have been able to hike over 2,000 miles, through blazing sun and frigid snow, over boulders, through mud, across creeks, all while carting around insulin and dealing with blood sugar imbalances.
You know what I’ve realized? How thankful I am for my incredible support system. If it wasn’t for my mom bringing me insulin, my friends “waiting up” for me, my boyfriend helping me slack pack, OnTrack Diabetes asking me to share my story, and a whole bunch of people who were once strangers providing me with trail magic, a warm bed, fun tales, and solid advice, I’m not sure I would have been able, or wanted, to finish this journey. So thank you for being a part of my great adventure. I’ll see you at the finish line!
Week 23: From the Muddy Mountains of Vermont
Miles hiked: 1670
Miles to go: 520
I am in Vermont! Or, as it’s known on the trail, Vermud. You can guess why? (See photo, below) You might think that I’d prefer to be in a state that doesn’t have squishy terrain, but so far I have LOVED it here.
The forests are different; some of them are alpine, that means there are different plants and different trees than I am used to seeing. What does it mean for hiking? That I have been paying more attention to the flora since I arrived. It can be so easy to get used to the beautiful views while walking over 1,000 miles that you stop really looking up and appreciating it, so the slight change of scenery has been a great reminder to pay attention to all the lovely green details.
Speaking of taking full advantage of all the views, I decided that for these last few months (August and September) I am NOT climbing any mountains if it is going to be cloudy at the top. I missed enough views in the snowy Smokies. If waiting for views means that I might be hanging out a little bit longer than expected, that’s okay with me.
My breezy travels through alpinus Vermont have included a few delicious meals, too. I thought it’d be back to the same old wraps after my time at home in Pennsylvania, but this week I met a few new friends on the trail and we all pitched in for a rather extravagant breakfast. Blueberry pancakes, eggs, biscuits—I was in heaven!
Another fun snack I tried this week? Dehydrated hummus. Sounds weird, but all you do is mix some water into a pouch and voila—a creamy mediterranean spread at your fingertips. It’s quite an upgrade for my wraps, to which I’ve also been adding some foraged wild black trumpet mushrooms...sooo tasty!
As great as this week has been, I’m even more excited to cross into New Hampshire next week, because my boyfriend will be joining me! And I’ll have the opportunity to slack pack—hiker speak for abandoning your backpack while you hike (if you are lucky enough to have a friend who is able to hold on to it for a while).
Since he will have his car, we have had to be a bit creative in planning. Here’s what we came up with: every day, I will get up and hike as usual 15 to 20 miles. My boyfriend will drive to where we intend to finish, and then hike TOWARD me, and then we’ll either continue to hike together for a bit, or call it a day, set up camp, and head out again in the morning. It’ll be nice to have a hiking buddy again, especially for when I have to wade across rivers in Maine. That’s all for now!
Oh, have I mentioned that I’ve now seen five bears? No particularly interesting details there, but how cool is that? Maybe it’ll be six next time I check in!
Miles Hiked: 1,485
Miles to go: 564
What state was I in last time I updated everyone? It feels like I’m flying through them now! And, well, technically, I kind of am, because this week I went SKYDIVING! And lived to tell the tale (and to plan my next dive).
Getting back on the trail after last week’s digestion bout I was ready to focus on knocking out 20 mile days. That being said, I didn’t have the most “exciting” plans—my only real goal was to reach a deli by the end of one day. But, I’ve learned I have a penchant for getting caught up in extremely fun, and slightly time-delaying, plans.
It all started when I stopped halfway through my hike one day because I stumbled across a lake with a beach area. I wanted to hang out a bit, hit up the concession stand, and take advantage of the free shower. But by the time I was back on the trail, it started to downpour. I detoured, yet again, to an awesome shelter.
At this shelter, which had a rather lovely porch area, I met four hikers that were going—you guessed it—skydiving! At first I turned down their offer to join; I really did want to stay on track. Not to mention, skydiving is not the least expensive venture. As I spent the day with these hikers, though, my mind started to wander….skydiving would be a once in a lifetime opportunity! Wasn’t this why I took on the trail in the first place, to have experiences that I’d remember forever?
So, I dove out of a plane, and I can report that it was not a once in a lifetime experience….because now I’m addicted! I’m already saving up for the next time I can go.
After the dive, I was riding high on endorphins and adrenaline. Lucky for me, they weren’t in vain, because immediately after the dive, we headed to a hot air balloon festival. It was unbelievably gorgeous—the endlessly open blue sky, the gigantic multicolored balloons, the upstate New York air, it was perfect. And it only got better, because we headed to Angry Orchard afterwards, where I sampled a flight of delicious ciders.
Not everything is all sunshine, balloons, and cider, though. My pump has been super slidey on these sweaty summer days, and that makes finding the right amount of insulin hard because I don’t want any to go to waste. I’m also struggling with bug bites. It's nearly impossible to avoid getting bitten by critters on the trail! Even in my enclosed hammock, mosquitoes manage to sneak in. And, lastly, the other day I was taking a nap and a “widowmaker,” a large branch, fell from the top of a tree. Not on me….but it was still scary. All that being said….I’m still having a total blast.
The next feat I’m looking forward to? Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. It is supposed to be the most gorgeous view on the whole AT. And who knows what I’ll get into before then! See you next time.
Miles Hiked: 1,400
Miles to go: 649
I’ve now trekked over 1,400 miles — just 649 to go!
My parents arranged an event—Mom called it a “Meet and Greet”—on June 25th in Port Clinton, Pennsylvania. It turned out to be just the boost I needed to encourage me to power through the trail. By all accounts, the event was a huge success and a lot of fun, too. We raised $300 for the American Diabetes Association (ADA), supplied my hungry fellow hikers with some tasty food (thanks mom!), plus I met some great people from the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club who works to preserve a 65-mile section of the AT in my home state of Pennsylvania.
That afternoon, I was even interviewed by a local news station (Action News 69) giving me the opportunity to shout from the rooftops that people with diabetes can do whatever they set their minds to! I also got the chance to speak with some locals about how I manage my diabetes, not only as a type 1 hiker, but also in my day-to-day life.
One conversation that stands out was with a woman named Shirley who told me she was intimidated by diabetes technology but also burned out from finger pricking and blood sugar testing. After I told her about how my decision to use an insulin pump was life-changing, I showed her how I use my pump and my Dexcom CGM. I hope my encouragement will give Shirley the confidence to try the technology because it’s reliable and easy to use. I remember feeling scared about it at first, too, but a conversation I had with a Dexcom user a few years ago really helped. My biggest problem was the feeling that wearing a pump would be like a constant reminder of my disease. But now I can’t imagine life without it. Check out the video below to hear more about my decision to use an insulin pump.
After my fundraiser, I continued hiking through New Jersey and crossed the border into New York where there are 90 miles of trail to cover including the lowest elevation point—124 feet above sea level at the very busy Bear Mount Bridge not far from the Bear Mountain Zoo! But the Empire State wasn’t without its difficulties. Between digestive issues, constant sweating from the super hot weather, and my inability to stay hydrated no matter how much water I drank, I decided to take a few days off to rest.
Fast forward a few days and I was back on the trail, keen to start my journey to the Hudson River. On my first day back, I managed to hike a total of 21 miles! Now, that was a GREAT feeling!
My goal was to reach the West Mountain Shelter where the view of Manhattan’s skyline is supposed to be unforgettable. But I was stalled by several hikers including an older mountain man—with the longest beard I’ve ever seen and a preference for lengthy conversation (he talked my ear off for 20 minutes)—and a group of lost boys, aged 10-14 from a Hasidic Jewish camp. By the time I finished helping the campers who had been heading in the wrong direction, my view spot was closed (it’s within the boundaries of a state park that has official hours)! However all was not lost since there was still time to grab a chocolate chip ice cream cookie sandwich, once again proving that ice cream is always a good idea!
I’ve now crossed the Hudson and I’m setting a goal of 100 miles per week from here on out. Hopefully I’ll finish the trail in early September, but who knows what challenges await…
Miles hiked: 1,154
Miles to go: 895
I am back in my home state of Pennsylvania (PA)! It’s been so much fun being back in my home state. Getting to see my family and friends, and eating some home-cooked meals, is helping shake off any midway slump that I have to admit I sometimes feel creeping up.
It hasn’t been completely without difficulties, though. One of the main obstacles of PA is the rockiness. Like I said last week, the nickname “Rocksylvania” is perfectly apt. It’s rather rough on my type 1 feet to be crossing over such rocky paths, but at least the elevation changes aren’t as strenuous. There are a few rather big boulders that require a bit of maneuvering...and sometimes I feel like a little kid trying to climb up onto a counter. Except there’s nothing tasty waiting at the top…. The best part of this week (other than seeing my family!) was getting to see one of my former college professors.
My ecology professor and research advisor surprised me with some trail magic. Gatorade, kind bars, and lovely conversation with familiar faces—it doesn't get much better than that!
If you’re wondering whether I feel like I’ve seen everything there is to see at this point, the answer is No. The best is yet to come.The White Mountains in New Hampshire are supposed to be the most incredible portion of the trail. And I still need to prepare for the 100-mile wilderness at the end—yikes!
Unfortunately, there are a few things I am not looking so forward to. It’s about to be black fly and tick season in New England, which may make hiking extra uncomfortable. And, as anyone with a diabetes device knows, summer brings its own set of slippery challenges for keeping the pump stable. I also need to look into purchasing a Frio case for my insulin, to keep it cool. Nobody—and no body—likes hot insulin!
One last detail before I go...this Sunday my mom is teaming up with the Northeastern Pennsylvania/Delaware chapter of the ADA for a "meet and greet" homecoming event for me! One of the local television stations will be covering the event and who knows, I may be a household name in Berks County Pennsylvania soon!
Here are the details:
Meet type 1 hiker Cat Pugh on Sunday, June 25 from 2 to 5 p.m.
St. John’s Church
36 Penn Street
Port Clinton, PA(off Rte. 61, 1.5 miles north of Cabelas)
Miles hiked: 1,054
Miles to go: 995
I am more than halfway through hiking the Appalachian Trail. Doesn’t it seem like I just started? (Nope!) I almost forget what it feels like to not be hiking everyday, to not have my eyes set on a destination or set amount of miles to finish. Luckily, my hometown is right around the halfway mark, so I have escaped the trail to the warm embrace (and home-cooked meals, soooo good!) and time with my family!
The last few weeks have been full of milestones—leaving Virginia, reaching Harper’s Ferry (the “unofficial halfway point”), hiking the most amount of miles we’ve done in one day (35), buying a new pair of hiking boots (after wearing out the welcome of my first pair), and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line.
We didn’t end up doing the 4-State Challenge, because the weather had been rainy for two straight weeks, and we all had rather squishy shoes and pruny feet. As a type 1, the rainy weather has really been wearing on my feet. That’s why I’m so happy to announce that I’ve gotten new shoes!
Another kind of fun recent milestone was doing my first night hike. I hiked from 9pm to 1:30 am. Fortunately, I have a headlight that makes night hikes possible. Unfortunately, it was not working! So I used my iPhone flashlight….not super efficient but better than nothing.
Overall, I’ve been really reflective lately. I guess hiking 1,000 miles can do that to you. Is there anything that I think I’ll be taking away from my time on the trail? Running! I definitely want to start incorporating running into my life more.
As I’ve been on the trail, there are times where I get frustrated and just want to get to my destination already--and running would allow me to do that. It will also be nice to get back to other forms of exercise in general--like weight-lifting. Lastly, I have decided I never want to eat oatmeal again! Can’t wait to update you with where I’m at next week. Pennsylvania, or “Rocksylvania,” as it’s known to thru-hikers, is known for it’s lack of elevation, but rocky terrain. It’ll be nice to have things be a bit different, though the terrain is supposed to present its own set of challenges (rock-climbing, for example…)
Miles hiked: 900
Miles to go: 1,149
I’ve now walked 900 miles. Even though this isn’t a specific milestone—the way that a quarter of the hike is, or surviving one month is—it still feels bigger than everything else. A few recent animal encounters have only added to the feeling that I’m really out here, finding my own way. But not without help, of course.
The parents of one of my hiking buddies, Brooke, came to visit us in Virginia. We were able to escape and enjoy some delicious meals with them! After all the bland wraps I’ve been eating, the food was a welcome sight (and smell, and taste!). Then it was back to the trail, where we passed a semi-legendary site: The Guillotine. This ominous-sounding site consists of a boulder wedged between two rock-faces near “The Priest” mountain. It was very eye-catching, but luckily not too distracting, because I found a rather unwelcome creature soon after…
A rattlesnake! I’ve passed tons of snakes along the way, but I was yet to discover any of these less-than-friendly fellows. Fortunately, one of my headphones is broken, so I heard the tell-tale rattle before I stepped into its path. Later on, while camping by a lake, I got to watch a few otters playing around. They’re way cuter than the rattlesnake!
After those encounters, we made our way to Devil’s Backbone Brewery, located in Roseland, Virginia. Not only did we enjoy sampling their cold, delicious craft beer selection, but we were able to camp for free and fill up on a $5 all-you-can-eat breakfast—my favorite! And, even better, my boyfriend came to visit. It was so wonderful to see him, though we ended up hiking less than I’m now used to. But don’t worry, because we’re making up for it by hiking 20 miles per day until June 1st.
And then…..wait for it…… We’re aiming to complete the 4 state challenge: 44 miles in 24 hours, hitting Virgina, West Virgina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania! Some people call it “the death march,” but I’m going to stick to the numerical title. Lucky for George, Brooke, and I, George’s parents have offered to hold onto our backpacks while we attempt to knock out the 44 miles. Between home-cooked meals, backpack holding, and that tiny little detail of insulin-delivery, what would we do without our parents?
Hiker High: Seeing my boyfriend! Oh and visiting the brewery, too.
Hiker Low: I’ve been feeling a little down overall I think it’s because I’m just ready to get out of Virginia! Virginia is the longest section of the AT—about 550 miles—and it feels like I’ve been here forever. It can be frustrating to walk day after day and feel like you’re in the same place. But we’ll be done with this state soon!
Miles hiked: 700
Miles to go: 1,249
This week, we tackled the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown, which I mentioned last week, consists of Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. It turns out that these peaks weren’t even that horrible to hike—the popularity (and special title) is due to the views they provide. The set of mountains we hiked before them were actually more difficult, and didn’t even have as picturesque views. As you can see, the Triple Crown provided quite the photo op.
Tinker Cliffs was my favorite of the three, as it contained tons of different lookouts, and a lot of opportunities to not be surrounded by people. As the weather gets warmer, there are more and more people on the trail. There are pros and cons to this.
The pros: I get to meet more people! That’s my favorite part of this journey. The cons: I don’t have as much alone time, and I don’t always get to enjoy the views on the mountaintops, or nature in general, the way that I want to (quietly!).
This week we decided to do some 20 mile days, which is exhausting. Even though we aren't facing severe weather anymore, it’s harder mentally and physically. It’s still raining on and off, but the rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom, so I can’t exactly complain. The more we hike, the better my blood sugar levels seem to be. I still pay close attention, ever since the rapid plummet that I experienced hiking up one particularly steep mountain several weeks ago, but due to the diet plan I’ve fallen into, and the routine in general, my body seems to have really adjusted.
The views on the Triple Crown, of course!
Low of the week: 700 miles in seems to mean it is time for NEW SHOES. George, Brooke, and I are all dealing with some seriously worn in boots. While they started off waterproof, that now seems to have worn off. I’m looking into purchasing some hike-friendly sneakers that will be lighter and dry off more easily. The good news about the 700 mile mark is that we are about a third of the way to our final stop!
Miles hiked: 620
Miles to go: 1,329
I’m in Virginia! Harrisburg, to be exact. We’re putting up quite the mileage now—aiming to squeeze in another 80 miles in the next several days, because Brooke’s parents will be waiting for us!
I’m sad to report that it has been rainy all week, which means pruny feet. I’ve gotten a few blisters, which, as a T1D, I have to be fastidious about taking care of, but I’m a rather fastidious person, so it’s been fine. I just use my trusted sanitized-needle-and-thread-through-the-blister-trick. (A fellow hiker earlier in my trip told me about this fail-safe method. It works very well. The puss leaks from blister and travels down the thread keeping the skin intact and less prone to infection.).
I’m feeling nervous and excited right now, because soon we’ll be facing the “Triple Crown,” a set of peaks in Virginia consisting of Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker’s Cliffs. The names of the peaks make me feel like I’m on a Princess Bride-esque quest, but the elevations of 1,505 ft, 1,740 ft, and 1,945 ft, make me wish I could have Inigo Montoya hike them for me…
But seriously, I know I’ll have to hike them, and that I’ll get through them! Just have to take them as they come. One more piece of kind of good, kind of bad news—I finished up my first journal! I’m glad to be documenting so much. The bad news is that now I have to scramble to find another one! I’m sure it won’t be impossible.
I got a visit from a friend—a human one this time (read about the wild pony who visited us in Week 9, below)! My boyfriend spent a little time with me on the trail and it was a really nice break in the usual routine.
All of the flooding. Being wet and soggy is getting old. I can't wait for the sun to shine!
Food-wise, I’ve still been foraging. I found another beautiful little morel mushroom. I’ve also settled into a nice schedule with my diet now. In the morning, I have 2 oatmeal packets with 2 packs of breakfast essential powder (the powder provides the vitamins and minerals that I’m not necessarily getting in the underwhelming produce I’ve foraged in the forest). For lunch, it’s a cheese and avocado wrap. I’ve been lucky to find avocados in stores in town, as well as in the grocery stocks at hostels. I eat cheese and peanut butter crackers as a snack (the classic bright orange ones that kids eat), and then some gummies—for my blood sugar—or dried fruit, if I have any. For dinner, it’s another wrap, or some ramen. A little bland overall, but I’m happy I’ve figured out a plan that works for me!
Miles hiked: 501
Miles to go: 1,450
If you thought last week’s bear-biting (almost) incident was the peak of my Appalachian animals experiences, do I have news for you. This week—in which I have achieved the milestone of walking 500 MILES—I came across another nibbling mammal that I will not soon forget. But first, I’d like to share with you how my journey has changed me since I started it.
In the beginning, the days felt long. My friends, Brooke and George, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with all the free time. As college students, we were so used to our schedules being crammed with classes, work, homework and socializing with friends, that wide open days of walking, hanging out, and feeding ourselves seemed to span into eternity. But today, 9 weeks later, I’m in a groove of fully valuing that time. It isn’t just “idle time” that needs to be stuffed with chores or to-dos. I now know how to make the most of my time appreciating the weather around me, watching the changes in nature, listening to the sounds of the trail and simply observing. It feels like the days are flying by.
Given some recent experiences, I also feel more equipped to handle mishaps. Whether it’s sunburn or a soggy Dexcom, I’ve learned that patience and willpower are the best ways to deal with the obstacles that inevitably come a long.
Speaking of sunburn, it’s almost unavoidable now. Even though I’m well-stocked with sunscreen and proper gear, walking under the bright sun all day really takes a toll on the skin. But one benefit of the changing season (other than the obvious)? We can forage for food!
We recently discovered a goldmine of ramps—garlicky wild onions that people pay top dollar for at farmers’ markets. And we are getting them for free, if you consider digging around a bit “free.” On top of that, I found some yummy morel mushrooms and fiddleheads, too! Of course, it’s slightly demotivating to spend all day digging in the dirt and then have these foods cook down to a few, precious bites. But to me enjoying fresh produce is worth it. My new favorite wrap is made with fiddleheads, cheese, and edible wild violets (yes, the flower!). Delicious and beautiful.
Circling back to the nibbling mammal I eluded to earlier (if you’re not too busy dreaming of wild ramps), here’s the story. We were sleeping on a mountain bald in Grayson National Park, in Virginia and decided to “cowboy camp” that night, meaning no tents or tarps—just sleeping under the stars. A sight to behold, though slightly chilly. During the wee hours of the night, I woke up to a strange noise. Something, somewhere, was biting on our gear. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and saw the fury noise maker. It was a wild pony! It had a long blonde mane, so I guessed that it was the pony referred to by other hikers as “Fabio.”
We learned later that our Fabio was actually a Lady Fabio, and pregnant, too! No wonder she was chewing on my walking stick, she must’ve been hungry. (To see Lady Fabio in action, see my video of her on Instagram.). Anyway, not sure any other animals can top that, but I still have about 1,500 miles, so stay tuned!
Between (successfully) foraging for food and a wild pony encounter, I’ve been in heaven this week.
At one point I was split up from my friends for a night without knowing their location. But it all worked out in the end—we found each other the next day with help from some boy scouts.
Miles hiked: 462
Miles to go: 1489
Not only do I have a shiny, new Dexcom—the silver lining from last week’s water-related CGM disaster (see details, below)--but I also have a bear story to share!
In the beginning of the week, we decided to take a short day—an 8-mile hike; about 7 miles less than our typical daily average. Everyone seemed to need a mental rest so we decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and soak up some sunshine. As we were enjoying our lazy afternoon, a mishap involving coconut oil paved the way for potential danger!
Bear sightings had suddenly become part of the conversation when a fellow hiker we ran into the day before mentioned seeing a large, black bear running away from him near the shelter we were staying at. Then, another man chimed in with a story about a hiker who was bitten on the face by a bear through his tent after he put coconut oil on his feet before bed. (Apparently, the bear found the coconut oil scent irresistible!) So, it was pretty clear that a bear resided somewhere around our camping spot, but I figured as long as I stayed away from coconut oil, I’d be okay. Or so I thought…
Somehow during our afternoon of relaxing in the sun, the contents of my backpack became saturated with coconut oil that had leaked from a container in my food bag and onto the clothes I was wearing.
That night, while munching on M&Ms—my go-to “low-blood sugar fix”—I became keenly aware of smelling exactly like an Almond Joy candy bar and couldn’t stop thinking how delicious I’d be to a bear. Leave it to me to spill coconut oil all over myself exactly one day after hearing about a bear sighting WAY too close to where we were camping. As you can tell, I survived, but it was not a restful night.
The next day, the weather forecast was terrible and every hiker we ran into kept reminding us that our lives “were going to be horrible tomorrow.” So, we hit the trail earlier than usual the next day in an attempt to beat the rain. We left by 8 (a somewhat miraculous feat that wouldn’t have happened without the weather incentive)!
Anyway, I hiked ahead and ended up at an overlook where I watched the storm roll over the mountains. I have no idea how strong the winds were, but I do know I was pushed all over the trail. My glasses got so foggy they were useless as a visual aid but they did prevent the pelting rain from hurting my face! I only wiped-out once, which I consider a success. Since I was already drenched I decided to splash through every puddle I came across just for the fun of it.
Hiker High: Resting in Sunshine!
Enjoying the sunshine on a short day
Hiker Low: A Sleepless Night
Having my sleep disturbed on account of obsessively worrying about becoming candy for a bear!
Miles hiked: 372
Miles to go: 1,579
Diabetes is completely manageable. As long as you have your insulin ready, your meter and back-up test strips prepared, and an ability to do some serious math.
Easy, right? This may sound strange but when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I felt grateful that it was happening to me and not anyone else in my family. Why? Because I knew I could handle it. I’m always organized and completely prepared. The thing is, mistakes happen. And this week, a tiny mistake came back to bite me (though, being that I’m living in the woods, there are worse things that could be biting me).
It all took place in Erwin, Tennessee. I was hanging out (ha!) in my hammock when I decided to get up and go explore the area (it’s finally foraging season!). After a little while, I came back to an empty water bottle which had been full when I left my hammock. The plot thickened when, lo and behold, I noticed a puddle in the middle of my hammock.
Normally, puddles are no big deal. They dry out, after all. And at this point, between the sweat and rain, I’m used to a little moisture. The thing is, my precious little Dexcom was sitting right in the center of that puddle. Not exactly the best way to start my day.
But, like I said, t1s are generally prepared, motivated, and always ready to take on our chronic condition. I called Dexcom right away (from the middle of a mountain with rather limited service) and I ordered a new one to be shipped to the nearest hostel overnight (Uncle Johnny’s! If you ever get a chance, go there!). Luckily, I had a warranty, so I didn’t have to pay the full price. No problem!
The next day came and I waited. Then I waited some more. I hung out. I soaked up the sun. Noon rolled around, and my shiny new Dex was still nowhere to be found. I looked it up online, only to discover that there was a delay at FedEx and my overnight package wouldn’t be delivered until...Monday morning! This was on a Friday. I stayed calm and called Dexcom, again. This time, estimating where I would be on Monday since I needed the package sent to a hostel 50 miles away. How’s that for hiking motivation? Hike to your meter!
Fortunately there was still a little juice left in my puddle-loving Dexcom so I could use it a bit. The trouble is, there was condensation inside the screen and I was concerned about the accuracy, of course. But my new one was on its way to Mountain Harbor Hostel in Roan Mountain, North Carolina. I thought maybe it was excessive to have a new one coming when the old one was still functioning enough.
Then the next day we hiked 15 miles to the next shelter and, somewhere along the way I dropped my meter, leaving it to the elements, surely to be useless if found again. Good thing I had ordered that new one after all! I think my meter was more done with me than I was with it! Maybe it didn’t like hiking.
Hiker Low: My Soggy Dexcom
It’s pretty obvious, right?
Hiker High: Going With the Flow
Unexpected, and sometimes not-so-great, things are going to happen. There is no point in dwelling on them and wasting energy being upset when you can be proactive. I could’ve let the dexless-stress get to me, but I was at a wonderful hostel, in an awesome hammock, on an incredible journey—so I chose to stay positive. And at least I still had my Nutella with me!
Miles hiked: 317
Miles to go: 1,634
This past week I’ve had quite some highs….and quite the low.
I was excited to get back on the trail after Asheville (and I had a lot of energy after all the food and drink I had loaded up on while there). I was also excited knowing that I’d be seeing my mom soon. My mom, as I explained initially, is scheduled to periodically bring me insulin when my supplies run low. I had brought two vials with me, and, while in Asheville, had enough left for about two weeks. Perfectly timed! My mom was planning to meet up with George, Brooke, and me a little after Hot Springs.
Speaking of Hot Springs...there's a quote I love about keeping expectations low:
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed."
― Alexander Pope
And, this trip has really framed that idea for me in a new way. I like to approach the trail with almost no expectations because that way I’m always satisfied. It’s not really my nature to feel down (in fact my trail name, which was given to me by fellow hikers, is “Sunshine”). I’m typically content no matter the outcome so that hostels sans plumbing don’t ruin my day and pink flowers blooming in March can really make it!
My favorite part about Hot Springs was watching George and Brooke eat a triple patty 18 oz “AT” burger. I’m a vegetarian, so I did not partake. It was a juicy, greasy sight to behold and I still can’t believe they both finished the monstrous mound of ground meat. Afterwards, however, they were really sluggish. I have no regrets about not trying one…
Hiker High: Seeing Stars
Completing another 50 miles of the trail feels great! I feel great that we’ve walked another 50 miles! We also passed through Max Patch, which is a beautiful bald mountain top where you can see more stars than you ever knew existed.
Hiker Low: My First Hypoglycemic Episode on the Trail
My blood sugar! I was feeling great all week, really in the groove with my insulin and blood sugar. Then, on Thursday, I was hiking up Devil’s Fork Gap which is a crazy section of the trail where you hike south to go north if that makes any sense. Anyway, that’s when my Dexcom started screeching loudly—my blood sugar had PLUMMETED to 65. As my body was moving up, up, up the mountains, my blood sugar was going down, down, down. Something I’ve learned is to beware of are places that include the word “devil” in the name because unless it ends with “food cake,” it’s probably going to be a little scary.
It ended up being alright, because I had all the resources I needed to make sure I was okay and, physically, I was still feeling pretty good. However, it was frightening, and really reinforced the idea that I need to be fueling up properly and paying attention to my blood sugar when I’m completing a strenuous potion of the hike.
Best snack of the week? Well, after my low blood sugar episode, I received a pleasant “trail magic” surprise at the top of the mountain—clementines! No doubt left by other hikers. Just what I needed. See? No expectations are the way to go!
Miles hiked: 265
Miles to go: 1,686
Another week with a few zero days. But this time, it was our choice instead of Mother Nature sending us a late-season snow storm that kept us grounded. Our choice was to visit Asheville, North Carolina, where—lucky for my two traveling companions and me—OnTrack Diabetes' social media manager, Carolyn Fagan, lives. Carolyn graciously offered bring us into town from the trail and hold onto our rather fragrant backpacks while we explored the brewery-filled city.
For all you tourists, Asheville is considered one of the best “Beer Cities” in the US and we had fun discovering the reason why! To prepare for our day of touring and beer sampling, I adjusted my Tandem t:slim pump from my “hiking” profile (set to accommodate lower need for insulin due to all the exercise) to my “in town” profile.
The difference is important, as my blood sugar stays more level, and I require less insulin, while hiking. In town, when I’m not constantly climbing mountains, food definitely affects my blood sugar more noticeably. More than a month into my hiking adventure my body has adjusted to the point where I need just 3 units of insulin when I wake up while on the trail. This still seems crazy to me as my diet has been loaded with honey buns and Nutella roll ups (see photo in Week 4 update)—and other blood-sugar skyrocketing foods. All I can say is thank goodness for my trusty pump! Using it allowed me to take full advantage of the awesome food trucks and local beers Asheville is known for!
You may be wondering about the impact of alcohol on blood sugar. Yes, it’s true beer (or other alcoholic beverages) contain carbs and many people with diabetes require extra insulin to keep their blood sugar levels steady. My careful, conscientious approach to drinking works very well. I stay well hydrated with water, eat filling foods that contain protein and fat (not just carbs) between drinks and restrict the amount of beers I have. For more info, read this article about diabetes and alcohol from Diabetic Lifestyle contributing editor Erin Palinski-Wade RD, CDE, LDN.
Checking blood glucose levels, making sure devices are charged and working properly, and preparing for the blood sugar changes that happen overnight is difficult enough to manage. I would never jeopardize my health by having one too many.
Hiker High: The Fabulous City of Asheville
The city is adorable. We stayed in a wonderful hostel (and got to do our laundry!), and ate grilled cheeses, sampled peanut butter and jelly beer (crazy, right?), and visited some wonderful bookstores and coffee shops. We even ran into some fellow thru-hikers. Green Man Brewery gave us free beers just because we’re hikers!
Hiker Low: Being Behind Schedule
Not that I’m complaining because I know as the weather continues to improve we will make up the mileage. Besides, the memories we made in Asheville were well worth the extra time off the trail!
It’s been fun sharing my hiker snack creations with you but I’m happy to report that this week I got my hands on…wait for it… fresh veggies! I'm not sure carrots and celery have ever tasted so good. I also bought a giant can of baked beans from Trader Joe’s. I guess you could say that I'm one happy camper!
Week 4: Stuck in Gatlinburg, NC
Miles hiked: 235
Miles to go: 1,955.1
After a breathtaking amount of snow (no, really, it’s hard to breathe trekking through all that snow), we somehow reached our destination—Davenport Gap. Well, not somehow, we walked! But let me tell you, walking on snow is hard work and way more difficult than I thought it would be.
Last week’s storm dropped several inches of powdery snow on us. Here’s the thing: powdery snow is slippery! Packed snow crunches underfoot and is easier to grip. Well-prepared hikers strap spikes around their hiking boots (see photo, below). Think old-fashioned chains for tires. Since I don't own
a set of these, I did the best I could in my waterproof hiking boots. But in spite of my high-quality socks, my feet still got wet and that wasn’t fun. The good news is my blisters didn’t act up! The bad news is the snowy conditions kept us off the trail for three full days.
During all those zero days, my socks, shoes and feet got completely dry and my body warmed up, too. My other problem had been cold hands. I accidentally left my gloves in my mom’s car when she dropped us off at Springer Mountain in Georgia (two states ago!) but I did pick up a pair along the way at a general store. So, I’ll be ready if we run into anymore cold weather.
A few days ago I achieved a mileage milestone—completing 17 miles in one day. My longest stretch of trail so far! And, in the notoriously-challenging Smokies, no less. We set out early that day because snow was predicted, plus we were motivated to put this difficult mountain range behind us.
In the Smokies, hikers are required to stay in a shelter rather than pitching a tent wherever we like in the woods. So, although I typically rest after 13 miles, there wasn’t a shelter at that point so we hiked another 4 miles to reach one. Exhausted, we pushed our way through every difficult, demanding step. But when we finally reached the shelter, I felt invincible and thought: If I can do that, nothing will get in my way.
If you’re wondering about my food situation, let’s just say that I’m pretty tired of honey buns. I did some experimenting with staples in my backpack and have a new favorite concoction—Nutella spread on a flour tortilla and a generous sprinkling of pop tart pieces. Voila. It’s not bad but I have to admit I’d trade my warmest, driest pair of socks for some fresh fruits and veggies right now.
Hiker High: The Wintery View in the Smokies
The elevation changes in these mountains are daunting, but hiking through them with friends—old and new—and also meeting some very rowdy spring breakers was nothing short of entertaining. And even though the spring breakers lacked thru-hiker etiquette, they made us laugh. (Short-term hikers, such as spring breakers, are required to make shelter reservations in advance—thru-hikers are not. Unfortunately they arrived first and didn't make room for us so we moved on to the next shelter a few miles away, even though we were wiped out!)
Hiker Low: 3 Zero Days
When I say Zero Days, I mean three whole days without hiking. We passed the time exploring the town’s shops (the few that were open during the storm), trying to stay warm, and catching up with family and friends on the phone. The change of pace was fun—for the first day. But by day three I was frustrated about the weather still standing in our way.
The snow is clearing now, and the forecast no longer looks frozen. On to Asheville! Where I hear they have some pretty good breweries…
Week 3: Freezing on the Tennessee/North Carolina State Line
Miles hiked: 205
Miles to go: 1,985.1
We made it to Newfound Gap, the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. What a difference a week makes! The temperatures have dropped and old man winter has made a comeback. He sent us what I hope is a last-blast storm (spring starts next week, after all!). With temperatures hovering around 18 degrees and more snow expected, we are taking some extra zero days and staying warm in town.
The icicles look so pretty but the snowy conditions drastically reduces visibility on the trail. The shelter (below) is bare bones and lacks heat. Always lots of cobwebs and spiders to deal with.
Hiker High: The Great Smoky Mountains and Meeting My First Southbound Hiker!
The Smokies are breathtakingly beautiful and I never grow tired of the scenery. We recently met a southbound hiker named Rabid (a first!). He was working on his last 200 miles and his advice was not to rush our journey. But I'm already feeling rushed. With the snow delaying us, we're going to be a few days behind but there's not much I can do about it now!
Hiker Low: Sugar Lows
For sugar lows at night in cold weather, I've come up with a new remedy. I tuck a tube of Nutella in my shirt before going to sleep. Being close to my body keeps it warm and gives me easy access.
Not Just for Road Trips Anymore...
This may sound gross but I have a new-found love for what I call gas station honey buns. Yes, I know, from a nutrition point of view they are terrible. Loaded with calories (500) and of course carbs (61 grams!) but I have found that if I eat something in the morning with at least 40 grams of carbs, I don't need insulin. I feel like hiking has been really good for my diabetes but DO NOT try this at home. Unless you are hiking 8 to 10 miles per day outdoors (or getting huge amounts of exercise in other forms) like I am, eating honey buns for breakfast is NOT good for diabetes.
Week 2: Fontana Dam, North Carolina
Miles hiked: 170
Miles to go: 2,020.1
I’m checking in from a Zero Day (day of rest) at the awesome Fontana Dam hiker stop in North Carolina. It’s beautiful here. The site sits on the shores of Lake Fontana and is surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. (I'm writing this from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, NOC). We’re enjoying nice weather and all of the hiker-friendly services (including a free shuttle into town!) this stop is known for. A few days ago I experienced my first really cold night. When the temperatures dropped into the teens, I went searching for my favorite gloves and realized I’d forgotten them in my mom’s car! I was a little nervous but layered on every piece of clothing I had with me and slept through the night fine.
Fontana Dam has a laundromat, a lodge that serves all-you-can eat pancakes and hot showers. I’m not sure what I was looking forward to the more—the shower (it had been 7 days…gross, I know) or the pancakes. I couldn't wait to make a pig of myself at breakfast. I woke up early in order to be the first one in line. But when I got there I received devastating news—no pancakes! Since we are slightly ahead of the regular start of A.T. hiking season, Fontana Dam isn’t fully stocked with staff or food. In spite of the limited resources though they managed to open up the buidling and brew us some really good coffee!
Hiking High: Getting My First Care Package from Home
Before I left Pennsylvania,I put together 6 boxes for my family to send to me at various points along the trail. I was so excited to pick up the box. Not only did it contain dehydrated bananas and other favorite snacks I hadn’t enjoyed in a while but there were a few surprises, too. My 4-year-old cousin included some cute stickers to make my hiking happier. Believe it or not, my favorite item was the unexpected container of face wipes they included. It may sound weird but these soft, plush, beaded face wipes felt luxurious to me.
Hiking Low: Blisters
Dealing with blisters isn’t fun. Other hikers told me the best way to deal with them is with a sewing needle and thread! You simply work the threaded needle through the blister and remove the needle, leaving the thread in place. This technique allows the moisture to slowly leak out of the blister along the thread which is preferable to having it burst open. Unfortunately, I didn’t have sewing supplies with me so I decided to use a fishing hook. It worked out pretty well. I punctured the blisters on each side of each foot (two big ones) very carefully, used alcohol wipes to clean them and covered with a blister band aid. Both are starting to heal nicely now.
Even though I didn’t get my pancakes I really enjoyed my time in Fontana Dam and have to admit I’m not looking forward to leaving. Tomorrow marks to start of our ascent to the Smokies. We will be hiking up hill for the next 11 miles and crossing Clingmans Dome—the highest point on the trail (elevation: 6642 feet) and 2,000 feet higher than we’ve seen so far.
Smoky Mountains Here We Come!
Week 1: Springer Mountain, Georgia
Miles hiked: 68.9
Miles to go: 2,121.1
"We're a week in and about two days ahead of schedule. I'm keeping up with my hiking buddies, Brooke Leister, 23 and Geore Ehrgott, 25, and we're averaging about 10 miles a day since the weather has been mild and dry for the most part.
My favorite sugar boosters—watermelon sour patch candies with a pop tart chaser—have been working so well that I'm using less insulin then expected and that's a really good thing."
Hiking High: Other Hikers
"I just love, love, love the hiking culture. There's so much comraderie on the trail. Whenever you meet other hikers on the trail they become family. We met four male hikers a few days ago and have been hiking with them ever since. Here's a picture of us together on the trail."
Hiking Low: The Fog
"For me, a breathtaking view from the top of a moutain after a strenuous hike is a gift. When dense fog interfers it's a real bummer!"
On Staying Motivated
"Some hikers measure the success of thru-hiking as the number of miles completed in a day. To me, the experience is about much more than the mileage.
As a total nature geek, I love being in the woods. With a degree in biology and a background in ecology the forest is never quiet to me. I listen for the sound of birds singing and I notice the variety of color around me—even when it's mostly brown there can be lots of layers to it. Instead of thinking, 'I was able to through 15 miles today,' I'm busy identifying the birds, plants, mushrooms and insects along the way. I'll always be fascinated by the natural world and really interested in learning more (maybe in grad school!) about how people in different culture use plants as food and medicine.
On to North Carolina!"
So, with her back pack fully loaded with her sleeping hammock, diabetes supplies, prepackaged food (including dehydrated fruit and homemade trail mix), and the all-important socks, Cat's parents, Jon and Dawn Pugh (pictured with Cat, above) drove their daughter from their rural Pennsylvania home to the terminus of the trail in Georgia.