THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN: WITH DEET THERE IS NO CHAFE HAVEN

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MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 313
edited June 11 in OUR STORIES

Words and Photos by @Abby_Evans @abbigator53

It was the worst heat I had ever experienced in my life. July 29, just crossing over from the New York to the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail, around mile 1,300. It was around midday, and I hadn't drunk nearly the amount of water I should have been in 98 degrees Fahrenheit heat with 100% humidity. My pace was down to a slog. My bug net kept sticking to my sweaty forehead, but it was the only thing keeping me sane from the rampant mosquitos. If I stopped for more than 10 seconds to drink water or eat a snack, there would be twenty mosquitos clustered on my legs and arms. It drove me insane. Either I overheated by hiking quickly, or I slowed down and got eaten by bugs.

HEAT HALLUCINATIONS

I kept pulling my phone out of my fanny pack to check on FarOut how much longer until the country store that was just up ahead. The trail kept leading me to mounds of rock stairs. I groaned as each one appeared in front of me. "Another set of stairs?!" I couldn't do it. I sat down on the edge of one and put my head in my hands. A small mosquito perched on my hand and began to have its lunch. At least one of us was getting to eat something. Sweat dripped down from my forehead, and I watched the patterns it made in the dirt as if I were a small, dejected rain cloud. I had to get to that country store. As I pushed myself into a standing position to approach this next set of stairs, everything started to spin. I steadied myself on a nearby tree. It felt uncomfortable just to be inside my skin–there was nowhere to escape the heat.

As I trudged up the stairs, I looked up and saw the glimmer of a shelter roof just up ahead in the distance. "Oh, thank God," I thought. "Maybe it'll be slightly cooler inside the shelter, and I can take a small break."

Reaching the top of the stairs, I glanced up again. The shelter was gone—it was never there in the first place. I shook my head and kept walking. Hopefully, the country store had air conditioning.

As I continued to hike on through the green tunnel, I saw the sides and roofs of several more imaginary shelters up ahead. My mind seemed to love to conjure up mirages of comfort just to taunt me. I dampened my Buff with some water and staggered down the trail.

The trail opened up to walk along a swollen river. White water created a cooling breeze and a brief respite from the mosquitos. I called one of my friends from home to have some company and distract myself. Things were starting to look up.

REACHING THE COUNTRY STORE

The trail opened up ahead to a roadwalk—and just a little ways down the road—the country store! All my hiker friends were slouched outside of it in different shreds of shade. Their wilted appearance reflected my spite for the weather.


As I approached, my hiking partner, Love Child, perked up and waved me over. "Good news! This is the highest temperature it'll get all day. Bad news: the country store does not have air conditioning."

I could've cried. I promptly walked inside the country store, bought an ice pop, then crawled underneath the picnic table in the shade to assess the life choices that had led me there. It was one of the many moments on my thru hike where I considered quitting. "Why am I even out here?" I thought. "Because you still love it." And it was true. I was putting my mental and physical strength to the limit. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, even scratching at my thirty different mosquito bites underneath a picnic table in the dirt. It was the most fulfilling journey of my life, and even though it was rough at that moment, I knew it would pass. Discomfort is temporary—you will remember the way you responded to it forever.

AWFUL BUTT CHAFE

However, I was about to get a lot more uncomfortable. After thirty minutes of joking around with other hikers who came by from my picnic table cave, I stood up to get going again. The sun had subsided slightly; clouds had started to blow in. As I began to walk, I almost screamed. As I was sitting, all the sweat had dried on my butt. My lack of motion allowed my body to realize that I had severe butt chafe—so bad that I had to waddle from underneath the picnic table like a cowboy straight from Chafe City. I liberally applied vaseline to my chafe and took a slow, wide-legged approach to the next five miles to the shelter.

I decided to take a mindful approach to my pain. I would think of it as experiencing pain, and would avoid thinking of any words as strong as "suffering," "chafe," "ow," or so on. I would try to think, "Hmm, what an interesting sensation that my butt is on fire," rather than "Oh god, I am going to die of butt chafe." I tried to notice formations of fungi and lichen along rocks on the side of the trail, grounding myself with how many different shapes of leaves surrounded me or placing my feet extra carefully between rock steps.

ADDING DEET TO BUTT CHAFE

The mindfulness approach worked until the mosquitos came back. A high-pitched buzzing erupted around my ears. I flinched. "Oh no. The bugs are back." I ducked quickly into my bug net, but it was to no avail. They still swarmed my arms and legs. Tiny pinpricks spiked all over my limbs where they bit me. I scrabbled in my fanny pack for Deet. At the same time, I slapped my arms and legs like I was going insane. (I was.) I poured pools of 98% Deet into my palms and slathered it all over myself. The bugs receded briefly. I sighed. I could continue my walk in peace.

That's when the thunderstorm started. In the distance, thunder grumbled lowly. "Can I get any break?" I thought. Only three more miles. The sky began to spit on me intermittently. I kept walking. The rain felt nice and cool against my skin. It soothed the burning sensation the Deet had been giving me. I hadn't been able to shower for a few days, and 98% Deet piling up on your skin tends to burn it a little. I just pretended it was Icy Hot most of the time. The rain somehow made the mosquitos swell up around me even more. It also washed the Deet off of my arms.


And right into my butt chafe. This time, I screamed. The Deet was chemically burning my chafe. The thunderstorm erupted above me. Rain was pouring down now. I started to get really cold. My body was exhausted and giving up. Mindfulness was difficult now. I ripped off my bug net and stuffed it into the side pocket of my pants. It was hard to focus on anything else except the fact that my butt felt like it was on fire. I started to cry. I was never going to make it to the shelter. It was impossible. Hiking shouldn't be this hard. I stopped.

DESPERATION SETS IN

I didn't have any other options. I had to make it to the shelter, or I'd have to walk back out of the woods anyway. I looked around. There was no one near me. "Screw this", I thought, and stripped off my pants in the middle of the trail. I stood, naked from the waist down, listening to the rain fall on the trees and feeling it wash me free of Deet. My chafe problem was solved with no pants, and the burning sensation was almost gone. Much better. I sighed and laughed at myself. I believe retaining a sense of humor and self-perception is most important when you're struggling the most.

I indignantly kept on hiking toward the shelter. The trail started to angle sharply upwards for the next mile. I didn't care anymore. I was at my limit. "It has to be around the corner," I whispered, "it has to be." There were about five more turns to go. It finally appeared around the bend, and I slouched toward it, shivering, half-naked, and exhausted. I sat my bare butt down on the edge of the shelter. My partner was setting up his tent behind the shelter, and a friend I had just met yesterday was sitting next to me.

"Are you… wearing pants?" He looked at me with a perplexed smile.

"No. No, I am not wearing pants." I laughed.

THE VALUE OF COMPANY

Just in the presence of my friend, my focus shifted from my own suffering to the absurdity of it all. The trail, the strange and miserable situation I found myself in, why we even were out here trying to walk 2,198 miles. I might not have an answer for what compels me—or any of us forward, but I believe the important part is that we keep walking. To keep walking through trails, through life, through anything.

If I hadn't kept walking through the chafe, the mosquitos, and the thunderstorm—I wouldn't have had the company of my close friends at the end of an extremely misfortune day. If I hadn't taken off my pants, I might have suffered more than I needed to. If I didn't look outside my suffering, I wouldn't have been able to laugh. It might have been my worst day on trail, but it's also one of my funniest memories. Suffering on a long trail, or in life, cannot be avoided. You might as well look back and laugh. If you can look back on it, then you made it through after all. On trail, I learned time and time again that no one has to do it alone—and that pants are always optional.

Abby Evans (Sh*twater Fireball Queen of the Salamanders) hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2023 and loves to write about gear and outdoor misadventures. They look forward to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this coming summer and hope to triple crown before they're thirty. You can find them cutting their toothbrush in half, eating cold ramen and embracing the struggle on a trail near you! You can follow their journeys through their Instagram: @abbigator53.