Thursday, April 11, 2013

Falling down the Mountain

First, there was only quiet.

Then, like a firework, a woman exploded out from behind the door to the ER.


Before she could clear the door, 2 nurses dove out after her and wrestled her back inside, screaming and flailing her arms. The door slammed after them and silence settled heavily on the waiting room. Some unidentifiable muffled crashing sounds came from behind the door. I made tight-lipped, unblinking eye contact with Gray, who raised his shoulders in the most miniscule of shrugs. We both agreed, silently, that what we witnessed was both real and completely bonkers.

Also behind the door was Dumptruck, who was under anesthesia and having his left arm yanked out of his socket such that it could relocate itself. When I had been behind the door earlier, I had been somewhat interested in the 2 cross-armed police officers standing in front of 1 of the curtained hospital beds. They had acknowledged me curtly as I had skirted into Dumptruck's hospital room, hoping they wouldn't be hit by my stink cloud. I had hung out with Dumptruck all the way up until the point that they plugged in his anesthetic IV, but then the nice southern doctor asked that I excuse myself and wait in the waiting area. I was somewhat miffed by this, as I'd been allowed to watch when his right arm had to be relocated 2 years ago. But I wasn't about to argue with a man who was about to rearrage my husband's body parts like a Mr. Potato Head. As amusing as it might be for Dumptruck to emerge later with his arm protruding directly from the top of his head, it wouldn't be worth the long-run financial burden of having to replace countless hats with holes punched through the top.

And thus, I didn't get to witness the first 10-minute anesthesia session in which Dumptruck's arm was relocated and then promptly FELL OUT AGAIN. Then the second round of x-rays, the second round of anesthesia, the second relocation, which supposedly stuck, but only after an extra 2 hours of sedation. During this time I was watching a truly astonishing madhouse parade in and out of the waiting room, and learning about Gray's thru-hike in 2000.

When I woke up to a sunny morning on the top of a mountain bald, looking down at the distant fire-scorched earth, I had not foreseen that my day would end with feeding my husband prescribed painkillers and wondering whether I should sew back together the fancy merino wool IceBreaker shirt that had to be cut off of his body with surgery scissors. Instead, we had planned to go at least 15 miles. Our previous day had been cut short due to a controlled forest burn. No thru-hikers were being let through a 6-mile stretch of the trail due to the fire, and were being rerouted up to an overlook to camp. Shanty Town, though feeling a bit sad that we could not make up some extra miles, set up camp and watched the near mountains turn into Mordor.

We've taken to calling our group of hikers "Shanty Town." This is due to us feeling like a rolling boho/hobo village, collecting citizens at random, happy to foster passing villagers and always open for permanent residents (so long as the permanent residents are open to starting late and bursting into song with the Shanty Town Singers). Though Shanty Town is a commune, any grand definitive statement must be followed by the authoritative addendum: "HOTDOGLAW." Partially because it's really fun to say, but mostly because if Hot Dog was our dictator she would declare mandatory Snickers consumption and general goodwill towards others. These are rules we can live by.

While we watched the mountain burn on one side of the bald and watched the sunset on the other, I macraméd my hiking poles. I have no excuse for this, except that they didn't look aggressively granola enough for me. We all went to bed with pretty intense wind blowing on us from the East, but feeling happy with the warmth and company. The next morning we consulted the map, strapped on our packs and headed into the smoke (as the area had been opened for hikers).

Hot Dog, Donnie and Apollo hiked ahead, while Dumptruck, Whistle and I took up the rear. The morning involved a significant amount of rock scrambling, which is the kind of fun/terror common to rollercoasters and studying the heat-death of the universe. At some point I heard a slip-tumble-oof! I turned around to see Whistle in the middle of the trail, on her back like a turtle, covered in dirt and superficial scrapes. I scurried back to her as she unbuckled herself from her pack and stood up, brushing herself off and bravely assuring me that she was okay. Before either of us were able to speak we heard a slip-tumble-EXPLETIVE from 20 feet behind us.

I was already 5 feet up the trail before my pack slammed into the ground behind me, my feet flying over the mossy ground as I ran back to Dumptruck, Whistle hollering after me not to slip as well. I spidered back up and over the slippery rocks to Dumptruck who was curled into the fetal position, clutching his left arm and sobbing. I knelt down beside him and immediately started unclipping all his buckles to remove his backpack, being especially ginger around his left arm. Where the ball of his shoulder bone should have been was instead a concave stretch of skin. A golf-ball sized lump was on his chest, the ball of his shoulder bone trapped between his skin and muscle, as that is the place it decided to migrate after being yanked out of its socket. The bone wasn't broken, it was just very decidedly not where it was supposed to be.

We had learned in first aid class how to relocate shoulders, and had it been the right shoulder, our attempts would likely have been successful. Dumptruck has dislocated his right shoulder 2 times, both times necessitating an ambulance ride to the emergency room. We've been told that once a shoulder has come out once or twice, it's a little easier to get in, but if it's the first time it's dislocated, it's a definite ER visit. We tried anyway, as we didn't have much of an option. Whistle was calm, kind and cooperative as I asked her for help in creating a deadweight to hang from his hand while he lay on a rock and dangled his arm over the edge. The idea of this is that to relocate a shoulder, the muscles have to fatigue, release all their tension, and allow the joint to pop out of the chest and back up into the shoulder. I spent 45 minutes squashed down into a 2-foot wide, 7-foot deep crevice of rock, keeping the weight (food and rocks in a bag) attached to Dumptruck's wrist as he lay facedown on the rock above me. But it didn't work.

In the little First Aid diagrams they never quite explain the excrutiating unbearable pain that shoulder relocation can cause your patient. There are often little sweat-droplets that may be drawn on the forehead of the furrow-browed cartoon human leaning over a tree branch. That hand drawn image doesn't really capture the experience of someone you love, who is hardly ever shaken by anything, crying and begging for the pain to stop as the blood-swollen hand at the end of his dislocated arm has its circulation completely cut off. Dumptruck was exceedingly brave throughout the whole ordeal, and still managed to make jokes through his gritted teeth and pain.

We eventually switched to a leaning tree trunk, and I tried pulling downward gently on the arm to spread out the weight instead of using a deadweight on a rope. I led him through a breathing relaxation excercise while massaging the muscles around the shoulder to help them release the tension, and by god it ALMOST WORKED. The ball began to move back out, but this caused an insane upward change in pain (because putting it back in it has to get 10x more painful) which led to the muscles contracting again, sucking the joint back into its wrongful place. Whistle tried to get in touch with someone, anyone who could help us, but only had enough cell signal for texting.

After about an hour, Apollo appeared without his pack. The other 3 of Shanty Town had realized something MUST BE WRONG when we didn't show up at our first preordained snacking stop after 20 minutes. Nothing keeps Dumptruck from a snack. Apollo took Dumptruck's pack and ran it 2 miles ahead to the next shelter, while Whistle tried to get ahold of a ranger station with her phone. We decided that a hospital was the only option, but we were still on a rocky ridgeline, so we had to go forward. Hot Dog and Donnie had also shown up without packs (they'd all left them at the shelter).

I constructed a sturdy sling out of a piece of thermarest, a fleece and a pair of long underwear. I couldn't get that stubborn shoulder to pop back in but I was at least going to get it into a good sling, by gum. We hiked with Donnie directly in front of Dumptruck and me directly behind so in case he slipped Donnie or I would be able to "catch" him. And by "catch" I mean throw our bodies underneath him like air bags.

We got to the start of the fire burn area, and the ground was burned out, blackened and flaky. We had gone about 20 minutes through when a forest conservationist fella in firegear and a hard hat came upon us. He, incredibly, offered us a ride down out of the mountain on his Gator utility vehicle (it looked like an ATV and golf cart had a baby). His name was Greg. Apollo, who was now on his 4th run back over the same area, came upon us. If you'll remember, Apollo had run Dumptruck's pack to the shelter 2 miles ahead. Greg told him that he was going to take Dumptruck and I down off the mountain, but that he would have to come back up again to collect his work partner, and that he could get the pack as well if Apollo could bring it back to the dirt road. Apollo, to his enormous credit, did not balk at learning he would essentially have to run the same 2.5 mile stretch SIX (6) TIMES. He nodded and looked grimly at Dumptruck and I.

"We'll meet you in Erwin," I said, giving him a hug and then crawling up into the UTV with my pack. "Thank you so much, we love you. Tell everyone to have a great time, and we'll see you in a few days."

The UTV growled into life and lurched down the dirt/rock/mountain "road," and as we descended I saw Apollo take off sprinting in the heat, again, in the direction of the packs. The ride down took 30 minutes, and was over gigantic rocks and deep divits, as it was just a forest service path for UTVs. Dumptruck, whose shoulder had been out for nearing 3 hours, did not complain once as we bounced enormously and vibrated all the way down the mountain, the gator leaning at 15 degree angles to go around steep switchbacks.

At the bottom of the mountain at a tiny forgotten parking area, Greg and Gray (his partner)'s trucks were parked. Greg called his supervisor who gave approval for him to end the day early and take us to the hospital. But first, he still had to go back up the mountain to retrieve Gray and Dumptruck's pack.

So for an hour, Dumptruck lay on a picnic table at a long forgotten rec area, while I gently massaged his back and played the entire "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's" albums from my ipod speakers. The Beatles are the most comforting in times of stress. Once Gray and Greg arrived, Gray took us on a 45 minute ride to the nearest hospital (in Greeneville, TN), and even offered to stick around and drive us to Erwin after the relocation.

The hospital visit ended up taking hours (because of the madhouse parade and the double dislocation and extra sedation), so Gray had to go home before Dumptruck was released. But he insisted on coming back tomorrow to take us to Erwin, no matter my protestations. He is my hero, and I burst into tears in front of him (twice) because of the generosity. When Dumptruck was finally released, we got a cab to the Days Inn, and here we are. We ordered pizza and cinnamon rolls.

Dumptruck's arm was dislocated for a grand total of 7 and a half hours before it was put back in.

Our hiking party should reach Erwin by Sunday or so, at which point we will decide our next course of action. Dumptruck and I will just hang out there until then, probably stuffing our faces and watching trashy TV. Dumptruck's arm will be in a sling for 2 weeks or so, so we may find a way to slack pack him or he may have to take a break. We know for a fact we're skipping those 45ish miles between the slip-zone and Erwin. One day we'll come back to finish them. But we will gladly cash in those 45 miles to stay with Shanty Town, the most supportive village in all the land.

Clever Girl

We are ABSOLUTELY NOT quitting the trail. We promise!

Photos by Dumptruck (except the less-great ones that I took of the Gator, the hospital, and the cinnamon rolls).


  1. We will keep Dumptruck in our prayers for Fast and painless healing.

  2. Well Clever Girl, I guess hero worship goes both ways. You are the best! Thank you for staying cool during this setback. You are our hero now. After our conversation last night with the two of you, we feel that you and Dumptruk will be fine. Many thanks to Gray, Greg, Apollo and the rest of Shanty Town for your kind and heroic efforts also. Dumptruk hang in there. We love you guys. Wish we could be there to hug you. Mom and Dad

    1. We are hugging you long distance RIGHT NOW!

  3. You know the McCann doesn't count as a family event unless someone ends up in the ER. Nice work, Mike, to knock that off the checklist early. :-)
    You guys might end up at Katahdin a bit short on miles to be made up later, but I think when Apollo gets there he'll actually be a 2200 miler.
    So proud of how your rolling Shanty Town family pulled together to make this work, and hope they can read your blog to know how you're doing.
    Go to the Post Office today and see if they can bounce box the two of you up the trail.
    We love and miss you...and SO glad you're together and watching out for each other. We are all blessed to be part of this wonderful interconnected family. Keep on holding hands and play loud!
    Love, Mom and Dad

  4. What an eventful couple of weeks you guys have had! If you keep on like this, I'm just going to cover whatever ends up being your room in pillows. I won't stoop to straight jackets for your safety but don't push it! You guys are often in my thoughts and I miss you dearly. I am so glad that you have found a family with which to travel and that they are as supportive as you two are.
    I hope you can feel my love in that hotel room! (Just pretend I made those cinnamon rolls.)
    Miss you!

    1. Your cinnamon rolls would be even better. It's probably safest to go ahead and cover the entire house in pillows, frankly.
      Love you and miss you!

  5. I'm glad to hear that Dumptruck is recuperating and that the two of you get to eat to your hearts' content! Chris and I will be in Knoxville next week and will go off in search of Whistle and the rest of Shanty Town on Friday 19 April. We would be happy to help moving people and packs or be of any other use. Libby, aka, Whistle's mom.

  6. We laughed as we read, then we cried a little, then we laughed again....A mad group of warriors destined to unite and carry each other over trail and time. Heal quickly and hike on. Beth and Bern.

    1. Hey Beth and Bernie! Thank you for the good spirits and your hopes for us! We still talk about how much we love the two of you :)

  7. Hot diggity! No matter what disasters befall you, Scott and I are still incredibly jealous of this trip of a lifetime! I'm so glad you're blogging all of this.

    1. You guys will totally do something like this one day- hopefully with less suffering. Miss you!