Filling in the Gaps: Badger’s Appalachian Trail Omissions (part 2)

filling in the gaps: badger's appalachian trail omissions

In the first edition of Filling in the Gaps, you learned how Google took a big dump on my heart.

In this edition, you will learn how a mosquito took a big dump inside my head.

For those who have followed along closely with Badger’s journey up the Appalachian Trail, you already know that I battled some pretty debilitating health issues (as many thru-hikers do). In June, I went to the hospital just outside of Duncannon, PA. The doctor ran some blood tests. They all came back negative. She suggested that because the previous week had consistently been reaching into triple digit temperatures, I was suffering from dehydration. She told me to “drink more water and avoid hiking during the afternoon.” I did the first and ignored the second as intense fatigue had me sleeping 10 hours a day.

Three weeks later, not only were the headaches still persistent, they had gotten worse and my vision was starting to blur. Back to the hospital. This time, along with a series of blood tests, I had a CT scan as I was now concerned that perhaps I had a brain tumor. Thankfully, all tests again came back negative. This doctor was more adamant about my symptoms being related to dehydration. He told me to start consuming more sodium and to intake an electrolyte supplement as regularly as possible.

This time it worked.

For a while.

A month later and the headaches would return, albeit less frequently and intensely. Now it seemed that there was no rhyme or reason between my exertion  level, sodium and electrolyte intake, and the headaches. I told myself that somehow the headaches were related to something on the trail. Since they were better than what they were before and I was annoyed with making useless hospital trips, I would deal with the pain and hopefully they would subside once I got off the trail.

I finished the trail. The headaches didn’t go away. They became even more persistent.

What. The. Fuck.

A few weeks after finishing the trail, and I was battling headaches 80% of my waking hours. Luckily, I already had a physical scheduled (recommended for anyone who has just spent a half year in the woods), hopefully this doctor could tell me what was going on. After drawing a few bathtubs worth of blood (side note: needles tend to make Badger pass out), the doctor told me she would get in contact with me in a few business days and let me know the results.

Her assistant called me a week later.

Assistant: “So we got the results from your blood tests. Everything came back normal. Except for one thing. It looks like your blood shows a history of West Nile Virus. ”

[Awkward pause waiting for some further explanation]

Zach: “What?”

Assistant: “Yeah. The virus isn’t currently active in your bloodstream, but it was at one point. This is likely what’s causing your headaches.”

Zach: “Hmm. How long do the symptoms usually last?”

Assistant: “Oh boy, for some people a few days. For others, months….years.”

Zach: “Is there anything I can do to remedy this?”

Assistant: “It’s a virus. Unfortunately not.”

[Awkward pause waiting for some sort of silver lining]

Zach: “Ok. Thanks? Bye.”

A trip to the neurologist confirmed what the assistant had told me. There’s really nothing I can do except wait it out (however long that may be?). He prescribed some migraine pills. That was that.

Current update

As of this post, the last headache I’ve had was two weeks ago. This is the longest stint I’ve gone without a headache months. Coincidentally the last day I had a headache was during my second visit to the isolation tank. I don’t believe this is a coincidence. You can reach your own conclusions.

Side note: The onset of the WNV (or at least the symptoms) came literally within one week of my getting the bad news from Google. Injury was added to insult. I was still 1,000 miles away from my destination. Still at no point did I consider getting off the trail. This is my greatest source of pride in looking back at the AT.

For any aspiring thru-hikers reading this, I want to share my learning lessons and psychological tactics with you so you can look back with the same sense of pride and accomplishment after your thru-hike.

  • Kathy Dalton

    Oh my god!  I am so sorry to hear about this, Zach.  I really hope it wasn’t a PA mosquito that did this to you.  I wonder how many other thru-hikers ended up with WNV?  Maybe when you shave your beard, the headaches will disappear completely!!!  🙂  But seriously – a young healthy guy like you will see a complete and total recovery soon, if you aren’t already there.  Don’t freak yourself out reading things online about West Nile – just take care of yourself and relax.   It’s better than Lyme’s, right?   

  •  You’ll be happy to know the mosquito was not a resident of PA.  The headaches were already an issue when I met the Dalton fam.  I’m thinking that it most likely happened somewhere in northern VA/WV.  I’ve already learned not to read too much information online as it serves only to make the headaches worse, figuratively and literally (placebo). 

    I really do appreciate your concern.  Thank you for everything.

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