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Impossible Odds Podcast

Impossible Odds Episode 6: Physical Breakdown

Dehydration and questionable water sources get in the way of Sammy and Jackson's progress when one of them gets sick on trail.

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Impossible Odds is Backpacker’s new podcast about two hikers’ quest to complete the Triple Crown in a calendar year.

Heading into the heart of summer, Sammy and Jackson aim to polish off the Continental Divide Trail, but an unexplained sickness almost throws a wrench in their plans. Listen to the episode below, or subscribe to Impossible Odds on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Zoe Gates: Two friends. 8,000 trail miles. One year. This podcast follows Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell on their attempt of the Calendar Year Triple Crown of hiking. I’m Zoe Gates, and this is Impossible Odds.

Sammy Potter: Merrell exists to share the simple power of being outside. Hell yeah, love that. No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love, or how you move, everyone should be welcome in the outdoors and wherever life takes us. Merrell strives to inspire everyone because, together, we can help protect the trail that we love. Our goal is to provide thoughtfully designed, rigorously tested outdoor products that overdeliver on performance, versatility, and durability. This is important not just if you’re thru-hiking, but for everyday walking or running as well.

Sammy: (singing) Where is my friend, I don’t know where he went, but thunder is getting louder and the rain is hardly getting softer, and the storm is over. That’s my song. Hopefully the storm ends soon.

Starting to get a little bit nervous about our timing now. We just got back on the CDT, and it’s July 16 now.

Zoe: Let’s take a second to review. In early summer, Sammy and Jackson reunited in Northern California after hiking alone for a stretch, and they continued north on the Pacific Crest Trail, making it to mile 1,773 in Oregon before transferring back to the CDT in New Mexico.

Sammy: We have about 2,000 miles left on the CDT, and I estimate that it’s going to take us until the end of September, possibly one or two days into October, then we’ll have to jump over back to the PCT and go southbound from the Washington terminus to where we left off in Oregon. That’s about 900 miles. If all goes smoothly and there isn’t really much snow, if it’s a late snow year, that’d be fine. We’d finish early November, basically. However, the big variable there is when snow starts to stick in the Cascades in Washington. It can stick as early as mid-September. I hate leaving that up to chance. Yes, it’s really tough; the thing I’m thinking about is that the CDT has one alternate. It’s called the Big Sky, and it cuts off a good  number of miles, over 200, which could make the difference of a week or so, maybe even a little more.

Zoe: Unlike the other two trails, which are well-established routes, the CDT leaves some interpretation up to hikers. Rather than following a singular footpath from Mexico to Canada, the CDT is comprised of dozens of offshoots, social trails, and alternate passages like the one Sammy mentioned. For many CDT thru-hikers, the ability to choose your own adventure is part of the allure of the trail. It can also mean that no two thru-hikes of the CDT look the same, which can introduce some gray area when you’re trying to set a record.

Sammy: I think that would put us in a better position to finish the CYTC earlier without much difficulty and potentially dangerous snow travel in Washington and Oregon. But, it’s a balance because the most important thing to me and to Jackson is to make sure that we have done this to the best of our ability. I don’t know how I would feel if we did that cutoff. Regardless, we will still have done the CYTC to completion. But, a Montana section through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and finishing in Glacier would be something we wouldn’t do. If that happened, and we could have done the rest of the CDT without the Big Sky alt, then I think I would kind of feel like I didn’t do as much as I could. It’s kind of a calculated risk assessment, I guess. But then again, I feel like we should probably prioritize safety. The Cascades can get super sketchy when there’s high snowfall, and we just don’t know when that’s gonna be. We still have some time to figure it out, over 1,000 miles to decide. The best thing we can do right now is put our heads down, send some big miles, and put ourselves in a position to go through as little winter as possible to finish the whole Triple Crown.

Finally, about to get into town, got about 5 miles, two hours max. Pretty easy grade till then. But just had a thought, super dehydrated over the last 24 hours or something. I finally found a really good water source about half an hour ago and just drank a ton of water. I was sitting down about three miles before that and just feeling defeated. I had come across a couple of pretty bad water sources. I didn’t want to drink, and I was just lethargic from that feeling of dehydration, and the sun started to beat down. I thought to just go for a couple more miles and see what happens. Worst case scenario: be a couple miles closer, and I’m not going to feel any worse than this. Basically, I just said to myself, just start going, and 2 miles later, I find a sick water source and feel a lot better and 5 miles feels a lot closer to town than 8 did. Once I just start going, good things start to happen. It’s a cascade effect. Just gotta start.

Zoe: Right now, Sammy and Jackson are still in New Mexico, the southernmost state on the CDT. Once they make their way through the desert, they’ll enter the heart of the Rockies in Colorado, then pass through Wyoming, through Yellowstone National Park, and then skirt the border of Idaho and Montana heading north.

Sammy: Yeah, the thunder is really close. Two seconds. The storm last night was insane. Jackson was moving his tent because he was under a tree. If a tree got struck, that probably would have not been good. As he was moving his tent in the pouring rain, 100 yards away he said he saw lightning strike then thunder one second later. The storm was so close to us for a good 15 to 20 minutes. We were in an alright position because we were near treeline. The only thing that really sketched me out was I don’t have a sleeping pad right now, and so if lightning did strike the ground really close to me, I wouldn’t really be insulated.

What I did was take every layer I have with me, my backpack, my sleeping bag, everything I have and just put it under me. I crawled into a fetal position basically, and that’s when I was doing that recording last night, just while it was happening, but that was insanity. It stuck around for a long time. I was literally holding my breath, thinking good thoughts. I woke up this morning, and it’s a beautiful blue day. The universe is balancing itself out after that hell. It doesn’t mean hopefully some water sources will have some water rather than everything just being dry as it has been, which is a major concern in this section. It’s super dry.

Zoe: In addition to the route-finding aspect, the CDT differs from the PCT and to the AT in a few key ways. First of all, it’s seldom thru-hiked compared to its counterparts, and there’s not as much of a hiker community. Granted, at the pace they’re going, Sammy and Jackson haven’t really engaged with the hiking community much on any of the trails anyway. In addition, the CDT and the surrounding areas aren’t set up for thru-hikers in the same way. That means fewer trail towns, established shuttles, and generally fewer resources. All of this makes for a more primitive experience on the CDT.

Sammy: Just saw a grizzly ahead of me, a small cub. I backed away, slowly making a bunch of noise. I’m waiting for Jackson because I want to go through this area together if there’s grizzlies around, but not sure how far back he is, so hopefully I don’t have to wait too long. I got out my bear spray here. I want to mentally go over info about grizzlies to just prepare for the worst. You should make a lot of noise while hiking, speak in low and in a calm voice. Keep eyes averted, back away slowly, get bear spray ready, done all those things. If it sees you and makes a bluff charge, its ears will still be up. Ears will be up if it’s a bluff charge. When charging toward you, it will be huffing and puffing. Have bear spray ready, stand your ground, speak in a low, calm voice.

If it’s a real charge, the ears will be back. It’ll be moving silently toward you. In this case, you should use bear spray. If that fails, and it does attack you, gotta play dead, put hands behind your neck to avoid a neck injury. Lay flat on your stomach if possible with legs spread flat wide. Legs spread wide so that it can’t flip you over and get your vital organs. Yeah, okay. All right. Bear spray ready? You undo that and point it toward a bear slightly down and small spurts. OK, hopefully Jackson catches up soon enough.

Zoe: We’ll be right back.

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Sammy: I’m taking a break right now. I just feel no sense of vitality. No energy, no desire to move. It’s in my mind, I want to keep hiking, but every time I get up, I’m just getting so tired so quickly. It’s like my body’s just telling me; it’s like my body’s begging me to please stop moving. I try to keep going for another five minutes, I have a bit of willpower, but I just find myself continuing to sit down for five minutes and then I’m like, “Oh, I wish I just kept going for five minutes.” It’d be further along and now I could take a break but even just thinking like this, it’s not something I’m used to. I don’t know why I’m feeling this way. My stomach just can’t settle and I think I’m not getting energy because I don’t want to eat. I’m not vomiting, but my stomach is not feeling good when I’m putting food into it. I must just have crazy fatigue or something.

Zoe: Eight months and thousands of miles into a trek like this, it would make sense that a person’s body gets beaten down. But Sammy’s fatigue and nausea persist for days, and It doesn’t feel like normal exhaustion.

Sammy: Alright, so we’re taking the day off. I think what it is, is sunstroke or heatstroke, whatever it is because we’re walking on the roads, doing this thing to get away from a fire, and it’s so hot out. You can hear it in my voice; I feel a little bit better now because we are off trail today, not in the sun. I think it’s just that sun exposure is really getting to me. I wasn’t wearing a hat. I stupidly wasn’t wearing sunblock. I was drinking a lot of water, but still probably it’s hard to keep up with that much water. But having no coverage, that was so stupid. I don’t know why I did that. I just drank a Coke. I don’t know what it is, but my mom suggested I drink Coke, and it seemed to work. Within a couple minutes of drinking Coke, I felt pretty good. Obviously, I can’t bring that on trail. I don’t know if this is sustainable, but we only have a couple more days of road walking before we get back to the trail and hopefully have some coverage. I feel okay right now, but then again, I’m not really moving. I start to get kind of foggy when I start moving again. My head and my stomach feel like shit when I’m out in the sun like that. I think having a day off today will be good. Prayers up.

Alright, I’m really just not feeling any better. I have tried to convince myself, now four days have gone by since we took a day off, which in that normal span of time, I’ll still be feeling super fresh from having an off day. But I feel dead. The first day, I felt good. Second day, I felt alright. Third day, basically back to that baseline of just like, my stomach doesn’t feel good. My throat is kind of on the verge of throwing up, but I can’t get myself to throw up. Thank God, I’m not thinking about giving up. I’m not going to give up. At the end of the day, we’re going to do it.

When I think about the next three months though, I’m not excited, I have to be honest about that. I’m not excited. Yeah, it could be a shitty three months. This podcast may turn into me just complaining because I need an outlet. I’m gonna try to not complain too much for Jackson. But at the same time, I gotta recognize we’re in beautiful places, we’re about to go into the Wind River Range, one of the most beautiful places on earth. My only context of it is seeing a very sad and thought-provoking movie, Wind River. I’ve also been looking at a ton of videos of people in the Wind River Range on the CDT, and it looks to be one of the most spectacular places in the world. I barely even heard of it before this year. On one level, I’m really looking forward to that. On another level, it’s very remote. There’s 150 miles between road crossings and feeling like this, I don’t know if I can do more than 25 miles a day. That right there is a six-day carry, that’s pretty fucking brutal. Yeah, it’s gonna be tough.

Zoe: By mid-August, Sammy sickness isn’t letting up. One day, he starts to faint while hiking.

Sammy: OK, so my issues came to a head yesterday. When I say issues, I’m referring to basically the shitty way I’ve been feeling for three weeks. Feels like two years. Heading into the Wind River Range yesterday with Jackson, 5 miles or so before the last road crossing, I vomit. Like projectile vomit just like everywhere. I’m not gonna lie, right after vomiting, I felt great. Maybe whatever was in me just got out, and it’s over, now I’m gonna feel great. Of course, that’s pretty normal when you vomit, you usually feel a little better. But that feeling started to come back over the course of the next hour, two hours or so. Vomited once again and caught up with Jackson. He was taking a break and I told him about it, just in the interest of being super open. He said to me, which I really appreciated, “Dude, are you sure that you are ready to go into this remote section, feeling the way you’re feeling?” I said, “Yeah, I think I’m just gonna take it slow and I’ll probably feel alright.”

We head in past the last road crossing, that feeling really starts to come back, and all of a sudden, vomiting again. I think to myself, if this is going to keep happening, it could actually get even worse. We’re pretty close to the last road crossing, I’m gonna catch up to Jackson. I’m just gonna tell him I gotta go figure out a way to find a doctor. I gotta figure out a way to find a doctor. I tell him that he’s super receptive, and I’m super grateful that he opened up that door. I realized I gotta get checked out. This is bad, and it could get worse. I could put myself and Jackson in a dangerous situation if it gets worse in the middle of this section. We get back to the road crossing, and we have a friend who we met earlier on trail who lives in this area and gave him a call. Shout out to Chris, absolute legend. He was able to come get us. We were pretty far out there. The road is a super remote dirt road, it took him an hour and a half to get to us. But once he got to us, there’s only an hour or so into the nearest town, which is called Lander, Wyoming, went to the urgent care there and told them how I was feeling.

I think it’s really difficult, though, when you’re in urgent care or in a hospital setting to understand what we’ve been undergoing because I said to them, I’ve been hiking 30 miles a day. I’m feeling really tired, my stomach hurts. To them, it’s like, yeah, you’re hiking 30 miles a day. Of course, you’re taking a toll on your body. But it’s hard to recognize that this has actually become normal for us, hiking this much. I think there’s actually something else that’s going on, especially with having some GI issues recently. I’ve been pretty sure that there’s something going on. They did some tests. But I’m now awaiting those tests in a motel and hoping—I’m honestly hoping that I have a positive result for something. I know that’s paradoxical as hell. You don’t want to have bad sickness, but if I have a parasite, I’m thinking giardia, then maybe it can be cured. Right now it’s just a waiting game, and trying to chill out and watch a movie basically.

I finally got my test results back and turns out I have giardia and two forms of E. coli. Let’s go! I called my mom immediately and yeah, this is awesome. I got off the phone and Jackson was like, “Why are you celebrating?” This is a great moment because I got to walk up to the hospital, which is a mile away to actually get the antibiotics, but it’s a week worth of antibiotics, and I should start feeling better. I have giardia and also two types of E. coli. I didn’t know that was possible, but I must have just gotten bad water somehow.

Zoe: Most backpackers are familiar with giardia. But in case you’re not, it’s a parasite that lives in water contaminated with animal or human feces. Ingesting the parasite can lead to unpleasant GI troubles that can last up to a few weeks.

Sammy: I’ve been using my filter this whole time. There were two days when I switched to iodine pills, though, because I couldn’t backwash my filter so it wasn’t getting water through. I just used iodine pills. I did everything right, I threaded the water. I don’t know, I should have gotten all the gunk out of there. I guess that must have been it. Time to start taking antibiotics. I’m feeling a little bit better already. But that’s probably just placebo from knowing what it is. I think we’re going to head out tomorrow into the Wind River Range. Hopefully I’ll just feel progressively better with the antibiotics. Let’s go.

In the Winds, feeling pretty good. It’s day three. Day one was a doozy—or I guess day two. Day one, we only hiked 20 miles or so into the range. Day two, we tried to take this like one mile … it was kind of an extra thing to do, but we also thought it would cut off some mileage. But it was supposed to have this really good view, and the benefit of the CDT is you can kind of make your own variations a little bit if you want to try to get a different view or go a different way or whatever. We end up taking this goddamn rock climbing trail, not a real trail, a rock climbing trail, not for hiking, we’re going straight up 80 degrees to 90 degrees, hand over hand. This whole time, my stomach is just churning and moving and begging me to stop. But we had to get to the top of that pass, it was a pass, we get to the top of it, hopefully thinking hopefully the other side is maybe a little bit more of a trail.

Nope. The other side is just a rock field at about 80 degrees with loose rock. Every time we’re taking a step, we’re moving a rock downward. We had to do this zigzag thing. I was in front, and I would zigzag each way. I would go to the side and then let Jackson move for a bit because if we moved at the same time, then I would release rocks from above that would probably hit the person below. That’s how steep it was; that two miles took us about two hours. At the end of it, I was just so tired. Yeah, kind of an L of a day. It was a cool view at the top, but it definitely was not worth basically free soloing out with 40 pound packs. That really tired us out. Also I was not feeling any better from antibiotics yet.

Today, though, when I think about how much better I feel right now, I just have actual energy. I have actual energy. Water tastes good. I saw a moose today. It was so beautiful. It was a good omen. Tomorrow is my birthday, and that’s exciting as well. I’m just grateful to actually be feeling good for the first time in so long. God, antibiotics, man. I mean, the crazy thing is, I didn’t realize how bad I was feeling until I had something to compare it to. I now feel like the closest to a superhero I’ve ever felt.

Zoe: As they approached the northernmost section of the CDT, Sammy and Jackson decided to follow through with their plan to take the Big Sky alternate. This will help them avoid wildfires that have sprung up along the border of Idaho and Montana. It’ll save them a little bit of time as they rush to stay ahead of oncoming winter.

Sammy: You ever heard of CNN? The guy behind it goes by the name of Ted Turner. I’ve known a bit about Ted Turner, but I did not know he owns so much land in this area. We use a mapping service right now called Gaia maps, which is really wonderful, super helpful, and I love it. I’m a big fan of it. However, it does not distinguish—we’ve now learned—between public and private dirt roads. Now that we’re on the Big Sky alt, we thought it would be fun to try to make our own path through these various nature preserves and nature areas rather than just sticking to the well-trodden Big Sky alt that many people have done. We had to make our own theoretical map on Gaia. I’ve been following that, it’s been going great, and then today, we ended up hiking through Ted Turner’s ranch.

Zoe: Just a side note here: Ted Turner owns about 2 million acres of land across North America and Argentina. That’s including three ranches in Montana.

Sammy: It’s called Turner Enterprises. Yeah, we get stopped about 5 miles into it. There wasn’t really a clear sign of where it started. But we had seen some Turner Enterprise signs and just didn’t really think that much of it. This guy stops in his pickup truck. We learned that he’s the ranch hand. He tells me, “You’re on Ted Turner’s property, and I’m gonna have to ask you to leave. What are you doing here?” Well, we explained to him, “We’re just hikers; we’re actually about 3 miles from getting to this highway on the other side, where we’d be off his land, and then we’re gonna go meet up with a trail over there.” He’s not super psyched about that. He kept repeating this one phrase where he goes, “You wouldn’t want to get yourself into a bind, would you? You wouldn’t want to get yourself into a bind.”

The whole time we’re talking, I’m taking stock of the situation and of what’s around me and I look in the backseat of his pickup truck and he’s got a rifle right there. He kind of glanced at it for a second. We’re obviously pretty harmless, I think. We’re wearing pink and orange. I don’t really think we can come across as a threat, but I just plead with him, “Come on, this is the situation we’re in, we’ve had to hike a long way to get here. If we go back to that road, I think we’re gonna have to go around another way. We’ll be off this land in 3 miles, would you just let us, we’ll go really fast.” And he’s just having none of it, he keeps repeating: “Wouldn’t want to get yourself a new bind, don’t get yourself into a bind.” Apologies if that accent is offensive to anybody. I know it’s not very good. But yeah, eventually, he tells us to get off this land and go back the way we came. I don’t want to see you again.

Granted that he had a rifle and that I don’t want to be charged with anything, we got off his property as soon as possible. The problem that that put us in is a) we had to backtrack, so we’ve now done extra mileage, and b) we have to go east in order to go north in order to go west, whereas we just wanted to go west, if that makes sense. Then it would go north after that. This added many miles for us, and it’s a huge bummer. Man, Ted Turner, I just wish I could talk to him and tell him what situation we’re in. Maybe he would have helped us out, but his ranch hand was not so friendly. I can’t be mad at it, though; it is private property.

Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds.

Sammy: Pretty reluctant to mention this dejection right now. I just need to think about this more. Because I don’t want him to feel as though I’m discrediting what we did or what he did. Or whether I’m going to need to go back and redo that 500 mile section on the official CDT route.

Zoe: This podcast was written and hosted by Sammy Potter with contributions from Jackson Parell. Our producers are Louisa Albanese and me, Zoe Gates. Woolly Music is our composer and sound designer. Tim Mossa is our assistant story editor. If you enjoyed this episode of Impossible Odds, please subscribe and leave us a review.

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