On my own, I am not enough

On Saturday, May 27, 2023, Eric and I drove to Clayton, GA. We checked into our hotel on a cool, misty night in the mountains. We had a most wonderful meal at a local restaurant.

On Sunday, while putting my hiking gear on early in the morning, I spotted a tick embedded in my right hip waistline. I dug it all out. A swollen spot remained.

            Eric and I met our hiking advisor and guide, Taz, at the parking lot near Cabin 7 at Oconee State Park. It was 7AM.

            Eric and I had planned and trained for months. This 77 mile hike through the Smokey Mountains was going to hard. But, we had done our homework. We had talked with hikers of this trail, and to people who live in the area. We had prepped our bodies with strenuous cardio and overall body exercises many times weekly since January. We had often hiked for 4-5 miles at a time with full back packs equivalent to the weight we had today.

            We had been speaking with Taz for months. He met us today at our finish line. Taz would show us where to store food in the woods along the roads we would intersect during the hike. We estimated a 7 day hike, and that we would need supplies at about the 40 mile mark. Taz then drove us to our chosen starting point.

            Along the drive, Taz made several more observations for us. He would often stop the truck and make us aware of where we could possibly find help if needed. One of the comments concerned me. I should have asked some questions. But, often you don’t know what to ask until you have the experience. Now I know.

            “The Rangers often do not allow people to hike following and during storms like started here last night. I’ve had several cancellations today from people like yourselves,” he said.

            Bob and Samuel met us at Table Rock State Park, where the starting point is for the trail if you are heading east to west. East to west is the most difficult route according to those who maintain the trail, and per the hikers. Eric and I chose east to west direction so we could do the hardest part while at our freshest. Normally, people travel west to east if they are through hiking. That gives the lighter backpack for the hardest climb, because most all of your food is gone at the end of the hike. I think Eric and I did the right thing, though.

            The climb to the top of Sassafras Mountain was harder than we had imagined. We expected hard, but not this hard. It was raining, sometimes heavy, for most of the day. As many as a dozen trees had fallen down the mountain ahead of us because of the storm. Most were small, and slowed us very little. Some were mature, forcing us up or down the mountain to get around, or eventually climb through their canopies, and return to the trail. At one point Eric and I were climbing in the rain through the canopy of a large fallen tree. I was stuck, when Eric hollered to me through a smile, “You wanted to do something hard! This is hard!” We were loving it. The trail was marked from time to time with small white blazes painted on a tree. Without the blazes, finding our way would be much harder, if not impossible for us.

            We started with layers of clothing and rain ponchos. The temperature was in the low 50’s at the bottom of the mountain. However, we worked so hard during the climb that the layers only made us sweat more and more and more. We were overheating. Off came the layers. We were hiking in short sleeve shirts, in the cold rain for hours.

We would see our breath at the top of the mountain. We had made it to our first goal! 

It was about a 9 mile hike up the side of this 3,000’+ mountain. The rain stopped at the top for about 90 minutes, and we set up at a great camp for the night. This day was a rough way to start. We had done the hardest part under incredibly hard conditions. I was very proud of the four of us.

After eating, we soon got into our tents. We thought we heard a bear, and for sure an owl in our campsite as we lay in our tents in the rain.

I slept 12 hours.

On Monday Eric and I hiked for about 11 miles to the Virginia Hawkins campsite. Bob and Samuel left us along the way to go home, having finished the distance they wanted to hike.

            Eric and I set up camp, and ate our freeze dried meals.

            I slept 13 hours.

On Tuesday I awoke without much of an appetite. Donna would later tell me that she awoke with a dread on her today. She couldn’t shake it. She prayed and prayed today. Donna would not sleep much at all Tuesday night.

Eric and I headed for Bear Creek and the nearby Bear Gap campsite. I thought I would walk whatever was ailing me off. The site was about 15 miles away.

Along the way I stopped to lay down and rest near a mountain lake. Eric and I encountered a family boating on this lake. I knew I needed help. But, I sucked it up, kindly visited with the man near the shoreline. I wrongly denied the prompting inside to ask for help.

            Eric and I made it to Bear Creek, and set up camp across the creek from the Bear Gap campsite. I immediately threw up. Eric cautioned me to move away from my tent while throwing up, so as to not attract animals in the night. 

I expected I was in trouble. Eric thought as much, too. I went to bed.

On Wednesday morning Eric and I made a plan to get me to a doctor, and some variations of the plan in case the worse happened. I needed help.

            It was about 11 miles to our next campsite. We knew a road out of the mountain forest was there. If we could get cell service along the way, Taz could meet us there. I looked at the picture I had of possible cell service areas on this part of the trail. The map had been made by another hiker, and passed on to me through Bob. It looked like three areas were possible.

            I decided to leave my tent and sleeping gear with a note inside the tent. I was too weak to carry it. The note explained I was sick, wished the finder well, and apologized for leaving the gear behind. I took what I could carry in my backpack. Eric grabbed all of his gear. I loaded up my water bottles, and off we went west ward to find cell service and the Whitewater campsite.

            Cell service was found, but it was not strong enough to complete a call to Donna. It was fleeting and weak. So, I cued up text messages of our approximate location to three people asking for 911 assistance. I was physically fading. I hoped we would catch a cell signal as we hiked, and the texts would go through. Someone might send help. I had not realized it, but before the earlier call was dropped, Donna had heard me say Eric and I had left Bear Creek. She knew we were heading west.

            In hindsight, all three texts got through. Only Donna figured out how to help. Way to go, babe!

            After several more miles, I dropped by backpack. I had gotten weaker. I could carry no more than one bottle of water. Eric stayed with me. We hiked on. As we rested on the trail, a shaft of rare sunlight brightened the trail ahead of us. I got up and walked into it, hoping to charge my phone with the solar charger. My phone was down to about 14% power. Eric’s was about 19%. As I awakened my phone to check the charging, one bar of signal appeared! I dialed 911. A woman answered. I gave a quick description. She pinged my phone, and said something went wrong! Then she was gone. I heard her say, “Stay there!” The sunlight and the cell signal were gone. I moved about 40’ eastward to sit by Eric.

            90 minutes later, no one had come. The sun came back out. Another shaft of sunlight brightened the same area on the trail ahead. I went there for a charge. I opened my phone, and one bar of signal appeared again! I called again. 911 answered! They got a clear ping this time. The sunlight went away. I think they were already on the way. But, they now had a clear reading. I went back and sat down near Eric, and waited. Eric kept talking with me, hoping to keep my mind off of the pressing circumstances of my body.

            As I sat there, my thoughts came like this…

            On my own, I am not enough.

            There are mountains as far as I can see. My body is shutting down. I am afraid. I sat down believing that Jesus is God. I asked for a vision of my life for tomorrow, something to hold on to that this was not how this body was going to end. No tomorrow appeared in my soul.

            The dehydration was severe. My chest hurt on the inside, my lower back hurt on the inside, I was losing control of my legs below the knees, my fever had broken but my body temperature seemed cold, my throat hurt, some of the veins in my forearms had collapsed, and I had increasing headache pressure from all sides.

            I thought there is going to be an investigation of my death by the life insurance company. But, Donna will be taken care of. I thought about cuing up some more texts to her about how to proceed when I am gone. I did not do it. It didn’t seem right. It would scare her. She had to be sick with fear already. I hid my tears from Eric.

Two things foremost occupied my thoughts. Donna was the first. To think we will never have another date, that a lifetime of conversation is over, and that we will never snuggle at bedtime was deeply saddening to me. The thoughts dominated me. The loss of others did come to mind, but Donna was the person I longed for again and again. 

Only after a long while did another thought press upon me. At first, I pushed it back to the horizon. I was aware of it, but not ready to consider it. It seemed like I pushed it back for nearly an hour before I began to contemplate what life will be like on the other side of this veil of a body. Jesus and other people I know are there ahead of me. I was surprised how easy it was to consider these thoughts once I allowed them to come close again. I began to welcome the comforting thoughts of what was ahead. I perceived it to be brighter, bigger and warmer there than I could have imagined. I could see it with my soul. My imagination was not racing, but anticipating the reality of it.

What do you want me to do for you?

2.5 hours after my first call to 911, a 36 year old man named Kyle came walking around on the ridge of the trail. He was the front man for one of the rescue teams. He radioed the others. We had been found.

            The first to actually speak to me was a paramedic. As I sat still on the forest floor, he asked me for my right hand. I reached up. He checked my pulse. “You have a strong pulse. What do you want me to do for you,” he asked? I was confused by the question, since I was the least qualified among the two of us to decide what I needed. In hindsight, I realize he and other rescue heroes find it normal to rehydrate hikers and leave them to their hike. I told the paramedic, “I need to go to the hospital. Something is wrong. That is what my wife would want me to do.”

            It took several men about 45 minutes on 4-wheelers to get Eric and I to an old logging road. Two more paramedics were there, along with a State Trooper. He called Donna in my presence to tell her I had been found. The paramedics started an IV, and took Eric and I another 45 minutes in a buggy along this logging road. There was then a paved road, and an ambulance waiting.

            Three bags of IV fluids with electrolytes and other good things later, I was in the ER for observation at the only hospital in the county. The small town ER doctor would not be denied, even as he was puzzled by my case. After a few hours of watching me he said my symptoms did not add up to dehydration alone. He said I had carried something into the hike, that I had symptoms unrelated to dehydration – that did not respond to regular medicines. He asked me about the days leading up to the hike. I told him about the tick I removed the morning Eric and I had started out. The doctor asked to see my hip. He now anticipated I had a tick born infection or disease. He treated me for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Limes Disease, just in case his hunch was right. Only bloodwork would tell him for sure, and that was going to take about two weeks here.

Around 9PM, the hospital released me. Eric was with me the whole time. He found us a hotel for the night.

On Thursday Eric and I drove home. Actually, Eric drove.

The unforeseen indelible kindness of a son

On Friday our son, Adam, and his son, Teddy, were at the house around 8:45 in the morning. Adam said Teddy wanted to check on me. I am sure there was some truth to that. But, it was Adam who hugged me with both arms and said I love you. Oh man, that was something to come home to. Thank you, Adam. Thank you, Lord.

I set out Friday afternoon to contact all of the people who helped me, from the rescuers in the forest, to the dispatchers, to the ER staff. I realized a path had been made 10 miles long over and around the mountain to get to Eric and I, using a chainsaw at times. Hiking trails over mountains are seldom wide enough for 4 wheelers. Nor are they straight.

            I found the dispatcher for the rescue heroes, who offered to send an email to all involved – if I would write it. I gladly did. I told the dispatcher about the sunny spot appearing in the forest. He said, “I don’t know what you will think about this. But, the Lord gave you a shaft of light to show you were to stand in the forest! There is no cell service in that gorge.” “Yes sir. I have no problem believing that,” I said, “and He had dozens of people across the US asking him to do it!” Donna had seen to that. 

The dispatcher went on to say that even in the sunny spot the signal was so bad that some of my coordinates went to one tower and some to another tower. I was truly at the limit of the towers, and this point of intersection somehow happened to at times be able to get the signal out. 

The rescue chief Carmen called me this evening. He had given me a shirt off his back while getting me out of the forest. He was so excited, and appreciative of my email. His son is the Kyle who found us. I also spoke at much length today with a military survival trainer for rugged hikes like this. Assuming only a normal dehydration, he told me my body could not produce electrolytes fast enough to keep up with the demand I had placed on it. He told me how to fix the problem, and how to use a Personal Locator Beacon to be certainly found should I hike like this again.

            I also received a text this evening from a guy named Josh in Duncan, SC. He had found my gear, all of it! That was so unexpected. He first found my tent, thinking me to be dead. He later found my backpack, most surely believing I was dead. He carried it all to the next campsite, hoping to learn something from anyone there. Josh did this at risk to himself, by adding the weight of my gear to his own. No one he encountered had heard any news, nor knew what had happened to the guy named Rick Underhill from Indiana.

            Josh and I figured out how to get my gear back to me in the next several weeks.

A Rite of Passage

On Saturday morning, June 10, I read the results of my bloodwork from the Transylvania Regional Hospital. They had emailed me the results earlier, and I just had time to read it. I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever! I had it during the hike. That explains my symptoms, and my shutting down physically. Actually, stopping the hike was the right thing to do. RMSF can kill you within 2 weeks, especially if left untreated. It is very dangerous.

            When Donna awoke, I showed her the results. The ER doctor had suspected a tick-born disease. He had already treated me for it just in case. He was right to do so. Praise the Lord God for the ER doctor, and for me thinking clear enough to not accept rehydration on the mountain, and get to the ER and communicate all of my symptoms.

I have since realized many more things God did to extend and save my life while on this hike. The measure He went to in order to keep me on the planet is the most humbling thing I have known. I have still cried several times today recounting this to you. 

I have not overlooked what the Lord God did to encourage me to return to the mountain forest. First, He saved my gear through a man I may never meet. He also gave me a friend in Eric who stayed with me, and who confidently said he will go back with me. The Lord told me how to be found anywhere in the world should I need help again. Most importantly, He gave me a wife who sat me down a few weeks after the rescue and said, “It is good for you to do these hard things. It is a like a rite of passage for you. I want you to finish this.” Have you ever had your person discovered like that? I have known this about myself since my youth. I have knowingly signed up for things that seem beyond me since my grade-school bicycle paper route. Initially, as a kid I did hard things in order to find out if I had sold myself short. In the last ten years especially, I have come to welcome hard things for another reason. If I make it to the other side, I find God there in ways I was unaware of before.

The Return to say Thank You

On May 24, 2024, Eric and I aim to return to the sunny spot near Narrow Rock Ridge to say thank you to God, and then to resume the hike. About 3 days, and 40 miles to go.