It had been a while since I’d stretched my legs, so late one morning I threw two sodas in my daypack and started hiking southbound. After the Roadwalk Reroute, things had started going according to plan—Dad had hiked 200 miles, all of it on-trail, and we’d met up half a dozen times with nary a hiccup—which for him (and somewhat for me) meant the hike was fast becoming a grind. He broke down when I reached him, repeating between sobs, “I need a zero day. I need a zero day.” Anticipating this, I’d already booked a room in Helena, Montana for the following night. All that stood between him and a hot shower was a 19.1-mile slackpack day, and he was alright with that.
In normal conditions, it should take Dad about 8 hours to hike 19 miles, so I was expecting him around 1:30, but with a slackpack tailwind I would not have been surprised to see his “sunbrella” bouncing above the horizon at noon. 12:00 came and went, so I manually triggered the inReach to check for new messages, having not heard a peep from him all morning. A moment or two later, this popped up on my screen:
11:email@example.com I’ve hurt myself, I have a 2″ cut on my ankle. I will need stitches. I’ve wrapped it with my rag.
Ohmigod. Before I had time to compose a reply, my phone rang—Dad had signal! He described tripping over a blowdown, only to land on another and lose his balance, falling in such a way that the sharp stub of a broken branch had deeply cut the inside of his left ankle. (As an aside: this was exactly one of the darker places my thoughts had shifted to in The Blowdown Lowdown.) He tore his “snot rag” into strips to use as a bandage, and then wrapped his belt around them for compression. It didn’t seem to be bleeding much, but the wound was, in his words, “I could see little globules of fat”-deep. In the 45 minutes since he fell, he managed to continue hiking toward me, but he was still 3.7 miles away.
I pulled on my shoes, grabbed water and sodas, threw first-aid supplies into my daypack, and tore off down the trail. When I reached him he seemed entirely unaffected, hiking normally, poles stowed, not at all like someone with a serious leg injury. He sat down on a log, I handed him a soda, and then I proceeded to unravel the strips of ratty pink washcloth that he’d wrapped around his ankle. I girded myself for the gruesome reveal but under each strip there seemed to be yet another. I was hoping I’d rise to the occasion, but I also knew that the sight of blood (usually my own) makes me squeamish to the point of faint. Finally I got to skin, and though I could see that it was bad, it didn’t look bad. There were two 3-inch-long scrapes that transitioned abruptly to an inch-long gash with an upside-down L-shaped flap. Thanks to Dad’s makeshift first-aid, the flap had stayed closed—and I stayed composed.
We were still 2 miles from the Jeep, and then another half hour from Helena, so with shaky hands I wiped the wound down with alcohol swabs, applied 3 butterfly closures, covered it with a large gauze pad, and then wrapped his ankle with an ACE bandage. He put his shoe back on, and we took off down the trail. After 51 days, Dad had hiked 829.1 miles, 4.4 of them with a puncture wound.
We got to Urgent Care at 3, they took him back pretty much right away, and we ended up telling far more stories than were strictly necessary in response to “So tell me what happened here…” The challenge with any puncture wound is keeping it open, moist, and clean so that it can heal from the inside out while expelling any infectious material. This was not going to be easy for a stubborn 72-year-old who had informed me as we were hiking back to the Jeep that “This is NOT going to take me off the trail!” The doctor opted to put a single suture on both sides of the flap so that the wound would continue to drain as it healed. As a further prophylactic against infection, he got a prescription for an oral antibiotic.
It wasn’t until the next day—when, out of sheer curiosity, we checked the gauze sponge and found it tie-dyed red, pink, and yellow—that Dad fully appreciated the gravity of his injury: his wound was indeed draining, a lot (and continues to, days later). Of course 36 hours after getting stitched up, he was back on trail and ended up hiking an astounding 20.8 miles.