If you are one of the people who have been worried about my plans to hike the AT, worry no more!
A few weeks ago, I shared that I planned to hike the southern half of the Appalachian Trail next summer; a little over a thousand miles and three months. It’s a big undertaking for anyone, but for a guy with a visual impairment, there is some added challenge. That is not something I have ignored. It is at the forefront of nearly all of my planning and preparation.
My proclamation was met with words of encouragement, support, and a few whispers of caution. Since then, the whispers of concern seem to have grown. Rarely are they shared directly with me, rather they are shared with Marilyn or with close friends, “I am worried about Chris. I really wish he would reconsider.” The warning sometimes comes with a story of how some hiker met a horrible demise. The fears come from their hearts. They care for me and they care for my wife. No one wants to see anything bad happen to me.
I assure you that, on the list of people who do not want anything bad to happen to me, my name is at the top of the list. I am taking every precaution to make sure that this will not only be a challenging and rewarding experience but will also be a safe one. That said, to put your mind at ease, I have good news!
To tell that story, I need to go back to 1977, just before I went to college.
VMI had a requirement that every incoming cadet had to have a complete physical examination, including a dental checkup. I was 18 years old and, remarkably, it was the first time I had ever seen a dentist. It took four visits to fill the cavities the dentist found. Most were small and inconsequential, but two of them were significant—numbers 13 and 14 on the upper left side. The fact that I know those numbers might tell you something about how this story eventually plays out.
While I was at VMI, for a brief period of time, I played on the intermural rugby team. It was a fun, physical, and frequently brutal game. I remember one of my teammates, after one violent collision running to the sideline, with his hands over his nose. “Is it broken?” he asked as he pulled his hand away. His nose no longer pointed forward, rather it pointed abruptly to the left. That’s when I decided I needed to find a different intermural sport, and I signed up for volleyball. What could go wrong there?
On my first day playing volleyball, a teammate in the front row jumped up to block a spiked ball. I was behind him. I don’t remember if he was successful, but I do remember the jarring blow of his elbow hitting me solidly in the mouth. My jaw was cracked and my two top front teeth, numbers 9 and 10, (aka central and left lateral incisors) were both hanging by small bits of flesh. Yes, it felt exactly as you are most likely imagining right now.
A dentist was able to wire them together and they were fine for the next ten years, until a breakfast meeting in New York. As I bit into my bagel, I heard a CRACK in my head and suddenly, number 9 is once again hanging from a small piece of tissue. This time, the tooth cannot be saved and I end up with a three-tooth bridge connecting numbers 8 and 10.
Fast forward to the present. I am sitting in a chair looking at a 3-D scan of my mouth. “Number 14 is hopeless. So is 10. They both have to come out. Maybe 13 as well. You probably should get an endo to take a look at that one,” the implant surgeon tells me. “See this? Looks like little pieces of metal shavings? That what’s left of the bone around your front teeth. The damage is rather extensive.” I hear him say something about needing screws, and I feel a queasiness in my stomach. The physical and financial pain of what’s coming blocks out the next few minutes of our discussion. I was expecting a very routine examination, not this.
The process, beginning to end, will take the better part of a year, he tells me.
“I will be on the Appalachian Trail from April to June next year?” I respond, partially stating a fact, partially asking for permission.
“Wow," the doctor says. "Good for you! Well, in that case, we’ll do the implants when you return, but you need to remove those teeth before you go.” The molar and premolar, 14 and 13, are apparently two very important teeth for eating. My front teeth, however, are where my immediate attention goes.
My wife tells me that I am a little vain when it comes to my appearance. No that’s not entirely correct. She never says “a little.” I prefer to think that I am just someone who pays attention to his appearance, shocking, I am sure for those who know me. Yes, that Big Lebowski t-shirt with the hole in it was a deliberate choice.
My backpacking prowess has already been established so I know that going into this hike, I am likely to get a few sideways glances from some of my fellow hikers. If not my backcountry naivete, my visual impairment will certainly bring notice as I ask for assistance with seemingly simple tasks.
This type of attention is difficult for a guy like me who, for most of his life, has struggled with confidence. Do I really have to do it without my front teeth?
I hope that my friends who are concerned about my safety on the trail find some solace in this new information. Everyone on the trail will know the whereabouts of the half-blind, novice backpacker with no front teeth, and there has to be some added degree of safety in that, right?
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.