Saturday, July 26, 2008

Background - Riprap Hollow Hike

The circuit hike to Riprap Hollow in Shenandoah National Park in Northwest Virginia, USA is one of my favorite hikes, for a number of reasons. First, it is a beautiful hike, and is a great workout through some decent ups and downs. Second, there is a great swimming hole in the hollow (holler as they call them in Virginia). Third, I almost always see wildlife on this hike. In past hikes on this trail, I've seen black bear twice, white tail deer, a timber rattlesnake, a box turtle, and assorted other creatures. But I have a fourth, more personal reason for loving this hike.

In 2002, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and did six months of chemotherapy, from June 3 into December. I have been in remission ever since, to my good fortune. But chemo is very hard on your body. I received four drugs, each of them very toxic with an amazing variety of side effects, every two weeks. One of these drugs, bleomycin, can cause lung damage, and in extreme cases, permanent pulmonary damage and death. In August, 2002, I ended up in the hospital, severely ill with what turned out to be lung damage from this drug. It was about as sick as I have ever felt in my life, and after discussions with the Pulmonary Specialist, I made a decision to discontinue this drug for my last three months of treatment. Dying of cancer did not scare me a fraction as much as the thought of sitting in a wheel chair chained to an oxygen bottle for the rest of my life. The doctor felt like my lungs would probably heal more or less 100% if I stopped getting bleomycin, and they appear to have indeed healed.

When I finished chemo in December, I was weak and in poor physical condition. I had resolved that by the next summer I would be strong and healthy enough to hike again, specifically to do a hike up Tumbledown Mountain in Maine in August. My stamina slowly returned through the winter and spring, and in July 2003, I decided to try the Riprap Hollow hike. It was my first hike of more than a mile or so since recovering from cancer. Although I had done this hike several times before being ill, it will always have special significance for me, representing overcoming cancer.

When I did that hike in 2003, I still had lingering effects from the chemo and was not in peak condition. It was a hard hike for me but I was by myself and could go at my own pace. On the long uphill slog that marks the last 2.5 miles of the hike, I felt like I was crawling and had to stop and catch my breath many times. Younger people flew by me. But I was alive! My lungs worked! (Oh, did they work coming up that trail back to the Skyline Drive). I was hiking again! I was cancer free! I was elated!

So every summer since then, I do this hike as a celebration of life, of health, and of victory over cancer and bleomycin! I know that some summer day, I will do this hike for the last time, but I am hoping that day is still decades away.

This hike is 9.6 miles long, and gains (and loses) 2,260 feet. If you hike the circuit, you are actually on three separate trails - the Appalachian Trail, Riprap Hollow Trail, and Wildcat Ridge Trail. Most of the elevation gain, about 1,500 feet, is in the last 2.5 miles of the hike coming up the Wildcat Ridge Trail. You will know that you have quads! The highlight of the Riprap Hollow hike is the beautiful stream and the swimming hole in the hollow, a refreshing and invigorating reward on a hot day! And if you see a black bear on the trail, consider it a bonus!

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