Jim Mills shares his GIST journey while hiking in Michigan. Many years ago I learned that all great stories begin with “And there I was!” Any tale that begins this way must be an entertaining account that includes adventure, danger, suspense and finally, a great ending! With those elements in mind, I would like to relate my experience with GIST on a remote hiking trail.
And there I was, in late May 2004 on a 43-mile backpacking trip of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore trail along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The trail starts out with 23 miles of easy walking in forests and on sandy bluffs next to the water. Then it climbs steeply for the final 20 miles section along the edge of cliffs that drop 100 to 200 feet straight down into the cold, blue waters of the lake. At the time of this trip I was a fit, forty-six year old with my only significant physical complaint being painful joints from past injuries that I accumulated during past adventures. Although I was hiking alone, the only significant concern on my mind was preventing sore feet.
When I stepped onto the trail late on a Friday morning, everything seemed to be ideal! By Saturday afternoon I had walked 23 miles and the weather was clear enough that night that I slept out in the open amongst the ferns, listening to the waves roll in and looking at more stars than I’d ever seen. On Sunday morning I awoke to find a beautiful rainbow hanging over Lake Superior while two loons fed on placid waters below me. As I sat and enjoyed the view from a high bluff, a bald eagle flew past with the morning sunlight glistening off its pristine, white head plumage. It was less than 30 feet in front of me with the rainbow behind! This was an indescribably perfect moment and I remember thinking to myself that no matter what happened, this brief view had made the trip completely worthwhile. In retrospect, those moments on the bluff represented a peak in my life as GIST was about to make its introduction.
As I started out that day the trail quickly climbed onto the cliffs. Walking became rougher as there were quite a few trees lying across my path and I had to bypass, or climb over them with a 40 pound pack on my back. Shortly before noon I began to feel a discomfort in my abdomen and as I walked along it slowly grew more noticeable. It felt as if I had taken a blow to my stomach so I decided that I must have injured myself while rolling over a tree trunk. I have a rather high tolerance for pain, but by the time I reached my intended campsite for the day I realized that something was unusually wrong with me.
Thus I decided to keep walking until I reached a place where I could get help if it became necessary. By late afternoon I reached a park visitor center, but after some contemplation, decided that the discomfort was not too severe, and after so much planning and effort I really wanted to finish the entire trail. The final seven miles were a miserable, uncomfortable experience and by the time I walked out of the woods my feet were well blistered and I was holding my right hand over my abdomen. I had walked about 20 miles that day and they were not enjoyable. From start to finish, I had completed the entire 43 mile course in just less than 56 hours.
I did not go to a doctor then, or all summer long as I convinced myself that the pain would go away. But it did not go away, and I was a health & fitness fanatic in serious denial. I said to myself, “This wasn’t anything exercise and diet couldn’t overcome!”
After an especially bad day in late September it finally hit me that I was really ill, and then I told my wife Sabine about it for the first time. The next day our surprised family doctor immediately sent me for my very first CT scan. Thus began a rapid journey through increasingly specialized doctors, and tests to evaluate a “tumor of unknown origin.” In mid-October a 17×18 cm GIST was removed from the back side of my stomach along with my gall bladder and appendix. I was given a picture that was taken as the tumor was being removed and it actually made me feel better to see that I hadn’t complained about something “wimpy.” It was amazing that I never noticed anything except a slight bulge in my upper abdomen that I was unsuccessfully fighting for years with sit-ups and abdominal crunches. Due to my otherwise healthy physical condition I was able to be discharged from the hospital five and a half days after surgery.
As I approached the first anniversary date of my surgery in October 2005 I found myself getting rather distracted as my mind began to dwell on a backpacking trip. Thus I made a sudden decision to go back to the Pictured Rocks trail. I just knew that I needed to be there on the exact day of my surgery. I walked a leisurely 30 miles over three days and marked the hour of surgery by contemplating the sun setting into the mists over Lake Superior as I sat on the same bluff where I admired the rainbow in 2004. I had come full circle. As I walked back to my car the next morning I felt much more confident about my physical well being than I had in over a year. In retrospect I can see that I found something on that trail that I did not even know I lost there.
However, I still felt that something was missing and that I needed another round of “trail therapy.” In May of this year I returned to Pictured Rocks with the goal of hiking the entire trail again on the same weekend as the original trip. From start to finish it took me 71 hours with no abdominal pain to mar my memories. The therapeutic benefit of walking amongst a carpet of wildflowers and listening to waves for three days cannot be understated as somewhere on the trail I left behind a lot of anxiety that I had been containing.
So there I was! This temporarily concludes the story of my unique GIST journey. My walks along the Pictured Rocks Trail represent the beginning, middle, and end of a tale and memories that I do not want to tarnish. Therefore I need to find a new trail for my next adventure; I am considering the 30-mile Fox River Pathway for a September trip as this was where Ernest Hemingway fished for trout and was inspired to write a wonderful book!