HIKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL WITH CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE
2018 was an excellent year to hike the Appalachian Trail. With so many people breaking records, challenging their physical limits and embarking on the journey of a lifetime, an influx of amazing people walked along this Trail, inspiring everyone they met. It almost seemed like a divine, cosmic event, that such great human beings could have shared such a unifying experience together, all at once, in such a tiny fragment of the human timeline.
Every single person who hikes the Appalachian Trail is a hero to those who cannot do so. Though each of them deserves recognition for their amazing accomplishments, one person stands out to me in particular; the man who walked with me: Takeshi “Crazypants” Okamatsu, a 41 year old Japanese national who won my heart and touched the lives of everyone he met.
I remember the day I told him of my plans to hike the AT. We had already been dating for awhile, so I felt I had to break the news to him and explain why I would be away for a few months in the mountains. He simply looked at me, took a sip of tea, and asked me when we were leaving. This had been a lifelong dream of his, you see, so as cheesy as it sounds, it seemed fate had brought us together.
Crazypants was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) over 20 years ago and has frequently been in and out of hospitals ever since. When he told people about his plans to hike the 2,189.8 mile long mountainous footpath from Georgia to Maine, opinions ranged from those who were excited that he would finally be attempting to achieve his dreams, to doctors who emphatically told him that attempting such a tremendous feat would be nearly impossible without further deterioration of his health.
Though it is obviously an extremely dangerous endeavor for someone with CKD, he was determined to become a thru-hiker. It was important to him to hike the AT because he wanted to be a role model for other people with diseases and disabilities.
“The AT is just like life,” he had once told me, “Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes there are big mountains that stand in your way. But you have to keep walking. You have to move forward. You have to overcome the challenges.”
Although the cost was great & the toll which hiking would take on his health would be severe, this was something he had to do. Sometimes the best dreams have the highest cost, but that doesn’t make them any less worth the risk.
“This is my last challenge,” he said, “I’ll never give up. I’ve got to give it my all; not just for me, but for everyone else. [People with CKD] need to know it’s possible.” His dream wasn’t just to hike the AT; it was to inspire other people to chase their dreams. Even knowing that the AT could mean his death, he walked on. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.
Hiking with CKD was especially difficult for him. Not only was his body less tolerant of physical stress such as dehydration and excessive energy expenditures, but he had to take special care to minimize sodium and protein in his diet. This means that practically every hiker food in existence was off limits to him. He also had to endure all painful injuries without taking any kind of medicines, as OTC NSAIDs can damage the kidneys.
The biggest problem he faced was with dehydration. Since his diet only allowed for a limited sodium intake, he was not effectively able to replenish electrolytes & stay adequately hydrated. Many of the Trail’s water sources were dry, so we frequently had to both conserve the water we drank and also carry an extra few liters of water, which made our packs much heavier and caused more of a strain on our bodies! Once, we even walked 17 miles in one day without crossing a single water source. At one point on the Trail, he even had to visit the ER after collapsing from severe dehydration. Yet at every turn, he persisted.
I didn’t make it easy on him, either. Many times, I had wanted to give up -I loved him, so I never stopped walking, but I was certainly vocal about how much I had wanted to go home. In light of this, I credit him with more than just hiking. Lifting people up & encouraging them can oftentimes be harder than keeping yourself motivated and moving. I think back on all that passed between us on this Trail and I cannot help but be filled with awe of the zeal and determination it must have taken to walk -especially with me.
I thought it was fate that had brought Crazypants and I together, but it was so much more than that. Destiny brought him to the trail, but he is the one who walked it. It was his sheer will, persistence, and determination to meet his challenges, surpass his body’s limits, and actually do what most people merely dream.
We hiked the entire AT together. Now that it’s over, he’s back in Japan, taking time to rest and recover. Though he left no trace on the Appalachian Trail, the Trail left its unforgettable, unmistakably monumental impact on his life.
Now here’s a secret I’ll share with you: As someone who knows him quite well, I can guess that when he had said, “This is my last challenge,” he was probably lying. I expect he will walk the PCT and perhaps even the CDT someday in the future. If you happen to run into him -and me, as I’ll obviously be walking just behind him- I hope you’ll introduce yourself to us because we’d really love to meet you!
To all other future AT hikers: I hope you will remember this story while you’re hiking. Remember it, and never give up. You can do this. So do it! Same goes for all CKD patients. When you think about the dreams you have for your life, remember this amazing story. Remember to persist. Remember to keep challenging. And do the things you dream.