Health & Medicine

Kentucky hiker to tackle Pacific Crest Trail to benefit Lyme disease research

Kristin Grenier is known as "Rainbow Dash" on the trail because of her hiking speed and affinity for bright clothing.
Kristin Grenier is known as "Rainbow Dash" on the trail because of her hiking speed and affinity for bright clothing.

Kristin Grenier once hiked for days on the Appalachian Trail not realizing that her foot was broken.

She soon would fall victim to an even more difficult obstacle — a bout with what she thinks was Lyme disease, and she will soon undertake a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.

Grenier broke her foot while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine —"as non dramatic as it can be," she said — and didn't realize it until her inability to run once back in Kentucky brought her to a doctor's office.

But when Grenier, a 2011 environmental studies graduate of Transylvania University, came down with what she suspected was Lyme disease, it stopped her in her tracks for much of 2014.

Grenier had always been physically active; on hiking trails, she is known as "Rainbow Dash," both for her colorful attire and for the speed with which she makes her way. ("Rainbow Dash" was a female Pegasus pony in the My Little Pony series.)

She made her first attempt at the Appalachian Trail in 2011, with a companion who quickly decided that hiking the 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine was not for him.

During that hike, which ended after a month, Grenier found an engorged deer tick under the elastic of the running shorts she was wearing. The Centers for Disease Control says the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease, is transmitted to humans through the bite of such ticks.

The next year, Grenier went on to complete a solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, walking from April 15 to Oct. 11, 2012. Celebrating finishing the trail was a low-key affair. The wind was blowing 60 mph at the peak of Katahdin, the 5,000-foot mountain that is the Appalachian Trail's northern terminus, so Grenier didn't spend much time there.

She did have a "hiker-size portion" of food at the Appalachian Trail Café outside of Baxter State Park.

In September 2013, after several minor ailments, Grenier came down with what was diagnosed as mononucleosis while working for Americorps in Massachusetts. The next 10 months were rough — particularly because although Grenier was severely ill, she was never formally diagnosed with Lyme disease.

"All autumn long, I slept more than 14 hours and as much as 20 hours each night," Grenier wrote in her blog, "When I was awake, I tried my best to be productive, but I scarcely had enough energy to feed or wash myself, let alone get any work done."

Lyme disease diagnoses are hotly contested among medical professionals, and many people who are convinced they suffer with Lyme disease are, like Grenier, never given a formal diagnosis.

Eventually Grenier returned home to her family in Cynthiana, but her illness flared again. "I went back to sleeping around the clock, and I grew so weak that I couldn't wash my hair or lift my full water bottle."

Going for a hike was unthinkable, so her sister inflated an air mattress on a porch of her parents' house. A photo shows the family dog, Ohana, by her side.

After a two-month antibiotic treatment — "I should write an ode to Doxycycline," Grenier wrote on her blog — she was again able to walk, and eventually to hike.

When life gave her Lyme disease, Grenier decided to make Lyme-ade. Beginning next April, she will hike the Pacific Crest Trail, the subject of Wild, a memoir by author Cheryl Strayed. A movie based on the book, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, is expected in Lexington around Christmas.

The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. Its extremes run from desert to drizzle to ice. Grenier hopes to finish in September.

In some ways, it's more challenging than the Appalachian Trail.

"The Appalachian Trail is really forgiving to newcomers," she said. "It's a great place to learn."

After completing the Pacific Crest Trail, Grenier hopes to begin study at an outdoor leadership program in Greenfield, Mass., and eventually work in wilderness therapy.

In Wild, Strayed reported on the changes in her body from long-distance hiking, which gave her a lean yet tough look. Grenier said that hiking makes women fit, but she hasn't found herself going gaunt like some male hikers.

"I am very careful about what I eat," said Grenier who eats lots of rice, vegetables and vegetable protein. "Females tend to have an easier time maintaining weight on the trail."

While hiking the AT, as it's known, Grenier learned how to travel alone with her thoughts, a process she finds both illuminating and daunting.

"I went days without seeing another north-bounder," she said of the Appalachian Trail. "Every once in a while I would be like, what does my voice sound like?"

Traveling alone, which she plans to do on the Pacific Crest Trail, she said, "is a matter of having a couple backup plans — and I'm just hoping that people are kind. Nobody has enough room in their pack for a weapon, and I don't want to be on a trail where you have to carry a weapon."