Shelving, Surgery, and Success: Why I’m thru-hiking, Why I need your help, and Why that’s actually okay.

In 41 days, I will begin my thru-hike attempt of the Appalachian Trail.

And I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m shitting my pants a little.

The absolute monstrosity of this undertaking has got me everywhere from crying for joy to crying with dread and everything in between. But I think it’s really important, five weeks and change away from starting, to take a moment and reflect on WHY this is something I’m attempting. I think there are two parts to this story. There’s the logistical cut and dry story of how it all came about, and there’s all the micro subconscious reasons behind why I said yes.

Here’s both.

I guess I truly had no idea what the Appalachian Trail was until sometime in 2014. I remember brief mention of it on a road trip with a friend who’d gone to college in east Tennessee, but I really remember the first time I actually started to care about it, which was sometime in the fall of 2014.

My good friend, Jared (Pen-Dexter), and I were chatting briefly and somewhat in jest about what life held for each of us in the relatively near future. I was finally surfacing for air out of the tumult that most of 2014 was for me, and he was planning on thru hiking the Appalachian Trail during the gap year between finishing his undergrad in 2015 and beginning seminary in 2016. In jest, he invited me to join, and initially in jest, I accepted. After I started skimming the first few hits of the plethora of Google search results that I found about the AT, however, I thought a little more seriously that maybe I would actually like to join him. Which I think made us both a little nervous.

Alas, about a month later, around October 2014, I found a brilliant non-profit organization that I decided to apply to be part of in Alaska for summer 2015. I was accepted sometime in early February 2015, and shelved the idea of hiking the AT in 2016 consequently, feeling I would be financially unprepared and could not both go to Alaska and hike the AT.

I shelved the idea of thru-hiking in 2016, but it never was lost to my soul.

Spending the summer in Alaska was incredible. My time there with ACMNP, the ministry I connected with, felt more like home than any of my adult life until then had felt. I thought of the AT and watched Jared prepare through social media and a few text messages. I was excited for him, and jealous, too. I wondered whether ACMNP would ever consider sending a team on the AT, even mentioned it briefly to one of the directors. But that summer in Alaska with ACMNP eventually took me to winter in the Virgin Islands, which still seems way too crazy of a thing to have happened to me, and the AT was shelved again.

But anyway, while on St. John, I worked at a high end resort in the tennis pro shop. One day, I was sitting at my desk, scrolling through Instagram, and I saw a picture of a friend of mine (by association with ACMNP, not because we knew each other more than by our names) in front of the ATC, with this caption:

“The next time I will take a picture like this, I will be halfway through hiking the AT in 2017. #nobo #appalachiantrail #at #hiker #2017”

In about a ten second window after reading that, I experienced excitement, sadness, jealousy, passivity, intrigue, curiosity, and a heart-skip when something inside me said, “message her.”

So I did. And this is how our conversation went:


And I guess the rest is history.

I went back to Alaska this past summer, but I didn’t get there right away from the Virgin Islands like I thought I would. The first week of March, I herniated my L5-S1, a disc that had been trying to escape for years. I didn’t know that it was officially herniated until I had an MRI and met with a neurosurgeon at the end of April when I finally left St. John, though the numbness and weakness in my leg was a pretty good indicator that something wasn’t right.

I had surgery May 9, 2016, the day I was scheduled to arrive in Alaska, to clean up the herniation that “anywhere else on your spine, this would have paralyzed you.”

So there’s that.

My surgery was relatively routine. My surgeon, very good. Recovery was easy and as timely as they expected it would be. By June 4th, I was on my way to Alaska.

And I really don’t want to minimize that story to a couple of sentences, because it was honestly so much more. I remember laying in bed after surgery, unable to roll over or get up easily to even use the restroom. I remember walking outside for five minutes each day, being completely exhausted after, and wondering, “how in the world am I going to hike the AT next summer?”

I felt a lot of things in those recovery weeks. I was upset that I wasn’t in Alaska, and I felt like I was letting my team down there. I felt anxious that I wouldn’t be able to uphold my commitment to Alli and would end up leaving her hiking solo, shelving my AT dream maybe for good this time. I felt angry about being in Michigan for various reasons. I felt hysterical about how much surgery actually COSTS.

But I think maybe more than anything, I felt like a failure. Like I was letting myself down again.

Not that I could have prevented my disc from giving out or that I had made any wrong choices in the care that I received. Nothing like that. I’ve just always had this thing where I’m not necessarily successful in completing the things I’ve said I’m going to do for me. I’m really good at follow through for others, for the most part. I love hard and well and value others to the point of self-sacrifice, because I feel that’s the example Jesus led and left for us. But when it comes to me doing things for me, I falter. Usually it’s losing weight, getting in shape, achieving academic or career goals—things like that. I typically have the drive to dream and begin, but somewhere along the way, something happens and gets in my way. I get stuck in apathy and end up wallowing there until it passes and the goal is left unmet.

Thru-hiking the AT looks a LOT of that stuff right in the eye, because it has to (not because it wants to…never because it wants to). Thru-hiking the AT is talking BIG talk, and the fact that I’ve had a hard time walking the walk when it comes to self care, self goals, self dreams…

Well, it makes me a little afraid of this hike, honestly.

Perhaps (probably) this comes from a little corner in my heart that wonders if I’m able or worth it—if personal success is something I deserve for me and am worth committing to and working for.

My mom has said to me that I have a fear of making a wrong choice. Usually this pertains to what our weekend plans will be or what we’re going to have for dinner. But I think it probably applies to big things, too. I’m afraid of making a wrong choice, because I deeply do want to be successful, to make the right choices to live in the ways I’ve felt called. But also to make the right choices for me, because even though right now I may not be able to stand boldly and proclaim each step from Springer to Katahdin that I’m worth it, a lot of people think I am, and I want to believe them.

And this is why community is so important, both on and off the Trail.

We make each other brave.

And together, we can do hard things.

I’m so, so thankful for Alli and Sydney, my hiking partners, my fellow saunterers. And for ACMNP, for believing in us and standing in this dream with us. And for all the family and friends and readers who got sucked into a blog that is less about the AT and more about a condition of the soul—

I can’t do this without you. Nor do I want to.

But I know that I’m worth this, because of you, and because of Christ.


I don’t fear not finishing the AT regularly. It doesn’t cloud my mind and send me into a fit of anxiety that I can’t recover from. I’m trying to find this realistic space between the “25% completion rate” statistic and the overtly macho mentality that a lot of thru-hikers have right now, the “I’m going to stand on that sign at the top of Katahdin at the end no matter what.” I don’t think either thought process is wholly healthy. I think there’s a balance, and I’m trying to tread it.

I think success comes in understanding there’s fluidity between commitment and grace, then treading it with patience and trust.

So I’m just going to chill here, for now. I know getting to Katahdin will require relying on me. My feet, my legs, my back. My mind, my spirit, my soul. I will have to continue to decide each day that this is something I’m going to do. But it will also require relying on God each day for whatever each day will bring. It will require caring for others, to be intentional in each step and each conversation. It will require leaning on encouragement from home, from friends both near and new. It will require doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.

And it will require all of us, together.

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Comments 4

  • David Odell : Jan 27th

    Good luck on your AT hike. David Odell. Kodiak, Alaska

  • Gary Stell : Jan 28th

    Shelby, a lot of what you said strikes a resonate chord in me. I too am taking the challenge of thru hiking the AT this year. I have a title in mind for a vlog about the adventures I’ll be confronted with. “God on the AT”. I feel that God is leading me to the trail and that ministry throughout the hike will be a big part of it. We may not meet on the trail because I’m flip/flopping from Harpers Ferry north to Katahdin then back to Harpers Ferry and south to Springer. But it’s good to know that there will be others on the trail living “The Way”. I pray all goes well with you on your hike!

  • Amelia : Jan 28th

    I loved reading this post, I’m thru hiking 2017 and in the middle of my planning I found out that my mother has herniated L5-S1, I will be taking care of her post-op and through recovery before I leave for the trail. Her current goal is to finish on katahdin with me and your story makes me believe that it is possible. Thank you and I hope to see you out there!

  • David : Jan 29th

    Some of the most spiritual moments of my life have been on the AT! Good luck and God’s grace to you!


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