Excerpt from Unlost: New AT Memoir by Gail Muller
Sometimes, the greatest achievements in our lives are made all the greater because of being told we’d never make it. Because of defying odds and showing our mettle. My story, detailed in my debut memoir, Unlost, tells a tale just like that and hopes to inspire you to do the same.
In 2019 I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Southbound, despite being previously told I’d lose the ability to walk. My story is one of hope, grit, and determined joy, of not giving up when the chips are down, and of believing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re facing obstacles, especially in these turbulent times we are living in, then know that things do get better, and epic adventures for you are yet to come.
The AT is a journey that many want to take but that few manage to achieve, especially in the challenging and more isolating southbound direction. For me, the usual obstacles of money, distance (I live in the UK), and planning stood in my way, but these were more easily resolved than the damning diagnosis I’d had many years earlier.
I was told in my teens that I would likely be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40. This prognosis hung over me like a scythe, but I studiously ignored it and tried to carry on with life as usual. In my early 20s, however, the first signs of the issues that were to come crept into my body, and so began a steady decline into chronic pain, disability, and all the mental health issues that come alongside invisible illness and feeling like you’ve been left behind in your own life.
I spent more than 15 years searching for a diagnosis, for remedies to give me back my body and my life. I went through traditional health systems and eventually refused their instruction that I give up hoping that things would get better, and accept what my life was, encouraging me to be ready to lose my job and my mobility. I said no, because I couldn’t understand why acceptance and hope couldn’t exist together. It’s always been my firm belief that you can accept where you’re at, yet still hope things will improve. So I did.
I walked out of the “end of the line” pain clinic and left their many pills and potions behind, striking out around the world alone to seek resolution. From Thai jungles to local pilates classes, I tried everything I could find, and eventually, on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, I found specialists who could help.
They gave me braces and realigned my jaw over a period of two years, unwinding 80% of the pain in my body. It was then that I knew I wanted to take myself, healing and stronger, on a trip into the wild—a place in nature that would help to heal and soothe the traumas I had been through and also to use the body I had so nearly lost.
So, at 41, I flew from London to the US, made my way to Millinocket, and shouldered my bag. The next day, thousands of miles from home and a million miles from my old life, I set out from Katahdin Stream Campground and made my way up Katahdin. This was a dream I’d held in my mind for over twenty years since discovering the existence of the Appalachian Trail when I was at University. Now, after 15 years of battling extreme agony and physical debilitation and coming through to the other side, I was going to do my best to make my Appalachian Trail dream a reality.
My new book, Unlost, is a testament to the healing power of nature and our own inner powers of resilience and determination. It catalogs the wonderful people that pepper the AT—the hikers themselves and the incredible network of trail angels and volunteers that act as the lifeblood of the trail, keeping it going with their selfless support and kindness.
It’s a book that’ll make you laugh and cry, that will make you want to pull on your own hiking shoes and get outdoors, and one that I hope will make you believe that whatever dream it is you have, and whatever you believe is standing in your way, it’s never too late to make it happen.
Unlost is out now, and is available in paperback, ebook, and Audible (read by me!) everywhere that folks buy books.
Edited excerpt from Unlost: A journey of self-discovery and the healing power of the wild outdoors
My body hadn’t ever really been my friend and this was evermore amplified when I was consumed with chronic pain later in life. I ended up detaching myself almost fully from my flesh. Things I did or things that were done to me were just ‘happening’ outside of my internal safe space, so that I wouldn’t feel my body letting me down anymore. And now, on this very day, I was flying to the other side of the world to willingly walk deep into thousands of miles of forest where I’d need to rely entirely on my body. So I guess I was a little all at sea.
I rested alone in my tent later that night, marveling that I’d got up Katahdin, down again and now was actually in the 100 Mile. My hip hadn’t popped out of place, my legs were working ok and my pain levels were really manageable; perhaps only a little higher than you’d expect anyone’s to be after this quick immersion into physical activity. How had I got away with it? Had my body not caught up with what I was doing yet? Perhaps the pain was going to creep up on me slowly – it had before. In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if it did. My original illness had all started with only a few days of aching that… just… never went away.
The pain nagged me until I was struggling to lean over school desks at work and to get my shopping out from the car. I couldn’t really row anymore, but the team were counting on me for the Gig World Championships on the Scilly Isles. I was eating ibuprofen and paracetamol like sweets to get through the days, and sometimes the pain would surge enough to make me vomit. But I couldn’t give up on these things, the relationship I was in, the running, the rowing and my teaching. My body needed to buck the fuck up and get with the programme.
This is really where my pain story divides like sliding doors. In one direction is a sprain or a disk bulge that heals and I return to my normal life. The other is, unbeknownst to me at the time, the dark path into the woods of my life where I can’t go backwards, only further in. This is the same for all of us who suffer from something chronic – in our minds or our bodies. Each week of pain, each therapy, each disappointment, each sacrifice closes a door behind you. This is the slow creeping beginning where you don’t even realise that your life has started changing, but when you look back you realise, fuck, it was then. That moment. That was the last time I was my old self, my real self. Chronic illness is like the child catcher – it sneaks in under the radar of an ache or a pain but puts a bag over your head, slings you in the wagon and drives you away from yourself. By the time you’ve realised what’s happened, you’re abroad from your old life and there’s no way to return. It’s possible to come back sometimes. I know I did, but your original self is no longer there. It’s moved. It’s an empty house. And if you want to move back in, you’ve got to furnish it with all the new luggage you carry – stuff that’s almost impossible to throw out.
Maybe this was the place to throw the luggage out. Maybe I could walk along this trail if my body let me, shedding bags and bags of the pain of the past as I moved through it, and go back to my old self. A kind of Leave No Trace but of my trauma not of my physical presence. Maybe by the time I reached the end I’d summit Springer Mountain as a tabula rasa, scoured and empty of all the old baggage. Wouldn’t that be nice? I thought, rolling onto my other side, my Thermarest crinkling like a multipack of crisps as I did so. I smiled at the idea of being scrubbed clean and luggage-less, and fell asleep on the honest earth, listening to the crickets with a heart full of hope.
Unlost: A journey of self-discovery and the healing power of the wild outdoors by Gail Muller, published by Thread, is out on 7th September.
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Gail Muller.
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It’s on my Nook to read soon. Looking forward to reading!
Your accomplishments are incredible! You should be so proud. It is stories like your that get me closer and closer to achieving my goals. Thank you for that. Congratulations! I cannot wait to read your book. Amazing!