From Tragedy To Triumph: How the Appalachian Trail Transformed One Woman’s Life
It started with a “Why I want to hike the AT” video.
Early in 2020, a video appeared on a hiker page—one of those, “Why I want to hike the Appalachian Trail videos.” And in it was a pretty young woman in her mid-30s, Angela Sims, who started out simply enough by introducing herself and stating why she wanted to hike the AT. Then after a short pause, with a smile tinged with sadness, she raised an earthen urn and said in a weak voice, barely above a whisper, “…and this is my husband…”
She then kissed the urn and resumed telling of how three years ago he had tragically died in a motorcycle accident, upending her life and rendering her unable to move on. She then went on to explain the reasons why she believed hiking the AT would be the thing that would help her move on with her life.
This story is compiled from the many posts she made on Instagram as well as a face-to-face meeting I had with Angela at her home in the piedmont region of North Carolina.
Living Her Dream
At 18, Angela, a small-town girl from southern Maine, left home and started a new life. Eventually, she got married, had children, but ended up in an abusive marriage that she had no choice but to get out of.
Then she met Jason.
He was a tall, strong, and handsome army soldier who treated her well and loved her and her two children dearly. Soon they were married, later giving birth to a daughter. Then the five of them began to build a life together.
To illustrate what a good family man he was, Angela said that Jason would often get up at 4:30 in the morning and go work out at the gym before work so that later he would not have to take away from family time after work.
As time went on, it seemed like life was perfect. Angela was a pediatric nurse with a good job at a local hospital, who had a beautiful family and a devoted husband. Yes, Angela was living her dream and was looking forward to living happily ever after.
But this was not to be…
Happily Never After…
One day while at work, Angela was given the worst news a wife could ever receive: Jason, who had been riding his motorcycle earlier that day, was struck and killed by a car.
At the news of this shocking event, Angela’s knees buckled, and she collapsed to the floor.
Her life also collapsed that day. The beautiful life she had planned to have with her wonderful husband and their happy family was violently ripped away, leaving her with a gaping emotional wound in its place.
In the weeks following the accident, she tried going back to work, but after a while, she realized that she was not emotionally ready to carry on with a normal life.
Angela explained, “Nobody gives you a book when your husband dies.” With no guidance and little support, she withdrew to alcohol to take away the pain.
Nearing the Breaking Point
Two years went by, but Angela did not progress very well through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). No matter what she tried, she could not push through her grief.
Of course, all kinds of people came forward with plenty of advice. She had family in Maine telling her she should come back home where they could help her with the kids. Then there were the well-meaning friends who told her she needed to start dating. Though some of her friends tried boosting her morale by telling her how strong she was, she didn’t feel strong. She felt weak and helpless.
Inwardly, she was angry. Angry that her dreams were stolen from her, angry at her husband for leaving her too soon, and angry at God for letting this happen.
Being a single mother now, having to hold herself together and be strong for the sake of her children began to take its toll on her. She couldn’t go on like this: “I wasn’t healing from this the way people say you’re supposed to.”
Something had to give…
Hiking, Her Only Consolation
Fortunately, there was a beautiful state park just a few miles down the road from her with plenty of hiking trails. Soon Angela found that hiking was the only place where she felt good; the only place she could cry, and her children couldn’t see her. The more she hiked, the better she felt. “I felt so much better out there,” she said. “It was like my personal therapy.”
Since it was doing her so much good to get out in nature and hike, she started taking her children camping; good therapy after all the sadness that had come into their world.
The Appalachian Trail Calls
Although friends tried to cheer her up by telling her how strong she was, Angela said, “I wasn’t strong. While everything and everyone around me was moving on, I wasn’t doing anything.” Slowly, Angela could feel herself getting swallowed up by depression.
She already knew that after two years of trying to carry on, that going back to work wasn’t going to work. Trying to resume a normal life wasn’t going to work. Nothing she’d tried so far was going to work. Angela discovered that not only was she trying to hide her feelings from her children, she was also trying to hide them from herself.
She knew she had to do something to move past this time in her life, not only for herself but also for the sake of her children.
Since hiking in the forest was the only time she found relief from her grief, the only place where she had peace, she realized what she had to do: she needed to hike the Appalachian Trail. She knew in her heart that she needed time to deal with her grief and figure out what she would do with her life without Jason. The trail would allow her that time.
“I just wanted to go out and do something epic. I’d already gone through something so hard that I knew there was nothing out there I couldn’t handle. I didn’t want to be on medications. I really wanted to heal. I wanted to be out in nature where healing could happen. It’s the only place I felt at peace.” She knew she needed time to get over the painful future she was not going to have with him; the stark reality of knowing he would never walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding, would never grow old with her.
Training for Her Epic Thru-Hike Begins in Earnest
As Angela prepared for her thru hike, she knew that she not only owed it to herself to do this hike, she also owed it to her kids to be the better mom that they deserved.
Because of her life’s restrictions, she was only going to have 100 days in which to hike the AT, so she knew she was going to have to get busy and work hard to get in shape to accomplish this. “Every day I get up at six, get the kids off to school, then I leave and go hike for miles and miles and miles…” In addition, for two days every week, she began doing strength training with a personal trainer.
Before long, she was averaging 50 miles per week and the physical act of getting stronger was also helping her feel stronger emotionally. “I became filled with a level of excitement that I’d not had since Jason’s death.” In fact, Angela said that she’d not had this kind of excitement since she left home at 18.
Change of Plans
In March, when the pandemic was really getting going, instead of letting it deter her from her hike, Angela realized that with school being canceled, this was the perfect opportunity for her to get a jump on her hike, rather than the late April start date that she’d originally planned.
So, she wasted no time making the switch to an earlier start date and soon she was driving her kids out to Missouri to leave them with her ex-husband and his fiancé who graciously volunteered to watch them during this time.
With the excitement of the unknown before her, Angela made her way to Amicalola Falls, and on to an exciting new future.
Though Angela didn’t fear anything on the trail (i.e bears, snakes, weather, creepy people), she still faced daunting internal fears. She didn’t know how she was going to stand being away from her children for five months. “I had not been away from my children in my whole life and didn’t know how I was going to handle the separation anxiety. I’d already lost the part of me that was a wife, I’d lost being a nurse, and now suddenly I wasn’t going to be a mother. I had these things define who I was for most of my life: a mom, a wife, a nurse.”
She also had a nagging fear that somehow she wouldn’t be physically able to finish her hike and would go home as a failure.
The thought of having to face the unknown on the AT was scary for Angela, for she didn’t really know who she was. She was never independent at all. She explained how since leaving home and getting married at age 18, she never had a chance to find out who she was, and now that she was on her way to the trail, she was afraid of what she’d find out.
Yet her fears ended up working together in her favor, for her fear of failure kept her from stopping and her longing for her children kept her moving forward to the end of her hike and the happy reunion with them.
Stepping through the Arch
Finally, the day came when Angela arrived at Amicalola Falls. For Angela, stepping through that iconic stone arch was like stepping through a gateway into the unknown.
But, putting aside all her fears and insecurities, she began to put one foot in front of the other. She knew that out here was the only place that she was going to be able to deal with the pain. She came out here not to run away from her life but to “find myself.”
Angela knew that setting foot in the wilderness would mean that she was in a place where she had no other distractions. “I had to give myself a place where there were no excuses for not dealing with my feelings.”
Thru-Hiking in a Pandemic
At first, her hike was going quite well. For the first few days, she’d blended in with the throng of early hikers and was making good progress up the trail. That is, until the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a stern warning for thru hikers to get off the trail. Angela said that most of the hikers she’d been moving along with had suddenly gotten off the trail in Hiawassee.
From that point on, she’d had the trail mostly to herself, which turned out to be exactly what she needed, for it gave her hours upon hours alone each day to deal with her grief.
But her decision to press on, despite the official warnings to get off the trail, also came at a cost.
Since Angela had been sharing her journey on Instagram, she soon came under attack in the form of hateful, rude, and insulting comments on her posts. For a while, she tried rebutting them, but eventually, she learned to just ignore them and press on with her journey.
But haters and peer pressure weren’t the only things that tried to get her to quit the trail. In various places all along the trail, official-looking signs began appearing, tacked to trees at road crossings, warning people to stay off the trails. However, the thru-hiker buzz on the internet said that they could safely be ignored, which many hikers did.
Determined more than ever to finish what she’d started, when Angela reached Shenandoah National Park, she stepped around more of these closed signs and kept on going. Somewhere along the way she was spotted by a ranger and, a few weeks after her hike was over, she received a summons to appear before a federal magistrate. Long story short: she had to appear in court on a Zoom meeting and was ordered to pay a $10 fine.
One of the amazing things about hiking during a pandemic was that she had many of the iconic places completely to herself. “When I got to McAfee Knob, I had it all to myself”.
Though many forces conspired to get her to end her hike Angela believed, “It was a perfect year for solitude, and there’s a lot of criticism for hiking this year, but it was beautiful, and I will never regret it.”
The Healing Elixir of the Trail
Besides the gift of solitude, the other thing the coming weeks on the trail did to set Angela on a path for healing was the sheer physical demands of the trail.
As Angela moved steadily up the trail, she began adapting to the routine of life on the trail; she began to turn into a hiker. This was quite an adjustment, as “I have always liked being pretty.” Getting up each day with no makeup, bad hair, and bad smell, she was a long way from the manicured nails, makeup, and pretty hair and clothes she was accustomed to.
The immediate benefit of all this physical exertion for Angela was sleep: deep sleep. “There isn’t a pill or a therapist that can cure you the way these mountains can. The trail taught me how to take care of myself in a raw way…to cry, and, for once in almost three years, I was able to sleep more than three hours consecutively at night. I was finally tired.”
The physical demands of the trail seemed to have a restorative effect on Angela, for deep sleep allowed her brain began to work through all the issues she had previously not been able to get past. Without realizing it, she was beginning to heal.
She also was able to heal from one of her other issues. In her own words: “I’ve been sober now for over three months. When Jason died, I drank away every thought and feeling that I didn’t want to have. I felt entitled because of his death. We all die. I wasn’t special. If being out on the Appalachian Trail taught me one thing, it would be that one thing: I wasn’t special. Everyone suffers… I just need to focus on the reasons I have to stay sober.”
The long days and nights completely alone on the trail gave her plenty of time to sort things out; to let go of things that had been holding her back for so long. The trail was transforming her on the inside and, at one point, she decided to drop the moniker #widowhikertrash on her Instagram, shortening it to just #hikertrash. Through her long, painful, three-year journey she had come to the realization that, though the loss of Jason shaped who she was, she was not going to let it define who she was going to be.
“Once I reached Damascus, I knew I could make it all the way.”
During my interview, I asked Angela a blunt question: “When did your smile return?” Without a second’s hesitation, she responded, “In Damascus.” She went on to explain how around Damascus, something amazing happened: she had fallen in with a tramily (trail family) and, for the first time in over two years, she found herself craving human friendship.
This was a major turning point for her, for no longer was she alone, drowning in tears of grief. Angela now had people to walk with, to talk with, to share stories with, and to do all the things that normal, happy people do.
Relationship Status Change
How Angela joined the tramily was not without difficulty. It was at the Broken Fiddle Hostel where she met a group of male hikers—as she called it, “A bro group”—and asked to join up with them. However, one of the members, Super Trooper, didn’t want to let her join because he was afraid of what the presence of a girl would disrupt the harmony of their group. Despite his objection, the other members gladly welcomed Angela into their group.
Ironically, in the following days, one by one, the other members dropped off the trail, and by the time they reached Weary Feet Hostel, Angela found herself hiking alone with Super Trooper.
In the weeks that followed, she and Super Trooper fell into a routine. Each day they would get up and set off, each at their own pace, hike alone all day, agreeing to meet up later at camp. Since the pandemic had driven most of the hikers from the trail, they would go days without seeing another hiker. But that was okay because they started to really enjoy each other’s company. Initially, Angela never saw herself being with anyone again, but with Super Trooper it was different: they both had painful things in their past, and every evening they found themselves eagerly looking forward to long, pleasant, end-of-the-day conversations.
The one thing Angela could count on with him was his naked honesty. Though well-aware of her grief, one day on the trail, he told her, “you’re not special,” meaning she’s not alone. There are many people out there who have gone through pain and grief. But it was the brutally honest thing she needed to hear, for she truly needed to snap out of the trap of feeling hopeless and alone.
Like a caring counselor, he helped her figure out things about herself that she didn’t know. He never judged her; never let her dirty hiker appearance affect his enjoyment of her company. Angela said that it was nice to have someone who genuinely wanted to be around her for no other reason than for who she was right here, right now. She felt she could tell him anything, without fear, without judgment. “The more we got to know each other, the more we cared for each other.”
Somewhere along the way, their relationship grew. Then love grew…
Post-Hike Reflections: The Trail Provided
Angela and Super Trooper went on to finish the trail and on August 1st, they stood at the big brown sign at the top of Katahdin, soaking up the victory of over so many things.
Afterward, they went to their prospective homes—she in North Carolina, and he in Illinois. But that wasn’t to be the end of it, for they have kept a long-distance relationship ever since.
Now that she has the trail behind her, Angela has had plenty of time to reflect on what happened to her during her time out there.
Throughout the trail’s long existence, the mantra “the trail provides” has become a reality for many who set out into the unknown of the trail, and it was a thing Angela too had learned firsthand. When she began her hike five months before, Angela had no idea that the trail was going to provide for her as well as it did. Looking back, here are some of the wonderful things the trail did for her:
- It gave her time to be totally alone and to deal with her grief.
- It broke her of her need for alcohol.
- It allowed her mind and body to finally rest.
- It renewed within her the desire for human company.
- It brought someone special into her life.
- It gave her a vision for her future.
If she had never set foot on the trail, it is questionable whether Angela would have gotten through her grief as quickly as she did. Because of the trail, for the first time since Jason’s death, Angela has hope for her future.
Life Lessons from the Trail
“Thru hiking is when you have absolutely nothing…and the whole world by the balls at the same time.”—Angela Sims
Looking back on her hike, Angela thought about the lessons the trail taught her and realized that many of the things the trail showed her could also be useful in her life.
- Move forward: As on the trail, in life, the only direction you want to go is forward—never look back. She learned that it’s better to leave things behind and only move forward.
- Dump baggage: One big thing that hikers learn early on the trail is to cut out unnecessary weight and discard the rest. Life is like that too, for carrying emotional and mental baggage is unhealthy and only bogs you down.
- Place happy things in your future: On the trail, Angela learned to look forward to the happy things ahead of her, such as towns and scenic places. This gave her something to keep her spirits up while dealing with the “suck” of hiking through miserable weather, bugs, blisters, hunger, and the loneliness of being away from her kids.
- You’re stronger than you think: By its very nature, the trail forced her to deal with physical, emotional, and mental issues in her life and proved to her that she was indeed stronger than she ever knew. This in turn gave her confidence to deal with anything that could come up in the future.
In the end, she learned, “I had to breath and keep moving forward or quit. The Appalachian Trail humbled me. It saved me from myself. Life is a gift. Every single day is a gift, enjoy it.”
“It took me three years and hiking over 2000 miles to learn this lesson; just to let go. In less than a minute he was dead, and it took me three years to grasp how that one minute changed me. Life won’t stop because you want it to. Live and let die.”
A Future with Hope In It
After the trail, Angela returned to her job as a pediatric trach and vent nurse, but seeing extremely sick children in the process of dying on a daily basis was too much for her. After going through the pain of her husband’s death, Angela was through with dying, so she took a job with Door Dash instead, which has allowed her more time to spend with her kids.
Not only has she gotten back with her children in a good way, but she also has been maintaining a long-distance relationship with Super Trooper, who now makes the long trip from Illinois every other week to see her. Still in love with hiking, the two of them have made plans for an upcoming hike to Mt. Kilimanjaro!
In the end, Jason would probably be happy with the legacy he left, for though she entered the trail a weak, broken, and wounded woman, she came out a courageously strong and independent woman with the ability to live and love again.
Will Angela ever get her “Happily Ever After”? Perhaps, but in the meantime, the Appalachian Trail has taught her to be happy one day at a time: and that’s good enough for her…
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