My Appalachian Trials: Thru-Hiking Through Tragedy and Tribulations

To try to explain what it felt like to approach that old wooden sign on Katahdin is nearly impossible. It felt like a dream. Sarah, my hiking partner, and I spent nearly seven months hiking toward this end goal and it was finally in sight. When we reached the sign we collapsed onto it and a flood of memories from the previous seven months and nearly 2,200 miles entered my head. Shortly followed by this were tears. We’d pushed ourselves through the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging times we’d ever experienced and now we were finished.

Seven months earlier I’d left from Springer Mountain, Georgia and all of the time from that starting point up to now seemed like a blur. Before leaving I’d envisioned the trip to be a romantic experience, and for the first couple months it was. The people I met, the places I’d seen and the world I was living in all seemed magical. We had no responsibilities, no bills, no worries. All we had to do was walk and enjoy the experience.

Before we knew it, we had become somewhat seasoned hikers, had achieved various trail milestones, and found ourselves trekking through the heat of a Virginian summer. One day while on a break in the Shenandoahs, Sarah received a phone call that her younger sister, Naomi, had passed away in a car accident early that morning. There are no words to describe the feelings for that moment. We all went home and spent the next few weeks with our families and visiting Sarah and hers. It wasn’t certain who was going to return to the trail out of the four of us or when. As time passed, Sarah made the brave decision to return to the trail and walk through her grief. I decided I’d walk with her.

When we returned to the trail in late July, it felt right to be back on the trail, but different. All of our friends were now hundreds of miles ahead of us and the two of us were only accompanied by the occasional section-hiker or southbounder. Nearly every encounter ended with them telling us that we weren’t going to make it to Katahdin in time. Despite the discouragement, we pushed on.

The summer blew past us and we began entering our last few states. We knew we had hard days ahead, but there were even harder ones behind us. Some days it seemed only a handful of words were spoken between Sarah and myself while she was grieving, but it seemed that as we moved forward she was healing and she, as well as our friendship, was growing stronger.

New Hampshire surprised us with beauty and challenge. The White Mountains started what would be the most strenuous stretch of the trail we’d faced yet. The weather quickly dropped below freezing. We faced ice, numbing cold, extreme ascents and descents, and our motivation to continue began to dwindle. Southern Maine proved to be even more challenging. The only time we felt some measure of warmth was when we were moving. Every morning we struggled to get up and moving and once we did it was hard to find any enjoyment. The only motivation came through prayer and knowing that I’d be back in my warm sleeping bag that night. The magic of the trail had long since faded and we felt lonely, cold, isolated, and wanted to go home.

A few trail friends who’d already completed their hike decided to accompany us for the remaining 250 miles. This lifted our spirits more than we could express. With them, we hiked in extreme snowstorms, forded numbing rivers, and experienced torrential rain. When we were only days away from finishing, we found ourselves caught in an ice storm on an exposed mountain at night and had to turn around for safety. In the aftermath of that storm much of the trail was flooded with water that was knee-deep and the river fords required tying ropes around our waists to avoid being swept away. It seemed that we couldn’t catch a break and Katahdin, though so close, was still out of reach. Despite the circumstances, we continued to push on.

As we climbed Katahdin, I was reflecting on what the past seven months had meant to me. What we’d endured and experienced, the people we’d met, and the people we’d been transformed into. I’d made lifelong friends, one of whom was by my side. I thought about how our story might inspire others, such as JetBlue Airways, who donated three round trip flights for Sarah’s sisters to help me surprise her at the finish. We’d been discouraged daily, battered by harsh weather and terrain, paralyzed by grief, pushed beyond our limits, yet we kept walking. I believe that we’ll be reaping the rewards of this journey and discovering what it meant to us for years to come. But for now I know I’ll never forget the beauty of a sunset over an ocean of mountains or all of the nights under the stars and the peace of waking up in nature, where I belong. I won’t forget the taste of a cold spring or the sweet smells of a lush, green forest. I won’t forget the friends I now call family and I won’t forget all of the hard times we went through, but more importantly I won’t forget the beauty of perseverance.

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Comments 10

  • Tiffany Taylor Korrigan : Nov 18th

    I absolutely love this article and your video Drew.

  • John : Nov 19th

    Loved the video and your writeup here, Drew. Would love to know how you edited it all together. Would have liked to have seen more of the snow trails parts but you were probably more than busy surviving. Wonder what camera you used and how carry and store it all for the whole trip. Your video is truly inspiring. At age 71, I must somehow do it!

  • Tim Andrew : Nov 19th

    simple, incredible….hope to in 2016

  • Sir Randall : Nov 19th

    Great recap and awesome video Drew. You’re a good friend.

  • Summer : Nov 19th

    So very sorry to hear about her Sister, that must have been devastating and so nice you went back with her.

    I would love to know what date you originally started? When you drank the spring water, did you use filter tablets?

    Congrats to both of you!

  • Anne Mitchell : Nov 19th

    I loved the video and the music. I have done some day climbing in the White’s and can’t imagine doing the distance you did. Thanks for sharing.

  • Carly "Dodger" Monahan : Nov 19th

    Simply beautiful. The power of immersing oneself in nature, challenging our bodies physically, and being there for our friends even when we have no words to fill the silence… Thanks for sharing!!

  • Kathy Wilkinson : Nov 19th

    And, yet, through all that, you endured. Awesome!

  • Rony Khoueiry : Nov 20th

    Inspiring…Thanks for your story, a very nice read to start the day

  • Amanda C. : Nov 20th

    Thank you for sharing your story and in such a beautifully written way!! The thru hike is a dream for me, and the more I read of others’ accomplishing it, the more real I think it can be for me. Congratulations on completing your hike!


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