Perseverance or Insanity? Why This Failed Thru-Hiker Refuses to Abandon the Trail

Consider the case of Trail Dog: Three-and-a-half years, one knee and two ankle surgeries after beginning his thru-hike, he’s back on the AT, determined to finish his hike. Or take the Snail Brethren, a mother and son duo who both suffered injuries during their attempted thru-hike (a stress fracture and doubly torn meniscus), and have returned for their second try. Or the woman who — after four harrowing days on the AT approach trail — was hospitalized with a life-threatening condition and is now plotting her return.

They must be crazy, right?  Why would any sane person – after suffering such significant injuries – willingly risk more abuse?

It’s a valid question, one I’ve pondered a lot since my own aborted thru-hike last year.  And like others who are forced off the trail due to injuries, I know the cons of going back: My bad knees might get worse. I could suffer a dangerous fall. And I won’t be a thru-hiker this time around; I’ll be slack packing the remainder of the trail in sections, leaving me short of my ultimate goal.  So why don’t I do the reasonable thing — forget hiking and spend my time doing something more sedate?

I don’t really know the answer, although I admit there’s some stubbornness involved. I hate abandoning a goal.  Unfinished business really eats at me.  There’s probably some denial, too, an unwillingness to accept the reality that my 63-year-old body isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be.

But I suspect the real answer lies in something more nebulous, that the Appalachian Trail keeps calling to me.  Not the beauty of it.  I’m honestly not that outdoorsy.  Communing with nature doesn’t give me any sort of mystical bliss.  And I’m definitely not a kick-ass hiker.  If last year’s 800-mile trek taught me anything, it’s that I’m actually a wimp. I’m not strong. I’m often afraid.  And I don’t tolerate exhaustion or hunger well.

Still, there’s something about the trail, something elusive that keeps beckoning me back.  Maybe it’s the idea of it.  Maybe it’s the chance to escape reality, to do something extraordinary with my time.  Or maybe it’s getting to know the other hikers, those fascinating and diverse people strung out over the mountains, all engaged in their personal quests.

Or maybe it’s like someone said in the documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young.” Most people in today’s society don’t seek out things that will test them. They seek out things that will entertain them. And that seems wrong to me.  Isn’t the point of life to test ourselves and discover who we are inside?

And to be tested, you have to risk failure — real failure, both physical and mental.  The kind you face daily on the AT.

So I’ve made my choice.  I’ve hauled my hiking gear out of my closet, doused everything in permethrin, and am ready to resume my trek. It won’t be glamorous or fast.  I won’t set a record of any kind.  I’ll just be plodding along as best I can, seeking and striving for answers, trying not to yield to my many weaknesses.

And hopefully, outrunning the men in white coats who are after me.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar
    Bill Yeadon : May 3rd

    Very inspirational Gail. Hope this time does it for you. And if it doesn’t there’s always next year.

    Reply
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      Ronald Springel : May 3rd

      Gail: Determination and a sense of humor are a hard combination to beat. Good luck!!

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 3rd

      Thank you, Bill. I hope to at least finish the south this year, assuming my knees hold out. That would just leave Maine and a bit of NH. But I’ll worry about that later on.

      Reply
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    Sherry Jarvis : May 3rd

    Yeah! Your back at it! In my heart I am enjoying your hike with you! All the fog, the sunshine on your shoulders and the dirt below your feet! Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 3rd

      Thanks, Sherry! I appreciate the support, dear friend!

      Reply
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    Ruth morley : May 3rd

    So glad to hear you’re heading back out there! Those of us who have had our thru-hiking goals thrashed by injury can completely relate. I too have become a LASHER, and am now grateful to be able truly hike my own hike.

    I’ll be following your adventures. Enjoy!

    Reply
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      Gail Barrett : May 3rd

      Isn’t it amazing how different a LASH is? And not in a negative way. I’m not hurrying as much so I have more time to talk to other hikers we see. We can avoid the worst weather, too!

      Reply
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    Jaynn : May 3rd

    Really looking forward to your posts. You certainly captured something here, with this one…

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 3rd

      Thanks, Jaynn! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    buzzcut : May 3rd

    Good for you!!! Best wishes for this journey (and those to come)….
    ~BuzzCut

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 3rd

      Thank you, Buzzcut. I appreciate the support!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Eddie : May 7th

    You have a great perspective!! – Just the right amount of stubbornness and the necessary sense of humor to take you a few steps further than your knees might!!

    Wishing you the best!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 7th

      Thanks so much, Eddie! I appreciate that. I’m going to need a sense of humor because the trail definitely hasn’t gotten any easier during my time off…

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Chaos & Chef : May 7th

    Gail!!! (((HUGS))) so excited for you!!! If you need anything… ANY-THING… please let us know. In NH and willing to help!

    You are not a wimp. Give yourself more credit. You dusted off your gear and are getting back to it. A wimp would not do that. You may whine and cry through the whole thing, but you still do it. Be nicer to yourself. Please.

    Love,
    Chaos & Chef

    Reply
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      Gail Barrett : May 7th

      Whining and crying sounds exactly right! I’m a total pity party when I get tired. But meeting you really inspired me. I keep thinking of how you finished the Long Trail despite all your pain. You are amazing! I’m not sure my old knees are up to another 1,300 miles, but I’m going to do my best (slackpacking helps a lot). And once we finish the south we still have Maine and the rest of NH to do, so you may see us again. Thanks so much for your offer of help!

      Reply
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    Tom Abel : May 13th

    I think the sedate life is more hazardous than trail life. I was lucky last year and did not have any injuries that kept me from finishing, but I was very aware that it could happen at any time. I plan to keep hiking as long and as often as I can. Best wishes on all of your hikes…any distance is a success.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : May 13th

      I totally agree, Tom. I believe the more active you are the better you will age —physically and mentally. And being around nature has all sorts of health benefits. That said, the AT is hazardous. So many people get injured. Congratulations on being able to finish your hike!

      Reply

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