Week 23: What the Appalachian Trail has done for me

It was last December, and I was looking at a Facebook post from the great Zach Davis, treasured leader of the Appalachian Trials community. He was writing from his isolated meditation cave, hidden in a cleft high in the Whites mountain range, where he had taken a break from wrestling black bears and riding moose (you’d never know it, but he lives a wild life away from the paparazzi) to let us bloggers know that there was a discount available on the “classic blaze” t-shirt from the Appalachian Trials store. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one available in my size. At the time, I was wearing mostly 4X t-shirts, though occasionally I’d have to grab a 5X depending on the cut. The highest I could find in the site store was 2X.

Ladies and Gentlemen, eyes on the prize. Buy one here: https://thetrek.co/store/t-shirts/appalachian-trials-classic-blaze-tee/

Ladies and Gentlemen, eyes on the prize. Buy one here: https://thetrek.co/store/t-shirts/appalachian-trials-classic-blaze-tee/

Now I want to be clear, I don’t blame the store, let’s face it the vast majority of readers on the site aren’t going to need those sizes, and I have no doubt that there’s a financial cost to carrying a barely used size. It became a moment when I questioned whether I was really cut out for this. Was I deluding myself that some fat nerd could walk out from his desk job and walk on mountains? Was the only thing I had in common with thru hikers my ability to go for multiple refill trips at the Golden Corral?

A hiker's feast is close to the size of what I used to consider a small afternoon snack. Go fatty me

A hiker’s feast is close to the size of what I used to consider a small afternoon snack. Go fatty me

When I finally started the Trail, it seemed like that initial thought was the right one. I struggled to get from one shelter to the next. My first full day of hiking I managed to barely complete three miles. I stopped every few seconds to use heaving shaking breaths to keep from passing out. But I kept going. I was slow. I was behind. I never saw another hiker for more than a few days in a row, with everyone passing me by. But I was still on the Trail. I went to sleep every night and woke up every morning doing something I’d wanted to do for years. I’d left behind a life of strategy meetings, hour long conference calls, and staring at excel sheets until my brain turned into a thick fudge like paste incapable of any creative thought. I spent nights sleeping in my tent listening to rain and wind outside and wondering what it would be like to have a tree fall on me in my sleep. I hiked early mornings looking at sunrises over mountain vistas, hearing nothing but bird calls.

Somewhere, someone is crying out the opening lines to "Circle of Life." NAANT...SINGONYAMA BAGITHIIIIIII BABA!!!

Somewhere, someone is crying out the opening lines to “Circle of Life.” NAANT…SINGONYAMA BAGITHIIIIIII BABA!!!

And I kept going. I have a distinct memory of facing Jacob’s Ladder, a notoriously tough climb in North Carolina, where I looked up and had the thought, “I can’t do that.” Then I did it. It took forever, I stopped every three steps and leaned on my trekking poles wishing my shoulders would go numb so the pain would stop, but I kept going. I put one foot in front of the other and simply told myself that turning around was not an option. Then, sooner than I could have believed, I was at the top looking down.

I forgot to take a picture of Jacob's Ladder apparently. So here's a random trail photo

I forgot to take a picture of Jacob’s Ladder apparently. So here’s a random trail photo

Cut now to six months from Georgia. I’m standing at the ATC headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, getting my picture taken. I’m barely holding back tears because I know I’m going home. I was fat and I was slow, but I made it that far. Now I needed to go home to work for a while so I could pick back up and finish. I weighed myself at the office and found I’d lost 98 pounds. What’s more, I now fit into a 2X t-shirt, not to mention taking almost twenty inches off of my waist size.

 

I had to change out a different pair of pants three times while on the trail. None of them were for bathroom accidents. I swear

I had to change out a different pair of pants three times while on the trail. None of them were for bathroom accidents. I swear

I can’t help but think about resets. Most of my adult life, I’ve gained the weight I have because my normal reaction to stress and frustration is to eat. I’m a damned good cook, and when other things in life aren’t working out, it just feels better to put together a well crafted meal and stuff my sorrows. So in a way, by losing this weight, I feel like I’ve lost those hard times too. Or at least have finally healed from them. The time I was forced to drop out of college due to finances, being told by a woman in the office that my struggle to pay tuition was God’s way of saying I didn’t deserve to be there. The years I spent pursuing work in professional ministry only to be laid off multiple times, reaching a point where I began to believe that God simply didn’t want me around. A long string of failed romantic efforts. Years spent pouring myself into an office job that left me feeling drained and burnt out because I’d tried to make it the entire center of my identity when everything else had failed.

Excel files are a form of necromantic power specifically designed to eat your soul.

Excel files are a form of necromantic power specifically designed to eat your soul.

All of that was gone, not forgotten, but no longer being carried around like a burden, my pack weight was heavy enough. I’d dropped it all. What’s more, I’d had a chance to get to know me again, the guy in  have become, who’s learned all those lessons and can move on from them. I also had time to make my peace with the God I’d come to know only through anger. To take a six month long examen prayer and see all the pieces in a new and fascinating light.

Random view photo. Photoshop over with an inspirational quote and you become and Instagram hero.

Random view photo. Photoshop over with an inspirational quote and you become and Instagram hero.

I haven’t finished the Trail yet. I’ve got several months more of hiking to do before I can reach Katahdin, but I also have been given so many more blank pages on which to tell my story. The Appalachian Trail has given me my life back, and I’m going to make the most of it. It seems appropriate that the last White Blaze I saw on the Trail was a double blaze, which indicates a turn or trail intersection. My life has reached a turn, an intersection. I’ve got a whole new series of choices in front of me that I’ve never had before. And that’s the gift this trail has given me. I’m turning 35 tomorrow, and I’ve never felt younger. 

The fact that I still definitely qualify for

The fact that I still definitely qualify for “Fluffy” status after losing that much weight should help illustrate just how overweight I was at the start

Oh, and somebody send Zach a carrier hawk with a message, I’ll be buying one of those t-shirts the moment I get home.

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Comments 25

  • Chad McClendon : Sep 12th

    Your story has been inspirational, James. I’m very happy to have read about all of your adventures. Enjoy the city living, and keep your eye on the horizon!

    Reply
  • Brandon koll : Sep 12th

    Man you are on your way…..don’t look back and don’t go back to where you were in your life before….well. ….unless when you reach Katahdin….then you turn around and go back to springer mountain….then that’s ok…..rock on man you inspire me and many others….that’s gods gift to you….and yes you do mean something to him…we all do…..we all have purpose…..yours is your story….to help….to inspire …..and to heal your spirit, mind and body…

    Reply
  • John : Sep 12th

    Jeff,
    This was inspirational. I’m trekking next year. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Best regards,

    Reply
  • Colleen : Sep 12th

    I have been following your blog posts all along!!!! You are such an inspiration!!!! Good. For. You.

    Reply
  • Carol Fullerton (Gadget Legs) : Sep 12th

    Best wishes to you – Ive loved your story! You’re quite an inspiration!

    Reply
  • Magnum : Sep 13th

    I’m so impressed you persevered thru 6 months on the trail. You, brother, are an inspiration to all!!

    Reply
  • Cooter : Sep 13th

    You are amazing. I can’t imagine how hard it must of been. My hat is off to you Man!!

    Reply
  • Cherre Bybee : Sep 13th

    I have followed you from the start and have wished you well the whole time. I just knew you would do well on the trail after your first mountain climbed, you just kept putting one foot in front of the other, well done, I will be on the trail next year and hope that somehow we will meet, you are such an inspiration. Happy birthday hope you have a great day.

    Reply
  • Beth : Sep 13th

    Thanks for the inspiration, James!

    Reply
  • Bob : Sep 14th

    See you in ’18?

    Reply
  • Zach : Sep 14th

    I was actually wrestling bears and riding unicorns, but very close 😉 Great post, James. You are a true inspiration.

    Reply
    • James Scott : Sep 14th

      So THAT’S what you do in between your nightly poker sessions with Chuck Norris and Bob Peoples? 😉

      Reply
  • Russell Frey : Sep 14th

    Congratulations James, that is incredible.

    Reply
  • George : Sep 14th

    Dude, you can do anything! Hope to see you on the trail next year. I will still have Harpers Ferry to Katahdin to do.

    Reply
  • Tony P. Aka Tesla : Sep 14th

    Is this Friar Tuck?

    Reply
  • Eddy Grunenwald : Sep 14th

    Great stuff, James. Your story us inspirational and it is doubtful that any thru hiker got more from the trail than you did. God bless!

    Reply
  • Slipper : Sep 14th

    Awesome post! So glad you kept going and didn’t give up. Looking forward to seeing your summit picture in the near future!

    Best,

    Slipper

    Reply
  • Michelle Johnson : Sep 14th

    Not gonna lie, I cried a bit reading this post. Happy and sad tears, but mostly happy. My friend and I will being doing the AT 2018. Each of us has a reason for doing so aside from it being her bucket list item and “I’m crazy enough to say yes”, according to her when she invited me. Your blog has been inspirational go myself, my friend and many more. I do hope this sight will offer you the opportunity to blog about your second half. Congratulations on your achievements.

    Reply
  • Rich P. : Sep 14th

    Talk about someone having the mental stanima to finish the trail. I can’t imagine how many people looked at you early on and thought, this guy doesn’t have a chance. You will be able to live the rest of your life knowing your amazing!

    Reply
  • Jennifer Cenker : Sep 14th

    you have NO idea the inspiration you have been to me – I have been following you from your first post and have been so touched by everything you have shared. Your post today brought tears to my eyes – realize just how incredibly awesome you are and thank you for bringing us all along on your journey

    Reply
  • Mark aka Taco : Sep 14th

    Way to kick your own ass James! This is the best article I’ve read on Appalachian Trials, nothing against all of the other great bloggers. You are an inspiration and I will miss reading your posts.

    Reply
  • Ezra : Sep 15th

    James, you inspire me. Great writing and great story. Keep the faith, brother – especially the faith in your own journey.

    Reply
  • Matt Perrenod (Homeless '15) : Sep 15th

    Good hike. Looking forward to reading about your second half

    Reply
  • Chris Jalbert : Sep 15th

    Your accomplishments are amazing! I am planning a thru hike next year and fall into the same class as you! 400 lbs and don’t remember the last time I fit in a 2X shirt! Now recently knees surgery seems to have put a halt on things but after reading your post, I am there! Springer Mt here I come! Thanks man for you being you!

    Reply
  • Seadog : Feb 22nd

    Friar Tuck! I saw you at Fontana Dam and have wondered about you since then. Congratulations on your accomplishment. Hope you make it back and get to Katahdin.

    Cheers,

    Seadog.

    Reply

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