Why I’m Attempting an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike…Again
Face to Face with Failure
It was 35 degrees, and the rain pelted my face, hiding the tears. My fingers ached with the cold, I could barely feel my toes, and the wind cut through every layer I had. These unpleasantries provided a welcome distraction from my other agonies: the stabbing pain in my left knee that randomly brought me to tears and the dull, ever-present throbbing in my hips. More overwhelming still was the emotional and mental anguish over what that day meant. My hike was over. I had failed.
I stood by the Clingmans Dome parking lot surrounded by a fog of my own self-pity, as droves of tourists in shorts and T-shirts rushed to the ranger station to buy ponchos and sweatshirts. As bad as I felt, I was lucky, compared to many hikers forced to give up on the dream.
The Good and the Bad
Nothing was irreparably torn or broken. I wasn’t broke. I wasn’t terribly sick. No one in my family had died. I hadn’t suddenly discovered I didn’t like hiking. In fact I loved it more than ever.
Just the day before, the pain in my knee became so bad I could hardly walk. Halfway up a mountain and only a mile from the nearest shelter, I decided I was done. I could limp another 200 miles, maybe more, but eventually, something was going to break. That would mean doctor visits, hospital bills I couldn’t afford, and the potential end to my hiking career. I hobbled one more day to mile 200 at Clingman’s Dome and begged the rangers to help me arrange a ride.
While I waited for what would be my last shuttle off trail I questioned if I was making the right choice. Pain was just a part of hiking, I just had to be tough… except I had been in significant pain for a month.
It started on day one, when I made it from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain by 11:30 a.m. and decided I might as well push on to Hawk Mountain shelter. This 16-mile day did damage that rest and stretching couldn’t fix. While this was a serious mistake for any first-time thru-hiker, I, of all people, should have known better.
What’s Wrong With Me?
I was born with cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular condition that, in my case, makes the muscles in my legs abnormally tight. My calves were essentially flexed all the time, leaving me with constantly pointed toes, frequent muscle soreness, poor balance, and tightness in nearly every muscle or tendon from the waist down.
My parents and grandparents made huge financial sacrifices to enroll me in a specialized form of physical therapy called Conductive Education at age three. The program drastically improved my condition, and by the time I entered middle school I had left the nickname “tippy-toes” behind.
Even at age 25, I haven’t been completely cured (and never will be), and the muscles in my legs still tighten up easily. I struggle to engage my glutes, which has left me without much of a booty, and, more consequentially, puts extra stress on my quads and hip flexors when I hike. Knowing this, it’s no wonder 16 miles on day one had pushed my body well past its limits.
Seeking a Challenge
Oddly enough, the condition that eventually took me off trail was a major reason I had attempted it in the first place. In 2019, after graduating from college, I worked as a janitor for five months and saved enough money to fly to Thailand and train in Thai Kickboxing. Two weeks in, after overdoing it with twice-a-day practices, I strained a hip flexor and had to quit.
I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself, wondering if I should scrap my dreams of world travel and slink off home to mommy, when it occurred to me that I wasn’t supposed to be able to run properly, let alone kick a heavy bag for hours. How wild was it that I was even here, training with these high-level fighters?
It felt pretty cool to prove the doctors wrong, even if my physical limitations had eventually curtailed my training. There had to be something else I could do to prove to myself, and everyone else, that I had conquered CP and that others could as well.
I decided I would hike the Appalachian Trail. I had always loved camping and had done a few hundred-mile trips in various parts of my home state of Michigan. My grandfather, the family patriarch and my hero, had section hiked several parts of the AT in his lifetime, though he passed before he could complete it. I felt like walking in those same woods would bring me closer to the spirit of the man I so admired and finishing the trail would make him proud.
Not Done Yet
In the car ride out of the Smokies, I realized that these things hadn’t changed. I still had a chip on my shoulder. I still felt I had to prove I wasn’t broken, and that a handicap couldn’t handicap me. I felt I needed to do something I could always be proud of so that no matter how miserably I failed, I could always say I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
After a night in an atrociously overpriced Gatlinburg motel room, I called my friends and family and informed them of the new plan. Come home, re-tool, and get it done in 2022. Some were supportive, many were surprised, and a few felt vindicated, having told me there was no way I’d finish.
All of them wanted to know why. If the first attempt had been so painful, why would I spend another year of my life working and saving so I could go through that again?
“I love the AT.” I told one friend “the community here is amazing. Politics, race, religion, none of it matters out here. We’re already on the same team because we’re having the same struggles every day.”
I train every day to get stronger and constantly look to reduce base weight. I read hiker stories to stay inspired. I’m doing everything I can to get back out there and do it right.
I am fully prepared for the adventure. I know what I’m signing up for. I know how amazing the trail community is and how important it is to start slow. I’ve watched from afar as a friend whooped it up at Trail Days and triumphantly posed atop Mt. Katahdin. The trail took a piece of my heart, and I long to feel whole again.
I can’t wait to see you out there.
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