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?

Some of the guys that got to beat me up.

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.”

Happy, and freezing, atop Wayah Bald, NC.

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.

Jake Arens

aka Sidetrack

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Comments 21

  • Eddy (Halupki) : Dec 19th

    Sidetrack, we met on top of Wayah bald. I, too will start again from Springer on March. Slow & easy for the first 2 weeks. Hope to see you out there!

    Reply
    • Sidetrack : Dec 19th

      Halupki! Glad to see you’re giving it another go. I’ll see you on trail my friend

      Reply
  • Bloodhound : Dec 19th

    Good writing. The excellent way you describe the pervasive cold on your hike to Clingman’s Dome put me right there with you. I’m a trail angel in this region and I have met plenty of hikers over the years who have pushed their bodies too hard, too soon, many paying the painful price in the form of leg and foot maladies. What I’ve noticed is that northbounders are often in what I term as the “Conquest Phase” of their hikes, where they’re so wrapped up in making big miles, often with too much heavy gear, that they miss out on what a thru hike is all about. It isn’t until after they’ve had a thousand miles or so under their belt before they begin to put “Smiles over Miles” in their hiking priorities. I sincerely hope you team up with medical professionals to get your issues fixed enough to where you can do a reboot of your thru hike and I hope to be here to serve you trail magic when you do!

    Reply
    • Sidetrack : Dec 19th

      I’ve gotten back in the gym and done a lot of work on mobility and strengthening what was weak last go around. My 2022 start date is tentatively March 25. I’m working with a coach and we’ve put together a phased program to peak right around that date. I’m significantly stronger than I was for my last attempt. That said, the “grit and push through” attitude was the biggest issue. I’m going to try to really take it slow and enjoy the first few weeks and be patient. Hope to see you out there

      Reply
      • Ron : Dec 20th

        I would start at Clingmans or wherever you left off and flip flop just in case. Also, maybe casually do Florida Trail to get ready? The season is now.
        An early start may also help. I hiked from Springer February 1st and noticed my feet never got hot. And the cold is good for muscles and has healing properties… it doesn’t get too much colder. It was harder to find pot on trail but other than that…

        Reply
      • thorne : Dec 20th

        i too will be making another attempt in march after two attempts back in 14′ (from amicolola to ny/nj border) and 15′( from amilcolola to duncannon pa) this time around im hiking not getting caught up in the drinking/partying/over indulgant enjoyments since i quit drnking several years ago. i also started out after trail days to try to hike from damascus to mama k but after 3 days my knee pain caused me to get off so after 3 failed attempts of something i love more than anything i think this time ill make it all the way. good luck to you maybe ill see ya out there… hikers hike…

        Reply
        • Sidetrack : Dec 30th

          There’s definitely a lot of partying. I’d quit drinking a few years before the trail myself, but weed is so prevalent on trail I found it difficult to remain truly sober. This time around I intend to stay completely clear headed and let the beauty of the mountains get me stoned.

          Reply
  • Lon : Dec 19th

    Your writing is wicked good. Keep it coming.

    Reply
    • Jen : Dec 19th

      I’ll be thinking of you come late March. You got this! If you need anything near Manchester VT, let me know!

      Reply
  • Bob : Dec 20th

    Talk about a New Year’s Resolution!
    I’ll be rooting for you Sidetrack. You’ll be an inspiration to many!
    When you make it to the “Whites”, my wife & I would love to be supportive to your quest in anyway that we can.
    We’re not thru hikers, but we’ve climbed all 67 4000’s in NH & Maine and know a lot of the “tricks” & “pitfalls” of hiking the final two states.
    Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

    Reply
  • Ron : Dec 20th

    I… would start at Clingmans or wherever you left off and flip flop just in case. Also, maybe casually do Florida Trail to get ready? The season is now.
    An early start may also help. I hiked from Springer February 1st and noticed my feet never got hot. And the cold is good for muscles and has healing properties… it doesn’t get too much colder. It was harder to find pot on trail but other than that…

    Reply
    • thorne : Dec 26th

      its legal in va now so should be easier i dont smoke myself but know a few who do lol

      Reply
  • Linda Romano : Dec 20th

    I just made the decision about 5 months ago although thinking about it since my son pulled it off in 2017. I am a runner pretty fit although not young like you. Your advice to take it slow in the start is taken, hope to see you on the trail.

    Reply
  • bamboo bob : Dec 20th

    Late March is a good start date. If you start too early you don’t have very long days of light. FYI April 4 is the date where the lows stay above 40 degrees.

    Reply
  • Bill Jensen aka "77" : Dec 20th

    I did the AT in 2017 at age 59 and have since done the CT and TRT. The secret to my sucess? Hike myself into shape. Go slow for the first week and ease into it. I didn’t even make it to Hawk Mountain for the second night – had to stop at the cemetery. Good luck!

    Reply
  • Lotus : Dec 21st

    I started 2.13.18. I did 10 miles a day for the first 30 days. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to finish due to body break down. I figured if I was still on the trail after a month I would have a better feel for my body and could adjust my mileage accordingly. I took a zero or double zero every 7 days or so the whole trail. I finished 9.1.18. Slow and steady finishes the challenge.

    Reply
  • Steveaa : Jan 20th

    We all have obsticals that we have to overcome to do a long or short hike. A friend of mine once said “we are as only handicapped as we make ourselves.” We have to find a way to make our hike our hike. I have sleep apnea, so I have to carry an extra 8 pounds, so I can sleep at night. So, take / carry what you need to be happy on the trail. Hike your hike 😉

    Reply
  • Vince Piquet : Feb 2nd

    Feel your pain man. 2016, climbed up Katahdin, hobled down. PT for a year, ME, NH, and VT in ’17. MA, CT, NY and NJ in ’18. Gonna try to finish starting in June. Fair winds and following seas.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO

    Reply
  • Vince Piquet : Feb 2nd

    Feel your pain man. 2016, climbed up Katahdin, hobled down. PT for a year, ME, NH, and VT in ’17. MA, CT, NY and NJ in ’18. Gonna try to finish starting in June. Fair winds and following seas.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO

    Reply

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