Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail, 12 Years After Dermatomyositis
Overcoming Obstacles to Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail
2003 ended on a low note for me as the mystery illness was finally identified as the incurable and debilitating autoimmune disease, dermatomyisitis.
2015 will be the year I finally undertake thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
I’m Jen, trail name and long time nickname, Ironjen. I, and my new husband, Jeff, trail name Muskrat, will begin thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail NOBO in mid-March 2015. I’m a professional photographer, and he’s in international relations, and we are both looking to take life to new and exciting places.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is something that I have wanted to do since I was 12 years old, when the son of a friend of my dad’s did it. It’s kind of funny that I was even interested in it, since my first camping experience two years prior to that had been less than awesome. Nothing particularly BAD happened. I was just camping with my Girl Scout troop in a canvas tent from the 1950s, being eaten alive all night by mosquitos, and feeling generally sweaty, uncomfortable and homesick. Of course I went back out the next year, and the next, because I didn’t want to miss anything. I guess even when I was 10, I somehow knew that the best experiences happen beyond your comfort zone, and slowly endurance of the outdoors morphed into a love affair.
Somehow, I managed to let 25 years pass between the time a thru-hike ignited my interest, and the concrete decision to actually do one. I spent a few years in my 20s kicking myself for not going on the trail before college, and I kept telling myself that I’d still get out there eventually. It seemed almost impossible from the other side of decisions to marry the wrong guy at 20, buy a house at 22, and start a full-time job in an office that felt like a prison.
At 26, I thought maybe the chance to hike was opening up. My first husband and I were divorcing and selling our house, and I had this full bank account and a whole unwritten future ahead of me. Then the unthinkable happened. I got a crazy itchy rash on my face that quickly spread to cover about 80% of my upper body, and I started feeling physically exhausted and achy all the time. The ache turned into pain, and weakness so severe that I couldn’t pick up a glass of water with one hand. Six weeks later, just as I turned 27, I was diagnosed with dermatomyositis.
What followed was a five-year battle to get back the health my doctors all told me was gone forever. The whole time, I refused to believe that I would have to live a life centered around sickness, what the doctors referred to as “new normal.” I fought to stay as active as possible and tried everything I could to combat the inflammation taking over my body. I took up running, something that I had always hated, and headed out onto the Appalachian Trail, which was walking distance from my new house, with my two labs for weekend backpacking trips. Then I got the bright idea to try a triathlon. My health was improving, and an Ironman seemed like just the kind of challenge I needed to show dermatomyositis that I was done with it.
I went on to complete four Ironman races between 2008 and 2011, and there will be more in my future. My last treatment for dermatomyositis was in November 2008, and my last follow up with my doctor was in 2010. Somewhere along the way though, I dusted off that old dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Muskrat, and I sat down last month and ran the numbers, and we decided that now is a prefect time.
Deciding to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail feels a little bit like deciding to do that first Ironman. I know going in that a lot can go wrong, that there will be times I will want to lay down and quit, and that there are large numbers of people who start and don’t finish. I have the underlying knowledge that I can totally do this, and yet the question of whether I will overcome the obstacles on the trail hangs with delicious ambiguity in the unknown future. That’s what I LOVE about undertaking huge challenges. I love what I learn and who I become on the other side of those challenges. I love answering that question of whether or not I will do what I set out to do over and over and over again as miles pass beneath my feet. I love pushing myself into newer and better versions of normal. Life on the other side of the seemingly impossible has never failed to be more incredible than I can imagine.
Here’s to the trail!
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