Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: My Worst Hiking Experience
The Trek Editor’s Note
Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now, and you can find upcoming book tour events here.
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Q) What was your worst hiking experience? –Wookie
This is a difficult question for me to answer. Not because of any indecision on the worst moment I’ve experienced on trail, but because it still conjures up a visceral response and raw emotion. And, it took place over a decade ago.
I had recently left behind the rocks of Pennsylvania during my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. I was convinced that everything would get better and easier now that I was past Rocksylvania. Then, one morning in New Jersey I woke up early, packed my gear, and started hiking uphill. I was hoping to make it to the summit of Sunrise Mountain for—what else—the sunrise.
My attention was focused on the ankle-twisting terrain and my feet and the sun rising above the horizon in the east. I could tell there was a structure on top of the mountain, but I didn’t pay much attention to the building until my burning calves found level terrain near the top of the mountain. That’s when I looked up… and froze.
In the middle of the open-air pavilion there was a body swaying from the rafters. I only saw it for a few seconds, but I took in the scene for an eternity. I still remember it in detail: hair color, type of clothing, arms and hands of the victim bound in rope. It felt like my stomach dropped out of my body. I turned and ran, but my movements felt stuck in slow motion. I wasn’t sure if it was a suicide or a murder. Was someone around who was going to hurt me? Could it just be a practical joke? What was going on?!
I made it back down the trail a quarter mile or more, then stopped to pull out my phone. This was the 2005 Nokia version of a cell phone that looked like a brick and didn’t have decent cell service, let alone GPS or a weather app. It was a confusing and frustrating predicament to try to communicate with authorities amid dropped calls and a 911 dispatcher who kept asking me where I had parked my car.
When the cops finally met me on the trail, an officer sat next to me and asked pointed and brief questions for 15 minutes before flipping his notebook shut and saying, “Okay, we’ve got what we need. You can keep hiking now.”
I was traumatized and not processing my options clearly, so when the authority figure told me I could keep hiking, I robotically stood up and continued down the trail. After mechanically walking as fast as I could to get as far away as possible from Sunrise Mountain, my pace slowed and I started to weep. I walked and cried for the rest of the day and tears came and went over the next week.
In retrospect, the police who responded to my call could have offered a more compassionate response my predicament or offered options other than to continue down the trail. But, I am so glad that I kept hiking. Here’s why.
1. Trail as Therapy – After my experience on Sunrise Mountain, I felt sad, angry, and confused. And on the trail, that was okay. I didn’t have to hide or repress any of my emotions. I had the freedom and space I needed to process through a wide range of feelings, express grief without shame, and pray for healing. Hiking helped me to accept the reality of encountering a suicide, work through the ensuing emotions, and then literally and figuratively move forward with my life. I had heard about people coming to the trail to cope with tragedy or process difficult transitions, but I had never experienced the healing properties of hiking through nature firsthand until then.
2. Community Support – Even before the age of technology had infiltrated long distance hiking, trail gossip traveled at inexplicable speeds. Twenty-four hours after finding a body on the trail, I found myself encompassed by the hikers who had sped up or slowed down to make sure that I was okay. My trail friends offered to hike with me every step until Maine if I wanted company. They also said they would be happy to give me space if I needed time alone. Plus, for the first and only time on the trail, I was offered as much food as I wanted from the packs of other thru-hikers. I was surrounded by men and women who did everything they could to make sure that I felt safe and supported; it took facing a horrific circumstance alone for me to realize how much accountability and community exists on a long, thin trail.
3. Mental Health – I have thought a lot about suicide in the miles, weeks, months, and years following my experience at Sunrise Mountain. At first, I was mad at the young man who ended his life on the mountain; mad at the cost of his sacrifice and the lingering impacts it would have on his family and community. Over time, however, my understanding of suicide changed and I no longer hold the young man accountable for ending his life. The impacts of emotional and mental illness and imbalance are as serious as any physical disease or injury and when they are overlooked, untreated, or simply too severe to heal then they can result in tragedy. All too often we put the blame or impetus on the individual who is struggling to seek help. But one of the primary symptoms of mental and emption disease is an inability to reach out for assistance.
I didn’t want to write this blog; I didn’t want to relive my worst encounter on the trail and it would have been easy to skip over this Mailbag question. But I believe that the trail is there for everyone: those who like to hike, those to want to be healed, and those who struggle to move past the hurt. Don’t let the independence and self-sufficiency of a thru-hike keep you from reaching out to someone who might need your help.
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