On March 17, 2018 I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime: I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, a continuous 2,190 mile footpath between Georgia and Maine.
But the journey actually began eons before then.
Being a southern girl, I spent many days stomping the wild woods. I felt at home, at peace and at ease nestled closely within nature. I had a map of the “A.T.” taped to the back of my bedroom door, and had pie-in-the-sky dreams of hiking the entire beast in one go.
And suddenly, at 44, I decided to just do it.
Six months in advance, I began preparing, dehydrating and vacuum sealing 180 dinners. I also packed oatmeal, tuna, bars, peanut butter, M&M’s, trail mix and electrolytes. I had ten five-gallon buckets of food stored in my Minnesota garage over the winter.
I had an enviable clutch of gear from extensive backpacking which included a tent, sleeping bag and pad, hiking poles, backpack, cooking gear, headlamp, rain gear, a knife, and proper clothing. I packed, repacked and packed again to shave weight and save space.
I had a chiropractor, hired a trainer to whip my ass in shape, ran 15-20 miles a day, and was teaching yoga. I was in the best shape of my life.
I quit my job.
I set all my bills to auto-pay.
I had a check-up at the doctor.
I said goodbye to my colleagues and friends.
I flew to Alaska and Georgia and said goodbye to family.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I began to walk north.
The first day, it rained. It rained for most of my entire trek. Unless it snowed. Or was blazing hot. The weather is an unforgiving bitch, and because I had very little shelter other than a thin tent or an open shelter, I became the bitch.
So, I just walked no matter the conditions. I walked up mountains, down mountains and around mountains. I walked on dirt, grass, mud, over rocks, on gravel and paved roads. I walked through stores, buildings and towns. I walked beside water, in water, and through water.
I walked an average of 23 miles a day. That’s more than average for the average hiker. I was determined.
Each day was as routine as if I were not hiking. I woke up, made my bed (which was shoving it into a bag), commuted, ate, stopped at night, opened my bed and slept. Repeat. The difference on the trail is that my “office” was filled with trees, dirt, sky, rocks, birds, deer, snakes and bears. Yes, bears.
I met some crazy, heart-filled, driven, and generous people. Some were thru-hikers like me (hiking the trail in its entirety in one trip), section hikers, and day hikers. And a common question always was, “Why are you hiking?”
To be honest, I had no idea. I thought I had 2,200 miles to figure it out. But my standard response was “to find peace.”
I did find peace. But I also found frustration, cold, hunger, adventure, anger, joy and every single other emotion possible. It was not at all unlike being off-trail.
It seemed I showed up no matter where I went. Hmmm…
The most impactful experience on my journey was meeting my friend Will. But I didn’t know that was his name until later. We have trail names; monikers used to capture our persona in the woods. His is Mumbles, and that’s how I lovingly refer to him even now.
Mumbles showed up out of nowhere, with his phone blaring some inspirational podcast, wearing a funky rag on his head, sporting a trail-worthy beard and speaking in a funny accent. Mumbles is British, and I couldn’t get enough of him.
When I almost got struck by lightning, Mumbles made me laugh.
When I fell, Mumbles made sure I was okay.
When I was cold, he slept next to me.
When I was sad, he hugged me.
When I told him it was my birthday coming up, he planned a surprise party for me.
Six days before my party, my dreams of summiting Mt. Katahdin in Maine were crushed. After hiking 1,300 miles from Georgia, I slipped on a greasy rock in New Jersey and broke my leg. I was alone and frightened. In an instant, I knew my adventure was over.
The following four months were the lowest, most dangerously close to suicide days I’d ever experienced. And this is why. After my fall, I hauled my broken body off the mountain and hitched a ride with a certifiably bat-shit-crazy lady to the hospital. I am one lucky girl because these circumstances are highly unlikely on the trail.
I caught a cab to a hotel, boarded a plane the next morning and in just over 24 hours after falling, I was sitting at home with half a cast and a shattered dream.
I was 97 lbs, full of pain, frustrated beyond sight, and absolutely grounded. What had happened? Who was I?
Just a few days prior, I had discussed what I would eat as my celebratory meal after summiting. I had given myself permission to actually “feel” what that last mile would be like. I was hauling 40# on my back more than 20 miles a day through extremely adverse conditions. I was happy and absolutely fulfilled.
Then, not. Not any of it. I was sat down, with a heavy boot, crutches and a house full of stairs. I couldn’t walk, drive or participate in my life in any way I found acceptable. Bullshit.
And that was just the first few days.
I wore the boot. Then I took it off and walked. Then I reinjured my leg.
So I wore the boot again. For a very long time.
I couldn’t run which was my stress equalizer before the trail. I couldn’t hike. I couldn’t even do sit ups or push ups without pain. I couldn’t even practice asana, the physical movements in yoga.
The lowest day, I found myself throwing an elaborately orchestrated pity party filled with woe-is-me and WTFs. It was ugly.
Then Mumbles showed back up.
I had watched many members of my trail family (“tramily”) finish the trail, and was equally jubilated as I was jealous. But when Mumble summited, I cried. His undying support, even through his toughest days, was enough to keep my head above ground.
After he summited, he stayed in close touch. I could always reach out and find a friend. It was with his encouragement that I sought out and found a kickass, foul-mouthed, gruff and rough therapist. Just my style. Everyone, in my opinion, needs a therapist on top of all other coping mechanisms. Someone with heart and tools to help navigate the shit in life.
The other aspect of my life that never left was yoga. Yoga was my constant companion. Even though I wasn’t purposefully posing, all of yoga infiltrated my journey.
I balanced, I stretched, I was strong. It was all mental. Yoga kept me sane. My years of practice not only helped me physically accomplish my goals, it also assisted my breath in long uphill climbs. It never failed me mentally. Emotionally, I felt well equipped to handle the toughest situations. I may not have liked it, but there was never ever a moment of panic. Even when my leg was falling off.
It was, from my very personal perspective, yoga which saved my life on and off trail. My yoga tribe shined when I felt dark. My meditation allowed me to listen to my body, and my breath is still healing all the corners where scary monsters live.
I’m still recovering from the disappointment of not completing my envisioned task. My leg is better than ever, even if I’m not running. Yet, I find myself at the strongest point in my entire life. I have experienced the lowest low, and I’m on my way up. Hell to the Yes!
It is with utter love for this life that I refuse to give in. I have many more adventures and so much more to give. This little blip doesn’t define me.
I’m simply experiencing a set back as a set up for a comeback. Watch out world. I’m not even close to being finished.