The Big Reaction

For some my determination to hike AT is unfathomable. Most recently I was discussing the topic with a friend and his response to my statement “I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail when I graduate next year” was an immediate “you?” Now, he insists that he did not hear me when I said “I” and was seeking clarification, but I will take liberty to doubt this. I get it, I’m kind of chubby, I’m short, I have expressed only a limited interest in hiking within my friend group, I don’t seem like the type to take on such a task. However, what I found most important in the exchange was not his visceral doubt, but my response to it. Without hesitation, I laughed out loud. His doubt is not my doubt, and my ability to see humor in his negative response was reassuring to me, because it speaks to my own confidence in my ability.

Now, I would like to take the opportunity to tell you a bit about how some of the important people in my life reacted. Now, to avoid any strife or suspicion of favoritism, I have placed these in order of seniority, rather than the actual order I told them.

My mother asked my why, that was her first question. I explained that it was simply because I wanted to, and she said OK. Days later, after I published my first post, I called her and she told me, “I read your blog, I’m in.” She asked about how I was going to get my gear and what she could do to help. Her eagerness was very reassuring to me, as I was expecting more opposition. She did express worries about my safety but decided it was best not to dwell. Her desire to help was actually overwhelming as she began to ask a multitude of questions I had yet to consider.

For the sake of their privacy, I won’t name my sisters, but I have four. The eldest, C had a very similar response to that of my mom. She asked me why and accepted my response. She then told me about a man who was biking for charity and suggested I could do something similar. I jokingly mentioned that she would probably have me tagged before I leave and watch every step I take. In all seriousness she told me how our other sister doesn’t like to give her flight information anymore because C tracks her progress through the air. She spent the next few days sending me links about how to seek sponsorship and a GPS tracker she expects me to carry.

Next would be T, I spent three days and called her about 4000 times before I actually got to speak to her. When we finally talked (on my mother’s phone because I got lucky and called her when they happened to be together) her first response was, “so wait, you’re inviting me right?” This is the sister mentioned in my first post, who seems to share my passion for hiking. We then discussed gear and she immediately added me to a facebook flea market to find cheap gear. She took the further step of connecting me with a friend who put me in touch with a gentleman who has been immensely helpful in starting me on the path to collecting my gear.

L, I think, was the most concerned. Everyone who knows her will know exactly the tone she adopted when I told her about my plans. She said nothing for about 30 seconds before saying “Oh my God Jax” in a tone that was a mixture of fear and exasperation at the fact that she has been given such a ridiculous sister who loves to try her patience. I am sad to say it was not the first time I have heard this phrase and it is unlikely to be the last. I’m assuming she did some quick googling and this likely did nothing to assuage her fears. I expressed some concerns about how I would manage my bills while away and she said simply “that’s what you have me for.” More recently she has begun planning our trip to Maine this year to see how well I do in the 100 mile wilderness to better inform my decision to go NOBO or SOBO.

Finally, I, of all of my family, she accepted my decision with the least questions. I don’t have any anecdote for our exchange due to the circumstances at the time that I told her. We were both dealing with a rather tiresome individual who had been testing our courtesy and hospitality for nearly a week and I believe by the time I told her about my trip she was beyond the point of offering any sort of emotional reaction beyond acceptance. Yet, her support is no less important than that of any of my other sisters.

My cousin, J, has also been essential in the journey I’ve taken. She will be my practice partner all this summer as we both become more skilled hikers. She has promised to make fun of me when I carry my full pack on a day hike and she has been my constant companion on the trail. Honestly, none of this would have happened if not for her. Back on that first day we went hiking together, I began a path that will lead me to Springer Mountain.

The support of my family is absolutely vital to me in all my endeavors, but their desire to help me with this momentous task is so inspiring to me. I fully expect to see them at a variety of points during my hike. Whether dropping me off at the beginning, hiking alongside me in the middle states, or cheering me on at the finish line, I am certain I have a wonderful family who will be invaluable.

I do feel the need to offer one more anecdote so everyone can understand just what it is I’m working with. My step father, for whom I have lots of respect, but also a great deal of resentment, reacted in a slightly disheartening way. I discussed completing a thru hike with him prior to me actually committing to the endeavor, but his words have left me slightly apprehensive about actually telling him I plan to make the hike. He told me a story about a woman he had met during his travels who smelled very unpleasantly. Apparently she used her odor to deter sexual assault while completing her thru hike. He did not tell this story as a cautionary, rather as an interesting thing he had learned, and thought nothing of how this might impact me. He offered neither support nor objection and this has left me wondering about what he will think of my decision.

There are people I did not mention here and I want to say thank you to them as well. I have not and will not forget any support I have been provided. Overall, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I don’t know what I would do without each and every one of you and all that you do to love and support me.


Where do I start?

This is the awkward beginning to an improbable journey.

First, I would like to begin by saying thank you. Just the fact that you’ve made it this far into reading what I’ve written seems astounding to me. I am not a person who ever thought I had anything important to say and each of you who takes the time to share my journey is an inspiration to me.

Throughout my life I have always felt an obligation to care for the people around me. From bottle feeding orphaned squirrels, to comforting my mother, to reading my big sister a bedtime story,  I always wanted to be there for everyone. Ultimately this has led me to pursue a career in social work, currently I am a year away from achieving my masters. Unfortunately, I am not nearly as good at taking care of myself.

So begins the story of my decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, this might be a bit circuitous, but please bear with me.

It started with a relationship. A terrible no good very bad relationship. I spent close to two years of my life with a partner who was not appropriate for me and I realized that I was loving him far more than I loved myself. By the time I could leave my self confidence was practically nonexistent and I looked around and realized I was a stranger to myself. I have experienced depression frequently throughout my life, but nothing compared to the worthlessness I felt at that time.

So I made changes. I was lucky enough to have family to support me and a wonderful cousin to take me in. I started changing the way I ate, I made more time for friends, I started saving money, and finally, I began hiking. The aforementioned wonderful cousin decided we were going out one day, with no destination in mind. We ended up on a local trail, me in jeans and chucks, her in flip flops. We looked ridiculous, but it was the best I’d felt in a long time. We planned to go again and then again. Eventually we settled into a different trail in a state park and it was the one thing I looked forward to most during the week. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but thank you my lovely cousin, you helped save me that day in your flip flops.

When I began going to graduate school again I no longer had time to hike and I began to feel poorly again. I was working full time overnight, struggling in an internship I hated and trying to keep up with my course load. The result of so much on my plate was a herniated disc, between L4 and L5, pressing on my sciatic nerve. I was in serious pain and walking with a heavy limp for close to a year. I ended up having a bilateral discectomy in January of 2017.

I couldn’t walk independently for days. I was in tears when I moved at all and I only had a week to recover before returning to school. I quit my job, and gave myself time to recover. Unfortunately, if you go from working 40 hours of manual labor to doing almost nothing, you get fat. I don’t mean to criticize others’ weight, but I was unhappy with myself. On top of physical therapy, I joined a gym and began exercising. I bought new clothes, I started building muscle, I dyed my hair. I made it my mission to feel good again.

In April I began hiking again. I think the simple action of walking in the woods was newly empowering after my surgery. I could not only walk again, but I could probably make it up the steep hill that my cousin lovingly calls murder hill. Now that I wasn’t working overnight and exhausted I had a whole new appreciation for the world around me. I saw the world grow green and warm, I watched turtles sunning, I disturbed snakes on the trail. We deviated from our comfortable path and each trip was like an adventure. One day on the trail I mentioned in passing that I would like to hike the Appalachian Trail at some point in my life.

This is going to seem like a nonsequitor, but I have a point, I promise. In my final class of my first year of graduate school, my professor asked us to consider what brought us to social work and come up with a quote that represented this. A touch cliche, I know, but this was mine:

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” -A.A. Milne

I wanted to be there to tell people this. I want to be a part of their process, on the road to their success, whatever other cliche you want to apply. This is what was floating around I’m my head that Friday, and into the weekend.

That Monday I brought my sister to my usual trail and got to experience it with fresh eyes as I watched her discover the wonders that had become familiar to me. Namely there were a shit ton of turtles all in a row on a fallen tree and we decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go for a swim in the placid river. She was proud because she could outpace me and I got the chance to see something that I have seen so rarely in this sister. True pride, self confidence, happiness. This beautiful woman who has struggled throughout  her life was happier than I have seen her in years. Hiking contributed to that.

When we got home I found three books sitting on the kitchen table with a note from my cousin. She had bought me a data book, a guide book, and a mental guide for preparing to hike the AT. I was up until well past 2 the next two nights finishing the mental guide (thanks Badger). I was less than a paragraph in when I said to myself, “I am going to do this.”

What followed was a furious consumption of the books my cousin had given me and a Rollercoaster of emotions. I was excited and terrified, I immediately started panicking about the money and told myself I was no where near strong enough to do something so monumental. But then I remembered,

I’m braver than I believe, I’m stronger than I seem, and smarter than I think.

I want that pride I saw on my sister’s face, I want to feel confident in my body’s abilities, I want that delicious endorohin laced exhaustion that follows a work out. I want to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. I decided that I need to be selfish, I need to do something crazy and adventurous. I need to be who I’m supposed to be. So I figured, why not take a half a year off before I settle to my life as a public servant.

So I ask you, join me on my journey. Watch my triumphs and my lows. Watch me embarrass myself and overcome my fear. Come with me as I become me.