Walking It Off on the Appalachian Trail

When my husband and I began making preparations to hike two thousand one hundred and eighty-nine miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, the most common question we encountered was “Why?”

We heard this question every day from the time we announced we would be hiking until the day we left. People’s sentiments could be summed up by a baffled high school student of mine who commented, “Miss, you know you can, like, drive a car there, right? You crazy.”

And he was right, why would anyone willingly hike more than two thousand miles through rain, cold, heat and rocks to get to the top of a mountain in Maine? Crazy indeed.

In the spring of 1948, with only a canvas backpack and a mishmash of oilfield and logging maps, twenty-nine year-old Earl Shaffer, an American combat veteran who would become known as “The Crazy One,” started his journey northward from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail to “walk off the war.” In the wilderness he wrestled with war memories, grieved the death of his childhood friend who was killed at Iwo Jima and documented his experiences extensively through journaling and writing poetry. After walking more than two thousand miles in one hundred and twenty-nine days, he became the first person to thru-hike the entire trail when he summited Mount Katahdin in Maine. A lifelong outdoorsman and advocate for the trail he would go on to thru-hike the trail again in 1965 and 1998. The journey to walk off the war lasted a lifetime.packs 2

Since the beginning, the Appalachian Trail has inspired recovery hikes. Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who at sixty-seven was the first solo woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1955, didn’t speak much about her hardships of lifelong poverty and domestic abuse, but a snappy reply of “because I wanted to” to a reporter who asked her why she hiked the trail was evidence enough that she had recovered her agency and empowerment.

In 1992 Bill Irwin, reportedly prompted by the voice of God, became the first blind person to complete the trail, not with hopes that the Lord would restore his sight, but that he would be healed of alcoholism and depression.

Books, documentaries, blogs and trail registers are filled with stories of recovery journeys and the spring hiking season of 2015 was no different. Everyone, it seemed, was walking toward something and walking away from something. We met Detox, who, as his name suggests, was hiking the trail to jumpstart a sobriety journey. When signing into the register in the evening we would see Detox signing in a day or two ahead of us “five days sober,” “ten days sober,” “two months sober.” Near the end of our one hundred and sixty nine day thru-hike, when we passed him, he was five months sober and optimistic about the future. We met a woman unable to work and on disability because of PTSD she got while deployed in Iraq. She hiked with her mother and they wore T-shirts emblazoned with, “Stop Soldier Suicide.” Deaths, divorces, weddings, graduations, retirements. Everyone was walking off something. Even my husband and I.DSCN2910

I was exhausted and burned out from working in the education and social service sector on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of the elementary and middle school students I mentored in an after school program struggled socially and academically after losing family members to narco-trafficking violence. I celebrated with some students as they graduated from high school and entered college or the workforce but feared for others who dropped out of school, battled addiction, or entered the juvenile detention system. I grieved with those who faced eviction, deportation, domestic violence and sexual assault.

In many ways, my work with adults at the community college was no different. I marveled at students enrolled in my remedial writing courses who faced challenges that made their dreams of a college education seem impossible. Students came into my class after working the night shift and dropping off their children at school or daycare. Every semester I had at least one student approach me in office hours because they had become homeless and didn’t know how they were going to complete their work. Their personal and family crises made attendance difficult and some semesters I had course drop rates of over fifty percent. Educational and linguistic gaps made reading and writing excruciating. The pressure for students to test out of remedial classes was enormous and I had to fail many hard-working students because they were unable to meet the academic requirements necessary to enroll in college level courses.

I started to have tunnel vision—the terrible became normative and it became hard to separate work from my personal life. As an adjunct instructor, I also worked additional jobs to try to cobble together a living wage. I never knew how many courses I would teach or if I would even be hired back the next semester. I wanted to keep a positive attitude but I was overwhelmed. The border is full of beautiful people and landscapes, but it was hard for me to see in the mental space I was in. I needed some time away. I needed to walk it off.

I decided to walk off depression—to shake that numb and grinding feeling that comes from everyday life. To walk off the fact that it seemed impossible to sustain my goals of working for justice and peace. To walk off a fundamentalist past that still nagged in the corner of my brain and provoked in me feelings of guilt and anxiety for simply existing.

I decided to walk because I needed to be in a different physical space in order to break out of my current mental space. Because I needed a singular goal to re-orient my well-being and sense of purpose.

I decided to walk because my husband had completed the trail in 2007 and this time I wanted to walk with him.

We decided to walk because my husband worked shift work in a warehouse and we never saw each other.

We decided to walk to figure out the future.

We decided to walk because we wanted to have an adventure.

We decided to walk because we wanted to move toward something and we wanted to do it together.

So we did.

After a successful thru-hike and more than twenty two hundred miles, we are still walking. When we summited Katahdin, we realized we had not arrived, but were just continuing a lifelong journey toward joy and recovery.