An Appalachian Education


‘An Appalachian Education’

Written Submission

Elizabeth ‘Too Damn Short’ Wellner

160423_Sweet Rock_0072I am a professional survivor.

In 2000, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, anxiety disorder and chronic depression. I’ve lived through incest and the fallout has been severe. In 49 years, I have made it through suicide attempts, hospitals, weight loss, weight gain, self injury, OCD like tendencies, panic attacks, PTSD, alcohol abuse, too much food , not enough food, too much sleep, not enough sleep, thousands of hours ‘on the couch’, multiple psychologists/psychiatrists and at least 20 different medications in as many years.

Sometime in 2015, the AT came up in conversation with my husband and he casually said, ‘You should do that’. I said, ’Ok’. Much like the rest of our 28 years together, he had no idea what was about to happen and to be honest, neither did I. As a survivor, I’m constantly looking for things that will make me feel that my fight with ‘The Big Black Dog’ is not what defines me as a person and the trail felt like a challenging, or insane, way to investigate a new type of self care.

10336827_10208538379843842_4805238601920642318_nI boldly declared 2016 ‘The Year of Being a Badass’! Some of the items on my list included: Picking up a snake, removing my own stitches after knee surgery, spending a wedding anniversary apart from the hubs (I was on-trail, he was in another country), getting a tattoo, donating 8 inches of my hair and becoming a published author. I was convinced that my bad ass moves would make Chuck Norris stand in awe. Ok, well, maybe not, but I was sure impressed

I’ve been a hiker/camper since I was 6 months old so the newbie knowledge of the outdoors was safely tucked in my hip belt pocket. But 2,200 miles? In the rain? In the heat? In the snow? In a row? In 6 months? *gulp*

As so many times before, the doubt came crashing in and I routinely weighed my chance for success with the scales of my past. I was determined that this was a chance to lighten the load of those moments of self-doubt and helplessness that I have waded through all my life and carry a very different kind of load. One that would have me laughing, crying and wondering why the hell I packed deodorant.

I went down the magic rabbit hole of Google for detailed information and Facebook provided endless groups to join to get my inner happy hiker dance going. Once I got to the forum on managing menstruation on the trail, I ran screaming from the computer shouting, ‘No f*cking way! Are you kidding me? I am not dealing with THAT in the woods!’ In time, I realized that this too was part of Momma Nature and that’s just who I was looking to hang with. I managed to pull up my big girl gators and slid that information into the ‘That’s all part of it’ side pocket of my pack for easy access.

13434940_10209848400753546_1123223904262782826_nI read so much that it became shockingly clear that this was going. to. be. hard. We all know the physical game is often dwarfed by the mental game so the trick was to find balance between the two and stick with it like a tick in New Jersey.


I pointed myself north, to Maine, in late April on a flip flop from Harpers Ferry. I headed into the known, the unknown, the divine and the outrageous. Blisters, chaffing, twisted ankles, aching hips, knees swollen bigger than baseballs, critters, bears, bugs, everything wet for days and days and days and something called the ‘Deuce of Spades’ filled every day. It took a little while but I eventually saw and embraced the way of the trail— and the hiker box.

I hiked along thinking of things off the trail and kept waiting for some phantasmic epiphany to strike me in the middle of enjoying my Cliff Bar that would open the universe to me. Somehow, I was missing the message, the meaning and the answers.  That moment never came. At least not that way.

rocksI spent my days fumbling over boulder fields in Pennsylvania wondering how my relationship with my parents fell apart. I spent my nights in Maryland listening to crickets while thinking of how to manage the side effects of my medications. I trekked through New Jersey mulling over major life decisions and coming up with nothing. After the first week, I started to feel worse about the whole proposition and sat in my tent on a cold and rainy afternoon saying to myself, ‘What in the hell am I doing?’ I felt lost, confused and could still see doubt peeking out from every tree I passed chuckling and flipping me off.

While waiting for my Ramen to boil during a lunch break, I though of the question that so many people asked me before I began following the white blazes. ‘Why did you decide to hike the trail?’  I never really had an answer. To walk 5 millions steps? Because I like to poop in a privy? To control my pain and put it where it belonged? To see how long I could go without a shower? I had always wanted to run a marathon but even after years of trying, I just wasn’t a runner. Maybe this was my marathon? I still didn’t know. I kept walking.

I found that pushing the limits of my physical and mental game started to morph into confidence. Just knowing that I was hiking the AT, solo, began to make me feel fierce, empowered and undeniably ‘Badass’. Depression and hopelessness began to fade ever so slightly like the setting sun every night while I stretched out in my Big Agnes. I was happily exhausted after a day of fighting the terrain instead of anger and misery. I started to do what many hikers hike for; taking joy in the simple and pure moments of dazzling views, cold clean water, a ride to Walmart and dry socks.

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Struggling with BiPolar, means I am just not capable of making modifications without help. I can’t, ’Just be happy” or ‘Just change the way I think’. Depression is never that kind. If I was able to do so I would, but the chemical imbalance in my brain just doesn’t allow it to happen. Mental health, so much like the AT, can find steady and even footing. The cycle is always revolving for me but there is calm to be found after traversing seemingly limitless rising, torturous falling and taking the twins, Lexapro and Lamictal. ‘I love being crippled by anxiety, depression and isolation’, said no one ever.

During my odyssey on the trail I found these few things to be as valuable as a Snickers bar: See the goal but remember that it’s only the goal, not the end to every day. Keep track of what’s in front of you, what might be coming up, ask for help and let others perform their Trail Magic. No one ever does it alone. Practice ‘Leave no Trace’ and collect those bits of reason and place them in your biggest stuff sack. I triumphantly came away with concepts to adapt and cope when I’m not on the trail fighting with mice over my peanut butter.

I hiked 350 miles in the summer of 2016 and finished 4 states. With all great struggles, I needed a break to reflect on my new-found capabilities and how they could boost my mental health now and in the future. Physical health relies on consistent attention and monitoring to reach your personal best and mental health is no different. I will be returning to the trail this summer (2017) to log more miles and gather more pebbles of courage, confidence and conviction. With my ‘Sanity Stuff Sack’ holding more weight than a porter in Peru, I won’t worry about the load. It won’t be anything that a badass can’t handle.

I am a professional survivor.


Teachings of the Trail

I hiked 350 miles on the Appalachian Trail this summer (2016) and the one thing that stuck out during my experience was how wonderful people are. In honor of International Peace Day, I’d like to share the following:


Finishing my 4th state, NJ

* I had a random woman give me a ride to town when I was needing it most after a very long and hot day.
* Total strangers would see my pack and ask me about my trip. Some had hiked and others had not. All of them gave me props and encouragement on my journey.
*I am not a faith-based person, but many people offered to pray with me about my journey. When I explained my atheistic stance, they simply said, ‘OK. Well, have fun and be safe’ or offered caring hugs.
* Most woman were overwhelmed that I was a solo hiker but all though it an extremely empowering endeavor and strong statement.
* Many people I encountered off trail felt motivated to get on the trail themselves after hearing my story.

All of these chance encounters are wonderful but the most stunning of all was with the hikers themselves. I met them all; Thru hikers, Section Hikers, LASHers (Long Ass Section Hikers), Weekend Warriors and hikers that were just out for the day.

Hiker Facts:
* The age range of those I met was 3-87
* Most of them were male, but the women hikers were always just as bad ass and dedicated to their wander in the woods.
* I encountered: Black, White, Asian, Indian, Hispanic of every size and shape.
* All the world was represented: Ireland, Germany, Portugal, Russia, England, Australia, Mexico, India, Denmark, United States (and multiple states within)
* Careers varied greatly as well. Teacher, Lawyer, Exterminator, Student, Astro Physicist, Baker, those on a break from school/work, the unemployed and even the homeless (this one is an entire blog post by itself).


Randomly met friends from a FB hiking page

Big deal, right? This is a major hiking system in the US and you’re going to meet a very diverse group of people. These people weren’t just run-of-the-mill. They were the very embodiment of peace on earth.

A typical day would see me northbound on the trail soaking up Civil War history (actually on the trail) in West Virginia, cursing the rocks of Pennsylvania, slogging through mud in Maryland or marveling at the beautiful vistas in New Jersey. But the magic came when I met other hikers.

Absolutely, without exception, every person I said hello to on the trail said hello in reply. Hikers shared information about trail conditions, water sources, points of interest and hazards of the trail they’ve just traversed and that you were about to enter. Safety is a big thing on the trail and everyone is happy to point out potential pit falls (sometimes, literally!).


Chillin’ with trail family.

Nights in the shelters/campsites were always filled with hiker talk. At first, this drove me nuts. Who cares if your Sea to Summit bag has a 650 down lift? Do you really need to talk about and show me the festering blisters on your putrid feet? But talk always turned to their trail plans, where home was, their families/kids/pets, connecting the dots in our lives, sharing food, sharing water and making a game plan to make sure there was enough room for everyone in the shelter.

I later started to roll with it and realized something extremely important. We always talked about things we had in common. Let me say it again, we always talked about things we had in COMMON.

There was very little talk of politics (and boy, is this the year for talking politics!) and never talk about religion. No one ever said: ‘You’re black’, ‘You’re a Muslim’ or ‘You’re an idiot to vote for ______’. No. Not ever. The trail was our neutral territory, our sheltered space, our common ground.


Peace to all who enter here

Here’s hoping that we will no longer have a day of peace, but a lifetime of peace the world over.




AT, Here I Come

A lifetime of dreaming, a year of planning and months of training were safely tucked in my back pocket the day I started my flip flop hike of the Appalachian Trail on May 2, 2016 in Harpers Ferry, WV.

I read ‘Appalachian Trials’ (the holy bible for A.T. hikers), poured through The A.T. Thru HIker’s Companion and joined every A.T. hiking Facebook page I could find. After only a few days on the trail I realized that a 2,200 mile hike is much like having your first baby; no matter how much you want one, how much you research and how often you talk to friends who have one, absolutely nothing can completely prepare you for what awaits you on the trail. Dreams are fulfilled and dreams are shattered, sometimes in the same day.


Being a life-long hiker and camper, I was raised to explore and respect the outdoors. Many woodsy visits fill my travel journal and nothing quite describes the glory of getting ‘lost’ within the sights, sounds, smells and souls of the trail. However, as beautiful as the boonies are, Madre Tierra can turn ugly and has little cause to treat you gently if she doesn’t feel like it. In a heartbeat, she will chew you up and spit you out like a plug of Red Man Chew if you’re not careful and prepared.

For my trek, it turns out that with Momma Natures’ occasional lack of humor and a few newbie mistakes, I found myself learning (and relearning) valuable lessons that will stick with me like a tick in New Jersey.

  • Lower mileage – With the vision of Katahdin dancing in my head, I headed along the C&O towpath outside of Harpers Ferry with unreasonable mileage for the early stages of the hike. The phrases ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’, ‘Slow and steady wins the race’ and ‘Patience, grasshopper’ will be my next tattoo purchases to remind me to chill out.
  • Drink more water- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I’m mean, really.
  • Eat!- ‘Why stop for lunch when I can get to my sleeping bag that much quicker’? You can’t pour from an empty cup. I’ll make a note of it.
  • ZZZZZ- People snore. Most nights I found myself in a shelter fighting the cacophony of the A.T. Snore Choir on it’s summer tour. Even though I held a conductor’s position in the middle of the ensemble, none of them followed my gestures to decrescendo. Camping at a shelter is never considered antisocial.
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away- You’re outside. It will rain. A lot. The first two weeks saw me  splashing along the trail like a puppy in a puddle. My 3 oz. rain jacket and 4 oz. pack cover went a long way to keep things dry but my boots acted like a sieve. Never underestimate the power of dry socks.
  • Life Lesson- I’m around 5’2″ but only if i’m feeling ‘sassy’ that day. The trail name ‘Too Damn Short’ seems apropos even though it’s more a statement of fact rather than a name. Regardless, stream crossings are inevitable on the trail and as I approached my first one, conveniently placed rocks appeared to make the dance upon the waters a no-brainier. Within 2 hops the distances between them were obviously calculated for hikers with much longer gams than mine and I hiked the rest of the day with one wet boot. Don’t walk in the footprints of others, make your own.

Luckily, for even the uber light hiker, a ton of experience weighs nothing at all and that means I’m going to need bigger pockets.





Perhaps the biggest question I’m asked about the trail besides ‘Where do you go to the bathroom’ is: Why?

It’s a fair question. I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know’.


Hiking in Glacier National Park, USA

Loads of hikers have a reason to thru-hike the AT and some do not. For me, right now, it’s ok not to have a formal reason. Sometimes the reason comes at the trail head, in the middle of that boulder field, the end of those 5 million footsteps or not at all.

Escaping past trauma, pain or injuries are a common thread among hikers. Some cite enrichment, personal growth or searching for something as a popular goal.

I suppose if I had to attach my hike to something, it would be a combination of all of these.

My first camping trip was when I was 6 weeks old and from that very young age, I was taught by my parents to respect the outdoors for its beauty, ruggedness, tranquility and its ‘teachable moments’. Both national and state parks were always on our summer vacation list and we could often be found camping, hiking, fishing and attending nature programs as well as shooing away an endless amount of mosquitos. Even though we’d abandoned a trip or two due to blood loss from these suckers, it never spoiled the love of the outdoors for me.


Hiking in Machu Pichu, Cuzco, Peru

Even if the purpose for my thru hike is unclear at this point, I know whatever happens, this will be the trek of a lifetime. Even with the physical and emotional aches and pains, remaining open to all that the trail has to offer is what it’s about.

To me, the trail represents a life encapsulated into 6 months. Ups, downs, sprained ankles, big muscles, happy days, hard days, new friends and foes. Knowing when to push your body and mind and when to take that ‘zero’ day.

It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to laugh and enjoying the views are their own reward even though you know there will be other rough times ahead. Think of your family, think of your friends, contemplate how you got to this moment in time.  Question where you are, question where you’re going or clear your mind altogether. There is no wrong way to ‘hike your own hike’.


Somewhere in Alaska

A friend of mine in Mexico mentioned the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Spain. It’s a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and merge together at the tomb of St. James Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. He said ‘I would hike that as a christian pilgrimage, but I don’t know why you’re hiking’. I laughed and said, ‘José Louis, neither do I’.

One thing is crystal to me, though. I’d be a fool not to try and find out.


Weight, Weight… don’t tell me.


It’s one of the first utterances we hear as we enter the world: ’6 lbs. 4 oz’. Or, in the case of my son, Jason, ’9 lbs!’ Rejoicing to have that chunky monkey off my bladder was sweet and no small miracle. Now, 26 years later, I seem to be reliving the preoccupation of how much ‘extra’ weight I’m purposely putting on my body.


The life of a backpacker extends the concept of weight to almost obsessive proportions as the never-ending quest for the lightest hike possible churns on in our hearts and souls, day and night.

Charles Lindbergh was so dedicated to the subtraction of weight that in preparation for his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927, he went so far as to cut his maps down to include only those reference points he would need and wrote notes between the lines of his journal to save the weight of extra paper. Every ounce mattered.


Likewise, to an ultralight backpacker it seems as if ‘Lucky Lindy’ was not so crazy. Putting your entire world on your back for any length of time is certainly a challenge (and insane behavior to many) but one that offers the ability to wend through forests, mountain tops and valleys with a freedom and joy only known by the long-distance hiker.

Researching gear for a thru-hike is like the ultimate lesson in ‘less is more’. Sleeping bags with ultra small zipper pulls, sawing off the handle of your toothbrush, taking the cardboard tube out of your toilet paper roll and cutting the tags out of your clothing are methods I’ve come across while learning the ‘ropes’ of ultralight backpacking. And when I say ‘rope’, I mean 50 ft. of 3mm Zing-It paracord that weighs .5 oz, of course.


I’ve always been a big fan of not accumulating a lot of ‘stuff’ to make things easier in my life but I’m still learning that our emotional backpack can deter the joys in our lives as well. Doing a ‘shakedown’ of our packs can help shed those unwanted and often unnecessary items. Carrying a backpack too heavy can cause plenty of problems:

* Slow, tedious hiking
* Exhaustion, irritability, and low spirits on the trail
* Increased chance of injury–sore back, sprained ankles, blown knees, sore muscles, bruised and blistered feet, sore hips and shoulders.
* Increased risk of poor foot placement and falls.
* The need for heavy boots (to support heavy loads)
* Tired, angry people who make bad decisions, sometimes with serious consequences
* Long hiking times that mean less time for the fun stuff
* Exhaustion upon arrival at camp for the night

Putting this in the context of life’s journey can make all the difference. A cardinal rule of backpacking is that if you carry the weight of your pack on your shoulders, there’s a problem. Instead, get a proper-fitting pack that puts the weight on your hips where the weight is appropriately distributed for easier mobility and a more enjoyable hike.


So, as they say: Lighten Up! Put that weight were it belongs and hike on!

The journey is too fine to make it more difficult than it is.

Donde esta el Inodoro? (Where is the Toilet?)


Ok. So. I’ve been doing an insane amount of reading in prep for my thru-hike on the AT next year. Like many things, it’s a true ‘rabbit hole’ of information; maps, weather, gear, resupply, day trips, shuttle runs, water filtration, on and on and on…

One of the biggest topics of trail talk is the potty issue. Style and technique is hotly debated among women AND men but it all boils down to this: Does a hiker sh*t in the woods? Yes.

During the seemingly infinite planning of the structure and up keep of the 2,200 mile trail, someone forgot to include the idea of the ‘elimination station’. While most established campgrounds provide toilets of some sort and shelters may have a compost toilet, the majority of the trail for the average thru-hike is absent of those porcelain gods.
humanWaste-300x190This leaves the only alternative and that’s the cat hole concept. The thought of dropping trou in an area filled with passers by, wildlife and little critters may not be everyone’s cup-a-joe, but it is a reality of hiker life. Like the book says, ‘Everyone Poops‘. To get in the right mindset, it helps to adopt the hiker mentality of ‘let it all hang out’. that comes in very handy in these rather ,*sigh*, crappy situations.


The back side of the topic is: Paper? No paper? Drip dry? imagesPee rag? (i’ll let you google that one). While it is certainly a matter of personal preference, serious hikers adhere to the ‘Leave No Trace‘ pop protocol principles and pack out what they pack in and that includes the paper. Hey, nothing is perfect.


Due to, eh hem, logistics, women’s ability to urinate to relieve themselves poses a special acrobatic style of positioning. Even the seasoned hiker has had an accident a time or two and ended up trekking through the forest with damp drawers. There are a few devices that enable a female to eliminate man style and while these may be an oogey topic of conversation, women hikers are not afraid to get into the nitty gritty of the process and most swear by them. Bottom line (pun intended): You’ve simply got to ‘go with the flow’

Gotta go…

The ‘Bucket List’

What’s on your ‘Bucket List’? We’ve heard the term many times before and there’s even a bucketlistmovie about the subject. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play two terminally ill patients who escape from their hospital cancer ward to experience a to-do list before they die. The glory in all of this is that we don’t have to wait until we’re terminally ill to have, or do, a bucket list.

In 2010, MTV produced a program called ‘The Buried Life‘ that featured a quartet of twenty-somethings who created a list of 100 items they wanted to accomplish before they died. As dedicated martini drinkers will tell you, everything is better with a twist and this show had a lovely one: For every act they crossed off their list, they had to help a stranger accomplish something that was on their dream list.

How do you make a bucket list?

list.2Take 30 minutes out of your day and sit with your trusty Word Doc, or paper and pen if you’re old school, and create a list of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to experience before you die. Your list length is completely up to you. If you have only one thing, go with it. If you have 1,000, you’d better get started! Be silly, be serious but be sincere.

Want to travel? Volunteer? Learn a new language? Go for a hot air ballon ride? Write that down…

Something on my bucket list, you ask? A Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail.

New Year? New You? Not always.


imagesWith a hand full of days until Christmas, the pressure is on. As people dash to make last-minute purchases, get those greeting cards out before the big day and (not so) anxiously anticipate Aunt Harriet’s yearly fruit cake, there is an even more daunting task looming… The New Year’s Resolution.


With millions of New Year’s resolutions claimed every 31 Dec/1 Jan of every year, the origins of the practice date back to Medieval times, the Romans and even the Babylonian empires. The resolution concept can often be thought of as secular, however there are similar practices of reflecting upon wrong-doings during the year and seeking and offering forgiveness during the Jewish seasons of Rosh Hashanah, High Holidays and Yom Kippur as well as the Roman Catholic season of Lent.

So, why do we make resolutions?

* We take advantage of the popular opportunity to start from scratch as we look back on the past year and strive for something better.
* There is never a bad time for self improvement. Improvement is improvement, right?
* It sparks hope.
* Tradition!
* This saying:








Why do we fail?

* We set unrealistic goals and time frames for
* There is lack of a workable plan.
* Often people don’t allow mistakes. You are human. You will err, you will learn and you will continue.
* Many don’t team up with a friend or family member for encouragement. The idiom ‘There is safety in numbers’ fits perfectly here.
* Resolutions often mean a change in life style and behaviors, sometimes very large behaviors. Being truly honest with yourself can be extremely difficult at times. Often people aren’t ready or willing to make those stressful observations.

What’s an improved plan?
images-2* Be realistic in your goals. No more resolving you’ll run a marathon in 3 months. Take your time and make small changes.
* Create a plan and stick with it. Impulsive resolutions are often disastrous. Address problems and setbacks, track your progress and praise yourself (even if it’s getting out of bed in the morning).
* Give yourself a break. No one is perfect and no one should try to be.
* Put the song, ‘Lean on Me’ on your play list. Invite your friends, family or even the dog to join you in making changes. We’re all in this together and encouraging others will rub off on you!
* Honestly is the best policy. Examine the reasons you have created poor or harmful habits for yourself. Identifying the root of bad habits and knowing what needs to change can turn them into strengths.

We often hear friends, family and neighbors state they don’t believe in or make resolutions around the New Year or ever. Of course, with everything, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and path in life. But, here’s something to consider: think about making a resolution at other times of the year. It’s never a bad day to make a good change. Break the thought that 1 January is the only (or best) time of year to start a new chapter. Making a personal choice such as this may be better served on June 15th or October 4th or your birthday or anniversary (provided they don’t fall around the December/January mark) without the added stress of the holiday hubbub.

Above all, remember to be kind to yourself. Relax and drink some tea, go for a walk, meditate, pray or indulge in a slice of Aunt Harriet’s fruit cake. Happy New Year!