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.

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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.

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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.
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Why?

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’.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

 

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.