It’s All About the Journey: The Long Drive South – Part II

After we left Maine and really New England in general, the highway driving changed a good deal. We recalled that the interstates were really built for commerce—so that tractor trailers could move goods. Most of the highways were two lanes wide, with sometimes passing lanes on hills. Often we were one of the few cars on the road. It wasn’t unusual to be boxed in by trucks. The trucks generally drove really well. But it could be a bit unnerving. Some of the trucks were tandem tractor trailers, so that made driving even more interesting.

We noticed other things in our driving. Maine has a billboard law. Many of the states in our travels did not. That billboard law really does a good job of preserving some of the natural beauty of the land. Maine (and apparently many New England states) must also have a law against adult entertainment stores. We had them in Michigan and North Dakota. But I don’t recall seeing them in Maine or New England. Perhaps that hearkens back to the blue laws and puritanical standards. But with the Internet, I wondered why people would need such stores.

After Pennsylvania, we were in Maryland and then West Virginia for a very short time. We did see a sign for Harper’s Ferry and gave a shout out to ATC and to Pete Roe. But we plugged on. Finally, we entered Virginia and after a bit, came to our destination for the night: Troutville, Virginia. They had been so nice before we even arrived. I had forgotten to cancel one of my nights staying there. They called me on the night of March 16 at around 10 p.m., asking if I would still be arriving. I was appalled that I had forgotten to contact them. I apologized profusely. Since they have a 6 p.m. cancelation policy, they could have easily charged me for the night of March 16. But they did not do so.

I got an education at Troutville. They are experiencing some construction, so actually getting to them was a bit of a trick. I don’t always think of Virginia as the real South, but it clearly is. The woman who called to check on us on March 16 and the woman who checked us in sounded very southern. And she described the extensive breakfast offerings, including sausage gravy and biscuits—true southern fare. It was raining in Troutville. The weather for our trip had not been fantastic—drizzly and cool, but no snow or ice. Our room had an outside entrance, but we were able to unload without too much trouble. The next day was to be a pretty short day—only about five hours to Dahlonega. When I had talked with Sean that Monday, he had suggested that Saint and I stop by on our way to Dahlonega. We debated whether to stay in Troutville for two nights. The room was very reasonable. The room at Dahlonega was much costlier. But we thought that it was probably wise to try to arrive on Saturday and then have that night to rest and catch our breath before meeting up with the rest of our team on Sunday.

Sean had suggested that we stop by to see him on our way to Dahlonega. He said that he was only about 90 minutes from there. So we decided to go slightly out of our way to visit briefly. We started off on Saturday morning in drizzle and 40s. But the weather improved as we went. We drove more in Virginia, then North Carolina then into South Carolina. We got to Sean’s in the early afternoon.

Sean welcomed us cordially. He had met with the Clemson kids that morning to go over information. He wanted to welcome us to his house, but had underestimated how inaccessible it was. It looks like a lovely colonial—with lots of steps. He had some skate board jumps that he got out of the garage, but they were much too steep. He had no planks and couldn’t borrow anything appropriate. So we sat outside for a visit. Saint and I both had some water. We met more of Sean’s family, too. We met his youngest son, Nate, who was going to go with us for three days of the hike. Nate is 15 and quite fit. He and Sean have done a lot in Boy Scouts together. They spent a couple of weeks this past summer doing an extensive hike in New Mexico. I’m not sure why Nate wanted to take part, but he was game. It would be a challenging environment for him, since the next youngest person would be 19 going on 20 and a college student.

We met Sean’s wife, Heidi, who had been napping, but came out on the steps to see us. And we met their dog, who is a Catahoula Leopard Dog. We stayed for a couple of hours, learning a bit more about Sean and Heidi’s backgrounds. They both grew up in Utah. Heidi works from home. The house is close to a lake—the one on which the movie “Deliverance” was filmed. That’s a movie in which some mountain men kidnap a group floating down a river in the south and abuse them. Probably just as well not to share that fact with the folks at home who were already worried about Saint and me.

The trip from Sean’s to Dahlonega was supposed to take a couple of hours. One thing that we were learning about the South was that almost any paved two lane road was called a highway. So we went on a lot of “highways” to Dahlonega—but no interstates. I still use my Garmin, much to Sharon’s chagrin. She much prefers Google maps on her iPhone. I should have listened to her. Garmin took us down something called “Sandy Bottom Road.” They weren’t kidding when they called it “sandy bottom”: it isn’t paved. Yet Garmin expected us to go 30 mph. No way. Then we came to a one-lane bridge. I was beginning to wonder what kind of place Dahlonega could be. But it’s a good-sized place with a number of hotels/motels, restaurants, shopping. It’s quite a tourist draw. It claims to be the site of the first gold rush in the United States.

We were happy to find the Holiday Inn Express, on a hillside. The weather was cool and very windy. We were also happy to check and find that our room was still reserved (some were being turned away). We asked if we could leave our van there while we hiked. The lady at the desk said that that was fine but the Holiday Inn would not be responsible.

The inn itself was overrun by hikers. There were a lot of young people, particularly young men, clad in hiking clothes. Saint and I did not exactly fit the stereotype. We wondered if people would be surprised that we are hikers.

When we went outside to get a load from the car, we heard someone call “hello.” Although I couldn’t imagine that we would know anyone there, we turned instinctively. There was Miss Janet, a lady whom we had met at the ALDHA Gathering. Miss Janet takes care of hikers—shuttles them from place to place, feeds them at a hostel, is a trail angel and does some trail magic. She asked if she had not met me at ALDHA. I said yes. She asked if we were preparing to start our hike and again I said yes. She asked if Hopper and Honey and Bear were around. I said that I expected them tomorrow. She said that Honey and Bear had been around for a while. She had been up to Springer recently and had just missed them doing some trail magic. She asked if they were staying at the campground and I said that I thought so.

I told Miss Janet that we were to meet our first hiking group, a team from Clemson, the next day. I told her that we did not have a team lined up right away for after that. She said that she had some ideas for that. She said that she would like to be there when we started out. She said that she had a friend who cannot walk whom people got through Georgia last year.

It was nice to see someone so supportive and nice. She didn’t manage to catch up with us for the start of the trail. When I mentioned seeing her to Hopper, Hopper said that Miss Janet probably wound up tending some hikers—that’s what always happens.

In our next blog I’ll talk about meeting Honey, Bear, Hopper’s in-laws and the Clemson Crew; pack shakedowns; and our exciting first week on the trail. So please check back and in the meantime, please remember that It’s All About the Journey.

It’s All About the Journey: The Long Drive South – Part I

For some time, we’d planned to leave Maine on Wednesday, March 15. I wanted to be well on our way for my birthday, which is March 16. By leaving on Wednesday, it would give me the chance to have one last class meeting with my students (all my classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays). So we packed up as much as we could ahead of time and tried to shepherd our students through everything on Monday and Tuesday, March 13 and 14. But we didn’t completely count on Mother Nature. A robust NorEaster hit late Tuesday and raged through the night and into Wednesday.

My sister, Sharon, was very concerned that me being me, I’d try to head out very early on Wednesday, regardless. She pointed out that starting with an accident would not be auspicious. I’m determined but not completely foolhardy. So I decided to hedge my bets. I had scheduled an appointment for my van, Miracle, for first thing on Wednesday, March 15. But in case I couldn’t get out on time, I also scheduled time on Thursday, March 16. I had planned to break my drive south down into three stops. The first was to be close to Sharon for two nights. The next was to be in Troutville, VA, close to Roanoke. And the final stop was to be in Dahlonega, GA, the closest good-sized town to the start of the AT at Springer Mountain. To further hedge my bets, I made a reservation for the night of March 15 in Augusta. I figured that if the weather was bad in the morning but cleared, we could drive down to Augusta in the afternoon, stay the night, then go on to Gray and get Miracle fixed first thing.

So that’s what happened. We stayed late at school on Tuesday night but got out before the driving was truly terrible. Then we went home and finished getting ready and packing. By mid-morning, the snow was abating and roads were becoming clear. We left between noon and 1 p.m. It was a strange feeling leaving home for what could be a long time. We had a good support team in place: my friends Kim-Anne Perkins, Deb Roark, and Ann Osgood for sending me supplies, looking after the mail, getting bills paid, etc.; and Jason Thompson and his crew to look after the house itself. So we knew that it would be OK. But we’d never been away from home for so long before. And we were headed off for a pile of uncertainty, to say the least. So we had very mixed feelings driving off that day.

The roads were in really good shape by this time and we made excellent time to Augusta. We arrived before dark. We weren’t able to park in our usual spot that gives good access to the front door because the Quality Evergreen had not shoveled the striping beside the accessible parking spot. But we battled with the non-automatic door on the back and managed to get settled. Because I was traveling for a nonprofit, the Quality Evergreen gave us a good rate. And now a refrigerator and microwave come standard in every room, so we were able to heat something for supper.

The car was packed to the roof. Deb Roark had been out to the house the previous Saturday, taking down the cot and packing it up along with the air mattress and other camping things. We got a lot of the camping things into a big cardboard box that we put on the front passenger seat. Al had crammed the hiking wheelchair into the space that forms an L in the back of the van. He came out to the house on Tuesday night to put in other things such as the Jac Pack. (He was staying at UMPI on Tuesday night so that he could be there early to do plowing.) As we traveled, we didn’t take out anything from the front passenger side or from the alcove in the back of the van. All along the way we tried to limit our trips at night to two or three, taking in the suitcase, the duffle bag, the computer and some food (cold and packaged). So we settled in and got ready for a big next day.

We packed up on Thursday, March 16, and got to Mobility Works just as it was opening. I was apologetic that I hadn’t called to say that we wouldn’t arrive until Thursday but Barry said that that was OK—they hadn’t even been open on Wednesday. (Good thing that we didn’t push to get down then.) We weren’t stopping for our regular servicing but because we had tried to swap the passenger seat into the driver’s position and couldn’t quite get it to lock into place. We had tried this when Teri had visited last and Al had come by with our adaptive gear to try. Al is so clever and versatile, it was hard to believe that he couldn’t make the seat lock in—but he could not. We hadn’t swopped the seat in a long time. We thought that it would be necessary to swop the seat during the ATA because we wanted to make it possible for other people to be able to drive Miracle.

They took Miracle right in. It took a bit of time to fix the seat. They had to move some parts. I asked the mechanic why that was necessary, since we had been able to move the seat in past years. He said that the seat snapped in fine on the passenger side but that in time, the weight of the wheelchair on the driver’s side had made the floor less tight. He also showed me a few tricks to get the seat locked into place. He showed me the strongest part of the seat—part of the metal frame. It’s fine to push down on that but not on the plastic, which is pretty fragile.

We were able to head out in late morning on our way to Sharon’s. We were also in conversation with Kim-Anne about trying to get some of the UMPI students to come south and hike with us. The UMPI spring break was the last week in March—about the latest of any college or university. That didn’t work out because the distance was just too great—none of the students could afford the long trip down.

We got to the Residence Inn in Avon around 3, so we could check in. Sharon was tending her dogs and came along shortly thereafter. I was getting settled. She came in and we talked for a bit to catch up. I had planned to arrive on March 15 and have a longer visit with her and also see Babe and Jo. The best laid plans…. S said that she had the ramps up for her house and that she had had her plow people shovel. She had also had help from a neighbor and her son who was home from college. So I could have gone to her house and gotten in. She had some food for me that was left from New Year’s. I pointed out that it was my birthday, which she had forgotten. So we decided to go out to Abigail’s. As she said, each time that I visit she thinks that it will be her last time to go there. We had a nice dinner and a good chance to talk. She’s having a very challenging time getting through all of the paperwork in the aftermath of Garrett’s death. And going through everything in the house seems endless. The house is so big and had so much space. So she saved everything—every paper that Megan ever produced, for example. Everything has memories and takes time. She would like to get out the house and move closer to Megan. She said that there is really nothing that ties her to the Hartford area and she never really liked it. But she can’t go without getting things much more settled.

We were up much later than I thought that we would be, talking. And I wanted to get up and on the road early to avoid traffic around major cities such as NYC and Washington, D. C. We were so impressed that Sharon dragged herself out of bed to come see us off. Parting was a bit hard. We were going off into uncertainty. And she was left sorting through memories and with so much difficulty.

Friday was March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. We wondered if there would be a lot of extra traffic around the big cities because of that and because it was the start of a weekend. This was the day that we drove through the most states.

We started out in Connecticut, then moved on to New York. There was a lot of traffic, but it moved along steadily. We were on a lot of parkways. Many of them did not allow big trucks. Although we went close to the city, we certainly didn’t go through it. We also didn’t cross the George Washington Bridge. We took the Tappan Zee into New Jersey.

As a child, I’m sure that we drove through New Jersey. Dad had taken on us trips, sometimes driving us out to Utah. But I didn’t remember anything about it. New Jersey is often the butt of jokes—perhaps because it’s like a step-sibling of New York. So we didn’t know what to expect. But during our limited time passing through, it seemed quite nice.

After New Jersey we drove into Pennsylvania. We were going to be traveling through there for quite some time. I knew that we must be in Pennsylvania, because we had barely crossed the border when we came upon a Waffle House. One of my students this semester, when we did the rural development exercise about what would be their ideal business for Aroostook County, answered without hesitation that it would be a Waffle House because the closest one was in Pennsylvania. And so it was.

Pennsylvania was really lovely. We went by signs for larger cities, but mainly were driving through the western part of the state and farm country. I would have liked to stop periodically to take photos, but this was to be our longest driving day and I didn’t know how bad the traffic would be in Virginia. So other than stopping to get gas or for a short break, we pressed on.

Reflection: Adventures of Goldmember

Guest written by Jimmy Knott, AT Hike Volunteer

When I was thinking about being prepared for the trail, I had numerous things going through my head. I thought about enjoying my spring break, how much relaxation I was going to lose, and what the possibilities of not enjoying were that could happen. When I got on the road on Sunday, I wasn’t nervous, and I felt like I had been doing stuff like this my whole college career. With the ROTC background, it didn’t seem like it would make me nervous or want to try and find a way out. I was getting more excited to be on the trail and get going and be back home as soon as possible. When we distributed the stuff, I didn’t think anything about it because it’s normal to have stuff that isn’t yours in your bag because it’s helping the team more than yourself to be successful. Once we started setting up for sleep, I felt like it would be hard to connect with the group because I set my stuff on my own and had my military precautions going through me, preparing for the worst and making sure I was ready for anything; even when I was sleeping I never dared to turn on my bright light and used my red lens because I was used to having light discipline.

Once we got through the first night, it was freezing cold to get through and I tried to keep on every layer I had that we took out from the first night. I felt like being the first one up because I wanted to be ready and not have any possibility of being late. With Sean’s guidance throughout the entire trip, it seemed that at times I would either get annoyed with some of the precautions he gave me because I get told one thing, and a minute later, the whole plan changes and makes me question what the right thing to do is from his guidance. Somehow, it felt like he and his son, at times, were the better equals, even though they had more experience than us. The rest of the group felt unwelcome because they did not have the experience of living in the wilderness for a couple of days. Where I did not take part in Boy Scouts, I still had that outside experience of working with the team and it did not make me sway from making sure I was doing the best I can.

When we woke up and got ready to go up Springer Mountain, we kept the air cold in the car to get our bodies used to the air in the AT so we weren’t in a shock later on at night. When we got set, it still seemed that we weren’t together as a group yet until we understood how to carry Dr. J and figured out how to ask for each other’s help. When we got up Springer Mountain, we had a hard time figuring out how it works because it was our first time, and the view at Springer made it better to start cooperating with each other. Once we got down, it was much faster and more cooperating with each other. Once we had a meal and got to Three Forks, we started embracing our “trail names” that we made for each other, because we learned that Hopper got her name from one of her mentors along the trail. My name was “Goldmember” because when we got to Three Forks, we set up our tents, and when I was helping with a bear bag, my pants ripped from the crotch all the way to the back of my shorts, and I tried to fix them with gold ducktape and got called “Goldmember.” Late at night, the college students got more competitive with each other because one of them did not know a meme called “cash me outside” and we laughed so hard about it.

Throughout the week, we would get a ride and the college kids rode on the back of the tailgate. We stopped halfway to pick up trail magic, and when they tried to leave, Philip almost fell out, and I had to tell them to stop. It was very funny because we almost were gonna fall out part of the time, but we still enjoyed being on there. Every night after that was warmer and not as bad as the first night. On Tuesday, however, we got rained on before we could get to a shelter for a bit, and we were worried of getting rained on after we got to the shelter at night. Once we got set up and about to sleep, it rained and it hailed on us at night. We were so worried throughout the entire time. By the time 9:30 rolled around, we gave up and passed out sleeping and it got better throughout the night. When we got to the third day, we had multiple people help us get through the trail and we got to Woody’s Gap where we saw a bus that was made by two buses, and we got some trail magic from them too. The bus looked like a pirate ship. When we left, we got told by Hopper that there’s a rumor that went around that they had a cult and would have people come with them and brainwash them to work on their garden. It was crazy to hear from a knowledgeable person.

On Thursday, we were all hurting: it was a struggle to keep morale high, people’s feet was starting to get hurt, and even Hopper’s knee was bothering her. Midway, we realized we were going completely slower than making 16 miles within 3 days near the end, so Sean and Hopper made the decision that we were gonna be done, after 4 days and 31 miles for the week. This was more than what the people who started with Jacqui did–Katahdin in 3 days. Once we started heading out, we had one more night of recreational time and we had a great time, we were smiling, morale came back to life, and we were doing completely better than when we started. We were all comfortable with each other, we felt like we knew each other for years, and I couldn’t have gotten through that without those guys.

So after we started eating real food, and starting to head back to civilization, I was happy that I went on the trip, because I made these great friends, did a great thing for an amazing person. I got to learn that you do not have to be born perfectly to be successful and happy with your life. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in communication and lived her life’s dream of trying to hike the Appalachian Trail. All she had to do was ask for help from a few college kids who gave up their spring break for something special. I love everyone who I accompanied on this trip, and looking back, I would go back every single time. I’ll possibly do it in June with the crew again.

Reflection: I Would Do It Again in a Heartbeat

Guest written by Philip Gee, AT Hike Volunteer

Honestly, I decided to go on this trip on a whim. It was the last day to sign up and I decided that the trips’ uniqueness intrigued me and was something that differed severely from the usual college spring break. I love the outdoors, camping and always found the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail appealing, but without gear or experience the idea was exactly that, just an idea. This trip not only taught me how to survive the trail, but more importantly how valuable teamwork is and how much I can accomplish when I dedicate myself to something bigger than me.

Coming into this experience I was filled with excitement and a little bit of anxiety as to whether I could actually do this. The first night did nothing to inspire confidence in myself as I laid in my hammock (incorrectly) in freezing temperatures, unable to sleep and with self-doubt circulating in my head. I will admit that it was comforting to find out that the rest of the group had a similar experience that night. With my mental and physical toughness tested the first night I was definitely more worried for the actual hiking and carrying aspect of the trip. Fortunately, things started to feel right when the sensation in my feet came back to me and the group successfully carried Jacqui up Springer Mountain.

Getting to know the other students (Jimmy (Gold Member), Lindsay (Screech), and Brad (3B)) on this trip was hugely beneficial and I fully expect to be friends with these people for life. I mention them in my personal reflection not only because this trip would be impossible without a strong team but also because I realized that a lot of them came on this trip for personal reasons and to figure out things on the trail. This is something I was not originally considering, but figuring things out about myself and my life happened regardless due to the extreme nature of this trip that stretches people to their limits. The trip exceeded my expectations in this way and I am very grateful for things that getting involved in BEYOND LIMITS taught me about myself. On a less serious note, I figured out that I will be a lifelong hiker and have developed new goals for myself of finishing the Appalachian Trail and many other trails!

I would do this trip over again in a heartbeat and am hopeful that I will have the opportunity to assist Jacqui on a later portion of the trail when I get out of school!

Reflection: Beyond Our Pain

AT Hike Southbound toward Springer

Guest written by Brad Bradley, AT Hike Volunteer

Many Appalachian Trail hikers decide to hike the trail under the influence of different circumstances. Some do it out of unhappiness with their job or relationship and others use the time as a way to find their inner self. Jacqui may have her own internal reasons for wanting to hike the trail, but her overall mission is clear; to push others beyond what they thought they could do. It is possible that some people see Jacqui’s vision as selfish in that she relies on other people to carry her from place to place. Those people do not know Jacqui.

I spent four days on the trail with Jacqui. This may seem like hardly enough time to know someone in and out, but because of our circumstances it was easier than expected. She is the bravest person I’ve ever met. Each step of our journey was one step away from a fall that could have been dangerous for her. She was completely reliant upon us to carry her from one point to another, and she did this with grace and trust.

Our group consisted of just five carriers. This included four Clemson University students (myself, Philip, Jimmy, and Lindsay). It also included a professor from our school by the name of Sean. We did not know each other by anything more than a few meetings prior to the trip. The number of carriers was not ideal. We carried all of our own gear and Jacqui’s gear in just four backpacks. A modified harness was used to carry Jacqui on our backs in ten minute intervals and we immediately carried one of the overstuffed backpacks whenever we weren’t carrying Jacqui. This meant no time off from large amounts of weight on our backs, something that most of us were not used to. We also had another volunteer, Hopper, who carried some of Jacqui’s gear and served as our expert trail guide. She knows more about the trail and has hiked more miles than I could ever imagine. She was an amazing and interesting person to learn about.

Personally, I knew one minute into my first ten minute carry that I was not ready for the physical challenges ahead of me. This may have been obvious to Jacqui, but she encouraged me the entire time. Her voice was soothing and helped to take focus away from the immense pain that my body was already enduring. We started at the beginning of the AT in Springer Mountain, GA. We “slackpacked” our first few miles up and back down Springer. This definitely made things a little easier. Once back down we readied our packs and made our way down the trail. The first day was not easy for me. Seeing the first campground was a relief, and I slept with ease.

Day two started with some help. A hiker by the name of Smooth volunteered as our first carrier of the day. We had several volunteers along the way and we gladly accepted any help we could get. The second day was more difficult for me than the first. After a few miles of hiking we “yellow blazed” or hitchhiked a couple miles down the trail in order to keep our hike on schedule. Honey and Bear, two hostel owners from Maine and friends of Hopper, had come down to assist us with our hike. They met us every day at a road crossing with food and a potential ride when we needed it, and on this day we did need it. They took us to the next road crossing and we hiked backwards a long mile to the next shelter. I was either very tired at this point or unable to track distance because this “mile” seemed more like two or three. A storm was rolling in and we felt rain droplets and electricity in the air. We had heard that hailstorms were possible. We set up camp in a secluded area typically unused by hikers. One of the AT ridge runners had shown us this spot as a courtesy to give us enough space since the shelter was full. We set up camp hurriedly as the storm approached. Around 9pm, the other three students and I were huddled under a rainfly playing cards. The rain began to pour down and we soon looked out to see dime sized hail scattering the ground. Lightning and thunder crackled around us. The rain was coming sideways and soaking our hammocks. It was a wet night, but the exhaustion of the day had caught up to me, and despite my fear of lightning, I woke up refreshed at 6:30am, glad to have slept through most of the storm.

By day three, my body was in pain from my shoulders to my toes. Most of us had begun to eat ibuprofen as if it were candy. I began doubting my ability to carry Jacqui, but as each 10 minute interval approached, I took my turn, as did everyone else. My leg muscles were on fire the entire day. I could feel muscles I’d never felt before. Even so, we kept going. Honey and Bear met us at a road crossing around lunch time. We ate and then had our first “foot check”. Not all of us had escaped without minor foot injuries. Mine included a split right middle toe, which was superglued on the spot, and an ominous blood blister on my right heel that would continue to grow. The foot pains had previously been masked by my leg pain, but now that I was aware of them it was much more difficult to ignore. Each step elicited sharp pains from my right foot. Luckily, Honey and Bear were there to help us yellow blaze past some of the more difficult mountains. After climbing another small mountain, we made our way comfortably into camp that evening.

Most of us woke up the next morning with the relief of knowing that we were halfway done with our week long hike. We didn’t know that this would be our last day on the trail, nor did we ask for it to be. We hiked a few miles that chilly morning. Along the way we took some photos at a few scenic spots atop a mountain. Our last mile or two was coming down a mountain with many switchbacks. An older man in front of us with a different group had fallen while experiencing vertigo. He was slowly being helped down. It was the only time that our group passed anyone on the trail. Typically, we were much slower than solo hikers or other groups. Because of the steepness and narrowness of this descent, our 10 minute carries often exceeded 13 to 15 minutes until we could find flat ground to switch carriers. Two or three minutes extra was much more difficult than one would expect. My legs were shaking by time we were halfway down. I was fearful that if I put too much weight on either one of my legs that it would give out under the pressure. Still, we made it down. Honey and Bear met us once more. I ate what they had to offer and sat on the ground, totally exhausted. Sean, Jacqui, and Hopper discussed what to do next. Clearly, most of us were in pain, and fear of further injury was apparent. Our water was low and the next source was too far away. We reluctantly decided to end our hike here. This was associated with some relief as well. Personally, I was not sure how much further my body would go. I had gone beyond my limits on the first day, and by day four it had more than caught up with me.

On reflection of our trip, I have decided to term it a successful failure, in that we did not hike the distance or days that we had hoped but that we had done more than many people thought we were capable of doing. I lean heavily toward the “success” half of that term. I am proud of what we accomplished. We persevered through each day despite our pain, and beyond that pain we found friendship and commonality among ourselves, despite age differences, background, or ability. I found that my personal limits were only defined by my own self-doubt, and I have peace knowing that I’ve overcome it.

Thank you, Jacqui, for letting me carry you.

I hope that many others will come along to do the same.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels with Dr. J. and Saint

Katahdin Expedition

I wanted to start our blogging by talking about the Journey to the Appalachian Trail. The Journey really began decades ago. As a young college student, I could still walk some. As a freshman, I walked on the trail a little bit. I told myself that I would go back “some day.” But a lot of life happened along the way. The physical challenges mounted. I didn’t pine for the Appalachian Trail. I pushed it into my subconscious and didn’t think about it at all. At least that’s what I thought. But it was always just below the surface, mostly focused on the northern end of the AT: Katahdin. But how could someone who couldn’t walk hike or climb? It was impossible, a waste of time and energy to think on. I loved teaching, my life was full and fulfilled, and I was happy and content.

Then in October 2012 I experienced a catastrophic bleed that nearly killed me. No one thought I would survive. I lost so much blood that I lost my ability to move or to speak. It was much harder to relearn how to speak than how to move. During the long rehab process, I had plenty of time to think. I had been given a rare gift: a second chance at life. Teaching alone was no longer enough. I had to pay it forward and backward. I was so extraordinarily lucky—I needed to share that luck, that gift. But how?

Part of my luck is that I get a lot of ideas. Some are fleeting. Others come, stay, and won’t let go until I act on them. I’ve become comfortable with this. I work with lots of students who struggle to communicate. They have lots of self-doubt. I was always telling them that nothing was impossible, that they can do anything that they set their minds to. But saying this was one thing. Now it was time to show it. That was the genesis of our starting the nonprofit BEYOND LIMITS: Awaken Your Potential. It’s an organization that believes that Challenge is an Opportunity to be Amazing, that it’s all about the Journey, that Nothing is Impossible, and that We’re Better Together.

In 2015 a group of us did what many said was impossible: a team including me (a person with paraplegia) summited Katahdin. It was a fantastic, transformational experience for everyone involved. People carried me physically. But in truth, we all carried one another and supported one another. This had such a profound impact that we knew that we needed to do something that could involve more people. And thus the BEYOND LIMITS Appalachian Trail Adventure was born.

We started planning in earnest in October 2015. It takes time for anyone to pull something of this magnitude together. And Saint and I had additional special needs and considerations. We were going to need to recruit teams along the way—to whom should we open this up and how? What should the criteria be? How should we select people? What was the “Right Stuff”? We needed people who were in adequate shape and health. Yet the most important attributes were mental. It took a while to compile position descriptions. We asked the group members who were involved in the Katahdin climb what they thought. They talked a lot about the need to be humble, open-minded, team oriented, have an even temperament and the posture of a learner, be eager to take part in something greater than oneself. When we were recruiting for Katahdin, Mike Smith said that people should want to participate even if no one would ever know that they in particular had done so. To a degree, people self-select. Largely, only the right type of person will want to become involved. This is no path to personal glory.

When we did Katahdin, we had rented a hiking wheelchair and Al Levesque modified/created a carrier. We never used the wheelchair: the ground was too difficult. The carrier worked fairly well but could have definitely used some improvements. The Sherpas were challenged to make it comfortable for them. My pelvis was badly bruised by the third day from the metal plate on the carrying harness into which the seat slid. So Al went back to the drawing board. Originally we thought that we would have help from other institutions. But that didn’t materialize. So Al designed and fabricated everything himself. He planned out his prototypes. He fashioned an improved carrier—dubbed the “Jac Pack”—and a special hiking wheelchair.

His hiking wheelchair is unlike anything on the market—it has independent wheel suspension, a shock absorber, brakes. The carrier far surpasses anything out there. And he built these in his woodworking shop, using what tools he had available—not at all the precision tools one would hope for. Then after he had the prototypes fashioned, he was open to feedback from my hiking partner, Hopper. He made a lot of adjustments to the carrier. He made it so that the seat for the carrier could also be the seat for the wheelchair. He made the wheelchair so that it could be broken down into 11 pieces so that it could be carried by multiple people hanging it onto their packs. We have learned so much through this development process.

The hike is about ability, not disability. It is about the triumph of the spirit and what’s possible when people come together. It will fulfill so many aspects. A huge piece is to make it possible for people who have been told “can’t” to get out and be able to do things. People don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail—either thru hike or section hike. Even an hour outside in a place that they never dreamed they’d be able to go is a victory. The equipment will also be very useful for search and rescue operations: everything from someone being injured on a hike to people needing to be evacuated from some sort of disaster.

We spent a lot of time on logistics. We knew that however much time we spent, it would all be subject to great chance. But for our own sakes as well as others, we had to demonstrate that this would be feasible. We came up with lots of scenarios, lots of gear options, lots of combinations. My students helped so much. They worked on aspects of this for class projects and on their own.

We reached out to lots of colleges and universities. I spent the summer of 2016 researching colleges and universities with academic recreation programs or active outing clubs. I sent out hundreds of emails. But many people are away in the summer: I got few responses. My students took a crack at it in the fall. They also had mixed success. It was hard and discouraging for them. They did an awesome job and truly stretched beyond their comfort zones. But it’s hard to market an idea. BEYOND LIMITS and the Appalachian Trail Adventure are much more about ideas than an actual hike. The hike is the hard thing that pulls people together. It’s not about gratifying someone with paraplegia. But that can be hard to explain.

The idea had been with me for so long, however. And it just would not let go. So although we had only a few teams lined up as D-Day approached, we were determined to embark and make it work by being flexible and open. We didn’t really realize that the drive south itself would be an adventure. But as Dad used to say, “With you, Jac, EVERYTHING is an adventure.” We’ll share that story in the next installment of our blog.

Don’t Say Can’t

 Last fall, Dr. J and Saint caught the attention of the Appalachian Long Hikers Association (ALDHA) when she spoke at the association’s annual gathering in Williamstown, Mass. last fall.

While in the midst of hundreds of A.T. hikers, she used the opportunity to spread her message and was quoted saying, “We’re doing this to bring a message of hope to so many.  The CAN’T that holds us back is not the physical but the voice inside our heads.  We want people to try – and be amazing.  People will be changed forever.” Continue reading “Don’t Say Can’t”

Today, Tomorrow & Yesterday

Hi everyone! Saint here. Did you know that that the holidays are here? I just love this time of year. Everyone is always so nice and thoughtful. Mummy buys presents for her family and for me and she always brings in food to her students. I don’t eat any of that of course, but it sure does smell yummy.

This year, Mummy and I are going to go visit my Aunt Sha and spend some time with her over the holiday. It will be nice to go see her again. Mummy also has some important errands to run. She says we have to go get her chair fitted for a special device so she can lock it in to drive with. Her old chair had this, but her brand-new one didn’t come with one, so we are going to fix it. And we will be going to see her doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. We see him a couple of times a year. He is always really nice to Mummy, so I like him a lot.

Wow, can you believe everything that we have done this year? Mummy and I have been really busy. We have made a lot of trips to new places and have met so many nice people. If you are one of them, Mummy says, “Hi!”

Me and my friend (and Mummy’s student), Kelly.

Mummy’s students have been extra busy too. They have been writing and making phone calls to people and helping to plan for our big hike. Mummy sure has some great students. They are like our family and we love and appreciate every single one of them. Without their help, we might not have been able to have gotten so much accomplished.

Over the holiday break though, all of the students–and Mummy and I too–will be away from school and taking some time to relax and rest up from the busy semester. I think I will take a break from blogging too. I want to spend some extra time on Mummy’s lap. She’s the very best snuggler ever!

I hope that while we are away you take the time to spend with your loved ones. Family is important and the holidays are a special time of year. May you all be blessed with good fortune and love.

Don’t worry though. After the first of the year, I’ll be back and in full production. Mummy says that 2017 is going to be momentous. I think that means really big. I know it is going to be really busy too. We have a LOT to do. Our hike will only be three months away and it will be here before we know it.

I hope you come back and join us to see where our adventure takes us. Until then, we wish you happiness, peace and love.

From Mummy’s and my house and heart to yours, Happy Holidays!

Until next year…. Take care & Be well.
Love,  Saint