The first time I knew I was going to be a part of something important for BEYOND LIMITS was when my classmates and I were tasked with trying to get volunteers for the Appalachian Trail Adventure. That for me was when I realized that we were actually helping Dr. J with this goal she has, and that this was going to be bigger than just a class for us. It really became real to me at this point, knowing that I was helping get people involved. Even though many didn’t answer when we called them, we were still getting the word out, and that was the biggest success I think.

When I think about BEYOND LIMITS, I don’t just think about Dr. J and her disability, I think of any people who have ever felt like they can’t do something, whether it is because of a physical disability or not. BEYOND LIMITS is more than disability. We all have those days where we don’t feel like we can do something, and BEYOND LIMITS is there to show us that no matter what the circumstances, we can do whatever we put our minds to. It means to push beyond those limits that we put in our minds and overcome anything that may be in our way.

BEYOND LIMITS matters because we all have those times in our lives where we think that we can’t do something. We make ourselves think that it’s going to be too hard, so we don’t bother trying. BEYOND LIMITS teaches people that no matter what may be in our way, whether it is a disability or us just telling ourselves that we can’t, that we can do it. Can’t is just a word we use when we’re scared. BEYOND LIMITS shows us that it’s okay to be scared, but we need to try to overcome our worries and our doubts and do something that in the end will make a difference in whatever that may be.

For me, BEYOND LIMITS has shown that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I have been diagnosed when anxiety disorders since I was a sophomore in high school, and that has stopped me from doing a lot in my life. I tend to stay in the background. I tend to keep to myself. BEYOND LIMITS has shown me that we can do whatever we want: we just have to push ourselves, tell ourselves that we can do it. I have pushed beyond my limits throughout this whole project. When we had to make those calls I mentioned earlier, I hated the idea. With my anxiety, I have a hard time talking on the phone. The only person I feel comfortable talking on the phone with is my mom. Anyone else, I would rather have call me or use email and texts to get the message across. I spent hours just holding my phone, trying to get myself over the fear of talking on the phone to a complete stranger. In the end, I told myself that I can do it, and when I made myself do it, as hard as it was, I pushed through it, and was able to make those calls. BEYOND LIMITS has taught me that I can do it. That no matter what I feel is holding me back, I can push through it, because the worst thing that I could do is not try.

BEYOND LIMITS is something I will think about when I have those bad days. Even when I have graduated, I will always think back to BEYOND LIMITS and how I overcame some of my anxieties, and how BEYOND LIMITS taught me that when you put your mind to it and push through those cant’s floating around in your head, you actually can.

Pushing Limits Aside–A Reflection by Melissa Lizotte

I got involved with BEYOND LIMITS without ever setting foot on the Appalachian Trail or even Mount Katahdin, the site of the first BEYOND LIMITS expedition. To this day, I’m still not what many people might call an “avid” hiker. I enjoy the outdoors and always make sure to include physical activity in my daily life. But the only challenging hike I’ve done thus far is in Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle. I was only a high school student when I hiked that trail and at the time I thought it was one of the most daunting mountains that anyone could climb.

Then I began college as an English major at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and realized I had a lot of growing to do as a person. I met Dr. J in her Intro. to Professional Communication and Journalism class during my sophomore year. One semester later, I learned about her July 2015 climb of Katahdin with a group of dedicated volunteers who carried her on their backs to the top. I had no idea that within months Dr. J would recruit my classmates and me for BEYOND LIMITS’ biggest adventure so far: a hike of the AT.

By the time I entered Dr. J’s Evolving Media class in Spring 2016, I had already found many of my niches in academics. I was steadfast in my pursuit of literary fiction and poetry writing and had found a second passion with journalism, particularly with magazine and newspaper freelancing. I was aware of Dr. J’s work ethic and knew that she would come up with a BEYOND LIMITS project that would challenge everyone. On the first day of Evolving Media, she announced that she and a group of volunteers, whom she had yet to recruit, would thru-hike the AT from March to September/early October 2017. I remember feeling motivated to help her achieve that goal and did not hesitate to begin my chosen assignment: researching potential universities, outing clubs, and other recreation groups to recruit trail support volunteers. Trail support volunteers would help hikers with everything from carrying large packs to driving them to rest stops to offering a place to sleep for the night. My list of possible volunteers became much longer than I anticipated, not because I wanted to be the “teacher’s pet.” I thought that BEYOND LIMITS could benefit from having as many options for recruitment as possible. The greatest fulfillment was knowing that my work had the potential to affect many people for the better instead of simply earning me a good grade for the course or turning in an assignment that only a professor and a handful of students would see.

As I took more courses from Dr. J that involved BEYOND LIMITS, I soon realized that any expedition that the team took on was not about her. In fact, the messages of the Katahdin climb and Appalachian Trail Adventure (ATA) have never been about helping someone who cannot walk. Instead, BEYOND LIMITS is about all coming together and pushing themselves physically and/or emotionally further than they thought they could go. That mission was what my classmates and I strived to achieve with whatever work we did during our time with Dr. J.

The semester after Evolving Media, in Dr. J’s upper-level Professional Communication course, she sent everyone a list of various potential volunteers she had contacted that summer. None of those people had responded to her emails. So our job was to first email, then call, various university professors, outing clubs and community recreation groups to promote the opportunity to volunteer for the ATA. I had to call most of my contacts because they did not respond to my initial emails. I probably contacted over 30 people and only recruited a few of them. Many did not have positive reactions when I told them about the hike nor did they stay on the phone long enough for me to completely explain the project. But reaching out to them helped me conquer my fears of talking to people I didn’t know and spread more awareness of BEYOND LIMITS.

Promoting the ATA gave me even more personal passion for the project. I discovered that I, too, was part of the BEYOND LIMITS team and had gone far beyond what I believed to be my limitations. I’m not an outgoing person by nature. Until college, public speaking and participating in class discussions had always made me self-conscious. But because of BEYOND LIMITS, I rid myself of a lot of those fears and realized that my contributions were just as valuable as those for whom speaking aloud comes more naturally. My classmates and I never experienced the physical burdens of hiking a trail like the AT. But all of us felt a connection to BEYOND LIMITS and brought unique perspectives and talents to the ATA. Sometimes we paired up to help one another cover more ground during the research phase. In the Evolving Media class, three students, Monica Hewitt, Ning Sun and me, researched volunteer options. I focused on trail support people while Monica researched opportunities for trail hikers and Ning targeted homebase volunteers. We divided up the states along the AT so that all of us could do more vast research without missing any potential volunteers. Even in the Professional Communication course, all found their own niche despite the fact that we were all contacting potential volunteers. All of us took our own approach to the outreach process and learned how to persevere even when some of the people we contacted did not understand the mission behind the ATA.

Whenever I think about my time with BEYOND LIMITS, I most often remember those team meetings with Dr. J and my classmates. Not everyone always agreed on what was the best way to recruit volunteers or how to promote the ATA to certain audiences. But what I felt as the semesters went on was a growing sense of camaraderie and respect among our group. I knew that I could say my opinions without worrying about the others criticizing me personally and that I would do the same for them in return. Though I was one of the few students who was not a professional communication and journalism (PCJ) major, I never felt that I didn’t belong. BEYOND LIMITS gave me one of many opportunities during college to form bonds with people that I still consider my friends. In many ways I got to “hike” a “trail” with all of them because we started a project that had no clear outcome, but came out on the other side with the satisfaction of knowing that we helped make BEYOND LIMITS’ now completed section hikes of the AT possible. I look forward to keeping in touch with my fellow team members in the coming years and seeing how BEYOND LIMITS inspires their own accomplishments. They have helped me realize that no matter what my goals are, I can move forward despite obstacles and make an impact that reaches far beyond the classroom.

Since Dr. J left for the AT in March, I graduated from UMPI and began a career in media relations while also managing the BEYOND LIMITS Twitter account. But I have realized that I’m still far from achieving all my goals in life. In the future, I want to earn a master’s degree in English and master of fine arts in creative writing so that I could teach those subjects at the college level. The latter degree will help me further develop as a creative writer and produce work that is more suited for publication. I’m always aware of the challenges I will face once I officially pursue those degrees. There are many times when I feel discouraged about how I will even find the courage to go after what many people might call “impossible” goals. But then I remember what BEYOND LIMITS is all about: learning to surround myself with people who believe in CAN instead of CAN’T and getting rid of the barriers that I have too often placed upon myself. I know now that only positive things can happen when all of us dare to take those first difficult steps on our own journeys.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking — Part 6

After Heidi left us we did more hiking. We were coming to a trailhead to meet Honey and Bear and get some supplies. We also heard that there was some trail magic—a place that was offering a hiker feed. An older man, Jeremiah, and his younger male companion came up looking for us. Honey had told them about us. Jeremiah wanted to try carrying for a while. I was concerned about him. Jeremiah is not a young man and was quite heavyset. I was concerned about the strain that this was putting on him. He made it for about seven minutes, which was remarkable. Then we asked the young man, Justin, if he wanted to try. He hadn’t really thought about it, but stepped up and did well. Their rotations really helped out the Clemson Crew.

When we got to the trailhead, it was time for a break. Jeremiah is part of a group that has some hiker hostels along the trail. Here they had taken a double-decker bus and fixed it into a hostel. Everyone went over to check it out. I stayed put on the tailgate, grateful for the break. The rest of the gang had something to eat and drink, including an unusual tea. They also met some more of Jeremiah’s group, including his wife. His wife came over to meet Saint and me. She had a connection to Maine, so wanted to make herself known.

The crew was tired and there was a ways to go to get to a good camping area. So, again, we thought that we should get a ride for a mile or two. But in this area, the road was paved and had a speed limit, so sitting on the tailgate would not be an option. We thought that we would need to travel in two groups, with one going ahead to wait until the next one could come along. But, as always, we were lucky. There was a woman there who knew Honey and Bear—she had stayed with them some years back. (Honey and Bear are always meeting people whom they have helped along the way.) She offered to take some of our group to our next jumping off place. She was doing this with her own car, just to be helpful, and wanted nothing in return.

We got a ride to Neels Gap. Some of our group checked out the supplier or used the privies. Then we hiked to our camping spot for the night: Bull Gap. We got there with plenty of daylight to spare. This was fortunate, because it gave time to set up camp and send people on a rather long walk for water. It also may have been here that the line for our (Hopper, Saint and my) bear bag got tangled and broke. So from thereon, we used the Clemson Crew’s bear-bag line.

Bears are an issue along the AT. They can be attracted by anything with a scent. So one hangs one’s food and toiletries and cook pot in a bag suspended on a line from a tree limb high enough and far enough out that bears can’t reach it. There are some parts of the trail where bear canisters mandatory. Many hikers try to avoid these sections and also think that they are capricious—do the bears know where the regulations start and stop? :>) The bears are lured by easy food. But this harms everyone, especially the bears. Bears that eat trash don’t live as long. If they become aggressive, they may need to be killed. So there are people whose summer job is chasing bears, trying to re-instill fear of people into them. They may make loud noises at bears, bark at them, may even shoot bean bags at them. We never saw any bears during our stretch of hiking. And Saint would be a good deterrent for me. But we didn’t want to tempt the bears and make things more difficult for them, either.

By the third night, the hike was taking a toll on the kids, in particular. Some were getting serious blisters. They were consuming ibuprofen. But they remained game. We sat around a campfire that night with others whom we had not known. People were interested in what we were doing. One of my favorite moments from that experience came when a young man said, “That’s so great. I hope that when I’m really, really old, someone will carry me.” I’m not sure if he thought that that was what would make him unable to hike. Or if he thought of me as really, really old. Regardless, I did laugh inside. One doesn’t get a big ego on the AT.

Along the way, the four Clemson students acquired some trail names. When we had started, Hopper asked them if they wanted to pick a trail name or just let it happen. They decided to let it happen. Jimmy became “Gold Member.” That came about because he split his pants early on from the crotch all the way up the back. He tried to repair them with duct tape and all that we had available was gold. Brad had several names. Most of the Clemson called him Triple B. His name is Frederick Bradford Bradley. Sean mistakenly thought that his first name also started with a B, so called him Triple B and it stuck. I called him BOS—Buns of Steel. That’s because early on he said that the muscles in his buttocks were on fire. All the kids learned how useful Tiger Balm can be. Lindsay was the only girl and has a high-pitched voice. So she became Screech. Philip also had a variety of trail names. The one that seemed to stick the most was Philbo, at takeoff on Bilbo from Lord of the Rings. I had told the kids early on that I identify strongly with Frodo—a small person leaving behind his beloved county and off on a great adventure. So Philbo seemed particularly apt.

To pass the time as we went along, we would tell stories. I told the students many stories from my life and also about Saint. They said that my voice was soothing and kept them calm and upbeat. I wound up telling the same stories many times because some of them would be out of range and I would need to catch people up. I also tried to learn about the kids and their stories. This was more challenging, because they would be already exerting hard by carrying and could get out of breath. I did manage to learn a bit, though.

Jimmy is a self-made man. He hadn’t really thought much about going to college. He joined ROTC in high school and it changed his life. So as he got near graduating, he began to consider going to college: ROTC would pay his way. Jimmy is a business/human resources major and a junior and 21. He wants to become an officer in the reserves and go into HR to help people. He credits ROTC with helping develop his character. He also does some work with athletics, helping out at games.

Philip was the youngest. When we hiked, he was 19, although he turned 20 a week later. As the youngest and the shortest male, he was an object of good-natured teasing. He was also often the quietest. He has a sweet temperament and a huge heart. He is majoring in mechanical engineering. The others teased him that he was just going to be a fancy mechanic. He also did not know a popular meme based on Dr. Phil—“Meet me outside—how bou tha”–much to the delight of the others. But he stepped up big time when needed.

Lindsay was also a junior and a nutrition major. She is one gutsy lady. She joked and said that being with the guys was like hanging out in a locker room. She probably had the least outdoor experience of anyone. Sean took her for a hike one weekend day before our trip to see how she would do. He gave her a heavy pack to carry and reported that she did fine but that she never stopped talking. She is a chatterbox, but it helps pass the time. Her parents were concerned about her going on the trip, but she decided to do it anyway. She took her turn in the rotation and a few times even exceeded 10 minutes. Lindsay has a heart of gold and is a great believer in true love. When Hopper shared some of her background, Lindsay said that she was the most interesting person that Lindsay had ever known. But we countered that, really, everyone is interesting. Lindsay just got a chance to know more about Hopper. On the trail, people will share the most personal stories to help pass the time. A lot of the façade of civilization gets stripped off on the trail.

Brad was the oldest of the four: 24. He was working on his second bachelor’s degree. His first was in chemistry. This one is bio-chemistry. He was going for a second because he said that he had too much fun the first time around. At one time he had worked in an emergency room and seen quite a slice of life. That influenced him to want to become an ER doctor. He had two older sisters (twins?) who had also attended Clemson. He shared an apartment with one of his sisters in Clemson. Brad was largely putting himself through school. He worked full time for a men’s clothing store. Brad was the fashion plate of the group. He had many, many suits, sports coats, slacks. I was entertained one day listening to Brad give Philip clothing advice. He was talking about his ostrich leather shoes, among other things. He talked about hanging a suit jacket on a cedar hanger to absorb perspiration and help it keep its shape. He explained quality belts and how one should never wear black with brown. When Hopper talked about how few clothes she had, Brad said that that kind of made him question his wardrobe. But that did not last. He got discounts on the clothes and was built like a model: tall and slim. He was about 6’2” and weighed around 140 pounds. He liked to dress up and stand out.

I also learned about men’s jewelry from Brad. Clemson is very big on school rings. One can get them in various metals. Brad had one and the other students expected to get one as well. Brad had a mid-range ring that cost $1,000. Students get their rings in a ring ceremony. That’s when Brad got his first suit. He liked cuff links with shirts. And a wealthy, childless uncle had given him a vintage, refurbished Rolex watch. He didn’t have these things on the trip but wore them afterward when we saw him.

Brad had been quite a baseball player in high school. He and his dad had thought that Brad might make it in the pros. He was a pitcher with a very fast ball. But he tore up his shoulders so that dream did not come to pass.

Perhaps because he was a little older, Brad seemed to be the most immediately reflective about the trip and his transformation through it.

By our fourth day, Thursday March 23, our little bad was hurting. Hopper’s knee was very swollen. She has arthritis in that knee and will probably need to have it replaced. Sean seemed in the best shape—at least he wasn’t sharing his pain. Lindsay was rolling her ankles. Brad’s shoulders, never in good shape, were painful. But his feet were more problematic. He had a split toenail, nasty blisters and an angry blood blister. We tried emergency foot care, including using duct tape. But things were tough. One of the biggest problems was that we weren’t moving fast enough to get to more water. There wasn’t a trailhead to which Honey and Bear could take us that would get us close enough that we could reliably make it. No one wanted to stop. But we couldn’t go on without water. And we didn’t want anyone to get hurt. So we reluctantly decided to get off the trail that afternoon. The kids were relieved but also sad. Jimmy seemed to take it hardest, apologizing for letting me down. I needed more time with the kids and a chance to explain that no way did these folks let me down.

Our next blog will be about camping with the kids back in Dahlonega and then finding our way to and a place to stay in Clemson, SC. Until then, take care. Be well.

Dr. J.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking — Part 5

As we hiked, the day warmed and we were able to shed layers. As always, I was absorbing a lot of the Sherpas’ body heat, so I could get very warm. We stopped for our lunch break at a place about a mile or so from the trailhead where Honey and Bear were to meet us. Sean decided that the Clemson crew would eat their Mountain House meal, then be able to eat something else that Honey and Bear might bring. While we were taking our breaks we met Sassafras and Gray Eagle. We also met an ATC ridge runner who keeps a check on the trail and the people hiking it. And Honey hiked up from the parking lot to meet us. She brought bread and meat that the Clemson Crew and Hopper dug into. She said that she had started off hiking with Bear, but that his legs just couldn’t do it. He had had the cheese and other things. Tuesday was his birthday so they had a birthday cake that he wanted to share with all of us. Honey left us before we broke our lunch camp. She wanted to go back and check on Bear.

Sassafras was a retired educator. He had grown up in the country and they had done lots of hiking and camping as children. As an adult, he had married and had children—daughters. He didn’t do much hiking during that time, but always wanted to do the Appalachian Trail. He had done some practice hiking the previous summer with his grandson, who planned to join him this summer. The grandson was in high school. Sassafras got his trail name because he had always loved sassafras. He said that he swung back and forth between confidence and feeling overwhelmed and doubtful. He wanted to help us by doing a rotation, but was cautious about his ability. We encouraged him and said that anything that he could do–even a minute—would help us. So we got him into the harness and me onto him and away we went, after packing up from lunch. He did just fine. He was tentative at first, but then found his legs and confidence. He was a sweet, gentle spirit who lightened our loads in more ways than one.

Gray Eagle came along at about this time, too. Gray Eagle had just retired from the USMC and a job in Washington, D.C. I didn’t get to know much about him. The carry was harder for him, so he did not talk much. He did do a whole rotation with us but it took much out of him. He sat down to rest after that.

We saw both Sassafras and Gray Eagle on the trail the next day. Gray Eagle acknowledged us. Sassafras did another rotation with us. We would have one more set of people help us with a carry the next day, Wednesday.

When we reached the trailhead where Honey and Bear were waiting, we could see that Bear was pretty done in. His legs had just given up on him and he had had to go back to the parking lot. He was resting in a plastic chair. They put me on tail gate and we all had carrot cake and celebrated his birthday. He enjoyed visiting with the kids, especially Lindsay. We decided to get a ride over a couple of miles so that we could make it comfortably to Gooch Mountain. We needed to rendezvous with Heidi, Sean’s wife, around there the next morning so that she could pick up Nate and the Clemson Crew could get its resupply. At this part of the trail, the road would not be patrolled, so the kids were able to sit on the tailgate. Bear drove with Saint and me in the front. Sean, Honey, Hopper and Nate sat in the backseat. At one point we heard a yell. Philip had fallen off the tailgate but had not been hurt. This was also where Jimmy picked up some trail magic—a Coke that Bear had left along the road for anyone who was thirsty. It was around here that Bear also stopped to pick up trash from people who were camping. He and Honey often that did, which was a great help to people so that they did not have to carry out all their trash.

They dropped us off and it was a race now for a place to camp. The weather was turning. There was danger of strong storms, thunder, lightning and hail. We wanted to try to get to shelter before things hit. This was when the students really, really came into their own. They felt the urgency and did longer carries than normal. Our “mile or so” to the shelter wound up being longer. As we thought that we were getting close, we could hear the thunder getting closer. It was time to switch, but Philip did not want to take the time. He wound up doing the longest rotation of the week at that time. He brought me safely to the shelter and got me out of the carrier so that I could sit down.

There were not enough places in the shelter to accommodate everyone. Smooth was there and offered me his spot downstairs, offering to go upstairs. But going to the bathroom through the night, which I always have to do, would be problematic. It was my call and I said that I needed to sleep in the tent.

The problem was where to put the tent. The area around the shelter was already quite filled with tents and there wasn’t much level ground available. The ATC had a couple of volunteers, staying at the shelter and helping out hikers: a man and his wife. I didn’t really meet the man. But the lady’s name was Mother Nature. We had a chat and she told me about her health issues. She had been told by doctors that she should not and really could not hike. But she was still doing so because she loves it. When she learned that we were looking for a place for our group to camp, she said that she would take us to a place nearby that was secluded and not open to regular camping. This worked out wonderfully for us. It was so kind of her—we had a nice place to ourselves. We took extra care to Leave No Trace.

During that night, we experienced a strong storm. All that had been predicted—short of a tornado—hit. The kids were playing cards at first in Lindsay’s tent. But as the weather got really bad, the guys gave up and fled to their hammocks. They got wet but were so exhausted that they slept deeply. Fortunately, it didn’t get as cold that night. I was thrilled by how well our tent stood up. We were snug, warm and cozy in our tent all night. After a few hours, I gathered that Big Agnes would come through, so we were able to sleep well.

It was still a bit raw in the morning. We put on our rain gear. I noted that Philip, like Hopper, had Rain Togs. The others had variations. Mother Nature came to check on us that morning and gave us a chance to thank her once more. Then we made a stop by the very nice privy. I have become something of a connoisseur of privies. The ones at Katahdin were lovely. They were my first encounter and were wonderful—very clean and spacious. The ones at Debouille were pretty dreadful—really dirty and unpleasant. This one was fine. And it was to be our last for this stretch of the hike. A couple of the guys carried me in using a fireman’s carry. Then Hopper helped me pivot and sit. From there I could manage on my own until it was time to be carried back out.

We needed to meet Heidi by 10 a.m. Since we were quite close, that was not a problem. In fact, we were early. It was still cool and damp, so the kids sat me in a sheltered spot and made a little windbreak for me of a raincoat. Heidi came along with the Mountain House meals and a box of doughnuts that the crew devoured. She took Nate with her so that he could attend his swim meet on the weekend. She had a chance to meet Hopper. And I asked her if she could help me by finding an accessible place to stay for a while in Clemson. She said that she would be leaving town in a day or two, but she would see what she could do. We had realized that Sean had left his phone in the Clemson vehicle that was at Springer. So he was using Hopper’s cell phone to communicate. He had also brought a separate camera that he used to take photos. Heidi did some sleuthing and did find us a place to stay. She belonged to Airbnb and went that route. I had never really paid attention to that before. She did some digging and found a great, ACCESSIBLE place in which we could stay. It wasn’t easy to find because it wasn’t listed for the start of when we needed it, but Heidi did some sleuthing and make it work. We’ll have much more to say about Airbnb in upcoming blogs.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking–Part 4

The Clemson Crew worked out a rotation. As I mentioned, Nate did not want to carry. He reasoned that he should not become part of the rotation, since he would be with us for only a shortened time. He did get into the rotation once when his father was having back issues. (Sean had surgery some years back in which he had to have metal rods placed along his spine.) Other than that, Nate helped out by carrying gear. Jimmy stepped up to carry first. He was most familiar, of the students, with carrying heavy loads because of field experiences in ROTC. Then came Brad. After Brad was Philip. Then came Lindsay. Sean brought up the rear of the rotation. Curiously, Sean was often the person carrying when we came into a camp or rest area. The kids teased that he was always the one getting photographed carrying in the photo opp.

The Katahdin group did not use hiking poles because they feared what they might do to me if they slipped and fell: they were concerned that I would be impaled. The Clemson Crew largely used poles. I taught them to help one another and be ready to give the Sherpa carrying a helping hand. I also taught them that someone needed to keep track of the time of the carries and someone needed to always go ahead to break trail. Breaking trail consisted of scouting the safest route (the one that was the least slippery/steep, etc.) and being ready to offer a helping hand. Jimmy had a watch so he volunteered to be timekeeper.

Before we headed off to climb Springer, we took off some layers. Honey hiked with us. At 84, she is amazing—can still hike for miles. The crew got a chance to get a feel for the Jac Pack and how to swap in and out of it. We made it to the summit of Springer in good time and got some photos. We also all signed the log book. Then we headed back to the trailhead to see Bear again and get the heavier packs. Sean would carry both a regular pack and a day pack with the Clemson University paperwork.

Once folks got the regular heavy packs, reality began to set in. The packs were very heavy—probably at least 45 pounds. This is considerably heavier than most thru hikers carry. And other than Sean and Nate, the Clemson crew were not seasoned hikers. But they never really complained.

Honey and Bear would be available to provide support to us for the whole week. We would really draw upon this. Every day they would meet us at a trailhead and bring us what additional things we needed for supplies. We would often have lunch with them. Some days they would help us do some yellow blazing—they would give us a ride around a difficult mountain, cutting down some on the crew’s wear and tear.

Because Campmor had donated so many Mountain House meals, Sean was committed to their using them for all three meals. But sometimes the kids preferred big sandwiches of meat and cheese that Honey and Bear provided. When we stopped and had lunch with them, it was a welcome respite to remove packs and for me to get out of the Jac Pack.

Sometimes the kids got discouraged that we were not making better time or covering more ground. But Hopper helped them to feel good about themselves by saying that they had already done more than many predicted. Apparently there were those who thought that we wouldn’t make it the mile up Springer Mountain. So given the low bar, everything else that we accomplished was gravy.

The first night we made it to Three Forks. Then we went about what would become our routine. We set up camp and sent people for water. Hopper would set up Saint and my tent and her own. Usually some of the kids would go for water. We knew that it was going to be a cold night, so encouraged folks to have something hot and put on all their clothes.

This was the night that we met Smooth. Smooth had thru-hiked the AT before. He had experienced a brain aneurysm some years before that had nearly killed him. He was in surgery for hours. That changed his perspective. So now he hiked whenever he could. He would work for a while, then hike. He was married. His wife understood and supported his efforts. He was quite interested in what we were doing and asked if he could help us out by doing a rotation. We said that we’d be delighted.

Our tent and sleeping system worked out wonderfully. On this entire trip, my best sleep has been in our tent, using the cot and air mattress. The Freshette has worked out really well also. Hopper got the stove going and we boiled water for our two meals. We ate them and visited a bit with the others. We went to bed as it got very dark.

We awoke early. People took turns throughout taking Saint somewhere to walk. She did fine in terms of covering the mileage every day. When we were in a camping area with other people (who were not part of our team), we would keep her on her retractable leash so that she would not bother others by getting into their possessions. Out on the trail, we often let her run loose. We kept on her vest so that she was easy to spot. Hopper brought me some hot oatmeal to eat while we were getting ready to break camp. I have a very hard time eating breakfast, but knew that it was important and having something warm seemed wise. It had gotten down to freezing during the night, but we had slept warm.

Smooth was as good as his word and lead us off on Tuesday, carrying me. He did really well. He said that it was definitely more than he usually carried, but it didn’t really seem to bother him. He was able to chat away the whole time. He isn’t a big man but is wiry and seasoned. He had folks take photos of him carrying me so that he could post them on Facebook. He stayed with us until he had done two carries. The kids were so grateful to have that respite. Then he moved on because he wanted to go at a faster pace than we were capable of doing.

As we have talked about doing this, we have met with lots of skepticism. When there are ideas outside of their comfort zones, people often push back, hard, saying that something is crazy and selfish. Some have become belligerent, saying that no one would ever help us. But even in the short time in which we were on the trail, we have had several people already help us. Interestingly, they were mostly older men. Women could also carry but they do not always seem to realize that. And younger people often tend to be in more of a hurry and don’t want to slow down—although one rotation wouldn’t make that much difference in their attaining their end goal, but it would make a huge difference to us and our freshness and ability to do our rotations. Perhaps as the word spreads we will get more help with a rotation or two.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking–Part 3

The ride to the trailhead took about 1.5 hours. We had decided not to take Miracle because of several factors. For one thing, we didn’t know what we would do with her while we were hiking. Some were afraid that someone might break in and damage Karma, my wheelchair, or something else. Also, the van, since it has been converted, is very low to the ground. When a van is converted so that someone can drive from a wheelchair, they cut from just in front of the backseat and lower all that area so that one can roll in and drive without having to bend over or cower. We were concerned that on the roads leading in to Springer, the van would be too low and would scrape on the road. Even if that did not happen, we would have to crawl along and slow everyone down. So it just did not make sense to take it. We got to the parking lot, debarked, got out a few light day packs. One of Sean’s was all the paperwork that he needed for the kids. The big question was how to get me into the Jac Pack. We were to experiment with this and refine it throughout the hike. When Honey and Bear were there, we used the tailgate of their pickup. The person who was to carry would put on the Jac Pack. I would sit on the person’s right side. Then I would lean far over to the right and have help threading my left leg through the Jac Pack seat. Then I would scrunch/sidle over until I could get the rest of my body into the Jac Pack. My feet would dangle free. The carrier would lean backward so that I could position padding and try to get square into the seat. Then people would help the person carrying stand up. There would be adjusting straps. People would help me get my feet into the stirrups. Al had put the stirrups onto the carrier rather than the seat (as he had them when we went out to Aroostook State Park). I could use the stirrups to help position myself.

I would not then get out of the carrier usually for several hours. We kept time (Jimmy was our timer generally) and people rotated through roughly every 10 minutes. Lindsay often did not make it to 10 minutes, although one time she went even longer. Philip probably held the record for going the longest, when he was trying to get us to shelter before a thunderstorm hit on Tuesday night. In order to swop out, we had to try to find a relatively flat area that wouldn’t block the trail for others. That could take a while to find. So sometimes the rotations would be minutes longer.

Al did an amazing job with his carrier design. But we had not had a chance to really field test it before we left for our ATA. We had worn it a little in the living room, but that is hardly proof for the AT. So we found things that needed to be tweaked. The chest strap quickly pulled completely off. And the shoulder strap on the carrier’s left shoulder nearly tore through. We believe that that was because people were continually pulling on the straps to try to make them as comfortable as possible. We had such a range of body types. Our tallest guy was 6’2”. Our shortest was 5’7”. Al had stitched in thick, wide microbial padding. He had stitched it so that it would not move around, as had been a problem with the PiggyBackPack. So there needed to be a happy medium. The answer was probably to lengthen the shoulder pads. Early on, the metal framework on the carrier’s left side had slid out of its web harness. We could not get it back in so that it would stay. So we eventually made due by duct taping it so that the metal didn’t jam directly into my chest. When the chest strap first pulled off, we made due using a bandana. But when the left shoulder strap also tore and looked as though it might tear through all the way, it was time to act. If the left strap tore through completely, I would be unable to move. Hopper had a needle, but knew that the thread that she had would not be strong enough. Fortunately, Nate had brought dental floss. Hopper doubled the dental floss and re-secured the straps, sewing them twice. That made the straps fairly secure, but the tearing was symptomatic of the adjustment problems and needs. The other adjustment that we would need was to the levers under the seat. Al had two little levers so that the seat could be adjusted for nearness to the carrier’s body, angle, tilt, etc. He had purposely lengthened the levers so that they would be easy to grasp. But we found in the field that they were really too long. When we would take a break and the carrier wanted to get out of the harness, we wanted to be able to have the carrier set me on a log or a boulder and step out of the carrier. If I could prop my legs up, I could unload my weight that had been on my groin/pelvis. But setting the carrier down on such objects bent the levers. We found it really hard to move the levers after this, because they became bent by the boulders and logs. So making them short would ultimately make them easier to use. Longer and they became bent and impossible to turn. These issues and others made us need to send the carrier back to Al for tweaking the following week. But the prototype is amazing. And to think that Al envisioned this all and made it with tools from his woodworking shop. Amazing. It ultimately can be made lighter and more refined with precision tools. But the overall design is ingenious.

Several people had talked about partnering with others to refine the design, make it from lighter weight materials, mass produce it. Sean was going to reach out to people he knew in business. He also suggested working with students in a Clemson program called Creative Inquiry. He had thought at first that there would be money to bring me to campus to talk about this. He was involved in instituting the program some years back. But since then it has gotten more restrictive. So he didn’t think that it would be a good fit because it isn’t directly rooted in/at Clemson. Fast forward to another Clemson teacher, Skye Arthur-Banning, who also suggested reaching out to the Creative Inquiry students. And Sean and others spoke about partnering with engineering students within the University of Maine System. But the question then becomes, Who then would own the design, the intellectual property? A goal is for BEYOND LMITS to patent the designs for the carrier and for the hiking wheelchair and then be able to use the income from the proceeds to support and sustain the work of BEYOND LIMITS. So that is one thing that I need to get busy on when we return to Maine.

We wanted to start at the very southern end of the Appalachian Trail. We decided not to hike the eight-mile approach trail. But the trailhead to which we drove was one mile up the trail. So we decided to hike the mile south to Springer Mountain, then hike back to the trailhead. That way we could sign the log book at the very beginning of the trail and get some photos. We could also slack pack: just take light day packs with water and snacks for this first couple of miles before we got back to the trailhead and got our really heavy packs.

This was the first time for the Sherpas to get a feel for what it would be like to use the Jac Pack and carry me. It was the start of our getting to know one another. With the Katahdin gang, we had had some practices together beforehand so I knew them a little. With the Clemson Crew of kids, this was climbing on the backs of strangers. The closest comparison would be when I first met Rod Jandreau and within 10 minutes was on his back and hiking up the little hill at Aroostook State Park. It could potentially be awkward. But one finds oneself instinctively beginning to ask questions and learn about the wonderful people carrying you. Thankfully I had already had the Katahdin experience. I knew that gentle verbal encouragement and the healing power of touch would be extremely important. It proved so, over and over again.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking–Part 2

Honey and Bear came back from their trip to an outfitter (at Neel’s Gap?). They had bought two sets of ice cleats—really chains that would slip over hiking shoes. Hopper asked them to get two sizes: medium and large. She figured that one or the other of those sizes would fit whoever was carrying me if we ran into ice—and ice had been reported on the trail. The cleats would provide much more stability.


Earlier in the day Bear had asked me to join Honey, Hopper and him at a family-style restaurant, Dutch treat, for dinner. (He would pay for Hopper, since she is like family to Honey and him and has done so much for them. I was to learn more about this in the coming days. Without Hopper’s help through the years, Honey and Bear wouldn’t have been able to keep their hostel, The Cabin, open. It wouldn’t be open now without her. But the help goes both ways. When Hopper has been in need, Honey and Bear have been a home for her.) Bear gets tired more quickly these days since he had a serious stroke a few years ago. So he and Honey were going to go back to the campground so that he could rest before dinner.


After people had their packs straightened out, Hopper asked if they would like to get a feel for the carrier. So all of the students and Nate gave it a try. Nate was probably the strongest and most in shape of the young people. He probably had the easiest time carrying. But he made it clear that he did not want to carry. The other people, though, got a feel and began to wrap their heads around what they were going to do. Most of them did not seem to think that it was too bad. But then again, we hadn’t gotten out on the trail, yet.


Clemson had given/rented the Clemson Crew a suburban. They loaded it very full of their gear and themselves. I took some of their gear as well because what they had now included my things, as well. We all went to the campground. That’s where the Clemson Crew were staying, as well as Honey and Bear. Hopper had gotten permission to camp on the site with Honey and Bear.


None of the students knew one another or Sean before this. So Sean wanted them to have experience camping and bonding together the night before the hike. He wanted them to set up their gear, build a fire, make dinner, etc. It was very cold that night: it got down to below freezing, and we really weren’t even in the mountains yet. Lindsay had a tent, but the guys all slept in hammocks with tarps over them. And as a way to save weight, Sean had told them not to bring coats. So they had a chilly night, wearing everything that they brought with them for clothes. Early on I quoted Mike Smith (and others have said this before him) to the kids: “Embrace the Suck.” I also told them about the three types of fun. Type 1 is hanging out with your friends and family—really, no effort. Type 2 is when you experience something that’s basically fun and easy—it might have a bit of challenge, but overall you’re having a good time doing it. Type 3 just seems tough. You’re thinking, “Wow, this is terrible. How did I get into this? I can’t wait to get out!” You can’t imagine that you could ever look back on it fondly. But this is the type of fun that your gramma would say “will make you a better person.” And, for ill or good, gramma was right. When you share something really difficult with others, something that you didn’t know that you could do and that was really hard—but together you found a way to do it—it forms amazing bonds and helps define you as a person. It makes for great stories.[1] So not only do you come to embrace the suck, but you also embrace the Type 3 fun. That’s the kind that you remember and that ultimately makes you who you are.


Honey, Bear, Hopper, Saint and I went to the historic old Smith House for the family-style meal, for which it is famous. It sits on top of an old gold vein and dates back to 1899. We went in on an upper level. The restaurant is downstairs. I was able to go down in the vertical lift, but the lift was not powerful enough to bring me back up. The young woman who took our money and gave us our receipts so that we could be served explained that I could go out on the lower level and just roll around and back up the hill to the parking lot. The meal was fine: fried chicken, beef stew, ham, cole slaw, collard greens, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, corn bread and strawberry shortcake for dessert. There wasn’t much that I could eat, but I wasn’t surprised. I had gone for the company and not the food.


We were to get to the trailhead for the mile hike back to Springer Mountain with two vehicles. Bear was going to take some of the folks in his truck. Sean was going to take Saint and me with him in the front of the Suburban. We were told be ready for 8 a.m.—all checked out and ready to go. Saint and I were ready way ahead of time. We went out into the lobby and got checked out at around 7:30 a.m. Then we proceeded to wait. And wait. And wait.


The first people to appear were Honey, Bear and Nate. The rest were still packing up. Honey and Bear had shared stories the day before about how they had sometimes, in their travels, eaten breakfast furnished by hotels at which they did not stay. (This was mostly innocent—they thought that they were restaurants until too late, when they realized that this was the complimentary breakfast that came with staying at the hotels.) Hopper had sent them for some hot food. This was really OK because breakfast comes with a room and I had not eaten anything there. They sat down and befriended a woman whose nephew was going to do some hiking on the AT. They had a nice visit. I asked Nate if he wanted something to eat, but he did not. The entire Clemson Crew had drunk a lot of Holiday Inn Express coffee the previous day when we were doing pack shakedowns. The rest of the group probably showed up closer to 8:30 at the earliest. I had parked the van down in back of the inn so that it was more out of the way. I had loaded it with our suitcase, duffle bag and food. Now we were going to get me into the Suburban and I would lose my mobility for the next several days.


Hopper had figured a way to support and rotate me so that I could get in positions to sit on different objects. She did this now. The seat was high, though, so a couple of the guys had to help me get up. Then Hopper got into Karma, put her in the van and locked it. We gave my keys to Honey for safekeeping. I had a down parka and gloves to wear. But since the kids didn’t have anything very warm, I also brought my down vest and peace fleece mittens, just in case. I don’t think that the vest ever got worn—and for a time, it went missing. But the mittens did help. I know that Lindsay, in particular, wore them. The Suburban was very warm—the kids were trying to get thawed from their very cold night. Their breakfast had not hit the spot. They had had dehydrated eggs, which many of the kids had said were “nasty.” Brad had liked them. I was to learn that Brad is rather like the Cookie Monster—he will eat and enjoy anything. He must have a very active metabolism because he eats far more than anyone else and is so slim. He would regularly polish off the remains of the Mountain House meals that the other kids didn’t want. That cold night, though, had helped start the beginnings of some warm bonds. The kids were starting to talk among themselves.

[1] I’m a storyteller. So whenever something happens, particularly something elaborate or detailed, I always think what a great story it will make. My dad recognized this in me when I was very little. He used to say: “Jac, most people just go through life. But with you, everything is an experience and an adventure.” And boy was he right.

It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking–Part 1

Appalachian Trail Hike 2017 group

Sunday, March 19, was D-Day minus one. We were to meet the entire gang, most of whom we did not know. We got a message from Hopper that she would be arriving around noon, driven by her sister- and brother-in-law. But before she arrived, there was a knock on our door. We opened the door to an older couple: It had to be Honey and Bear, and it was. They came in and we had a bit of a visit. Honey is rather hard of hearing. Bear wanted to know what they could to help me. We really couldn’t think of anything. They offered to make a Walmart run for us. I thought that it might be wise for them to wait until Hopper arrived.

Hopper and her in-laws arrived a bit early. These are relatives through Hopper’s marriage to Mike. We had time for a little visit, although the room got pretty crowded. Hopper put down her pack and hiking poles. Then pizza arrived. Honey thought that people would be hungry, so had ordered a pizza to be delivered. She was thinking that the leftovers would feed the Clemson group, who were supposed to arrive around 2. It was such a kind and thoughtful thing to do. But a single pizza would not go far with hungry college students, particularly after five people had eaten from it.

We took the pizza out into the breakfast area where we had a chance to visit a bit. I was entrusted with the remaining few slices for the kids. Then Hopper’s in-laws headed out. Hopper and Honey and Bear set out to do a little shopping. They were concerned because there had been some reports of ice on the trail. And no one had ice cleats. They went off to try to find some and get other things from Walmart. They couldn’t find any cleats at the outfitter in town—as Hopper said, he was more a tourist outfitter than a hiking outfitter. So they called another outfitter (at Neel’s Gap?) and learned that that one had cleats. So Honey and Bear were going to go buy some. They had barely set off than Sean and his student group arrived.

I asked the woman at the front desk if we could spread out the content of the packs in the breakfast area so that we could do a pack shakedown. She said that we could not block the lobby. I said that we would be careful not to do so and that we would put back the breakfast room as we had found it.

So we met the Clemson Crew. They are Brad Bradley; Jimmy Knott; Lindsay Costin; Philip Gee. We would learn a great deal about them on the following days and come to admire them greatly. But for now we were focusing on how to pack what they needed to take.

We would be two packs short. I did not have a pack. And the person carrying would not have a pack. That meant that each pack would have content for more than one person. Hopper had bought a new, larger pack made of cuben fiber so the pack itself was light but very strong. She managed to carry most of the gear and such for Saint and me. But we had the risers for the cot that needed to be distributed: one set weighed about five pounds, and we had five sets, so each pack had one set. Thus the packs wound up being around 45 pounds or so. This is much heavier than a typical thru-hiker would want to carry. And, unlike with the Katahdin climb, there would never be a time when someone was not carrying something heavy: if it was not me, it would be a heavy pack. So people got no respite. We knew before we started that the small number was not ideal—having one or two more people would have made a huge difference because then the rotations would not have been as frequent and each pack would have not been so heavy. This was born out through experience.

Hopper took over with the pack shakedowns. Sean had done some work with the group before they came. Now Hopper had them empty their packs and went through each one with them. She also had them bring in my pile of gear and spread it out. I didn’t have to go through a real pack shakedown because Hopper had already done it with me many times over when we had weighed and listed everything that I might take. For the kids, though, it was eye opening. Hopper didn’t just tell them not to bring something: she explained why it would be an unnecessary luxury. She worked with the guys first, then took Lindsay, our lone female, off to the side and went through her pack with her. Soap, mouthwash and deodorant were all luxuries that people were told to leave behind. So were multiple changes of underwear. Hopper told Lindsay that she could always turn her pants inside out. The kids noted that they would get smelly. Hopper explained that everyone would acquire “Hiker Funk” and so it wouldn’t be noticeable. The Clemson group had a four-pack of toilet paper that got distributed. And they had a mountain of Mountain House meals that a company named “Campmor” had donated. They had food for Sunday through Wednesday, when Nate would leave us. Heidi would come pick him up and the Clemson gang would get its resupply then. So we had a definite place we had to get to by 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, when Heidi would arrive at a trailhead.

Hopper next instructed the kids on how to pack their packs—what should go in the bottom, what should go on top. She talked about pumping water and bear bags. She also asked about camping experience. None of the kids were hikers. Philip had done some camping. Jimmy is in ROTC, so they go out for field exercises on weekends and will go out for two weeks this summer. I don’t believe that Lindsay or Brad had ever camped out. For all of them this was going to be a huge stretch. But they were game.

After they had their packs packed with their items, all the packs needed to take a set of bedrisers. (There were five sets.) Someone had to take Saint’s food. Hopper took most of my things: tent, cot, air mattress, food, clothes, miscellaneous. This made for a heavy pack for her. She said the first time that she had started hiking the AT, she had weighed 110 pounds and her pack weighed more than 55. She had since learned to pack much lighter.

As they packed, I got a chance to talk a bit with the kids and started to figure out who was who. Nate, because of his experience, and Sean didn’t need pack shakedowns. The Clemson Crew were very interested in me and Saint, what our goals were, what had brought us to this point.

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.