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.