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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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December 9, 2019

Agoraphobic confessions after hiking 1,000 miles through 7 states

I have now hiked 1,084 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to southern Pennsylvania. I’ve done this trying very hard to ignore something that’s been chasing me, something I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye, but quickly look away, lest I recognize it, and it me.

Over more than 1,000 miles of posts and articles, I have only mentioned agoraphobia a couple times. I suppose talking about insulin management and glucose levels is less embarrassing than panic attacks and fear. I’m sure those with agoraphobia following my hike are wondering when I will talk about what it’s like.

This is it, and it’s for all of you.

Some have asked how I do such a thing without falling apart, and I’m going to share my secret with you. Come closer, so I can whisper. That’s right. Okay:

You don’t.

I fall apart pretty much every day.

Less than a week ago I did a horrible Irish jig, no time to practice, broadcast live, in the middle of Harper’s Ferry, WV, on one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year. If you’ve been following along you know this. But there’s something you don’t know…

I got off the trail on the south end of Harper’s Ferry, so when I got back on I still had a couple miles to hike through the woods of Harper’s Ferry. Given this wouldn’t take long, my father who was visiting dropped me off on the trail and then met me at the north end of Harper’s Ferry to do my Irish jig for making it 1,000 miles up the trail.

During that 2-mile hike, two things occurred: I tried to learn the Irish jig from my iPhone while hiking with a 35-40 pound pack, and I had a monster of a panic attack.

But I never stopped hiking, and when I popped out of the woods into historic Harper’s Ferry I was ready to jig (poorly).

But why? Hiking 2,200 miles with agoraphobia seems like self-torture.

I’ll do my best to explain. Anyone with agoraphobia who works to expand their “comfort zone” knows the step-by-step nature of the process. I have been doing this for many years. Then I had an idea. What about three steps at a time? Or five? Or in the case of an AT thru-hike, five million?

I didn’t say it was a good idea, just my idea. And my choice to do this goes far beyond agoraphobia. Everyone grows up wanting to be rock stars or pro athletes or world-class comedians. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I think it sometimes gives the impression that you have to be great to do great things. ‘Tis not the case.

There’s no special club you have to be invited to in order to thru-hike the AT, or write a novel, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or run a marathon, or get involved with community theater. All you have to do is do it, as best as you can.

So here’s what it’s like. Like most agoraphobics, I am more comfortable going to difficult places with someone I trust, but I don’t like being around crowds. For this hike, I am 100% alone, and that’s just the way it has to be for the solitude I seek and to write the book I came out here to write.

Is it sometimes unnerving laying in my sleeping bag in the dead of night, not another human being for miles around, not a noise except the various creatures in the surrounding woods? You betcha. It takes getting used to. But so does Walmart on a busy day.

On the flip side, the trail can also be incredibly crowded, which for me is worse. Try sleeping in a 10 x 20 room with 12 other people and have to get up for the bathroom half a dozen times through the night because your blood glucose is sky high. In cases like these, you just have to be your own advocate. At least in your mind…

For example, before I did my celebratory jig this past weekend, I took a look around at all the people walking up and down the sidewalks or hanging around the park, and I mentally told each and every one of them: “Go hike a thousand miles, come back, and then you can tell me how my jig was.”

Head games. 99% of life is little more than head games.

So after being relatively silent about the agoraphobia, why now?

Now, because I suppose I have reached that point. That point that I suppose every thru-hiker reaches at least once, where quitting seems so logical, where things have come to such a head, that no one would blame them for going home.

I’m tired. I’m hungry. My body is covered in chemical burns (long story, told in this video). My feet and the places my pack hits me hold the worst burns, the ones that dig through a layer or two of skin, to the point where excruciating pain comes before I’ve taken the first step. My life in the real world keeps falling apart because I’m not there. I’m never sure if I’ll make it to the next food source in time, the next water source in time, if my money will run out or if my body will give in. It would be so easy to…

That’s why. Every step of the way, I have been inspired on by those who encourage me. I had many purposes for coming out here: to write my book, to simplify life, to get in touch with nature. But all these things I could do at home.

The purpose that truly keeps me going one foot after the other, the one that will never let me fail, is to show that type 1 diabetes can’t stop me, to show that agoraphobia can’t stop me, to show that almost nothing can stop the determined soul.  It has been done blind, yet I can see. Right at this moment, it’s being done by a woman partially paralyzed, yet I can move every single muscle. I have it easy.

So that’s why I finally write about agoraphobia. It’s not enough to think it, or to tell the bears and the bees; I must put my fears out for all to see so they can softly drift away.

I’ve worked on healing my burns today; tomorrow, it’s back to business. It will hurt a bit. It will probably hurt more than a bit. But it will pass. Whether in a day, or a week, or longer, it will pass.

I will not give in. I will not give up. I’m hungry, and I hear they make a mighty fine breakfast in Maine.

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