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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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December 9, 2019

Hiking 2,200 miles with agoraphobia takes only two words

Many people have asked what it felt like when I reached the top of Mount Katahdin after hiking 2,200 miles. Did I shed a tear? Did I regret that it was over? Was I relieved that I was finally done? The truth is that in that moment standing on the sign for Baxter Peak with my arms risen toward the sky for a picture that would be with me for the rest of my life, I felt absolutely nothing. I felt absolutely nothing because I was not there. I was not there, at least, in 2016.

I have told you before: I am a time traveler.

When I decided over the holidays last December, in a span of roughly thirty seconds, that I would thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail, that I would do it alone, and that I would do it come hell or high water, I had zero doubts but many worries. I was not concerned about whether or not I could handle the hiking or living in the woods for six months or if I would get lonely or injured. I was concerned whether an anxiety disorder that had consumed me for the better part of a decade would do what it had done time after time: render me completely frozen, physically unable to force my body to move on.

I posed the question before I left, not because it was a catchy headline, but because I wanted to know: Can an agoraphobic, insulin-dependent diabetic hike 2,200 miles through the wilderness? I realize now, after having answered the question in the only definitive way possible – by doing so – that I was looking at the entire situation from the wrong angle. We time travelers sometimes get confused that way.

I would not succeed in my thru-hike despite a severe anxiety disorder; I would succeed because of a severe anxiety disorder.

I have never tried this before, but I would like you to time travel with me. We are going to visit 2009. In the previous twelve months my best friend died far too young, my wife tired of my insanity and cashed in her chips, and after a medical leave of absence and one last, desperate attempt to return to work I finally resigned from the dream job that formed the entirety of my identity.

I am lying on a mostly deflated air mattress in small, bare bedroom in Falls Church, VA. I have given up refilling the mattress with air. It will just flow out again. I don’t know what day it is, nor do I care. I’m not asleep nor am I truly awake. I just am. I stare at the ceiling and wait patiently for the next round of sleep to come.

A few months earlier my anxiety was at such a level that I paced the floors constantly throughout the day. Day or night had no meaning. I simply alternated between sleep and wakefulness every few hours around the clock. I checked my blood pressure several times an hour just to see my skyrocketing pulse. It had become an obsession. No amount of Xanax, no amount of alcohol, no force of nature was capable of slowing my mind down from the raging, racing monster it had become. My calmest moments of relief would occur only when I fumbled through a case of DVDs, stuck one in, and tuned myself in so deeply that for a moment I could forget the wretched, painful existence that had become life.

A few months earlier I did all these things because I was still fighting. I was still trying to claw my way back. Yes, my focus was on sheer survival, but I was also trying to gain even an inch if I could like some poor soul rowing against the tide and trying to move upstream, knowing full well that merely to maintain position would be a miracle. That was a few months earlier. No more. Now, lying in the bare room I am still in so much pain, so much anxiety, but it is all masked by a fog of submission. I have given up and there is nothing left to do but watch the ceiling and wait.

There is the sound of the front door opening and my sister comes in with a sandwich from one of my favorite delis and asks how long it has been since I ate. Food has no meaning. I imagine it has been since the last time she brought me something. Eventually I force myself to eat and then turn my attention back to the ceiling. My mind still races, but it can’t hurt me anymore. I am now a spectator, not an actor. I idly wonder what will become of me and turn over various possibilities in my head, but I am indifferent to any of the answers. I decide they will lock me up in a psych ward somewhere, if I don’t waste away before then. I continue to stare at the ceiling and my mind races on to the next thought, and the next, and so on until eventually returning back to the first.

I think about all of the horrific experiences that have preceded this end, but they no longer trigger the panic and shame they once did. It is no longer me and therefore I can have no personal feelings toward the memories. It is just the mind doing what it does. I doze off. I wake up. Occasionally I draw my eyes from the ceiling to look at the window. Sometimes light protrudes from the edges of the blinds, sometimes it does not. Day and night and night and day. It has no meaning in this place.

Sleep comes and goes and thoughts travel in and out in their given rotation, but then a line of thinking seems different. A new thought. Is such a thing possible? I begin to give this thought more than my normal passive attention because it is… different. A voice whispers in my ear – do you hear it? –and I think I recognize the voice. Could it be… could it be me? The voice tells me that this is just a moment in time, and there will be other moments in time. Moments better than this one.

Suddenly I am no longer lying down. I am standing up. My eyes are closed so I cannot see my surroundings, but I feel an extreme wind blowing against my body and my arms which are outstretched toward the sky. A feeling overcomes me, some sense that I have just done something amazing. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I have come a very, very long way.

Come back with me to 2016 now. Time travel is enlightening, no? So you see, it is not that I felt nothing at the top of Mount Katahdin. It is not that I was indifferent to the struggles and dangers and sheer determination required to reach that wooden structure for a photograph. It is that I was there seven years ago, when I needed to be there.

On that day back in 2009, I did not get up. I did not jump in the shower and go for a walk. There was still an incredibly long road ahead of me. There would be more pain, far more than I could have ever imagined at the time. A change had occurred, though. I no longer had the luxury of being a spectator. I was no longer indifferent to my struggle. I began to feel. I began to fight.

I did not shed a tear when I reached the top of Mount Katahdin. Tears did flow on one day on the trail, though, and I will tell you when.

I was hiking through Virginia near the Blue Ridge Parkway in the late afternoon. It was dark and raining lightly. Virginia had been very long and I was very tired and I was wondering if I was ever going to reach the end. My hiking had become monotonous because I was completely engrossed with a voice whispering in my ear. This time the voice was not mine, but that of a narrator of a book and the words did not come from the ether, but from the headphones in my ears. The name of the book was the Count of Monte Cristo. It was a long book and I had been listening to it for a very long time. The tears began to stream because the book had come to an end and I had just listened to the very last line:

“Darling, has not the Count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope?”

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