For 166 days, I traded the weight of titles and labels for an increasingly smelly backpack. No longer Dr. Burkhardt, or Major Burkhardt, or a guy with crippling depression; instead, I became an Appalachian Trail hiker called “Sketch.” Most were good days. Some brought me to my knees. However, October 2, at the summit of Mount Katahdin, was a GREAT day!
All things being equal, more than 80% fail to complete the 2,189.2-mile journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
But all things weren’t equal:
- I wasn’t a 20-something with a naively optimistic view of my potential anymore.
- This was my third attempt to hike the whole trail at one go.
- I hadn’t gone more than 3 months without a major depressive episode since retiring from the Air Force several years earlier.
Nonetheless, there I was at Springer Mountain with a 40lb backpack on my shoulders, preparing to do it all again. (To those that say the definition of insanity is attempting to do the same thing over and over, while expecting different results, I say: sweet! I’ve already got a membership card.)
What was different this time?
I had lots of help. Friends and family supported me from a distance with care packages and encouraging messages to keep moving forward. Friends flew out to hike sections of the trail with me, and strangers opened their homes to me when I needed a place to rest and get a hot meal. Even on the days when it was just me and the mountain up ahead, I knew I wasn’t alone.
I met some inspiring hikers from all walks of life:
- “Special K” a 14-year old woman with a dream to be the youngest person to complete the hike,
- “Sunset,” a 73-year-old man who started hiking in his 50’s, has hiked 10’s of thousands of miles, and has no plans to stop anytime soon.
- “IronWill,” the first paraplegic woman to hike the Trail, became a good friend, and was quick to restore my sense of perspective when I thought my body couldn’t get me to the next town.
- “Tune-Up,” who suffered an irreversible injury to his arm while rescuing a drowning passenger during his service with the Coast Guard, began this hike as a Farewell Tour in anticipation of an unavoidable arm amputation. During the time we spent hiking together, I watched this amazing man shed the burden of PTSD, to find peace and confidence. His transformation led me to believe that there was hope for all of us.
Somewhere along the way, the miles and the mountains and the rocks and the trees blended into one beautiful, endless vista. I became Forest Gump. When I was tired, I slept. When I was hungry (I was ALWAYS hungry), I ate, and when I needed to go… I went.
Against all odds, I made it. But the truth is, it wasn’t until I realized that this journey (and life) is more of a “we” thing than an “I” thing that I really started moving forward.
This is my first time contributing to the WordPress weekly photo challenge. I hope I'm not breaking the rules by including several of my digital sketches, but I couldn't resist the chance to join in a conversation about the prompt: Against the Odds