You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find examples of inspiring underdogs that tackle epic feats in literature or in movies. Harry Potter rose from neglected orphan to hero for wizards and muggles alike. Tyrion Lannister became the Hand of the King despite his dwarfism, an unquenchable hankering for booze, and women. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
It’s one thing to escape into fantasy. In these imaginary worlds, anything is possible (even for a Cubs fan). We get to vicariously share in the thrill of impossible, but inevitable, victories.
It gets a lot harder to find similar examples once we return to the real world. Victory is far from inevitable, especially in the face of long odds. Then there’s the cycle of defeat: lost confidence and bitterness over recent losses makes it more difficult to keep pushing for the finish line, which leads to more defeats, which leads to…
These stories don’t make the headlines, but it was becoming the version I was most familiar with. This was one of the reasons that completing the Appalachian Trail became so important to me. I was long overdue to put another checkmark in the Win column. And what better way than to hike all the way from Georgia to Maine? The overwhelming majority wouldn’t be able to complete the entire 2,189.2-mile journey, but this would be my 3rd try, so I knew what I was getting into. Right?
I was still discovering what I’d gotten myself into nearly 1400 miles into the hike. It was way too early to start imagining storybook finishes, but occasionally I would slip by saying: “… when I make it to Maine,” rather than “…if I make it to Maine.” I was also getting a crash course (literally) on the difference between hiking and mountaineering in the obstacle course that you all call New York. By this point, I was fluent in bitching. Nightly shelter talk centered around the pointlessness of that stupid boulder field, or somebody needs to turn down the friggin’ heat, or somebody needs to invent shoes that are comfortable, don’t contribute to blisters, AND last more than a few months. Then, somebody would arrive in the middle of one of our bitch-fests and say, “I just saw Iron Will. She was huffing through that same boulder-field, and she was doing it.” That usually made our bitch sessions a little bit shorter. Not much. But a little bit.
Iron Will might be working with a few additional disadvantages than the average hiker. She has Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, commonly referred to as Lupus, which is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that can flare up and strike any part of the body at any time. There is no cure. Imagine living with a mutinous collection of antibodies that rebel against various organ systems, particularly the skin, joints and kidneys, leaving you bedbound for weeks at a time. It’s not surprising that one of the most common symptoms is an inescapable fatigue. I want to take a nap just thinking about trying to live an active life while my body is attacking itself.
But Iron Will didn’t take a nap. Even after a flare up attacked her spinal cord, resulting in paralysis below the pelvis. She chose not to give up her ability to walk. This required years of rehabilitation and physical therapy to learn to rely on her hips and arms. Then there were protracted negotiations to get the computerized prostheses that could sense her gait and lock/unlock her knees. These prostheses would make the mechanics of walking on flat ground more fluid, but she would still need to use twice the energy to walk the same distance as me.
Iron Will’s story already had the makings of an inspiring journey to overcome obstacles; however, I wouldn’t have heard of her if she hadn’t refused to give up a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail.
I think back to those initial days in Georgia, when I was frustrated that I hadn’t gotten my “hiker legs” yet. The Trail kept going up, except when it was going down, over and over again. I just had to keep hiking. Eventually my legs would get stronger, cardiopulmonary function would become more efficient. Spring was coming. There was hope. Blah Blah Blah.
I wonder what Iron Will’s adjustment period was like? Surely she questioned the sanity of her decision to hike the AT. I know I did.
“How am I gonna get up there?” and “does New York HAVE to route the Trail through EVERY boulder field they can find?” These were questions I had just finished asking myself as I rounded the summit of Bear Mountain in New York. Iron Will was there in a clearing just beyond a sloping rock terrace.
I’d been looking forward to meeting her for quite a while, expecting a woman with fierce determination and maybe looking a bit like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I approached her as a goofy fan: “You’re Iron Will! Wow! I’ve totally been looking forward to meeting you! Did you just come through those rocks?” I ignored the videographer with the professional looking video camera that was obviously trying to interview her. She laughed self-consciously at my excitement, but answered my questions. She didn’t flinch as I checked out her legs, noticing the lack of atrophy or skin abrasions I would expect from someone with prolonged paralysis. Her leg muscles are still getting some exercise…
She didn’t have that half-crazy/feral look I’d expected either. Part of it was due to her need to get to town frequently to recharge the batteries in her prostheses, but most of it was an infectious enthusiasm that she exuded. Within minutes, I recognized that this wasn’t just an epic struggle to overcome obstacles, she was having fun.
Yeah, hiking the AT was hard, but totally worth it.
I don’t normally travel in a pack. However, I found myself hiking with 4 other hikers as we left New Jersey and made our way into New York. Thumper was the de facto leader as he had the greyest hair; Caveman nimbly bounced from rock ledges to fallen tree stumps and back to the trail, clearly in his element; Stonebridge, with his haunting gaze, silently stuck to the middle of the pack; I was the new-comer; and Tune-up provided rear security. Conversations were kept to a minimum while we made our northward patrol on the AT until we reached the rock piles that served as a welcome to New York. Then we bunched up to wait our turn to scale a crevice or wedge ourselves between gaps. “Seriously! We’re going up that?” Thumper and I tried not to get bitter as Caveman bounded up gleefully.
I started to feel patriotic. I’m sure the flags painted onto rock slabs, and the flag waving from a vista overlooking the Hudson River and New York City contributed. The composition of our pack was also a factor. We had served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. Thumper, Tune-Up and I had military retirements under our belts.
“Pretty awesome that we can do something like this, isn’t it? I mean, hike the whole length of the country. No need for passports. Just a pack, money to buy stuff in town, and legs to get us to the next Trail Magic.” I didn’t record which of us said this as we stopped at a vista to chance our breath, but it echoed all our thoughts.
But we’ve sure paid for it, I thought but didn’t say out loud. When I didn’t have to focus on the terrain, I was pulled back into unforgettable scenes from my career as an Air Force surgeon. I wasn’t the only one that was stuck in another inescapable series of flashbacks. We set up camp at an isolated clearing, away from the nearest shelter and unlikely to be interrupted by other hikers.
Without discussing it, we’d gathered firewood and set up a fire ring even before pitching our tents. Tune-Up started talking as we were setting up tents, reluctantly at first, then the stories spilled out in a cathartic release. Camp chores on hold, we gathered around the fire ring with snacks. “Safe” stories about his time as a marine got affirming nods and laughs as we identified on some level to life as a military grunt. Thumper countered Tune-Up’s gripes about sergeants that loved to bury troops under grunt work, while I made weak attempts to justify the pointless orders that officers gave.
The transition away from safe topics occurred seamlessly. Tune-Up was telling us about switching to the Coast Guard to be closer to family, and to help others rather than to harm. I recognized his far away, emotionless tone as he recounted rescuing a passenger that had fallen off a boat. He tried to haul an unresponsive passenger to safety. In graphic detail, he described hearing multiple fractures in his shoulder as it was pinned against the side of the boat. The passenger was resuscitated and recovered without lasting injuries. Tune-Up, on the other hand, underwent the first of many reconstructive surgeries to restore function to his arm.
There was extensive scarring on his shoulder and upper arm. His bicep was atrophied. It was obvious that he didn’t have full use of his arm even without doing an exam. As he listed infections, unsuccessful revisions, and increasingly complex interventions, it became clear that his recovery and rehabilitation was more traumatic than the initial injury. He was dependent on narcotics, antidepressants, and sedatives to minimize debilitating pain and PTSD.
My initial reaction was to help, to get more information. What was the next planned intervention? What about bone auto-transplantation? He had a copy of his post-injury X-Rays, which he showed me. I saw the extensive bone loss and screw misplacement that triggered the cascading series of failed repairs.
I was reminded of the patients with similar limb-threatening injuries that I was unable to save. One patient in particular had suffered through several years of interventions, tolerating my conviction that the next surgery would change the course of his recovery, that he would eventually walk again. I was so fixated on salvaging his limb that I didn’t appreciate how depressed he was. The next intervention restored blood flow to his leg. I was elated that he now had a “salvageable” leg. And devastated to attend his funeral 2 weeks later after he committed suicide.
It came as no surprise to hear that Tune-Up had been going through counseling for an eventual arm amputation. His hike was a farewell tour of sorts, a chance to get rowdy in the woods with a bunch of people that didn’t try to handle him with kid gloves. As I listened to Tune-Up share his story, I saw that this hike was also a chance to prepare for the new version of himself, and to finally shed some of the baggage that he’d accumulated since his injury.
I didn’t know Tune-Up prior to this hike, so I can’t quantify the degree to which the Trail has fostered his recovery. However, I can say that as we talked around the campfire, he displayed a genuine sense of peace and confidence about himself, about his future. It was overwhelming. Tune-Up showed us that he was salvageable. Hell, that we were all salvageable.