Mountains, Madness, & Miracles: 4,000 Miles Along the Appalachian Trail
In this look into a lifelong dream of adventure, Lauralee Bliss – or “Blissful” (her trail name) – reflects on the 4,000 mile journey she undertook with her teen son, hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and then again from Maine to Georgia as a solo hiker. Through the retelling of events from the hikes, “Blissful” compares the adventure to life’s journey, encountering the miraculous through the numerous challenges she faced and through it, a new understanding of the Creator and His creation.
I Could Drop Dead
I stare at the physician in disbelief. I’d wanted a second opinion, one that would get me a pass out of this cold, antiseptic place called a hospital. Instead, a doctor is trying to give me an admission ticket.
“Are you kidding?” I say. “It’s that serious?”
“We won’t know until we run some more tests. You don’t want to go back out hiking with no medical help around and then drop dead. It’s better to find out. Heart conditions are more difficult to diagnose in women. We don’t take any chances with chest pain.”
Did he just say I could drop dead while hiking the trail? Fear washes over me. This doctor has to be joking. The Appalachian Trail is many things. It’s steep, flat, winding, twisting, challenging mind, body, and soul. It can make knees ache and feet wish they were nestled in soft slippers rather than soggy trail runners. But now a doctor claims I could drop dead hiking it. It never occurred to me that I could actually die on this journey of mine.
“Well then, I guess I’d better find out if I’m okay,” I tell him in a meek voice. I turn to the cold white wall, trying to blink back the tears. This isn’t supposed to be happening. I’m forty-four years old and in the best shape of my life. I’ve lost twenty pounds and dropped two clothing sizes since starting this hiking trip back in March. As it is, my hiking pants would be falling down if not for the waist belt of my backpack that keeps them up. I know I’m not eating the right foods at times, but surely that shouldn’t drive me to a hospital bed with an IV in my arm and a nurse trying to give me a nitroglycerin tablet for an unknown heart ailment.
Okay, God. There has to be a reason for this delay. Maybe I was being spared some further calamity from gripping me or my son on the trail. Or maybe this signaled the death of a dream. I would end my quest to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine at the halfway point within the bounds of a hospital in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. What the Pennsylvania rocks hadn’t yet inflicted upon me my own excesses would—with doctors convinced that my chest pain signaled a major heart condition. Halfway along on my journey and it’s come to a screeching halt.
I blame it on the half gallon challenge.
I grimace, thinking back on what my teenage son Joshua, or “Paul Bunyan”—his trail name—said. Just a few days ago we’d stopped at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania, just north of the halfway point along the Appalachian Trail. At the general store, hikers indulge in a tradition called the Half Gallon Challenge, requiring one to consume a half gallon of ice cream to mark the halfway point on the trail. Paul Bunyan joked how someone had posted the phone numbers for the nearest rescue squad and hospital on the outside wall of the store, as if to warn all would-be challengers of the potential risks involved. We shrugged it off, laughing as we shared a half gallon carton of cookies and cream. I thought about my past gallbladder issues but pushed it aside. This was the midway victory lap, and I would enjoy this refreshing treat on a hot summer’s day. But when I ate my last spoonful, I wondered if I would come to regret it.
A few nights later, I awoke to the worst pain. It started in my chest and radiated to my back. When I reported to the emergency room to have it looked at, I told the doctors it was likely my gallbladder raising a ruckus because of my excesses in the eating department. Instead they believe I’m having heart issues. They want to admit me for further testing.
I can’t believe this. I’m actually being admitted to the hospital, right smack in the middle of my hike.
Once everything is ready, the nurse wheels me to a room in the medical ward. They hook me up to a telemetry unit that will monitor my heart. I stare out the window that overlooks a modest mountain range in the distance, the same mountain range I’m supposed to be crossing on the Appalachian Trail today. Instead of hiking, I’m in bed, wired up with electrodes, waiting for tests on the ol’ ticker.
This isn’t supposed to happen!
I face yet another challenge rendered by trail life. Another mountain to conquer. Another test of faith. Another moment that forces me to choose between peace or crippling anxiety.
Okay, God. My life is in Your hands. And so is my heart, in whatever shape it’s in.
Yet the real test still remains. Can I accomplish this one dream that has
stayed with me some thirty years? Can I hike the entire Appalachian Trail and
do it with my only son? Is this really what I’m supposed to do, or is it sheer
One Long Dream or a Nightmare?
1977 to 2007
“Patience and diligence, like faith, remove mountains.”
~ William Penn, Quaker
“There’s no way I’m hiking again with you. Every time we go out, you have to race ahead. And then you say we can make time on these flat sections. I’m about ready to pass out!”
I’m not sure how to answer my sister. We’re teens, out for a simple wander in the woods. But our simple three-mile jaunt to some picturesque waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park has turned into an eight-mile ordeal of rough canyon walking. And we only have one small can of juice between us. I swallow down any answer and just hike. Hopefully we will reach our destination soon before my sister gets really mad, or we both get really thirsty.
I can’t help it, I love to hike. I love conquering a trail with speed and gusto while enjoying the beauty of creation that surrounds me. Trying to hike with me is like racing a sports car filled with high-octane gas. All I want to do is conquer this thing called a trail and make it my own. At the tender age of fourteen, I hear trails calling my name. They beg the questions: Do you dare try to master me? Can you take what I have to offer, propelling you up some steep mountainside, through all kinds of terrain, to some far-off conclusion? As a young teen, and still rather ignorant, I answer with an unequivocal, “You bet I can. I’ll take you on…anytime, anywhere.”
Little do I realize I’m setting myself up for a thirty-year odyssey to conquer a special trail. The trail of trails. The Appalachian Trail. It runs from Georgia to Maine through fourteen states, numerous national forests, state and national parks, towns, farmlands, roads, and yes…mountains. Over 2,000 miles. I first learn of the trail from a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park who points out the famous footpath winding through the woods, marked by white rectangles painted on the trees. The white blaze is the symbol of a scenic footpath, not only traversing state to state and scenery to scenery, but in my case, from maddening dream to hopeful fulfillment.
Let me at you! my heart screams. One day I will conquer you! That is, when the timing is right. After all, I’m still in high school. Then comes four years of college and who knows what else. But I remain fascinated by the idea of hiking a trail of this magnitude. A wondrous journey presented to me at an impressionable age. Walking from state to state. Seeing all there is to see and by the power of my own two feet. Not by car, mini motor home, plane, train or anything else but crossing state lines using pure muscle power, transporting an eager soul from Georgia to Maine. What an adventure. What a goal.
What madness…for a young teen. Still, I buy a few books to learn what a trip like this will entail. I’ll read about the adventure anyway, even if I can’t yet live it. The title of the book I choose is enough to send goose bumps racing up my arms and a chill skittering down my back. Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime. It reeks of all I want to experience. The author, Edward Garvey, was one of the first to hike the entire trail and document it in a day-by-day series of events. I read the book cover to cover. I make it a yearly ritual to read it. I want to do what Ed Garvey did. I want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
In the months and years that follow, I search for ways to cross paths with it. I scan road maps to see if one of our family trips will intersect it. I look out the car window for any telltale sign of a white blaze, a metal trail marker, or just a wooden sign inscribed with the magical words, Appalachian Trail. At a particular state park in Pennsylvania where the trail intersects, I beg my parents to hike a short section with me. They agree, along with snapping a picture of me beside an Appalachian Trail sign, my candy-cane-striped daypack slung over one shoulder. One small step for a teen. One giant step toward some future event yet to be written.
In the years that follow, I continue mentioning this peculiar dream of mine to parents, siblings, and friends, even if they think it’s only a passing fascination. “Get serious,” well-meaning mentors will admonish. And I do.
Even if others don’t seem to understand it, you have to chase your destiny with determination. You’re the one who can make your dream come true, if you believe in it and step out in it. No one is going to do it for you. And when you reach out in faith, God meets you. He met me in this madness I had concocted as a fourteen-year-old—the idea of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Though for a while it remains a seed hidden away in the cold ground, waiting to mature when the conditions are right.
While the seed lies dormant, I pursue educational goals like graduating college with a degree in nursing. Not long after, I give my heart and my life to Christ and look to Him for my goals in life. Such as where I should practice nursing. Only one place comes to mind after scouring the nursing recruitment literature. The university hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, which happens to lie in close proximity to Shenandoah National Park…and, you guessed it, the Appalachian Trail.
I interview and am offered a nursing job. I head to Virginia to make a new life. My days off are spent exploring the trails of Shenandoah, taking photos, and marveling in the beauty of God’s creation. I settle into a church and meet my future husband, Steve. He ends up my perfect match, one who shares a similar love for the outdoors. But little does he know the dreamer he’d married or how he would be instrumental in making those dreams come true. He would become a major pillar holding up the house of dreams. How we need such pillars in people when we are called upon to do something extraordinary. To steady us when we’re about to fall. To hold up our arms as men did with Moses. We do well to wait on the pillars God will bring into our life’s journey. They help us live out the dream and make the impossible possible.
So it is with Steve. But first comes marriage. Then the baby carriage…the birth of our first and only child, Joshua. Parenthood, responsibilities, jobs. Moving to a new home. Settling into activities like homeschooling Joshua, keeping house, and the newest area that opens up for me—writing novels. But the other dream, that seed planted long ago, that dream of hiking a 2,000-mile-long trail, still lurks in the background. At times the desire rears its head as if to let me know the seed is still in existence. I continue reading books about the trail, like my well-used Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime. The seed is still there in some form despite a career and marriage, despite child-rearing and homeschooling, despite caring for the vegetable garden, roses, and the family dog. A dream of one day completing the entire Appalachian Trail.
But it’s all the tasks of life for now. Joshua’s walking and talking. I grow weary of chasing our rambunctious coonhound who loves to roam the neighborhood. I clean the house and make nice meals. I’m trying to be that perfect mom and wife. But what about the seed of a long-distance hike? How I want to break open the tough outer hull to let a bit of nourishment reach the living matter. I want just a bit of growth, no matter how small. A morsel of faith injected into a dream so that the dream might take root.
I decide to mention my dream to Steve. “You know what I’ve been thinking?” Pause. “When Joshua is old enough, like sixteen, he and I are going to hike the Appalachian Trail together.”
We gaze at our three-year-old son who gives us an impish grin before racing off with a toy in one hand and a blue blanket clutched in the other. Steve says nothing. I think he nods. Thirteen years is a long time. There’s plenty of time for things to change and this idea to subside. For now it’s just words. But words can have a tremendous impact on our lives. Words are also a confession of faith. On the outside, words seem to have no such power to move anything. But isn’t that the essence of faith, to believe in something yet unseen? And just the nourishment needed to make a seed take root and grow, ever so slowly.
Years tick by. I continue to homeschool Joshua and write books. I’m still a dutiful wife and mom. But a part of me remains restless—the spirit of adventure aching to be released. I manage to calm a restless heart with some mini adventures, like a backpacking trip here and there. But as Joshua grows older and he begins to experience more of the outdoor life, I start to make plans for a long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail. Only four years remain until Joshua turns sixteen. His schooling will be wrapping up. It seems the perfect time to go.
I step out and set a date for the hike of all hikes. March, 2007.
I don’t say much to Steve about the date. Instead we try out a portion of the Appalachian Trail near our home. I don my backpack, overloaded with gear, and we set out to hike a difficult section in Virginia called the Three Ridges. On that hike I’m quickly thrust into the rigors of trail life I never knew existed. Ideas are one thing. Reality is another.
Every day it rains. I lay in my tent listening to the sound of a million raindrops from a violent thunderstorm when a light mist of condensation begins falling on me. Not only is it raining on the outside of the tent but on the inside, too. I decide to make a mad dash for the trailside shelter and better protection. I crawl out of my tent to discover a thousand earthworms have materialized from the ground and are now squirming their way toward me. I crawl back inside the tent and wail. How can I possibly do this maddening thing called the Appalachian Trail? Whatever possessed me to want to try? I’d read the books and fantasized for years. But really I know so little about what it means to live in the actual trenches of trail life, now rapidly filling with puddles, mud, and earthworms by the hundreds.
The next day we trudge through rugged terrain in the rain and fog. There are no views but plenty of blisters and pain. My pack feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. We come to another shelter to discover the occupants had moved out when they heard our family was coming. I’m grateful to have a dry place to spend the night, but I’m still discouraged about trying to do a long-distance hike. I don’t think I can cope with the difficulties. The rain. The pain. The worms. And to make matters worse, I discover a mouse has nibbled away the nose pads to my glasses at the last trailside shelter. This really is madness.
But then I discover that one of the other occupants sharing the shelter that night had completed a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. I confess to Animal (his trail name) my doubts that seem higher than any mountain we’d climbed that day.
He nods in an understanding way. “You have to realize, the trail is 90% mental. Most anyone can handle the physical aspects. It’s the mental game you need to overcome. From what you’ve been saying, how you’ve wanted to do this since you were young, I believe you’ve got a good shot at accomplishing it.”
Wow. It’s like Animal was sent as a sign to keep my dream alive. Despite the hardship and the doubts, don’t give up. Stay the course. And believe in what you feel you’re supposed to do.
Time continues to melt away, and now two years remain before the big start day. In all that time, I’ve hardly talked to Steve about my plan. So one day I decide to broach the subject. I tell him how I would like to hike the whole trail with Joshua, starting the first of March, 2007. It will take us six months to accomplish it.
“You can’t be gone that long!” he protests. “I think you should do it over several summers. Then I can join you.”
I could do it that way, but that’s not my heart’s desire. I really want to do the whole trail in one year. But I know, too, I need help. To be gone for months on end, with the need for support, means I need my husband to agree to the plan.
But Steve is not in the agreeing mood.
And what about Joshua, my supposed co-hiker in this venture…?
Yeah, I heard about this whole deal when I was fourteen years old. I really couldn’t even think about it, to be honest. But when I do consider it, I wonder how I can do 2,000 miles and six months of hiking.
Then I start to get defensive when I’m told I have to go. “Mom, this is your dream,” I tell her. “Why do I have to go, just to carry your stuff? Why do I want to take six months out of my life to hike?” For me, I like a weekend of hiking. But six months? And the idea of taking that much time away from friends? No way.
Sigh. This is not working out. The family appears dead set against this. They have no vision to hike the trail like I do. I’ve had thirty years to nurture this dream. They’ve had less than two years to grab hold of the idea. Time is running out.
One day, Steve decides we ought to do some more hiking as a family. This time we’ll do the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park near our home. I’m happy for anything to get our feet back on the trail, literally as well as figuratively. The more we hike, the more we’ll know the ins and the outs of this thing, and the better chance that madness can turn into reality. Or at least a dream might take hold.
Off we go, tackling a few weekends of Appalachian Trail hiking through Shenandoah National Park. I’m nervous, I must admit. The second day on the trail we plan to hike thirteen miles. The most I’ve ever hiked in one day is ten miles, and that was a day hike. I didn’t know if I could make it. But I do and end up with sore muscles and toenails ready to fall off. That night I’m in no mood to talk to any of the other hikers in residence inside the shelter. I’m hurting too much to enjoy any of this. Doubts plague me once again.
But now I start to realign my thinking. If I want this hike to succeed, something inside me needs to give. An attitude check of sorts. The next time we continue on our trek through Shenandoah, I plan to set a few things straight in my heart:
- I will have a better attitude, even if the hike proves difficult.
- I will be a friend of the trail. No matter how tired or grouchy I am, I will speak to other hikers and not fall into isolationism.
- I will do what I need to do, putting aside fleshly pain and fatigue to stand in faith.
At this point in our hiking it’s all nondescript to me. I’m okay about doing Shenandoah as long as I don’t have to hike long days. In fact the next time we go out on the trail, we only hike two miles to our first spot for the night. That’s more my style. We arrive at the shelter to see smoke from a fire. My heart falls, figuring there are tons of hikers. Instead there are two scruffy guys called Disney and Mailar. I get to talking to them and find out they are “thru hikers” doing the whole Appalachian Trail. Wow, people really do hike this whole thing. It’s interesting to find out why they are doing it.
Later that evening I decide my job is to gather wood for the fire. At one point I find this thick log, five feet long. I try breaking it by throwing my weight against it, but it’s not working.
Disney sees me struggling and shouts, “Hey Paul Bunyan, let me give you a hand with that.”
We work together to break up the wood and bring it back to the shelter. I tell my mom what Disney called me, and she immediately says, “Hey, you have a trail name now! Paul Bunyan.”
After the experience of earning my trail name, I feel like I fit in with the hiking crowd. Things are changing inside me. I still think I’m too young to do this, and the distance is too far. Maybe at age nineteen or twenty a person will hike over 2,000 miles. But at age sixteen, I’m leery about it all.
So what should we do? Go for this mega hike or not?
Not long after our wander through Shenandoah National Park is complete, Steve comes to me with a thought or two. “You know, Lauralee…if you were to start the trail in March then I could join you in the summer. And if we can knock off the northern part of Virginia right now, that would put you farther along. I could then hike with you in New England, which is my favorite area.”
I’m still on his first sentence. Did he just say, If you were to start the trail in March…?
He did! I had the blessing of my husband to do the trail! Did I have to stress over it? Lose sleep? Argue with everyone to change minds and hearts? Not a bit. I rest in the knowledge that everything is under control. Not by my will but in allowing God to work in other people’s hearts. He has this thirty-year-old dream all figured out, if I’m patient to wait and see what unfolds.
Besides my husband’s approval, I also seek out the counsel of leaders and close friends. I believe there’s wisdom found in a multitude of counselors, and I can always use wisdom, especially in an extreme venture such as this. First I talk to the pastor’s wife about my plan. I’m not sure how it’s going to be received. It’s unusual, of course, to spend months hiking—until she mentions her own interest in one day climbing Kilimanjaro. What an interesting coincidence. Whenever we meet after that, she asks how plans are coming for the trail.
One Sunday in church she rushes up to me. “You must meet our guest today, Lauralee! She’s hiked the whole Appalachian Trail!”
What? In our little church of 80 people, a visitor has come who has actually accomplished what I want to do? I can’t wait to meet her. And I do, in the women’s rest room of all places. She hiked the trail in 2005. Her trail name is Odyssa. She shares about what she did and what an adventure it was and encourages me to do it. Little do I realize that five years later, in 2011, this woman will become the world record holder for the fastest time hiking the Appalachian Trail. Jennifer Pharr Davis, i.e. Odyssa. Small world.
Another confirmation of my plans comes at a surprise birthday brunch that my friends throw for me. I’m close to the start of my dream journey—a mere two months away. My good friend had put some money in one of the cards, along with a note:
To buy what you need for your thing (meaning my hiking thing).
I’m touched. I open yet another gift, and it’s a book entitled, Live Like You Were Dying. The friend who gave me the book knew nothing about my plan to hike for six months.
I still have a few other important people left to ask, namely my book editors who have some pending writing projects for me to finish. Three books are due out that fall. But all of my editors are willing to work around my trail schedule and even express excitement for my plan.
Everything is falling into place. I have my husband on board. My son is interested. My book editors agree to work with my strange schedule. My friends give me messages in cards, Scripture verses, letters, e-mails, and gifts.
It certainly appears as if this dream of mine, born at age fourteen, is heading for fruition. But there is still much to do to get ready for a six-month hike. The lists are growing. The butterflies are fluttering. Time is growing nigh.
Will I be ready?