On Saturday Feb. 25, I decided to hike to Springer Mountain with two friends. We each had full 30-pound backpacks and hiked 9 miles up 2,000 feet of elevation to spend the night on Springer Mountain, at the start of the Appalachian Trail.
Even though the temperature was expected to be in the low 20s- not including the wind chill-we decided to take the journey. The wind chill made it much colder. I had cold shivers a few times during the night from not being totally prepared for the cold.
Anyway, back to what I learned from this hike and camping out.
As a person that has dealt with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks as a consequence of surviving childhood sexual abuse, I had imaginary fears I had to fight through during this hike. Even though I have been training for a rafting and camping trip down the Grand Canyon, I had not hiked over two miles with a 30-pound pack in about a year.
Those of us who deal with anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks have to push ourselves through the fear and keep living.
Once we arrived at the starting point of the hike and loaded up, all I could think about was how hard would this be with this heavy pack on my back, and how cold it gets at night on the mountain. I was taking a trail I had never taken before in my life. We had to get water from the streams using a portable filter system, which made me anxious.
As we started the hike, the first mile was all uphill. I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this trek? I am 60 years old and I’ve been successful. I don’t have anything to prove.” But I kept going. I had to prove to myself that I could succeed, and succeed for other survivors that feel they can’t win.
We started meeting other hikers that were starting their journeys to hike the entire Appalachian Trail-more than 2,100 miles. Just meeting those hikers inspired me to make my small journey.
The hike was tough and long. During the first day of hiking, one time I felt the feeling I get in my stomach when anxiety starts. I quickly did some deep breathing and said to myself, “Not today. Too much hiking left and no easy way out.” The feeling of panic immediately left me.
When we finally reached the campsite at the end of the first leg of the hike, I felt great. Secretly in the back of my mind, I was thinking about the hike back, hoping my claustrophobia – a fear of closed-in spaces that I started suffering from a few years ago-didn’t creep up while I was sleeping in my tent and sleeping bag.
Fortunately, we all slept in an open-air shelter, so the claustrophobic fear didn’t happen. I would have been warmer in my tent because I could have blocked the wind more. The open-air shelter removed the anxiety, but created some physical discomfort.
After freezing through the night, we were up at daybreak. Many of the through-hikers going on the Appalachian Trail were already up, packed and moving on. I was amazed at how many people were attempting to make the grueling six-month hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. They were from all over the world, and were all sizes, ages, shapes, and genders.
As we started back the next day on our hike, I was dressed in layers because I was still cold from the previous night. About an hour in, I stopped and took off all of my extra layers. I wore just my Morehouse College long-sleeve shirt. You get pretty warm quickly hiking terrain with elevation, steep climbs, and steep downhill trails.
The views of the mountain ranges during the hike were awesome. After our first stop, I told my hiking partners that I was going ahead of them because I wanted to be alone with God and nature. I wanted to follow the markers on the trail and challenge myself by handling the anxiety that comes when I push myself physically.
I then spent the next 3 1/2 hours all alone on the trail. It was an awesome experience! I made one mistake: I didn’t stop and take my backpack off to rest my body.
Here are some things I learned in 24 hours of hiking.
1. Imaginary fear can stop me from enjoying life. I have to push through the fear.
2. My mind gives out before the rest of my body does. My mind said, “Quit!” a few times, but I knew physically I was able. I had to push through when my mind said,”Go ahead and quit!”
3. Always carry extra water.
4. Anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks don’t have to control my life and have me miss an incredible journey.
5. Slow down in life. While hiking with a 30-pound pack, I had to slow down. When I did, I enjoyed everything around me and I didn’t get exhausted, anxious or fearful.
6. Train and prepare. I started training for this hike in all phases of my life and it paid off, especially doing exercises like “planks,” and hiking Stone Mountain, close to my home. I prayed often and decided anxiety wouldn’t rule my life. We all have to train and prepare for life, spiritually, emotionally and physically.
7. People that attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail are some the nicest people you will meet. They take this journey for many reasons. I made sure I gave everyone I met words of encouragement. Everyone was helpful to each other on the trail.
8. Time alone with God, nature and yourself is important for healing, recharging and fighting through the imaginary fear that can hold us back from enjoying life.
9. We are stronger than we realize. We can do some incredible things regardless of our pasts.
10. Nothing is better than real friends. Thanks to Robert Burroughs and Jason Lee for being on the hike with me.
My next challenge is a 7-day rafting and camping trip. We will hike up the Grand Canyon the last day – 7 miles over 4,600 feet of elevation gain. I am going to whip anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks into submission.