Healing In Nature



Written By Madeline Showalter


Acknowledgements I could not have undertaken this journey without the endless support of my Chair, Dr. Andrew Bobilya. I am also thankful to Dr. Callie Shultz for encouraging me to pursue autoethnography. I would also like to extend a warm thank you to the entire EOE inaugural cohort at Western Carolina University. We have relied on one another for academic and social support throughout this process, and I would not have made it to this point without each of you. Special thanks to my grandparents, Dr. Walter and Frances Barton, who provided me the haven of their beach house ‘Taste the Sea,’ in Litchfield, Pawleys Island, to finish writing this story. This endeavor wouldn’t be possible without the support of family and friends who have helped me through this process in ways I cannot express, and for that, I will be forever grateful. Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the hikers I interacted with during my time on the Appalachian Trail.


As a woman who has grown up deeply immersed in the outdoors, I have always greatly appreciated the natural world around me. It was not until after I experienced sexual violence that I began to seek nature as a place of healing. As part of the requirements in completing my master’s degree, I have written an autoethnography that tells the story of my experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail and reflects on my healing from past sexual trauma. To tell my story of how I have found healing in nature is to offer space for other people’s stories to be heard as well. Vulnerability is equitable, my lived stories are interwoven with the people I became fortunate to meet, and whose voices deserve to be heard. I could not ask for transparency without being willing to give the same in return, providing a space to encounter each other with authenticity. Unapologetically, I will use my voice and those of who’s stories I am honored to share to make a difference. The story consists of my experiences from backpacking the Appalachian Trail and personal reflection from past sexual trauma. Poems I have written, and excerpts from my personal journal will be imbedded throughout in italics and accompanied by pictures from my journey on the AT. Throughout the text, I reference Rochelle Calvert and her book Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic Practices to Heal from Trauma which shows how to relate to and connect with nature through mindfulness and somatic practices. The material written may be triggering, specifically to survivors of sexual violence or trauma. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7, and the number is 1-800-656-4673. Another resource for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders is SAMHSA’s National Helpline and can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The Suicide & Crisis Hotline can be reached at 988.

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I would lie on my back as a child in a blanket of grass and watch the sun breathe on my face; this would come to be one of the fondest moments of my childhood, a revenue of peace. We crafted forts from fallen sticks and decaying leaves; magic was always around us. Growing up was to learn how to be outdoors and love it. Climbing trees turned to sit quietly under one. To step from one rock to another to cross the creek was a favorite game. I always found water appealing, whether shimmering slowly or whitening the blue waves, and sitting by water brought me instant relief. To go under and come up for air, cleansing in the process. Problems would quiet by sitting along the shoreline and fixing your eyes upon a focal point ahead. I noticed my body, mind, and heart became more open after working through and releasing the trauma I had held onto for years. It was June when I started my section hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT); the temperatures were in the upper eighties. After reading articles, surveying statistics, and talking to former AT thru-hikers who had completed the trail in previous years, I decided to hike a section of the AT in Virginia. Virginia is my home state and the parts of the trail that pass through it have always intertwined with my personal and professional life. Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical-drop waterfall east of the Mississippi and is found in Nelson County, Montebello, Virginia. The falls feature five significant cascades and several smaller ones. A side trail leads 1.2 miles from the upper falls to the AT.

Backpacking with Sailor Sailor is a golden retriever, fond of water in any form. When I initially planned my trip on the AT, I tailored my journey to be appropriate, healthy, and exciting for a dog since Sailor was joining me as my companion. Therefore, I structured my trip to be close to the water supply. I was transported to the trail and arrived towards the evening to set up camp by Crab Creek. The bugs were terrible, and it was a massive attempt to get in and out of the tent without letting in our little visitors. Dinner was a bagel and peanut butter that night. I offered some to Sailor in addition to his usual dog food, which would be the only time. Sailor accepted my bagel and peanut butter. The morning was a slow awakening, a simple joy of backpacking alone. You can establish your routine by telling time by the sun and the moon. I planned to hike roughly eight miles daily, providing a comfortable pace. With it being Sailor's first time backpacking, we frequently stopped to re-adjust and transfer weight from his pack to mine, which ultimately became the only backpack.

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The trail ran adjacent to Crab Creek, which followed closely beside us. We saw various waterfalls of different grandeur, stopping at some of them to witness Sailor plunge into the water at any opportunity. Being by water was a way to relax my body and mind. The surface glistened as tiny ripples orchestrated flow, where a person could find serenity.

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A Tale Never Told I felt a fish exhale its last in a sling that draped off my shoulder and fell against my waistline. Naïve, it paraded in a mortal world, an arena enveloped within dirt banks. Beneath the river's current, it fell captive to a worm handcrafted to kill. It died, only trying to survive. I rested on an otter's dam, looked out on the still waters

as the pitter and patter of footless songs burnt a burgundy red over the blue tips. The sound resonated within me, a hymn mute to the rest of the world.

Death took longer than I expected as the creature fought for water and drowned in the air. The breaths soothing as the piano man played his final duet

with nature's rippled streams, keen and then slow. As oxygen silenced its last words, it panicked no more. I wonder what it was thinking; was it confused dancing with monsters?

I was on a school bus when I first encountered sexual violence. I was 15 years old. It was the fall of my sophomore year of high school and my first year attending boarding school. As a student who grew up attending public school, I was excited about the opportunity to be a student at a private school in a new town. I was on the cross-country team, returning from an away meet. I was sitting towards the back of the bus, next to a boy I thought was my friend. It was dark. I remember him trying to reach into my pants, his hand covering my mouth. I remember him grabbing my hand and placing it on himself. He told me not to tell anyone. We got back to the school right before evening study hall. I remember sitting quietly, staring ahead blankly. I never dealt with the repercussions of the initial sexual violence that occurred when I was 15. Perhaps it was too painful, or I felt life should go on. Regardless, I completely blocked it from my mind for years, and I never addressed the pain that elevated from the abuse. As we traveled on, the rain started to pick up, providing relief from the current heat wave. We passed by a cave just off the trail around lunchtime. The misty air and rain kept up, and we stayed under nature's shelter for a while.

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The hike to the top of the falls was alluring yet tiresome. My body began to feel as though it were long-distance running. On the way to the campsite I took a fall and immediately felt a sharp pain in my left knee. With two previous meniscus surgeries in the past, I was worried I was not going to be able to get back up. The look on my dog's face revealed the situation did not look promising, but to my disbelief, I was fine when I stood up; my body had rebounded. It was fear that kept me on the ground. When we reached the top, a platform with a fence overlooked the upper falls. A breeze lifted the moist air above us, and Sailor jumped up with both paws looking out at the horizon. We found a designated campsite next to a stream along the trail with a built-in fireplace, logs for sitting, and plenty of grassy areas to pitch a tent. I cooked Forever Young mac and cheese. As we ate dinner, a backpacker walked by, led by a German Shepard, who wore the same blue backpack as my dog, Sailor. I watched as she and her dog stopped, turning towards the campsite we were. The woman and I greeted each other, and then she continued walking southbound toward the falls. She must have been trying to set up camp for the night, and I wondered if I should have said something more to make her feel welcome to stay. I recognized this was another place of worry and overthinking that I was still actively working on rewiring my mind. Later that night, she passed by, and we exchanged the same interaction. I hope to cross paths with her again. The next day we woke around 8:30 am. I did not bring a watch and preferred to refer to my GPS for the time. Alarms may be essential to time management, but I found it helpful to rely on my body's communication on when to rest. The eagerness to listen to my body when I am hungry, tired, thirsty, hurting, or energized allowed me to reflect on trusting my senses and what I need. I boiled some water and made coffee. I journaled by the stream when I was not particularly hungry from last night's meal. While I packed up camp, I found Sailor sneaking into the tent and lying down on my sleeping pad.

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When he decided to swim again, I bathed in the stream using my wilderness soap. We stayed at camp for a couple of hours. I took time to write in my journal and reflect on the journey ahead of me. Sailor did not want to leave, but eventually, he knew it was time to go. I packed up camp, put on Sailor's empty pack and my full one, and we took off. On the hike, we stopped by a creek, and Sailor swam. I pulled out my camp chair and book and began to read; however, that didn't last long as Sailor started running off into the woods, chasing a deer.

We saw a sign for the 'Priest Shelter around three o'clock.' It was about a mile off the trail, but it was hot outside, and I needed to refill our water supply. A mile downhill, we came across an old shelter, and a group of five young men were lying down. After a few minutes of aimlessly looking around me, a voice asked if I was looking for the water and gently pointed me in that direction. I thanked them and headed down to the potable water. While I was filling up and filtering the water, Sailor decided to take the opportunity to trot around in the water supply; not ideal, but I let him. When I got back up to the shelter area, I was fumbling around with my Smart water bottle and filter when I decided to converse with the other hikers. I asked them if they could show me how to work the Smart water filter system. Suddenly, the quiet voices that greeted me took a light turn. One attempted to explain the technique of filling one Smart water bottle with dirty water and keeping the filter on the clean one, allowing you to drink directly from the supply. "Show her how to do it!" another voice popped in, and the first man walked towards me to help. I asked if they were thru-hiking the AT, and they said yes. After I shared with them that I was only a section hiker who had started a few days prior, I watched as their competitive nature rose to the surface. They stated they had been trying to hike up to twenty miles a day, had all started as solo hikers, and had met each other along the way. Shortly after, a young woman walked down the hill to the shelter."You made it!" one of the men said to the women. The woman then talked about how her friend, who she had been hiking with, texted her recently and confessed that she did not know if she could keep doing this. The exhaustion showed clearly on each one of their faces. Meanwhile, Sailor had crawled under the shelter and dug a mud hole to lie there. And he did lay there for hours. I tried to get him to come out, using praise and encouragement, but he had none. I was aware I could not forcibly pull him out from under the shelter, as I felt that might constitute animal abuse to the onlookers. We stayed, and we rested. After some time, the five young men picked up their packs and continued. They mentioned trying to make it to a creek about seven miles north to set up camp for the night and invited me to camp with them if I

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could make it that far. Determined by the invite, I responded that they might see me there; if not, I might see them at another place on the trail. I never saw those five men again.

It was around five o'clock in the afternoon when I decided Sailor would not be able to hike anymore that day. A group of older individuals had come down at this point and suggested they should stay here for the night instead of going farther. I gave in, stood up, grabbed my pack and his, and told him it was time to set up camp for the night. I started walking towards the grassy areas in the distance; immediately, he came out from under the shelter and joyfully followed me through the trees. AT shelters were roofed with an open front, and although ideal for resting, most hikers opted for a tent nearby instead. The night was young, and no one had set up tents yet, and my indecisive nature was perplexed at the options spread out before me. I found a space with cherry-colored blossoms that covered the ground, canopied under the red tree. Magical, but the bugs preferred to be near the water. Ahead was a creek that trickled down from the water pipe. I settled upon a campsite in an open space with a built-in fireplace and logs for sitting. I cooked dinner and attempted to feed Sailor, but he refused to eat (even human food) and was not accepting water. I sat on a log and journaled but soon became distracted by my dog biting the air around him, attempting to rid all bugs from his atmosphere. Amused but able to sense his discomfort, I put a bug net over his head, which he shook off immediately. Before dark, I set up a bear hang with all food and anything that would attract animals. Most shelters provide a bear box or a pole to hook a food bag). However, I knew I needed to practice putting up a bear hang on my own. On the first night of my trip, I had not set up a bear hang and quickly realized how dangerous that was when I woke the following day to find claw marks on the side of the tent. I crawled into the tent with Sailor and attempted to fall asleep but could not. Sailor's breathing elevated, and I noticed a sweaty puddle under him. At this point, I noticed my anxiety began to rise, and I was worried about my dog. My phone was dead, and the solar panel I brought to charge my battery was inefficient under a canopy of trees. I took out the GPS and attempted to reach my parents to tell them I was safe in a shelter for the night but that Sailor was not doing well. Yet, I soon realized the GPS did not work correctly inside tent walls. I decided to try to sleep, and I would reevaluate a plan to get Sailor off-trail in the morning. A storm came in the middle of the night. I could hear the trees wavering above me. I learned from working as a field guide in wilderness therapy that you were never to set up a tent under a 'window maker,' in this case, a dead tree. I crawled out of the tent to observe the storm around me, and I noticed the trees swaying back and forth above me were, in fact, not alive. I quickly gathered all I could carry and threw it out of the tent. It is raining heavily now. I moved the tent to a more open space and returned inside. Not long after, I decided to get up again and go under the shelter. It was 3:30 am when I awoke to multiple voices calling out my name. I opened my eyes, and to my disbelief, a group of EMS workers was standing before me. "Are you Madeline? We got a call from your parents." That's when I realized when I had left the tent in the middle of the night, the GPS message was delivered. They checked out Sailor, yet to their surprise, he was his happy

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self. They thought he could be suffering from heat stroke and offered to evacuate us and, if not, to use their phone to call my parents to let them know I was okay.

When I called, I found out that my parents, who were in much distress, had driven hours from their home in Virginia and were almost to my location. I was not surprised; my parents have always been protective. I decided to go with the friendly group of EMS workers. I told them that I had moved camp in the middle of the night due to the storm and that I had left my water bottle back at that site. They insisted on getting it for me and returned with a water bottle that was not mine. To the person whom I accidentally acquired a water bottle from, I hope you found mine. With all the commotion, I left my food bag in the tree. To the people who find it, I hope it offers some relief on your journey. We all got in the four-wheeler, Sailor included and held on for a rough couple of miles till we reached the ambulance. Once in the ambulance, they told me they were meeting my parents at a service road. During the drive, we talked about how this was the second rescue call of the day and was much more joyful than the one prior. "We found you," the woman sitting with me in the back of the ambulance replied. Earlier in the day, a man went hiking and took a fall and hurt his knee. He requested help, but that was all. The EMS workers heard from his wife that he had made it safely off the trail. I told her why I was hiking the AT and about my thesis project, which she admired. I realized I could have opened up more about the specifics of my project as she commented on how healing nature could be in recovering from trauma. The ambulance pulled into a parking space by the service road, and sitting before us were my dedicated parents. I thanked the EMS workers for their time and help, and they reassured me that this was on them and that I would not have an ambulance fee. I was thankful that such genuine humans existed. Three days in the wilderness with Sailor allowed me to realize that this was not his journey, it was only mine, and with the high temperatures, it would be best for me to carry on alone. I had chosen to be around Crab Tree Falls to ensure that a constant water supply would be available. However, with only one person to consider in this equation, I decided to change my agenda. I wanted to complete the whole Shenandoah National Park section of the trail, and with only myself to think about, I rerouted my plans. I was transported to Rockfish Gap Entrance Station, the southern entry point to the Shenandoah National Park. It was not until four years later that the trauma from the child sexual abuse (CSA) I experienced when I was 15 resurfaced. It was October. I was a sophomore in college and was with friends at a fraternity party on campus. He was a junior and played lacrosse for the college. We had some classes together but never had any conversation. We saw each other at the party, a conversation ignited, and towards the end of the night, we returned to my dorm together. We both had been drinking, but I remember everything that happened; my mind was clear. And when I said no, I did not want to have sex, he did not take no for an answer.

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Helpless to the Wolves

Numb. She finds herself Looking in a mirror at an unfamiliar face. Standing in front of her, gasping For air, as if she could not breathe; Weary eyes lay upon her, a cry for Help. She sees her pain, Maybe even mourns for the girl Nevertheless, she will never share it. Disoriented. She pressed the jagged piece of Metal into the skin. Pain, she cannot feel. It is not that she doesn't Remember the torture, the exemplary Amount of pain a human Soul could endure. The memories flood her Membrane. Chilling her every fiber.

The innocence of her youth. Then something happens, Evil triumphs and she finds herself Cornered in a black room. A sweaty palm Takes away her voice as a hand slides up her knees. He says not to tell anyone. But the memory that never fades, She was raped at nineteen. She remembers, but she cannot Feel it. Or maybe she refuses To allow herself the fortuity. A protective Strategy her brain creates to guard her heart.

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The doctor expresses the normality of this feeling. Diagnosing a "flight and fight response" [1] The human brain vouchsafes To stay alive during incidents of harm. All she hears is flight. Fleeing society. The problem. The undeniable tragic

Remains of a terminal world. Her eyes refuse to show agony, Reveal weakness, and open herself up, Vulnerable to those who target the helpless. Wolves are only raised to survive.

After he raped me, he rolled over and fell asleep in my dorm bed. That was the last night I spoke with him. I left my room and went to my friend's dorm, where I spent the night on their floor. A friend took me to the hospital the following day, where I underwent a rape kit and talked to a detective in the case. As an investigation unfolded, my rapist was called into the police station, where I was later told he confessed to the crime. The detective wanted me to decide if I wanted to press charges without being influenced by others or what my assaulter had said. Ultimately, I chose not to press charges, not because he did not rape me, not because he did not deserve to face the repercussions of his actions, but because I was terrified of having to stand in a courtroom and become the one on trial. I refused to have to defend myself for a crime that he committed. Julia & Michael and Three Pens I hiked to a shelter but did not go inside. Instead, I filled up my water and sat by the piped spring. Gold. While I was sitting there, a couple of hikers passed by, walking toward the shelter. I continued onwards and found a pleasant area to camp, a grassy site overlooking the Shenandoah Mountain range. I pitched my tent by the lookout. I cooked dinner and hung up a bear hang for the night. Little time had passed when an older couple with daypacks and a dog walked up. They asked if I was alone and okay with them camping there. I happily replied yes. That night they lay in a hammock, set up between two trees, and read a book out loud together. Concentrating on reading my book was hard as I became attuned to listening to theirs instead. [1] The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal or acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Walter Bradford Cannon first described it.

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I woke at five o'clock to the rustling of sleeping bags and a brisk unzip of the tent walls. I could hear their dog sniffing at my tent and a quiet call from the man to the dog to return. I lay still for about 10 minutes and then got out of the tent. I walked over, still dark out, and told him I had lost my pens and asked if they had a pen or pencil I could take with me. He told me he did not think they did and then asked his wife, who did not either. The man offered, "I think I have a pen in my truck." He then asked if I was going northbound and offered to give me a pen if I wanted to walk out with them. They just had to make coffee and pack up camp. I stayed in the tent while they boiled water for coffee and sat drinking it in the dim morning light. As we walked out together, they told me they make overnight camping trips often but had never been to the overlook we slept at the night before, although they had always wanted to. The woman, Julia, stopped us and pointed out a plant, picking a leaf off and holding it out in front of me. She told me, but I forgot the name, "If you are ever lacking water, chew on these leaves, they will hydrate you." Nature is healing in many ways; her elements can help both body and mind. Time with them was brief, as we found ourselves at an intersection of the skyline drive. Across the road was a parking area with a beautiful view of the mountains. Michael found three pens in his truck and gave them to me, wishing me luck on the trail. Out here, the simplest things are the most valuable.

Meaningful Connections

Today was a powerful day in many ways. After Julia and Michael drove away, I made coffee sitting on the brick wall on the skyline drive. While I enjoyed my coffee, I saw a young woman about my age backpacking toward me. I recognized her from the two hikers I saw at the spring earlier on. Little did I know the impact she would have on my experience. She was a graduate student in an architecture program, section hiking the AT for a week as part of her thesis, in which she intended to survey park rangers along the way. She asked me why I was out there, and I started by explaining the Experiential and Outdoor Education program I was in and what I originally wanted to do for my graduate thesis but switched to project after the first year in consideration of the sensitive nature of my topic, potential IRB obstacles and upon professors' recommendations. I explained how I wanted to

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research nature-based therapy for rape survivors with PTSD. Still, now I was writing an autoethnography and hiking a section of the AT to understand better how nature is healing in my experience. She said, "Well, I would've met your first criteria." I was curious, amazed, and heartbroken at the same time. She looked me in the eye and said, "I know way too many women that it has happened to." In the distance, we saw a young man approaching, which I learned was her boyfriend. "I would've gone alone, but my mom wanted someone to go with me," the woman laughed. I found out her name was Susan. Although I chose not to pursue legal charges, I soon realized that I could not keep going on with my life without doing anything at all, and seeing him around campus made me dissociate, and I suffered from intense flashbacks of the rape. I decided to report the sexual assault to campus safety. The school handled the report appropriately, and a school investigation underwent. Campus safety served as witnesses to the local police department. The university found him guilty of sexual misconduct and suspended him until I graduated college. I was disappointed he was not automatically expelled, but I accepted that I no longer had to attend college with my rapist.

Ten miles to the next water source. Fuck - I remember thinking to myself. I needed more water to make it to the next water supply northbound. I decided to backtrack, a total of four miles, to get water. It was worth it. Little did I know I would be hiking 18 miles that day. It was afternoon, and the sun was scorching. I decided to take a back-off break and soak it all in; the solar panel certainly appreciated the gesture. I saw backpackers pass by, and some day hikers pull up in vehicles to hop out with small bags or nothing. A thru-hiker stopped by and sat in the same parking lot as me. He looked at me, "I think I'll stop here too." His trail name was Gas.

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AT hikers often go by a trail name instead of their actual name. We talked briefly and exchanged why we were both hiking the AT. He was on his way to Maine. He asked if I was interested in walking together, so we started hiking. We talked a lot. He was very interested in Enneagram, a personality test. I learned about him, and he heard about me. He was number nine, and I received a number two when I had taken the test previously. He mentioned his trail family was really into the Enneagram and learning more about others. He told me how he had separated from his trail family after taking a week off because of the heat, but he hoped to catch up to his brother, who was around twenty miles ahead of him. A whole six miles nonstop, fast-paced, and I was too shy to suggest I needed a water break. Eventually, I told him I needed to stop, and we parted ways I made it to the shelter, where Susan told me she was staying for the night. I saw her walking uphill from the piped source below. I went down and saw her boyfriend, Matt, sitting with his shoes off, his feet dangling over the pipe. I remember being so happy to see both of them and the water. Later, she walked over to where I was and asked if I wanted help setting up my tent. After I had made dinner and cleaned up, I went to see Susan and Matt and asked if they wished to have visitors. "Always," Susan smiled back. The following day they decided to end their trip early as Matt had been throwing up for days and needed to visit urgent care. Susan told me how she wished to stay so we could hike together. After arriving at Loft Mountain, I went to the camp store, where I found ice cream, orange juice, and a ham and cheese sandwich. Many other backpackers sat in the foyer, charging their devices and eating. I saw a younger couple who smiled at me and went into the shower area. When they came out of the bathrooms, I asked if the campground was full. "Not at all," the woman replied. I wondered how much the camp fee was and was told a $30 fee for the night. I thanked them, and they walked to their car. I watched as the woman walked back over to me. "Hey, we are leaving a day early. Would you want our site for the night? It's already paid for." Excellent. I thanked them again, and she told me they would need to grab the site ticket still tacked on the mantle by their campsite. When they returned with it, I offered them some money, but they refused to take it. Such kind humans, you cross paths with on the AT. Loft Mountain It stormed that night. With high winds in a lightning storm, the rainfly draped over my tent was not doing the job, and the tent started to leak water. I got out, pulled the ground tarp out from under the tent, and placed that over the tent. The ground tarp method proved helpful, but I awoke in a pool of rainwater and was sick. My throat ached terribly. I spent the day at the camp store, deciding what to do next. While sitting there, an older man started talking to me, and I learned the art of hiking slowly and enjoying the views. He started telling me about people who visit eight national parks in two weeks, "Well, what did you see?" I saw a family of thru-hikers, a mom, a dad, and four kids aged 7-13. Their shirts read, "We run this." The children were all in great spirits too. I decided to get another campsite for the night, and while walking to find my lot, a woman waved at me. She looked friendly, I probably looked confused, and she graciously offered to walk me down to my numbered site. The woman, Judy, told me that if she were my age, she would be hiking this too.

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Those were the first words she ever said to me. Later that night, she walked down to where I was sitting, visiting with other hikers. She looked at me, "I always wanted to do this; I'm nervous," she said. In her hand was a bag of trail magic, and I was her first hiker to give trail magic to nuts, raisins, tea bags, and a peach. Amazing. The graduate student I had met earlier gave me her phone number, and I texted her when I reached Loft Mountain. I told her I had gotten sick and had been there for two days. The next morning, Susan picked me up at the camp store to take me to an urgent care nearby. After greeting me, she first said, "Well, in the real world, Roe vs. Wade was overturned today." The Supreme Court's decision to overturn a constitutional right for women to have control of their bodies and have access to safe abortions broke fifty years of legal protection. "How can they do that?" I asked. Knowing Susan

Susan then informed me they were reconsidering other landmark decisions, such as same-sex marriage and contraception access. Human's toxic need to possess and control others reveals itself from the playground to the supreme court. At that moment, we both wanted to be back in the woods, away from the toxicity of society. She took me to the doctor; strep throat was the diagnosis, and then to pick up antibiotics at a pharmacy in Target. She was going to buy me a coffee, but luckily the pharmacist was at lunch, so I found her and bought her one instead. On the way back to the trail, we took many wrong turns. We were both happy about that as it meant we had longer to speak with each other. She was driving the Skyline drive for as long as she could back to her home in Pennsylvania. She intended to stop at places along the trail to spread trail magic. She had Rice Krispy treats and two gallons of water in her car. Giving back to others is what kept us going out there. It is what keeps us all going, always. I asked the question, and we both dove into it. I told her I wanted to build a connection before talking about such a sensitive subject, and she told me she was perfectly open to talking to people who understood. Susan's life changed the night she was drugged and raped at an off-campus party while she was visiting a friend who was a student at the university. She told me how she found healing in nature after the sexual assault and how she realized she had never pursued the outdoors as much before.

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My family would sporadically hike growing up, but I craved it once I hit the spring of my freshman year of college. What I thought was coincidental timing was probably my body/mind asking for it because of the rape just a few months prior. My body was literally fighting with me in the months after, till I went to the police. Stomach issues, waking up with a locked jaw from stress. Now, I'm the city girl who people know needs to get out every weekend for clarity of mind and relearning to build connections. Nothing like the connections with the people you meet while outdoors - Susan Dalton

Adapting to Unforeseen Circumstances

I never had to see my rapist again, but the aftermath of reporting the assault took a toll on my mental health for years to come. Toward the end of my sophomore year of college, I considered taking a medical withdrawal from college. I sought counseling first but often found myself staring ahead at a wall, unresponsive. It had always been difficult to express vulnerable feelings, and verbalizing was not my strong suit. I was not okay and wanted to escape the pain, the institution, and society. I wanted to run to the woods and thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I have always felt a serenity surrounded by nature and in the presence of water. However, my rational brain reconsidered the negative repercussions that would surface if I did leave college - what if I never returned? I stayed and instead got a dog and named him Sailor. Sailor, who is my emotional support dog, also became my lifeline. He kept me living, for whenever I felt like I wanted to end it all, I knew I had a responsibility to him, so I stayed. Susan dropped me off at a picnic area and handed me a rice Krispy treat. I hope I see her again. I saw the family of hikers I had seen earlier at the Loft Mountain camp store. They were eating lunch at a picnic table. The family recognized me, and we exchanged hellos. I told the dad how thoroughly impressed I was with their family hiking the AT together. I looked at the little girl as her brother stood by her and told her how strong she was. I called my sister, Gretchen, to pick me up sometime after that. She was with her best friend, and a dog, Louie. Gretchen commented that I looked like I was wasting away, and they quickly found me a big burger and fries. I watched Louie hang his head out of the sunroof as we drove down the road. I was going home for the weekend. Fluids and rest are easier in society than attempting to heal from psychical illness in a natural environment. Having awareness of body signals and responding with rest, medicine, and proper nourishment, is essential to recovering from illnesses and other stressors on the body -Rochelle Calvert

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The Sunday after that previous Friday, I was transported back to the AT. Interacting with other hikers was a critical focus of my autoethnography. Knowing that I wanted to be hiking the AT where I would have the opportunity to do so, I decided to jump ahead thirty miles and stay at Big Meadows Lodge, right off Skyline drive and the AT. The following day, I resupplied food at the store and got back on the trail. I hiked ten miles to Skyland Lodge, where I received a hiker cabin, discounted to AT hikers. It felt nice to take a cold/hot shower at the night's end. There was something about hiking when being sick. It truly is amazing how much the human body can endure as long as the mindset is right. The next day I planned to hike ten miles to Pass Mountain Hut, a shelter. On the way, I kept overlapping with two female thru-hikers, and I was taking a break at a lookout spot when they came up to me. I moved to the side so they could also see the view. They told me about a shelter four miles ahead where they stopped for the night. On the way there, I came across an intersection, a side trail leading to Mary's Rock. I decided to take a detour. I saw the two women sitting ahead with their packs, and they told me Mary's Rock was worth the miles, and they had just left their backpacks at the trailhead. As a solo hiker, I felt more comfortable always keeping my pack with me, so I kept my backpack on and headed to the top; Mary's Rock was worth the miles. I saw the two women and three other young men at the shelter. They asked if I was looking for a tent place and pointed me in the right direction. I thanked them and went right to the water. Springs were always gold on the AT. Across the spring, I wandered into the woods and found empty grass spots to pitch a tent. I cooked dinner and relaxed. Another hiker was lying in his hammock. He asked what was for dinner. "Spaghetti," I said, and he told me he had freeze style lasagna earlier. I chimed in that, "Pasta is always a good move." He agreed. That was all the conversation exchanged, and we returned to enjoying each other's silence. Less than an hour later, another hiker walked towards us, examining the real estate available. He then asked if I would be okay if he set up a tent next to me, and I said he was welcome to camp next to me. He said he would check the other sites, and if not, he would be back. He came back and set up camp and then told me he was going to make dinner at the shelter, and if he didn't see me again, to have a good night, and he was sure he would see me in the morning. I noticed Alex did not put a rainfly over his tent, and when I asked why he explained he would get up quickly and put it on if he needed to but enjoyed the fresh air as he slept. When I woke, the man in the hammock was gone. It was around eight o'clock. I went to the privy, and when I asked why he explained he would get up quickly and put it on if he needed to but enjoyed the fresh air as he slept. When I woke, the man in the hammock was gone. It was around eight o'clock. I went to the privy, and I passed by the shelter on the way back. The women from the night before had their packs mounted on their backs and looked ready to go for the day. I went back to pack up camp.

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Alex's Story

A deer approached, eating grass behind a tree. I took my coffee to a log and watched the creature eat. "Interesting how they get so close to you out here," I said. "Amazing, isn't it," Alex, who went by Raptor on the trail, chimed in. He told me two bears walked up to him a few days ago and thought they were siblings, with the brother first and the sister following him. When I asked if he got a picture, he said, "At that moment, I just wanted to be there with the animals." I found this a beautiful response and a lesson we all should learn to be utterly present in nature and life, including me. Pictures are a gift, but so is that moment you are living, and pictures never give the memory justice. Alex was from Georgia and wanted to hike southbound, starting in Maine and ending in his home state. He originally planned to thru-hike the AT in 2020 but canceled to stay home and be with his dad as he passed. Growing up, he watched his dad battle cancer for as long as he could remember. In the past three years, following the epidemic of COVID-19, his dad's health deteriorated. His dad was born and lived in New York for the longest time. Alex went to college for business, feeling as if he was to follow in his father's footsteps; he wanted to make his dad proud. Alex's college graduation was canceled because of the pandemic; however, his dad would have been too sick to attend even if it was still held. A month after graduating college, Alex's dad died after a long, courageous fight against cancer. Shortly after his father's death, Alex moved to New York to follow his career there, picking up where his dad left off. Pennies were significant to Alex and his relationship with his dad. Finding pennies and picking them up to share was how the family remembered their dad, especially after he was gone. Father's Day was the day he began his journey on the AT and found a penny on the trail the same year his dad left New York. Finding pennies felt like a sign of communication from my dad; picking them up, noticing the year it was made, and thinking about what my dad was doing in that year of his life was a great exercise in remembering him. It created an avenue to share loving memories with my mother from 900 miles away. I was stubborn about quitting my job up there even though I recognized my mental and emotional health had been deteriorating for a while. I wasn't feeling like myself. I remember my dad telling a similar story about how he knew he needed to get out of New York when he was the same age as me, but he struggled to leap out and onto his journey. Once I finally had left and found myself on the trail on day one, I found a penny in the dirt from the year he had left New York, which was a direct symbol of his encouragement in me to pursue my path. I would say that was the first big step in realizing my journey on the AT was more than just a grieving walk in the woods; it was to be an experience of taking ownership over my own life and not allowing any outside circumstances, even my father's death, to hinder my growth and development as an individual. - Alex Fernandez I was in Shenandoah National Park when I saw my first bear. It was around seven o'clock in the evening, and the sky turned the lukewarm red we always long to see. Walking down the path, there she was. She looked young, perhaps a young female or cub.

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I slowed to a stop, taking a moment to admire what was in front of me.

She raised her head, stared at me, and then turned and walked off the trail into the woods. Pulling out my camera, I videoed her walking by me, keeping my eyes on her the whole time. Her figure became less as the moon became brighter, to a shadow, and then disappeared. A misfortune that the video didn't record correctly. Or was it? I remembered what Raptor had told me about being present without a camera; he was right. I would remember this memory. I came out of the Elkwallow wayside with a brown paper bag of food and a blackberry milkshake. The picnic tables were full of families and other AT hikers. I saw a nice grassy area to sit in and was heading over when a voice called out, "You look like a hiker; always room here." I sat with him, and we talked. He asked me what I was doing out there, and when I explained my reasoning, I received a counter perspective than I was used to. "Nature is not healing; it destroys our bodies," he pulled out a half-smoked cigarette and lit it. As he smoked, the toxic smell filled the clean air. Instantly, back to my childhood, I recalled how my parents would ask to move tables at a restaurant if a customer was smoking at a table nearby. I thought of my grandfather and how he struggled with addiction to alcohol and cigarettes for years. My father's words pierced my memory. Seek the outdoors as a natural high instead of drugs, the art of finding healthier, wholesome ways to fulfillment. Blackberry Milkshake and a Burger I first started to engulf in unhealthy coping mechanisms before I was even aware I was doing us. I started drinking alcohol at the age of fifteen. I went home from boarding school for Christmas break and went out with a group of people I did not consider my friends. My friends from my hometown did not like partying, so I decided to socialize with a different group. The last memory of that night was chugging a handle of vodka in the kitchen of someone's home I did not know. The next thing was waking up in a hospital bed, my mom sitting by my bedside, asking what I could recall. She told me they had to pump my stomach and that I could have died. I remember wanting to die.

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Following the rape in college, I turned to the same harmful coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma. I self-harmed by cutting myself but soon realized I did not want others to notice and began to use alcohol to distract myself from the flashbacks that never seemed to leave my mind. It was not until the following winter that I realized how much help I needed. I had recently joined my older sister's sorority, and my sister, who lived in an off-campus house, was having a party to celebrate the new members joining the sorority. It was a fun night, and I appeared outwardly happy and enjoying life. Alcohol is a depressant, and the front I was projecting was a mask for the pain destroying me inside. I remember leaving my sister's house, her frantic voice begging me to stay the night and not drive - that is the last thing I remember. I blacked out and woke up wrapped around a telephone pole less than a few blocks away from my sister's house. There was barking, and two golden retrievers came down the hill to where my car crashed. Following the dogs, a man came to where I was and invited me inside his house. My sister arrived after, her voice shaking. Without me anywhere in sight, she thought I was dead. It turns out she would be the one to call 911. The police and the ambulance arrived, and I was taken to the hospital. I was not wearing a seatbelt. The telephone pole was hit, the airbag went off, and the car was totaled. The story could have gone drastically different, and the harm I could have caused to another human life still reminds me to this day.

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The man took another drag from the cigarette. He told me he was getting a ride to a hostel in town and asked if I wanted a ride. I politely thanked him for the offer but insisted I keep going. After some time, a couple with foreign accents came up to the wayside. First, a woman said her boyfriend was hiking and was on the way. She explained that she had been walking along the skyline drive because she had hurt her knee, but her boyfriend was hiking the trail. Her boyfriend showed up, and she asked how his hike was, and he asked about hers. She exclaimed she had a lovely walk on the road, saw three bears, and expressed the joys of road walking. She laughed at herself and said she eventually hoped to walk the actual trail as that is why they were there. She took a moment to praise herself, suggesting she was always the one cars stopped for, not her boyfriend. She laughed again. Her personality was captivating. The couple told me they were trying to make it to a campsite a mile up and told me I should also camp there. The man smoking the cigarette got picked up. The couple said their goodbyes and kept hiking. Eventually, I threw my pack over my shoulders and continued on my way as well. After about a mile, I came across the couple I had met at the wayside, an older man and a younger girl, all camping on either side of the trail. The couple greeted me and then pointed out the camping spots still available. I pondered the thought of stopping for the night but energized by the blackberry milkshake and burger; I kept going. Around three miles later, I found a place to call home for the night. I sat on a giant boulder and looked out at the vast wilderness, thankful I was a ways away from civilization. I looked for a proper tree for a bear hang while it was still light out and came back to cook mashed potatoes, chicken, and hot sauce.

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