This story was originally published in the Summer/Fall 1993 issue of Appalachia.
Walking alone up the chain of the Appalachian Mountains for half a year is hard enough, but Elizabeth McGowan did it as respite from another round of cancer treatments. In 1991, she was a young woman with her life ahead of her. She believed, against some advice, that what she most needed was putting the hospital doors at her back for a period. McGowan has forged a career in journalism and adventure since that pilgrimage.
She has backpacked an assortment of trails including the Superior Hiking Trail, the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail. She told us that she doesn’t feel fully human unless she sleeps in a tent for at least two weeks each year. Elizabeth also has bicycled far and wide. She pedaled 4,250 miles across the United States in 2000. After reporting for several daily newspapers in Wisconsin, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2001 to pursue a career as an energy and environment reporter. A series of articles written for InsideClimateNews about this country’s lack of oil pipeline safety measures earned her a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2013.
“In the spring of ’27, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan (Charles Lindbergh) who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing; and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Priorities. My coworker’s comments in March 1991 had started me thinking about them. His words of two years ago still ring in my ears.
“You know how it is, Elizabeth,” he told me as he shook his head. “I just couldn’t give up my job. I’ve got bills to take care of . . . I’m making payments on the condo I just bought. Plus, I’m still paying off my truck. You understand why I could never do what you’re planning. It just seems like such a sacrifice.”
“Does he really believe what he is saying?” I remember thinking to myself at the time. “He seems . . . what’s the word? Desperate?”
What I was planning was quitting my newspaper job, packing up the belongings in my apartment, and giving up my permanent address to strap 50 pounds on my back and hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
With spring’s finger beckoning, I’d be heading for the southernmost tip of the trail—Springer Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest of northern Georgia—and following spring and summer up through twelve eastern states. By autumn, if my knees cooperated, I’d be hiking through Maine’s wilderness toward the rocky pinnacle of Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northernmost point.
Try as I might, I couldn’t fully understand what my coworker was trying to tell me. Actually, it seemed he was a little jealous that I was able to leave everything that he valued just to take what he considered to be a walk in the woods.
But I was looking at my trial as more than a six-month tromp through the woods, over rocks and streams, up and down mountains, across pavements, and into tiny towns.
For it wasn’t to be just a journey of miles and obstinate terrain. It was also an opportunity to be a minimalist: to let go of the material possessions that almost everybody seems to value deeply. To think, to bond with fellow hikers, to do some emotional and perhaps physical healing, to gain insights, and to discover a few more ounces of spirituality.
Nobody was forcing me to take a hike. And my decision to put aside pens, notebooks, and word processor for a brief interlude wasn’t made on the spur of the moment. Ever since college, hiking the Appalachian Trail had been a goal I kept on the proverbial “things to do” list that decorated my refrigerator. It’s a trek I wanted to take when the time was right. And April 1991 was that time.
In the spring of 1991, I was feeling strong, healthy, and positive about branching out in a new direction.
But I hadn’t always felt that way. While living in Vermont in 1985, I’d been diagnosed with melanoma—a type of skin cancer for which there is no known cure. I was terrified. Melanoma was the same disease that had killed my father a decade before when he was just 44 years old. I couldn’t shake those hideous images of what cancer can do to the human body.
I had the lesions removed at an area hospital and tried to put the incident behind me.
I couldn’t. The cancer recurred in my lymph system a year later. I was hospitalized for surgery, then underwent a year of experimental treatment. Though my energy decreased significantly, I was able to keep working, playing sports, and living a relatively normal life.
Evidently, that treatment wasn’t enough. Just months after I’d moved to Wisconsin for a job as a reporter, my Wisconsin doctor discovered handfuls of suspicious-looking spots in my lungs. Unfortunately, the tumors had doubled in size over the course of the year.
A lung biopsy was necessary, my doctor informed me as I sat on the examining table. I started to shake. And couldn’t stop for what felt like hours. The biopsy—which required the surgeon to go through my rib cage and cut into my right lung for a tissue sample—forced me into the hospital for a week.
And that wasn’t the end of it.
The tumors were malignant. More melanoma. At that time, my journalistic instincts kicked in, and I called dozens of clinics and doctors around the country before choosing a treatment regimen. More tests. More pain. More stress. Three rounds of vicious chemotherapy stole my summer of 1989, but they gave me something I might not have had otherwise—more time on the planet.
When would all of this end?
Nobody had any definite answers. Through treatment, support from friends, family, and other cancer survivors, and my own strong will, I held the cancer in my body at bay, so to speak, until late winter in 1991.
Then, another setback.
That day in February 1991 still gives me the chills. Here I was just two months away from setting foot on Springer Mountain and my doctor was telling me that more tumors had spread to more of my internal organs. I was frustrated, angry, and frightened. Mostly frightened.
It was time to make some choices. Hard ones.
My doctor gave me several chemotherapy options. I considered each of them carefully and reviewed them with other doctors who were tracking my case. Physically, I probably could have handled the side effects—nausea, hair loss, weight loss, extreme fatigue, and pain. Mentally, however, every part of me was rebelling against chemotherapy. No matter what the treatment, no cure was promised. And I knew that if I didn’t believe in treatment 100 percent, my body would never accept it as a healing agent.
A week later, I told my doctor I’d decided to take my chances and start the hike that I’d been dreaming and scheming about since the mid-1980s. If I couldn’t heal amid the envisioned serenity of the trail, then I wasn’t sure I ever would.
I couldn’t have made a better decision.
When a friend from Wisconsin dropped me off at Springer Mountain on April 13, I felt excited. But I also felt a bit nervous about the mission I’d carved out for.
“At last, the adventure begins…” I wrote in my journal that first day.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe I’m finally here. But here I am, sitting in a shelter near Springer Mountain with four hikers I’ve never met before. We’ve already shared food and stories. My, how one’s life can change in 24 hours. Yesterday at this time, I was in a house with a roof and four walls, eating a meal that didn’t contain noodles. On the way to Springer Mountain today, my friend who drove me here asked several times if I wanted to turn back. “No way,” I told her. “I’m committed to going and finishing.” The closer we got to Springer, however, the more nervous I was. At least I never had the feeling of “Oh, my God, what am I doing here?” I figure that’s a good sign. It’s cold, rainy, and foggy; kind of a miserable way to start out. But the walking is splendid and therapeutic, too. Cooking with a camp stove is the worst part. Second worst part is taking down a wet tent.
Two days later I celebrated my 30th birthday on the trail in Georgia. Pure serendipity. I quenched my thirst with sweet spring water, pitched my tent on Mother Earth’s belly, and watched the stars dance over the twinkling lights of a distant southern town.
It got better.
“It’s amazing how little we really need to survive,” hikers would comment as they boxed up and shipped home items they had once considered necessities.
The walking was simplicity at its peak. A world where your main considerations for the day were food, clothing, and shelter. Oh, and moleskin, too, of course.
I didn’t earn the trail name “Blister Sister” because my feet took easily to wet socks and wetter boots. Most mornings I spent up to half an hour rinsing, taping, peeling, and doctoring my abused feet before inserting them back into the dreaded leather boots. I knew I was in the running for the trail’s annual “Ugliest Feet” contest by the time I reached the Georgia–North Carolina border.
But bad feet weren’t going to keep me from following through on this dream.
I had plenty to spur me on: healthy doses of trail magic, outstanding scenery, time to appreciate all that was around me, and plenty of support from friends and family.
Wildflowers poking their tiny, glorious selves through southern soil reminded me that spring was bursting forth in the colors that distinguish it from other seasons. On lucky days I’d run into a day-hiker carting a flower identification book I could borrow for a peek.
Though there were no newspapers out in the woods, trail registers— notebooks placed in shelters and hostels—provided me with reading material. What a link. They were jam-packed with tips about water sources and town stops from southbounders, hikers’ laments about equipment problems, hellos from hiker friends ahead, insights about the trail, poetry, stories, sketches, perspectives, frustrations, and complaints.
Once I’d set up camp for the night, I’d try to capture highlights of the day in my own journal. Each evening I inked: mileage logged, wildlife sighted, people I met, places I saw, and stories I watched.
Hiking the trail was no trip down the Yellow Brick Road. It was a test of will, spirit, and desire. Always, I carried the words of trail guru Warren Doyle within easy reach.
“Don’t fight the trail,” Doyle wrote in his handbook of advice. “You have to flow with it. The trail itself cannot be changed. You have to change.
“Don’t waste any of your energy complaining about things you have no control over. Instead, look to yourself and adapt your mind, heart, body and soul to the Trail.”
You don’t have to have a life-threatening disease to take risks with your life, to live life on an edge. Dealing with cancer, however, made me much more aware of living in the moment. Hiking the trail wasn’t something I could put off until retirement, because I wasn’t sure that was an option.
Before I made a commitment to the hike, I wrestled with my own demons. What would people think about my obtuse plan? Was the whole idea foolish? Would I be throwing away many years of security? Would they think any less of me if I didn’t make it to Maine? Would I ever again be welcome in the world of newspapers?
Sure, I felt selfish about pitching everything aside to focus on one goal— making it to Katahdin before the first snow fell. Anybody raised with even an iota of the Puritan work ethic probably would feel the same way. We’re brought up believing that hedonism isn’t healthy; that you should look out for others before you take care of your own needs.
But if I kept putting off what my heart was telling me to do, I knew I would have been safe, yet miserable. So I took a step and rearranged my priorities. Made changes. Took a step a bit closer to this edge.
It didn’t hurt too much. And I didn’t fall.
A certain number of folks I met before, during, and after my hike told me that hiking the trail was a goal they had always wanted to reach but never had met for some reason or another. I recall an older woman I met on the trail in North Carolina. She was out walking with a couple of friends and admiring the wave of wildflowers on a marvelous May day.
“You’re hiking the whole trail,” she said, her voice bursting with enthusiasm, admiration, and a smidgen of envy. “That’s something I always wanted to do.”
“But, well, you know,” she added, her voice tapering off, “I just never got around to it. And now I’m too old to do something like that.”
I was carrying bits and pieces of other people’s hopes and dreams on my journey to Katahdin, people just like that woman. These thoughts added not a burden, but a new perspective to my hike. And they kept me going, inspired me to keep plugging away, to keep climbing mountains and fording streams, to keep following the white blazes to Maine and the brilliant autumn colors.
I have no regrets about putting my newspaper career on hold to hike the Appalachian Trail. The work world was still there when I returned. I got more out of my hike than I would’ve gotten out of six months at a job.
About a month after I finished my hike in the fall of 1991, I made a trip to see my oncologist. I’d been dreading the exam since I’d called for an appointment. Deep down, I felt I’d made the right decision by going with my hike, but that ever-present sliver of doubt kept me up at night imagining the worst-case scenarios.
“I’m not sure what you were doing out there for those six months, Elizabeth,” he told me, “but it sure did work for you.”
Yes! My medical scans indicated that my tumors were indeed in a holding pattern. Hallelujah, I could remain treatment free. I’d just have to continue going in for regular checkups. Hiking for six months—following through on the adventure of a lifetime—turned out to be just the therapy my body needed. And, oh, am I grateful for that.
When people find out about my hike they often want to know how somebody goes about walking 2,167 miles in six months, anyway.
“One step at a time,” I tell them. “One step at a time. Just remember to put one foot in front of the other.”
After all, that’s what most everything in this world is all about, isn’t it? Onward.
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