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When I tell people I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail the response is usually positive. Folks are first impressed, then curious. The questions are often the same. “How far is it? Did you go alone?”

My favorite question is simply, “Why?

In my case that’s a profound answer. To explain it, I have to take you back in time.

I was born in Grand Rapids in 1996 by emergency C-section. I was 9 weeks premature and there were…complications. During birth I suffered head trauma and my brain began to bleed profusely. The oxygen deprivation and other brain damage affected my brain’s control over my muscles, resulting in Cerebral Palsy. 

CP is the most common physical disability in children and is broad in its symptoms and severity. It currently affects an estimated 17,000,000 people worldwide. Because it results from brain trauma, it is often accompanied by mental impairments as well. Luckily, my CP was relatively mild and I was spared from serious cognitive impairment. 

brain doesn’t send effective “relax” signals to the muscles in the lower half of my body. 

To learn more about types of Cerebral Palsy check out this article from Healthline.

The doctors gave my parents what information they had on my condition. This included a list of "reasonable expectations". 

Jacob will likely struggle with fine motor movements.

Jacob will likely find walking difficult.

Jacob will...

It's more like a list of wonts and shouldnts.

At home, my CP was seen as an extra challenge, but not a limitation. Thankfully there wasn't a discussion of what I could and couldn't be, just that it might be harder for me than for other kids.

When I was 4 I enrolled in a type of therapy called Conductive Education, which was developed in Hungary specifically for children with CP. We were the first official cohort in the United States, and this early intervention changed my life.

I was pretty adorable

As I grew, I began to turn the wont’s and shouldnt’s into a list of accomplishments. 

I played contact sports in high school and competitive Ultimate Frisbee in college.

I went on backpacking trips with the boy scouts, and at summer camp.

I attended Michigan State University and graduated near the top of my class with two degrees. 

I eventually found myself asking, "What other awesome thing could I do?"

I should do something totally nuts and raise awareness for CP! Something definitely not on the "Jacob will" list. I'd walk nearly 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. 

The First Attempt

The Universe served up a global pandemic, a death in my family and various other forms of chaos that made a 2020 thru-hike impossible. By the time 2021 rolled around I was bored out of my skull, so I decided to give the AT my best shot. I had something to prove.

I started on March 10th, 2021 from Amicalola Falls with 45 lbs of gear crammed into my 65-liter Osprey Aether. I woke up so filled with excitement that I got on trail as early as possible and hiked until dark. I ended up doing 16.5 miles that first day, but I was not in that kind of shape. The next day the pain was excruciating but I still limped 10 miles. The third day I did 14.

By the morning of the fourth day my hips felt like someone had driven knives into the joints and every step was agony.

I knew I had over-done it and needed a break. I was devastated at the setback. I was furious at myself for my mistake. I resented my body for betraying me. 

Some fellow hikers saw me that morning heading south, and asked why I was going the wrong way. 

I explained the situation, through my disappointment, and probably a few tears. They calmed me, and told me that Above the Clouds Hostel in Suches, Georgia picked up from Neel’s Gap and that I should call the owner, Lucky. 

“Lucky will take good care of you for a few days until you’re recovered.”

I heeded their sage advice and limped back to Neels Gap, where I spent the next few hours loitering around Mountain Crossings until Lucky had finished dropping hikers off and could pick me up.

Becoming Sidetrack

Above the Clouds remains one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, both on the trail and around the world. I was, however, concerned about the cost. I didn’t want to risk spending all my money on hostel stays then not have the funds to finish the hike, but if I left and kept hiking before my body was ready my chances were also slim. 

Lucky told me they don’t usually accept work-for-stay, but he’d make an exception in my case. After 3 days of working as hard as my hobbled legs would let me, I guess he was impressed because he offered to buy me a lighter pack if I stayed for an extra week. To me this was the ultimate win-win. 

One particularly rainy day the hostel was at nearly double capacity. I was assigned the laundry. Just the laundry, but thirty-five hikers’ worth of nasty clothes and 16 sets of linens in one top-load washer and a dryer was a tall task. I had to be diligent because a few minutes late on the changeover would make a huge difference over the course of the day. 

"How'’s the laundry coming along?” 

“Oh, sorry Nimrod! I got sidetracked.” 

For whatever reason that was my word of the day, and the fifth time he asked, I once again replied, “Sorry Nimrod, I got a little sidetracked.” 

“Sidetrack!” he exclaimed “That’s it! You’re Sidetrack!” 

“Ouch!” I said, a little offended. 

“You don’t have to take it if you don’t want it” 

“No, no, I have to take it. It’s perfect.” 

From that day forward I was Sidetrack: a name that has captured my personality better than any other.

(Left to right) Lucky, Myself and Nimrod at Above the Clouds, taken with my broken camera

Maine or… Bust

After my transformative 10-day work-for-stay, I set out on trail once again. While I felt a little bit better I knew I wasn’t fully recovered. I continued to grit my teeth against the searing pain in my hips and I drove my body forward, relying on will alone most days. 

There were many breakdowns. Many times I collapsed, unable to take a single step for minutes at a time. There were hours where tears of agony, fear and self-hatred streamed down my face. 

My third day into Great Smokey Mountains National Park, I broke. It was a cold and rainy day with high winds that threatened to blow me off the ridgeline as I staggered to what I hoped would be salvation. My point of rescue…and the place of my defeat. 

As I sat in the back of the truck, completely ignored by the two Park Rangers who had offered to drive me into Gatlinburg, I wrestled with the pain of my decision. I couldn’t hike after all. I couldn’t do the things I wanted. I couldn’t overcome my CP. 

I couldn’t take it! 

So I decided I wouldn’t take it. 

I would be back!

After getting Sidetracked on various adventures, I settled back in Florida for the next year and prepared for my next hike.

Victory at Last! 

 

On March 12, 2022 I would set out once more, this time from Springer Mountain, the official start of the AT. 

I reconnected with my friends from Above the Clouds and found myself sidetracked there once more. I spent two weeks doing work-for-stay, and occasionally slackpacking. Eventually, I felt the call to move on.

When Lucky dropped me off at Unicoi Gap, with a full pack for the first time in weeks, I was afraid. I knew in my heart this was my last shot. I couldn’t put my life on hold for another year if I failed. If my body betrayed me again, if my mind was weak, if I blew through my money, that was it. The dream would truly die. 

I had built up some strength in my short stints of slackpacking, and the year’s training had helped significantly.

The struggles of the year before provided a contrast, and even my lowest days felt wonderful by comparison. I had expected 6 months of pain, yet so far I only felt powerful. 

One day, coming into the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, I pushed too hard. I was nervous that this nagging pain would take me off trail the way hip pain had the year before, but as I submitted Clingman’s Dome once again I realized I was stepping onto new ground. I was no longer the knowledgeable veteran who knew what lay ahead. I could approach the trail with childlike wonder, watching its beauty unfold beneath my feet.

Sunrise on Clingmans Dome

The experience of my first attempt saved my hike again when my friends Weeble Wobble and Andy Cap - both ’21 Thru Hikers - offered me a spot at their place in Asheville, NC for a week to rest my legs and recover. Luckily it did the trick and I was able to continue north. 

Andycap, Myself and Weeble Wobble 

I battled several other nagging injuries related to my Cerebral Palsy, chief among them being knee pain, caused by the same IT band tightness that had caused my hip pain. Nevertheless, I continued north.

On August 28th, nearly 18 months after I first set foot on the trail, I summited Mt. Katahdin with two good friends. We arrived just in time to watch what will forever be one of the most memorable sunrises of my life. We spent several hours alone on the summit, as other hikers far below were beginning their ascents. Tears of joy and relief were wiped away by the biting wind. It was glorious.

Hummingbird, Tiga and I at the summit 

I woke up the next day and didn’t have to hike. The realization swamped me: it was over. 

That first day I took stock of my emotions and reality set in. The entire hike I had hoped that I would feel like a badass or that I would gain some confidence in myself. What I felt instead was fortunate.

I was overcome with gratitude for everyone who helped me along my journey, on the trail, and in life.

The parents who had raised me, the family who had scraped together funds for my treatment, the fellow hikers who had buoyed my spirits on rough days, the complete strangers who had rescued me from some serious situations… 

The reason that I hike is because I can. Because, through the sacrifice of others I, though disabled, am able to hike. 

I hike to honor that sacrifice, that generosity. Each step I take is a thank you to those who have made my steps possible. 

That didn’t end on Katahdin. It’s only just begun. 

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February 8, 2024

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Jake Arens

Jake is a long distance hiker with Cerebral Palsy, a neuromuscular disorder that affects his legs. He grew up exploring the wild places of his native Michigan. He developed a deep love of backpacking, an activity no accessible to many with his disability. He now hikes to bring awareness to the Cerebral Palsy community, and helps fundraise for research to give them the opportunities he has had.

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