Sunday, September 2, 2012

and i thought getting sober was hard ...

We were on our way to our third night’s sleeping location, a shelter called Derrick Knob. We left at 11:00AM and headed East on the Appalachian Trail. We would hike up to Rocky Top, gaining about 500 feet and climbing to an elevation of 5,441 feet. From there, we would hike to Mineral Gap, descending almost 1,000 feet to 4,527 feet, and then hike up another 500 feet and end our day at a little over 5,000 feet. We’d cover 6.5 miles.

The map seemed to agree with what we were told by our shelter mates and the Ridge Runner before they all headed off: today’s hike would be easy. They told us that the trail would be more level and simple. It would have fewer elevation changes, but would have rocky areas, especially as we got closer to Rocky Top.

Rocky Top was one of the “landmarks” we would walk through on this trek. There’s a song about it. I have heard it a few times, but could not pick out the tune or recall any lyrics if my calves depended on it. I always assumed Rocky Top was a town in the South, but it is not. It is a peak in the Smoky Mountains accessible only by hiking up and on the Appalachian Trail.

So … while we were both sore and tired, we continued walking; our legs, knees, hips, and shoulders still sore from the day before. So far, what we were told was right: the trail was level and consistent. We were excited to be finally on the Appalachian Trail. The trails we hiked on our first two days led us up to this moment. We were now on the AT! We achieved that milestone and we were proud of that accomplishment.

It was clear that we were in a different area of the mountains than we had experienced our first two days. We were on the ridge of the Smokies and the trail cut through the middle of what appeared to be a glen. The trees were spaced further apart, tall and blowing in the warm breeze. The ground was covered with field grasses and wild flowers. The bushes were in bloom with gorgeous blossoms. Many parts of the trail were lined with blackberry bushes.

“I wish these were bearing fruit,” I said a few times.
“I bet they are delicious,” Kirk said.
“It’s a good thing, I guess, because the bears would be here eating them all,” I realized.

 We talked a lot this morning. We enjoyed the scenery, the ease of the hike, and that we were able to take it slow since our bodies wouldn’t let us do anything else. Of course, the trail didn’t stay as considerate as it started out. The rocks in the trail were getting larger, the dirt was drier and dustier, and the incline became more severe. We were climbing up to Rocky Top. And it was hot. The sun was out, no clouds in sight. Kirk took off his shirt to benefit from the sunshine.

Once again, I found myself counting steps and resting often. Inclines were hard for me. We stopped to take breaks and drink water and then we would stand up, adjust our packs, and start walking again. Then, we’d hit a decline. Kirk had trouble with the declines. He was walking sideways, something we laughed at and called the “walking mummy.” We would sit, drink water or have a snack, and then start over again.

At one point, some hikers came West on the trail. These were the first people we had seen on any trail other than at the shelters. It was almost unsettling to see other people on the trail, almost as if they were interrupting our personal hike. But, they were pleasant enough. We exchanged friendly hellos and the obligatory where we were coming from, where we were headed, and what our final destination would be.

“How far is it to Rocky Top?” Kirk asked.
“It’s not that far … you’re almost there … about half an hour away,” we were told.
“What is the trail like to get there? Is it hard?” I asked.
“It’s pretty flat … some rocky areas … but really not hard,” we were told.

They moved on and we moved on. They were liars. The trail did get hard. There were significant inclines and rough areas, and not just because we were in pain and tired. They were liars. It was not a half an hour away, it was further. Much further. They were liars.

*     *     *     *     *

We hiked up and up and up. About an hour after seeing those hikers, roughly two hours into this day’s hike, we came across a clearing at what seemed like the summit. We reached a grassy knoll that overlooked the Smoky Mountains. It was stunning. We knew were close to Rocky Top, but we weren’t sure if this was the Rocky Top.

“This seems more like Grassy Top than anything else,” I said.
“You want to eat lunch?” Kirk asked.

Not being one to pass up a chance to rest or to take off this damned heavy backpack, I immediately nodded my head. We walked into the knoll, took off our backpacks, and sat down. We sat and rested. We sat and enjoyed the sunshine. We sat and looked at the view. We sat and swatted the biting flies that were everywhere.



We looked out over the mountains towards the west. We were on top of the AT looking out over waves upon waves of green hills. All of a sudden, Kirk gasped.

“Scott, look over there,” he said as he pointed into the hills below us, “see that water?”
“Yes,” I said, not yet grasping what he had just comprehended.
“That is the lake,” he said, meaning Fontana Lake, the one that we hiked alongside on our first day.

It hit me. Holy crap! Way down there!?

“We were down there?!” I said. “Oh my God.”
“And is that … ?” Kirk asked, his voice trailing off as we both realized what we were now looking at.

A very small and thin white line was cutting across the water. The dam – Fontana Dam – our starting point ... it was out there … way out there. It was a tiny line and barely noticeable through the mist that was lifting and dissipating in the lower hills of the Smoky Mountains. That was where we started our hike two days before.

We traced a virtual path of how we hiked to this grassy knoll. We walked against the lake and into the hills. We hiked up a large mountain – just yesterday – and then, today, we hiked across the ridge and up and over the two hills that brought us to where we now stood. It was an incredibly powerful and striking feeling.
I started to cry. It was so overwhelming to see what l had accomplished in two days. And more than what I had accomplished – what we accomplished together. I could literally see the progress. I could see my progress. I took on this challenge and it was hard, rough and painful, but I had made progress. I could not deny that. The start was out there, the end was not in sight, but there I was looking at where I came from.

While we rested, we talked about our last two days. We talked about how we missed our grandparents and what they meant to us. We talked about our families and their impact and influence on us. We talked about our past – where we came from into our adulthood – while we were looking at our past – where we came from in our last two days. It was surreal, it was poignant, and it was heartfelt.

*     *      *     *     *

We rested a little bit longer and then decided that we had better get moving. As far as we knew, we still had not reached the exact point of Rocky Top. We gathered our things, put on our backpacks and mentally prepared to start walking again. We heard voices coming towards us over the large bushes that bordered the grassy knoll. Soon a man and his children walked by. They looked hot and tired.

We asked him how far to Rocky Top. According to him, it was just around the bend. That put a little pep in my step. We came to a very steep climb. The trail turned into steps of stone and dirt lined with bushed filled with Azalea and Rhododendron blooms. There is was … Rocky Top.

And, yes, it was rocky.


We climbed on the highest rock to look at the view. Kirk looked towards to the south.

“See that little hill over there? It looks like we could just hop over there.”

I laughed hysterically. A little hill? Hop over there? Ridiculous! That “hill” was a mountain top about five miles away and would take us about ten hours to get there. But we had met one of major milestones, getting to Rocky Top and reaching an elevation of 4,950 feet. Now we needed to continue hiking the remaining 4.5 miles to our shelter.

Off we went, heading east on the AT. We started our decent from Rocky Top. The weather remained persistently warm and the flies remained persistently hungry for our flesh. We were descending 1,500 feet from Rocky Top, but it was not a consistent or easy decline. We’d hike down for a bit, following rocky paths through the flowering bushes, then climb up steep rocky steps and up and over roots and felled trees.

The path was filled with large rocks and the dirt was loose and slippery. It wasn’t just the top that was rocky; this side of the mountain seemed to be completely made of rocks. We knew we were going to have to hike down, but anticipated that it would be a steady and low-grade decline. Instead, we were now facing a path of declines and inclines and declines and inclines. A day filled with ups and with downs. We were sore from the day before and we were feeling exactly what Princess told us we would:

“The third day is the worst,” she explained. “That’s the day your body realizes exactly what you have done to it and it starts to rebel. The third day is the hardest.”

*     *     *     *     *

Since the inclines were my nemesis and declines were Kirk’s, we were progressing slowly, but he continued to push ahead and provided encouragement when I needed it. And I needed it a lot. I was very needy. I needed moments to stop and adjust my backpack or to rest my hip. I needed moments to let my leg rest. I needed to walk fifteen to twenty steps and then pause for a moment. I needed to go slow. One step at a time. One moment at a time.

The grandfather of the family we met on Rocky Top passed us. He asked if we saw his group and mentioned that they do this hike every year. What a nice way to spend quality family time, up in the mountains enjoying nature. Kirk and I continued walking. Soon a very fast hiking couple passed us. It seemed that everyone was on the fast track today except us. We were in the slow lane.

At what felt like our halfway point, but was a little over two hours into our hike, we took a break. We hit a high and complex incline and my right leg gave out. I couldn’t go any further without a good long rest. We took off our backpacks, drank water, and talked. I apologized, again, for my inability to keep going. Kirk told me it was fine and not to worry about it. He mentioned how he was still surprised that I said yes when he asked me to do this hike.

“Had I known it was going to be this hard, I would have said no,” I joked.
“And you thought getting sober was hard,” Kirk laughed.

I laughed, too. At first, it seemed true. This was harder. Then I started to think … and thinking either gets me in trouble or gets my tear ducts running.

It was slightly over nine months since I began the most important personal challenge of my life. I had hit rock bottom and started to dig my way back into my life, a life that once felt lonely, small, and filled with lies, unhappiness, and hopelessness. I was unhappy in my job, I was unhappy with myself, and I was unhappy with my life. I felt completely alone, even though I never was. I had great friends, a supportive family, and a good life. I just could not see it. I was living a double life, one that was normal on the outside – a great job, a great apartment, a confident approach – and another that was known only to me – including not facing my grief and loss, not being able to look myself in the mirror, drinking and drugging to excess, and running my health into the ground.

I chose to go on this hike because I never before had the confidence to do something like this. I never would have put my perfectionist approach to this kind test, one that pushed my fear of failure. I decided to do this hike because I needed to do the opposite of what I normally do. Instead of running from life and from my fears, I needed to face them head on. Again, the intent was to push myself physically, mentally, and spiritually.

These thoughts swam through my head as I sat on a rock on the Appalachian Trail and listened to the breeze in the trees. It was three days since we started this hike. I was tired, I was physically drained, I was mentally overwhelmed, but I was grateful for what I was experiencing.

Kirk could see on my face that I was falling into deep thought and that my eyes had welled up and tears were pouring out of them uncontrollably. I have no poker face when it comes to being emotional. Everything going on in my head is broadcast through my eyes and my facial expressions.

“It was a joke,” he said. “A bad joke. I am sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, no, no,” I sobbed, “It is OK. I am glad you said it.” I wiped the tears, but they kept falling.

My head was ready to explode. So much was running through it. I was seeing clearly how parallel the first three months of my sobriety were when compared to the first three days of this hike.

The first day of the hike, I was scared shitless. I was unsure I could do this, but I was ready to take on the challenge to prove to myself that I could. My backpack was heavier than I had anticipated. I had a slight idea of where I was going, but I really had no idea about what to expect or how hard it would be to get through the first day. I was doing this for myself and no one else. I could do this on my own, if necessary. I was excited. I was energized. I was learning how to hike. I was remembering what it meant to camp. I was enjoying the sights, sounds and smell of the mountains. I wasn’t sure I could make it to the end of the day but I was focused on that goal.

The first month of my sobriety, I was scared shitless. I was unsure I could do this, but I was ready to take on the challenge to prove to myself that I could. I became aware of the emotional weight I had been carrying. I had no idea where I was going, what to expect, or how hard it would be. I was doing this for myself and no one else. I could do this on my own, if necessary. I was excited. I was energized. I was learning how to cope, how to feel my feelings, how to communicate my needs, look people in the eye, and to not despise my reflection in the mirror. I was remembering what it meant to live. I was enjoying having a clear head, being honest with myself and others, and reconnecting with my emotional self. I wasn’t sure I could make it to the end of the month, but I was focused on that goal.  

The second day of the hike was such a hard day. It seemed at every turn there were obstacles in the path telling me to stop and turn around. My footing was challenged with every river crossing. I lost my boot, but it was found again. The hike up the mountain was a steep climb and the terrain was rough. The trail’s grade felt insurmountable. It seemed as if we took the wrong path. It was all wrong and we should turn around. There were many times that I wanted to stop, I couldn’t go on. It felt almost impossible to go on and that I couldn’t do this thing called “hiking.” I had to take the trail a few steps at a time. I saw Kirk progressing and tackling the trail and I felt like I wasn’t able to or up to the task. I was exhausted and I felt like crap by the end of the day.

The second month of my sobriety was the hardest month. It seemed that every day there were obstacles in my path. I was an emotional wreck and each day new emotions were surfacing. I was having to confront day-to-day situations like how to go out to dinner without drinking. I was going to meetings, was in an intense out-patient group, and in weekly therapy sessions. I lost control of my emotions often. Becoming sober seemed impossible and not worth the pressure, it was rough. Not being able to “self-medicate” felt insurmountable. It seemed like I was heading down the wrong path. Sobriety was all wrong and it just seemed easier to turn around and go back to what I was doing before. I wanted to stop, I couldn’t go on. It felt almost impossible to go on and that I couldn’t do this thing called “sobriety.” I had to approach my life one day at a time. I saw others progressing and tackling their issues and I felt like I wasn’t able to or up to the task. I was exhausted and I felt like crap by the end of the month.

The third day of the hike, I knew I just had to keep going on. I had to get up, put on that pack, and keep walking. I also realized that I could not do this alone. Kirk was here with me every step of the way. He was encouraging me, keeping me motivated, and praising my progress. He reached out his hand and helped me up inclines that were challenging, he let me rest when needed. I was actually listening to my body and recognizing when I needed to rest, drink water, take in the sights, or be kind to myself. The day before was hard and felt impossible, but this day didn’t feel impossible. Yes, it was hard, yes I was sore. Yes, my leg just gave out. But … I felt better able to handle it and that I would be able to move on. I just needed to take it slow and not push myself too hard. I was becoming comfortable with not being perfect and with Kirk seeing me as an imperfect person. I was comfortable doing something that made me uncomfortable.

The third month of my sobriety, I knew I just had to keep going on. I had to get up, shower and get dressed, and keep working on myself. I also realized that I could not stay sober alone. I started to make friends in meetings, started to talk with other sober people, and share my challenges and successes along the way. They supported me when I reached out and they reached out when I didn’t even realize I needed support. I was actually listening to my body and recognizing when I needed rest, to drink water, eat, and be kind to myself. The second month was hard … I wanted to give up … but I now felt that being sober wasn’t impossible. Yes, it was hard, yes I was angry and emotionally broken. Yes, it felt like I was surrendering to my powerlessness. But … I felt better able to handle my life and that I would be able to move on. I just needed to take it slow and not push myself too hard. I was becoming comfortable with not being perfect and with others seeing me as an imperfect person. I was becoming more comfortable doing things that made me uncomfortable. I was becoming a fully-realized man.

I wept. I blew my nose. We sat in silence after I told this to Kirk. He listened and was as supportive as he had been the entire hike. I couldn’t do this hike without him. And I sensed that he couldn’t do it without me either.

*     *      *     *      *

We sat there a little while longer. Soon three guys came up the trail heading West. They were walking fast and slowed down near us. They were coming from Derrick Knob and heading up and over Rocky Top. They asked about the trail up ahead and we told them it was rocky and rough. We asked how it was heading towards Derrick Knob. They said it wasn’t bad from here. There were a few more inclines and declines, but pretty level for the most part.

“Are there any switchbacks?” I asked, knowing that Kirk and I would be destroyed by switchbacks.
“Switchbacks?” the dark haired, sweaty guy laughed. “There aren’t switchbacks on the AT.”

They moved on and Kirk and I just sat there. We knew we had to get moving. They made it seem like the trail would be easier from this point on. We really needed that. They also made it seem like we weren’t too far from Derrick Knob, about two hours away.

We put on our backpacks and started walking again. We headed down a rocky decline and then up another rocky incline. Again, we were on this seesaw path, Kirk doing his rocking mummy on the declines and me hiking inclines in fifteen to twenty steps and several rests. This wasn’t the easy trail that those guys had led us to believe. Actually, nothing on this day so far was what we were led to believe.

The only truth was that we were still doing this hike. We still had these heavy backpacks. We were still in the wilderness. We were still walking. And we still had no better idea of how long it would take us to get to the next shelter. We just had to keep walking.

And so we did. We kept walking. Kirk did his walking mummy and I did my twenty steps to rest. Just like the birdsong sounded earlier in the morning, we just kept walking.

Keep walking Scott.
Keep walking Kirk.
Keep walking. Keep walking.

*      *      *      *      *


  1. Oh, I love what you wrote and your pictures are so beautiful. So much love in your post with photos and words!!!

    Love ya,

  2. Thanks for the comment! I appreciate seeing it here on my blog. It is "cleansing" putting it all out there ...

  3. "What a nice way to spend quality family time, up in the mountains enjoying nature." You're being sarcastic here, right?

    1. I'll leave that up to you to decide. I can't reveal EVERYTHING in this blog. Inhave to leave something to the imagination. ;-)