Conquering anxiety and fears hiking the Appalachian Trail

As part of a series stories focussed on “challenges” we asked some of our subscribers to share the highs and lows of their journey. This is a very honest and heartfelt piece by a young lady who left the army in 2013 and planned to complete the Appalachian Trail in in the Eastern United States extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. This is Bonnie’s story…

“My official termination date from the British Army was 26 January 2013. Having to give a year's notice period to leave the Army you'd think that would be enough time to plan what I was going to do with my life afterwards. However, after volunteering last minute to do an operational tour of Afghanistan my mind was definitely drawn elsewhere. It wasn't until I'd been home a little while and had got most of the seemingly never ending admin that leaving the Army requires done, that I starting thinking to the future again. Sometime around Christmas 2012 I stumbled upon a website devoted to a hiking trail called the Appalachian Trail, a 2200 odd mile route up the East Coast of North America. I spent days reading about it but honestly I think my mind was made up on giving it a go just a few hours in to reading.

With my flight out booked for early March I didn't have a lot of time to prepare, I think that was a blessing though as it kept my mind off my biggest worry in all this - my social awkwardness and anxiety about being in new places with new people. Anytime I started to focus on this all my doubts came flooding in. What was I thinking, going anywhere with lots of people or somewhere I'm not familiar with is stressful to the point of feeling physically sick and here I am about to fly off to another country for six months on my own! I tried not to think about it, instead focusing on getting the right kit and equipment and trying to get in some training. Fortunately I wasn't too worried about the physical effort of hiking the trail. Having had to do TAB's (tactical advance to battle) in the Army, which were 8 mile speed marches in 2 hours carrying 15kg, and various other forms of physical training, I felt fairly confident in these abilities.

When the day finally came for me to set off on my journey I was a ball of nerves but also incredibly excited. This was something I really wanted to do, not just for the amazing experience, but also to prove that I could get out of my comfort zone and face my fears.

Because of my anxiety I ended up being at the airport very early, it's a common occurrence for me - it allows me time to 'recce' the area and get comfortable with my surroundings. Being nervous in an airport is not ideal, the people working there don't know that I'm nervous because of the sheer volume of people or for the worry that I'm somehow going to miss my flight. As far as they're concerned they potentially think I'm nervous for much more sinister reasons. That thought in itself always makes me worry more, a bit of a catch 22! Fortunately I got through security without incident and besides having to take my boots off for another inspection just before I got on my flight, before I knew it I was 30,000ft up in the air.

Funnily enough my main concern for my trip was pretty much over once I got several days up the trail. Bumping into people became less and less common and those I did meet were incredibly friendly! Hikers become known as 'tramily' or trail family, and you each get a trail name that is usually given to you by other members of the tramily. Sometime during the first week I met 'Dude' and he and I started hiking together. Not long after I was given my trail name 'Fidget', we also met up with 'Seventeen' (who later became known as Hobo Toes) and we ended up hiking some of the trail together.

Conversely, I ended up having certain issues to overcome concerning the physical aspect of the hike. Things that I hadn't even known that I would have to face and others that I'd thought or read about but hadn't actually ever faced before.

Quite early on I ended up hiking through a blizzard in the Great Smoky Mountains, with snow up to my ankles in parts and up to my waist in others. Thankfully even though I only managed to hike a few miles that day I made it to a tourist point that had a block of toilets. Even though the park had been closed because of the blizzard the toilet block wasn't locked so I slept in there that night knowing it would be heated just enough to keep the pipes from freezing. Other nights I'd had to go through a routine of resting in my sleeping bag, not quite managing to get to sleep but at least trying to conserve some energy, then having to get up when I got too cold to do some squats to warm myself back up.

Funny to think a few months in to the hike it would be so hot that some days I'd just try and rest in the shade, waiting on the cooler hours of the evening before I'd set off hiking. Night hiking of course had its own challenges. If the moon was bright enough and the sky wasn't blocked by too many trees then I'd try not to use my head torch. It was a toss up between using my head torch to see the trail so I didn't trip on roots or rocks or get too close to a steep edge, and not using my head torch so I could see more than just the narrow path highlighted by the beam so I could keep an eye out for bears and other critters that might be out at night!

A couple of other experiences included almost stepping on a rattlesnake, who'd obviously only just crawled in to the sun to try and warm up, who therefore didn't let off a warning rattle until the last minute! A rather surreal experience of hiking down from a 4000+ft mountain on a very windy day in to a pine forest. The floor was literally moving under me as the wind shook the trees so violently that their roots were rocking. A quite scary couple of hours that felt like days of hiking up Mt Washington on a very foggy day, not being able to see one trail marker from the next and just hoping to keep my bearings enough that I not get lost. Known for its erratic weather, Mt Washington has taken a surprising number of lives due to falls and exposure among other things. Some parts of the trail that were more like climbing and bouldering than hiking, and up in the last few states there were quite a lot of river crossings to overcome too.

Several times along my hike I got off the trail to go to festivals with people I'd met along the way. I also stayed in towns longer than I'd planned to sometimes in order to celebrate different holidays such as July 4th. I also got bitten by a spider at one point and my ankle blistered and went all different shades of black and purple. Because of this I didn't complete the whole Appalachian Trail in the six months I was there in 2013, but in 2015 I went back for another six months and started a few hundred miles back from where I stopped last time and completed the trail. Again I made many new friends along the way and experienced much more than just the trail!

The whole experience was utterly amazing and I'm very proud of myself for doing it. There was a whole lot of good times out in the North American wilderness as well as the struggles and challenges. I learnt a lot of practical skills out there but I also learnt that you can achieve a hell of a lot by just getting out there and doing what you might not even consider trying if you overthink things too much. Even though I still suffer with anxiety, I think back to this major achievement and know that I can do amazing things - the hardest part is just taking that initial leap of faith and getting out there to try it!”

Bonnie Wells, Hertfordshire.