“I should have died or been paralyzed,” says Gwen Buchanan. Despite our fuzzy zoom
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Connection, I see her tears in her eyes. The 50-year-old physical therapist from Mehoopany, Pennsylvania refers to two accidents that nearly cost her life. In total, she went through rehab four times, once for each accident and again after separate bilateral hip operations. Although she had recovered from her injuries, her accidents left her pelvic imbalance that ultimately required a joint replacement. Still, she has never lost sight of her dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
On March 26, a month before her 51st birthday, Buchanan will leave her husband, dog, cat, and job to begin the 2,190 mile solo hike that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine. As her motivation has evolved over the years, her clear, unwavering vision of herself to embrace the joys and challenges of travel has guided Buchanan through some of her toughest moments.
She has dreamed of the expedition since hiking the 59-mile Loyalsock Trail in Pennsylvania with her local 4-H club when she was 13. “I cried when I had to go home,” she recalls. “I loved my home. I loved my mother. But I felt so comfortable in the forest. “Nature has been Buchanan’s refuge ever since.
Although she occasionally hikes with friends, she prefers the company of animals. “When I go hiking with my dog, we see bears, we see rattlesnakes,” she says, “and none of that shakes me at all.” It never has. For this reason, at the age of 13, she and a friend planned to “hike” the length of the Appalachian Trail after completing her studies.
Then life got in the way. In the year of her graduation, her mother died of breast cancer at age 52. Over time, it became more and more difficult to take a six-month vacation from work.
Even so, Buchanan cherished her dream. At night she often fell asleep imagining herself walking around her tent or thinking about what she would do for breakfast at camp. She has been saying, “It ate me up” since she was a teenager. Buchanan took multi-day backpacking trips whenever possible and started running marathons, mostly to build endurance for the epic backpack.
On November 30, 2004, the anniversary of her mother’s death, a training run with her border collie began like any other – and ended up in intensive care. After being flown to the hospital and intubated, she remembers waking up with wrist cuffs and “tubes coming out all over the place.”
Buchanan was told she was hit by a van but had no memory of the accident. She has been diagnosed with multiple rib fractures, a liver injury, a spleen injury, a pelvic fracture, and a lumbar fracture. Your dog did not survive.
After several surgeries and months of rehab, Buchanan wasn’t sure she would ever achieve her lifelong goal. For months she was in severe pain, like a nail piercing her right hip socket when standing on her right leg, and with it frustration and fear.
Gradually, however, her pain subsided. Walks turned into runs and within a year she ran her second marathon (her first since the accident).
Buchanan’s vision of hiking the Appalachian Trail came back into focus when another driver crossed the median on an icy February morning in 2008 and hit their vehicle head-on. She suffered serious injuries, including broken neck and arm, ankle trauma, and a concussion that made her feel like her brain was “Swiss cheese” for months. Given her neck injuries, it was a miracle she escaped without nerve damage or paralysis.
She left the hospital a second time with a broken body but her dream intact.
If anything, her determination was stronger than ever. What began as an addition to her “résumé” was much more meaningful now. Since her first accident, Buchanan saw “every day [as] a bonus day. “Her second accident increased her gratitude.
As Buchanan approaches her mother’s age when she died, that appreciation has only grown. “I do not want to wait any longer [to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail]. They don’t know what’s going to happen, ”she says.
Buchanan’s mother died before she had the opportunity to do many of the things she hoped to do. If her mother had known how little time she had: “She might have lived her life differently,” muses Buchanan. “And I take that to heart.”
She thinks of her mother’s indomitable spirit daily as she trains for her upcoming hike. Buchanan recalls her mother running 6 miles a day cutting trees for firewood – even when she was undergoing chemotherapy.
Endurance and tenacity are in Buchanan’s blood; She has completed 10 marathons. Less than two months after her second hip replacement, she returned to full-time work at an outpatient physiotherapy clinic. There she wears a weight vest to simulate wearing a backpack all day. She does planks and crunches while playing on the floor with her pets, and does weight training moves like calf raises and squats throughout the day.
Since her surgery, she has covered eight painless miles with her weight vest and plans to hike / run 13 miles each before her wilderness expedition.
Buchanan doesn’t just prepare her body, however. On training hikes, she likes to imagine how she will solve the problems she will encounter on the trail. The strategy for a possible food shortage or a flare-up in her chronic foot pain does not scare her. “It’s puzzle solving. I love it, ”she explains.
The technology will also help her mitigate some of the risks of hiking solo. A GPS device keeps Buchanan’s husband up to date with their location. It also has an “SOS” button that it can press to activate an answer from the nearest emergency call center.
She sees the discomfort she will inevitably face over six months along the way as an opportunity to grow. “I could be on the verge of running out of food. And I have to figure out how to heal myself, ”she admits. “It’s going to be difficult,” she adds. But that’s the point. She wants to enjoy every aspect of the trip, including the challenges, knowing that she almost lost the chance to get to the starting point.
“I don’t know if I’ll be successful,” Buchanan tells me. But the fact that she tries is a win in itself. “[Attempting the hike] is just an acknowledgment that I am alive and have the ability to do so. “
Editor’s Note: According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), every portion of the trail is currently open for daytime use. And while some shelters are closed, “camping is usually allowed in closed accommodations unless otherwise stated.” To limit overcrowding, the ATC encourages hikers to volunteer Register your camping plans. Still, the organization continues to advise long-distance hikers to postpone hikes until 2022, or when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the pandemic as under control and / or a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment is widespread and in use.
Pam Moore is a health and fitness writer, body positive health coach, certified personal trainer and occupational therapist. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Guardian, Runner’s World, Outside, and others. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. Visit them below pam-moore.com.
This article was reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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