For many the idea of thru hiking the 2,181 mile long Appalachian Trail seems impossible. It means spending months traveling by foot along a trail that spans 14 states while sleeping in the wilderness relying primarily on your own strengths, instinct, and determination. It’s spending days, weeks, months without another soul in sight. It’s combating the mental low points and forcing yourself to carry on, one foot in front of the other, despite every desire to just call it quits. It’s being at the mercy of the elements: rain, cold, humidity, and bugs. It’s facing fears including those pesky black bears.
As if hiking the Appalachian Trail wasn’t hard enough, Stacey Kozel thru hiked the AT in 2016 without the use of her legs.
Stacey grew up in Medina, Ohio playing any sport with a ball. She had plans to continue her athletic career in college. Yet, it all came to a halt when she was diagnosed with Lupus at 19. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body because your immune system mistakes the body’s own tissues as foreign invaders and attacks them. It’s a chronic disease so it’s a constant struggle between flare ups and remission. Lupus wreaked havoc on Stacey’s spinal cord.
Stacey’s flare ups would leave her in the hospital recovering for months at a time. With each flare up, she lost a little more mobility. In March 2014, she suffered her most severe flare up caused by a car accident. For a period she couldn’t even lift her head.
Yet, it was during this stint in the hospital that Stacey really gained perspective and motivation. With not much else to do laying in bed, she spent time reflecting. She had worked as nurse charged with caring for patients with dementia. These patients would share their regrets of dream vacations, broken relationships, and missed chances. Stacey made a promise to herself that if she recovered from this most recent flare up, her life would be lived with no regrets.
“The worst day on the trail is still far better than the best day in the hospital.”
It was nine months before she could stand again, a year before she walked, and hours of focused rehabilitation with her doctors and therapists to regain her strength. She left the hospital in a motorized wheelchair, but she wanted to get back on her feet. Through research, she discovered the high tech brace, called the C-brace, made by Ottobock. Of course, getting the brace was no simple task. She and her medical staff fought tooth and nail to reverse the insurance company’s judgement that it was “unnecessary”. After a year, many appeals, phone calls, and prayers, it was finally approved.
The new braces allowed her to walk by moving her hips in such a way that produced steps with the use of a computer. The challenge for the trail, however, was the need for them to be charged every two days and keeping them out of the rain. Of course, this is Stacey we’re talking about, so this little hiccup wasn’t stopping her! It meant she trekked slower with extra time spent in her tent on rainy days. Trail magic came in the form of places to charge her braces.
She finished her thru hike October 9 after several attempts to summit Mount Katahdin. Her final attempt was made to the chagrin of rangers who feared for her safety climbing the rough terrain. It rained. It was cold. She struggled. She held tight to her goal. “The worst day on the trail is still far better than the best day in the hospital. I believe the possibilities are endless and we may never know what we can accomplish if we give up too soon.”
This year, she’s taking on the Pacific Coast Trail, but finding the time between mountains to tell her story to Explorer Chicks at Wild on Friday night! We are beyond excited to hear her speak and gracious to her for bringing that beaming smile to West Virginia.