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Great Falls Resident Hiking Appalachian Trail
Spencer Brothers is trekking the thousands of miles of historic trail in honor of his fallen ally.
By Ashley Simpson
The Appalachian Mountain Scenic Trail (AT), the longest path in the world exclusively for hikers, stretches 2,190 miles across 14 states in the eastern part of the United States from Georgia as much as Maine. Great Falls resident Spencer Brothers is currently trekking the thousands of miles of this historic trail in honor of his fallen ally, who lost a lengthy, deadly battle with drugs four years ago. As a recovering addict himself, Brothers is in the midst of a challenge that years ago, he never would have imagined himself taking on.
I started trekking the trail on March 11, so, Im about a month and a half into it, Brothers said. Its been going great to this point. I knew before I started that it would be hard, but its even more physically tricky than I ever thought it would be. Nonetheless, Im really enjoying it.
It may want to take Brothers about five and a half months to hike the entire trail. His first time trekking the AT, he planned his maiden voyage in memory of his overdue friend, Chris Atwood, who died in 2013. As Brothers ploughs ahead, hes also raising money for The Chris Atwood Foundation, a local organization situated by the Atwood family to deliver resources for substance disorders and to combat the stigma surrounding such dependency.
The biggest source of inspiration for me to take this on is to honor my friend Chris Atwood who died of a heroin overdose four years ago, in February 2014, Brothers said. Ive done some marathons and other races to honor him and to raise money for the charity that his family situated. This is bigger than that. It took a load more instruction, and a load more time obviously, being that Ill be trekking for more than five months. Its to honor Chris and to raise $21,000 or more for this awesome, important foundation that his family created. I set the goal of $21,000 because Chris lived until the age of 21, so Im hoping to raise a thousand dollars for every year he was alive.
Ginny Atwood Lovitt, Executive Director of The Chris Atwood Foundation, said that folks like Brothers are the backbone of this organization that her family started.
Spencers bravery and compassion for this trigger are unbelievable, Lovitt said. Most of the time it just leaves me speechless. The Chris Atwood Foundation is entirely funded by private donors so it's only through the efforts of folks like Spencer and our compassionate donors that we are able to do this work. What he is doing is not just serving to folks that otherwise might die, but it's in a means keeping my brother's memory alive and honoring the lives of all those we have lost to overdose.
The dollars that Brothers accumulates for The Chris Atwood Foundation are nowhere near the most important outcome of the mission, either.
Spencer is not just raising much needed funds to help folks with addiction, he's showing them just how incredible life may also be after addiction, Atwood said. He's showing them that day by day and little by little recovery permit you to achieve things you never thought you were capable of. It's our hope that Spencer's journey will defeat some of the stigma that folks have about addiction and recovery. We want his journey to bring this issue out into the open and show folks in our network and beyond that folks may also be really proud and open about their recovery if they want to and that they can use that to accomplish great things.
Despite Brothers taking the first step of his Appalachian Trail hike less than 10 days before the official start of spring, he has encountered snowstorms and several instances of hypothermia-inducing temperatures. Through both the expected and unforeseen hardships, Brothers said that he is confident that his resolve to conquer the trail will continue to overpower any notions of quitting as lengthy as he keeps his consciousness on the bigger picture.
Early on, I was just carrying too much for the sheer number of miles that I was doing day in and day journey, Brothers said. The pack that I carry everywhere started out really heavy. I was wondering if I was cut out for this, if I could actually do this. I was seriously brooding about giving up, but, I had been planning this for too lengthy and I was doing this for The Chris Atwood Foundation and for folk other than myself. In the starting, leaving the comforts of home was hard to adjust to but then it became the brand new normal. Theres just no means that Im going to give up unless I become physically unable to and that would take something completely out of my control.
IN ORDER TO STOP BROTHERS, the world would have got to present him with something truly catastrophic. Hes already found a means to put one foot in front of the other through physical conditions that many would believe insufferable, including early stages of hypothermia and an injury that has been known to prevent even professional athletes from accomplishing their goals.
I started out doing some pretty decent mileage, he said. Then, within a couple of weeks, I injured myself trying to do more than I was ready for. I strained my IT band, but I took a day of rest and I referred to as my sister who is a doctor to get her advice, and I ordered a support wrap. I decreased my mileage for a while to let the band heal. Since Ive gotten the wrap and Ive given my leg some time to heal, I now average about 20 miles a day consistently. The longest mile Ive done is 26 miles, which was just a few days ago.
Since Brothers struggled with drug dependency early on in his life, he is no stranger to overcoming challenges. In this sense, perhaps this part of his background gives him an edge on the AT.
While many folks may find it tricky to be alone, with just the sounds of nature and their recommendations to remind them that they are indeed still alive on Earth, Brothers said he appreciates this component of his extended solo trekking experience.
I get a whole lot of time for thinking, he said. But, thinking in a wilderness setting allows things to bubble to the surface that I wouldnt ordinarily place confidence in. There is something really healing about being out in the woods for a lengthy period of time. Im really growing from this.
While he spends the majority of his time on the trail alone, he said he does regularly encounter other folks.
I havent gone a single day without seeing folks yet, he said. During the day, since Im trekking at my own pace, Ill be alone, but, at an identical time, I run into and meet tons of folks in spurts, at different points on the trail.
In reality, throughout Brothers first weekend on the AT, fellow hikers literally helped lighten his load.
I stayed at a hostel my first weekend on the trail and found folks who helped me parent out which gear I could get rid of to lighten my back a little bit, he said. My pack started out at 47 pounds, and now it weighs around 35 pounds or less.
Although this is Brothers first extended trekking endeavor, it is nowhere near his first exposure to survival in the comprehensive outdoors. His first steps towards recovery years ago were actually at a program that he went to as a young consumer that first exposed him to trekking through the wilderness.
He said his background with addiction, treatment programs and thus, the woods is likely the reason the idea of the AT was so intriguing to him.
I struggled with drug addiction myself as a young consumer, along a myriad of other worries like low self-esteem and anger, Brothers said. My family sent me to two different treatment programs that did outdoor experience therapy. While my challenges didnt end with these wilderness programs, the programs help put me on the road to recovery. My experience with them exposure to the woods, and trekking and camping for lengthy periods of time planted the seeds for the inspiration to do a really significant hike like the Appalachian Trail.
Still, Brothers said the trekking he did through wilderness programs really cannot even compare to what hes doing now.
With the wilderness programs I did, we hiked and camped each day, but we averaged more like 6 or 7 miles a day, he said. Now, overall, Im averaging 15 to 20 miles each day. Its really tricky to stay motivated to keep up with that progress day in and day journey, especially with the physical damage that comes with it.
Now that hes accustomed to the rigor, Brothers said the majority of his each day really is trekking. Other than willing himself to push onward through varying elevations and, oftentimes fickle weather, he spends the the rest of each and each day getting ready basic meals, and then sleeping as much as possible to recharge for the following day. There are designated campsites, hostels and other shelters along the means specifically intended for AT hikers.
He added that he typically resupplies at grocery stores in towns surrounding the AT. Hell either get to the towns by getting off the trail and walking another mile or two, taking a shuttle, or he will hitchhike. Recently, he actually accepted a ride into a Southern Virginia town from a woman who happened to be a fellow Great Falls native.
LATER THIS MONTH, Brothers will reach a point close enough to home in order that his parents can pick him up and usher him back to their house in order that he can enjoy the comforts of home for a few days. Really, though, Brothers has planned this respite from the trail is in order that he can submit graduate school applications. And, when he gets back on the trail, his girlfriend will join him for the the rest of the hike, which will make his hike even more meaningful, and even symbolic.
Im so excited to have her on this journey with me, he said. Its actually been her dream to hike the AT since before I met her, so its wonderfully serendipitous that our journeys and dreams literally walk alongside each and every other.
In the meantime, Brothers said hes learning a lot about himself, and about life, as he treks onward on his own.
I definitely am learning patience on the trail, he said. Im also learning to trust myself. I see so many different hikers approaching the trail and pacing themselves in different ways. You have got to learn to be confident in following through with a plan that is best for you. Also, if I didnt know it before, I certainly know now that nothing worth doing is easy. Looking back on this experience, when its all done, Im going to be glad that it was hard. Itll make future struggles seem more surmountable.
As of now, Brothers has raised about a 3rd of his $21,000 goal for The Chris Atwood Foundation. A few folks have pledged a dollar for every mile he completes, including Chris Atwoods father.
Brothers is hoping for more donations both big and small as he puts himself nearer to his finish line at Maines Mount Katahdin. Even though he has limited entry to the World Wide Web and all of its convenient means for the mass communication of files on his mission, hes still spreading the phrase.
At every shelter, there is a log book for AT hikers to sign and to look at the words of hikers that reached that point before them. Ive been writing the fundraising files in there. Hopefully it will resonate with folks, and they will pass it on.
To read updates to his journey, visit his blog at https://spencersatblog.wordpress.com.