Just had arguably the three hardest days yet on the trail. Our climb into Great Smoky National Park entailed three calf splitting days of sheer up hill climbs with less reprieve than I’ve seen on the trail so far. Two of them we ascended over 3000 feet in 5-6 miles, one ascending 1000 feet in less than 2 miles (Jacob’s Ladder… of pain). Laying here in my tent, my ankles and feet are throbbing to my pulse, blood probably rushing to them to heal up from the beating of these last couple days.
After three weeks on the trail, I’ve finally settled into what they call a Trail Family, or Tramily, out here. Hikers over time tend to group up giving our hikes more camaraderie, and on the days when we trek solo, friendly faces to look forward to reuniting with at camp. We’ve got Scissors, the traveling surgical aid, Chuckleberry Finn, our Floridian who chuckles at anything and everything, Remedy who seemingly majored in outrageous story telling and campfire banter, Chill who seconds as a jubilant forest elf frolicking where the rest of us pant and heave our way through… then popping out of the woods to capture our picture somewhere down the trail, two young ladies, one named Poncho Libre for her oversized poncho rain gear, occasionally Pumkin Spice, though he’s an early riser, and Smoke Stack, aka the AT’s very own Marlborough Man.
While this week has been hard, I crossed the 7 month mark without Matt and had some strenuous days of hiking, the trail fam has certainly boosted my spirits. Each of us out here for our own different reasons but all respectful of what the other is going through. They’ve definitely starting to see me grieve as on the 11th and 12th I had a hard time keeping myself held together, finding tears rolling down intermitently throughout the day. Scissors came down when I was having a moment filtering my water and told me it was ok to cry, expected really, when I tried to sniffle them out. Two days later, Pumpkin Spice stayed with me for two hours while I waited for Theo to be picked up for his kennel (not allowed in the Smokies) and listened to Matt’s story, letting me air out some of my grief and tears that had been building up over the days. He wanted to stay knowing that separating from Theo was going to be especially challenging for me.
It’s hard to describe how these random acts of kindness can lift me up out here. The beauty of this trail is that kindness is the norm. Everyone takes extra care to help each other out, whether it’s finding something lost, filtering someone’s water or watching the gear during a resupply, the general sentiment is clear, we are all in this together and thru-hikers have each other’s backs.
Our particular tramily has a hankering for food, and food excursions in particular. Someone mentioned Wendy’s a few days ago and every single one of us decided that yes, we had to have Wendy’s and we had to have it now. So we hitched all 8 of us into town, straight to the Wendy’s, where we ordered about three plus meals each to slam down in record time out front, leaning against our packs in true hiker hobo fashion. Even Theo got in on the action, downing a small vanilla frosty and box of chicken nuggets. I keep saying, thru-hikers could advertise anything.
That town we stopped in for that Wendy’s was Robbinsville, North Carolina. A town which actually has been on my radar for a while now. The area has a large native population, and is particularly riddled by the opioid epidemic. This past December, a new facility, the Snowbird Treatment Center, opened up offering 20 beds for addiction, primarily opioid, treatment.
I called to connect with the center and see if I could gather more information, and explained that I was on a pilgrimage of sorts for learning about recovery efforts while raising awareness. After a series of transfers, I was directed to the manager of the site, a woman named Christy.
I told Kristi how I’d seen some articles about the new treatment center and was hoping to learn more about it, their approach and how the epidemic was affecting this community in general. She was very warm and open to discussing the matter. Apparently, before Snowbird opened up, patients had to wait four to six weeks for treatment after detoxing. Which so often is too long for an addict seeking help. Kristi explained how these mountain towns in particular struggle with resources for tackling the opioid epidemic and helping people in recovery. Snowbird offers treatment for addiction as a whole, but when I asked her she said opioid recovery is the main treatment people are seeking from them, and that like much of Appalachia, it has ravaged the community here too.
Snowbird is unique not only in it’s remote location serving a specific community, but also due to its holistic and cultural approach. Serving the Eastern Band of Cherokee in Graham Country, it is modeled after another treatment center for native populations in New York, called the St. Regis Partridge House for the Mohawk Tribe.
St. Regis Partridge House Mission: To provide a health, caring and safe environment for native men and women who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction through self-empowerment, traditional teachings, utilizing a non-judgmental team approach.
A journey of hope, healing and wellness. Holistic, spiritually focused and trauma-informed.
Similar to the Partridge House, Snowbird incorporates cultural teachings to empower patients through native traditions, connecting them with their roots and community. This idea echoes my post last week where Denise discussed the importance of removing that feeling of isolation on the path to recovery.
Kristi told me they take a holistic approach teaching life skills, nutrition, helping those in recovery feel self sufficient and get back on their feet. I think back to when I first met Matt. He did not have a license, social security card, or bank account – basic logistics necessary to function in our modern world. It’s not that he did not want these things, but that it became nearly impossible for him to get them when he was trying to dig his way out of the hole his addiction had created. He couldn’t get a license or ID because he didn’t have a social security card, but he couldn’t get a social security card because he didn’t have an ID. A chicken or the egg situation of extremely aggravating proportions. He went back and forth from the DMV to the social security office at least 15 times in a matter of months when he became determined to get it all sorted out. We even joked at our new house, located right across the road from the DMV, saying Matt would feel right at home.
Helping Matt through these logistics was incredibly frustrating, and often disheartening. So often it felt like we were beating our heads against the wall and he’d never be able to obtain the documents he needed to succeed and thrive. I relayed that experience to Kristi to which she sighed in agreement. The fact is, recovery is already such an uphill battle and our systems make it that much more challenging for someone to get back on their feet. It’s because of this first hand experience that I truly believe a holistic approach is the best way to prevent quick relapses out of treatment.
It’s both shocking and humbling to learn how the very town in which I gorged on spicy chicken sandwiches and frostys, has been turned upside down by opioid addiction. But hearing about Snowbird and talking to Kristi, someone so clearly passionate about her work, a person you can tell puts in endless hours and care, does bring hope. We need more of it, all across the US, and also in these tiny pocket towns where addiction has slithered it’s way in.
With that, it’s 9:45 and I truly have to get some good rest, another big day tomorrow and we are supposed to get pelted with rain all day. Going to have to put on my big girl pants and truck through it, all though, carrying Matt with me should make it a little easier.
p.s. we ran out of bandanas, everyone has been showing such great support. My birthday is next week and en liue of anything else I set up a birthday fundraiser on facebook to raise some money for another order for the trek. If you feel so moved to do so, please check it out here. Although I know you all have already been so supportive so no need either way <3
Get a Purple Bandana to Support Opioid Recovery