They seek the agony of victory
BY ROBERT HUGHES
Nov 7, 2004
There's this guy who's finishing the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail on Thursday.
On one leg.
And he ain't hopping.
Actually, Scott Rogers' biggest physical problem since he started his walk from Georgia to Maine has been with the prosthetic leg that makes his journey possible.
In a journal he's writing on his Web site, www.onelegwonder.com, Scott Rogers said the leg works correctly only 1/4 of the time, and that it can be quite uncomfortable when it does work.
"At worst, it feels like I have a leg shoved up my rear end, and every fourth or fifth step brings me one step closer to being neutered," he has written.
Rogers started the hike in March to provide inspiration to others, thinking he would be the first amputee to complete the journey. But he received a shock just a couple of days into his hike when he learned another amputee had hiked the A.T. in 1992.
Still, his is an incredible journey. . . and not very enjoyable.
Rogers admitted, "The hike hasn't been fun at all. I've relied solely on my commitment to keep me on the trail, because mentally, I certainly haven't wanted to be there."
Those words sound remarkably similar to those from a man who's A.T. thru-hike was even more incredible -- and painful.
I happened upon Bill Irwin and his seeing-eye dog, Orient, in 1990 when I was checking a section of the A.T. in New Jersey, so I can attest to the fact that he was, in fact, doing what many thought was impossible. He emerged from the woods with only the dog as company, and he was dying of thirst.
All I had was a warm Sprite, but he guzzled it down.
Finding water is one of a sighted hiker's biggest challenges on the trail, much less someone blind.
The only focus the dog had, however, was to get into my car and get the heck off the trail.
It was clear "fun" wasn't a word to describe their experience.
As beautiful a hike as it is, the A.T. is awfully hard for anyone to complete in one year because of the mental drudgery.
Even after making all the preparations involved with a thru-hike -- including quitting your job, getting into shape, mailing out food packages to post offices along the way -- fewer than one in 10 of the people who start a thru-hike each year actually make it.
And most don't get beyond the first week.
Irwin said the quitters may be physically prepared, but not mentally.
"Most who quit, say they quit because it's not fun anymore," he said. "It's a job, not just fun, and you need to know that to maintain your motivation."
Irwin was able to complete his "job," he said, because God told him to take the hike.
Of course, he couldn't quite communicate that message to Orient, whose struggles were also of Biblical proportions.
Miraculously, the worst result of the dozens of falls Irwin suffered daily was a cracked rib.
But the biggest miracle of all was that Orient could guide him down the rugged trail at all.
When they started down the trail, the dog -- as he was trained to do -- stopped at the first rock he came to that Irwin could trip over.
Fortunately, he also knew the command "hop up," which signaled him to keep going over the next million or so such obstacles in their way.
At first, Orient was also incapable of following the trail blazes as Irwin hoped, but he found his way thanks to all the hopeful thru-hikers who started north at the same time.
(For anyone who's ever smelled a thru-hiker, I guess it's not so remarkable the dog could follow the trail by their scent. That scent was strong enough to orient Orient toward water and campsites, too.)
Irwin and Rogers can rest assured knowing they will serve as motivation for people who have physical limitations, even if the most extreme adventure for many is simply getting through life.
The rest of us, of course, can be inspired to overcome the mental limitations that keep us from our goals when we see people with bigger problems succeed.
The outdoors has always been a place to teach ourselves such lessons in the clearest, most basic way.
We all love the feeling of getting away from it all, and the bigger effort offers the greater satisfaction. That's because no matter how far we go, there's no escaping ourselves -- and all those limitations each of us must carry.