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One woman's alcohol battle and her trek through the American wilderness

After joining AA to beat her alcohol addiction PI (she abides by AA anonymity) set off from her Warwickshire village to trek from Mexico to Canada. She documented her journey in a book, Everything You Ever Taught Me, and tells the Herald about her adventures here.

There’s a reason why living in a solid-brick house with high-speed broadband is a far more popular lifestyle choice and I’m certainly appreciating being in my cosy cottage in Sutton under Brailes after living in a flimsy tent deep within the American Wilderness for six months.

Whilst there I battled every weather system from rugged desert conditions to hail and snow storms high up alpine mountains. When I came back to England, after so many months outside, I was delighted to be confined indoors for the months to wait out the rest of the pandemic! The one big benefit of lockdown meant there was nothing else to do but crack on with my recently-published book entitled Everything You Ever Taught Me. Naturally, it chronicles my 2,653-mile odyssey from Mexico to Canada along the crests of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains.

Life was harsh but simple. Each night, following a day of relentless slogging up and down hills, I’d inflate a thin blow-up mattress, settle into a rancid sleeping bag and scoff down some three-minute noodles or instant pasta for dinner. The next morning, I’d wash down two or four dry, squashed Danish pastries down with instant coffee from a two-slurp cup to get me going. And in between those two mealtimes, I walked and walked and walked. I’d take brakes to grab a snack, go to the loo and filter water from rivers, streams or worst of all, cow-pat splattered ponds.

At the California/Oregon border. (51813804)
At the California/Oregon border. (51813804)

Decades earlier I had denounced camping as a “loathsome pursuit” and nothing about my recent experience is likely to change anyone’s mind! I lived amongst all manner of animals and insects that had the propensity to do real harm. One night, I ordered a mountain lion, roaring its disapproval at my interloping, to ‘go away’ in less than polite terms. I was astonished when it obeyed - my own domesticated pet cat doesn’t register the slightest command. Another morning, I pelted out “God Save The Queen” badly to two bears I’d jolted out of their slumber at the crack of dawn. Apparently, bears hate to be sung at. I also discovered that rattlesnakes are evolving to not rattle and always have the right of way no matter how steep the mountain sides are. I experienced droughts, avalanches, and wildfires. I also forded fast-flowing rivers, battled against plagues of mosquitoes, venomous spiders, vicious bees and was warned about a serial killer.

You’d think I was an outdoorsy type but before I left England, I wasn’t remotely fit. “Fat, funny and mid-forties” is how my good friends are most likely to describe me. I’d only stopped smoking ten weeks before my departure, and I had devoured an awful lot of cake to suppress any rising panic of what I was about to do. I certainly swelled my thighs’ saddlebags considerably. As for previous hiking experience? I’d walked from the fridge to the sofa and back many times.

I couldn’t even tell you why I felt drawn to undertaking such a ridiculous task but I sort of blame my joining Alcoholic Anonymous, and getting into recovery for how it all came about.

Over the years, drinking had become my main hobby so I’d lost any sense of who I was and how to enjoy life. In 2016, I realised I could stop drinking, but staying stopped was the problem. I didn’t think of myself as an alcoholic because I thought that terms only applied to people who drank around the clock, but I’ve come to realise that it’s not about how much one drinks, nor how frequently, but what happens when they drink: I could never just have ‘the one’. When I wasn’t drinking, I was wishing I was drinking. I wanted a break from the stuff. So I took myself off discreetly to one of their meetings. I didn’t want to tell my doctor and I didn’t want to fill in any forms.

At the US/Canada border on the Pacific Crest trail. (51813814)
At the US/Canada border on the Pacific Crest trail. (51813814)

AA is famous globally for originating the 12- step recovery programme. It has since been adopted by a wide range of groups to help addicts of all kinds live with their emotions without rushing to indulge in self-sabotaging behaviours. It was in the rooms of AA where I learnt so much about fear and fortitude, and I came to rely on those lessons when I was in the wilderness. Because in addition to being fat, I’m also riddled with anxiety.

Anyone in a 12-step fellowship is free to tell another individual about their membership, but it’s a stipulated tradition to never use full names at the level of press, radio and film. And so out of respect for AA, I continue to use my “Trail Name” because I refer to the programme throughout my book. That said, having a ‘Trail Name’, rather than using one’s own name, is part of the culture of thru-hiking. Nicknames are usually bestowed because of some behavioural quirk or calamity but others choose something wistful or personally attractive. That’s why early on the hike, one is quite likely to meet a few “Wrong Ways, No Sporks, or Kitchen Sinks” but in 2020 the pandemic meant meeting anyone was a rarity, particularly so in southern California when the restrictions were at their highest.

I chose to carry on hiking even after the pandemic unleashed because I honestly believed it would all be over by mid-summer, but it was a really difficult decision to make at the time. Most people had returned to their place of origin by the end of March, leaving the Californian wilderness almost entirely empty. Ordinarily around three thousand people a year attempt to thru-hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail - officially the world’s longest continuous footpath. And others will only have time to do a “long-ass section hike” perhaps spending a few weeks doing a few hundred miles. Ordinarily, around twenty-percent of thru-hikers achieve their goal of getting to the antithetical border. In 2020, it is thought less than 100 hikers made it. People were allowed to go out walking, and indeed encouraged to go, within a few weeks so that eased my decision to continue. Online there was tremendous abuse dished out in social media groups, but that wasn’t replicated in ‘real life’.

The longest I went without seeing a fellow human being was four and a half days and I estimate that I spent around 70 per cent of my nights alone with just nocturnal creatures for company. Deer, I found, were terribly anti-social camp-mates: they love human pee and occasionally groups ran around my tent playing kiss-chase in the night. Mice too featured a lot. Worse, they can be horribly destructive chewing through the tent’s canvas to get to food. Once the sun goes down, the meeps, beeps, chirrups and squeals of daytime life ceases, and in its place the foliage rustles and cracks away. Insomnia reigned at night and loneliness during the day.

To fill the time, I relied heavily on recordings of AA meetings, learning from my fellow alcoholics about facing my fears, as well as coping with being hungry, angry, lonely and tired almost constantly. With all that thinking time, I learnt so much about my own mindset, as well as my foibles, I got to recogitate the past a lot, and it was far from cathartic at times. Addicts are said to be perennial over-thinkers, and so much isolation created self-absorption overload! Even the most breath-taking views distracted only for brief periods before the demands of crushing miles took over.

The most I walked in a day was just over 31 miles - and that was because I couldn’t find anywhere safe to camp, but at the beginning I could barely manage ten miles a day. I honestly didn’t believe I could do it until probably the last few weeks. Although, by the halfway point, I was accustomed to climbing Ben Nevis three or four times a day if not more. It was certainly not, however, a ‘walk in the woods’ as some people infer. I was in near-constant pain, particularly my ankles and calves, and occasionally one knee. It was unrelentingly brutal at times. A lot of tears were shed, as were quite a few toenails.

Cover of Everything you Ever Taught Me (51813817)
Cover of Everything you Ever Taught Me (51813817)

But the best part is the kindness of strangers. ‘Trail Angels’ place little packages of snacks, or supply bottles of water in notorious dry spots. Random drivers would collect me from trailheads and deposit me in a town to resupply free of charge. Others opened up their houses, and in Washington, I was brought fresh supplies directly to the trail by a fellow hiker’s loved ones, saving me precious time. Many of these angels wouldn’t take any payment whatsoever. Despite smelling exactly how over-exercised, deodorant-eschewing, members of the great unwashed should, we hikers were incredibly warmly received by the vast majority of townspeople too. I met some really fascinating people out there. They made me laugh, or provoked my thoughts, although of course I met a few who infuriated me.

My book isn’t so much a story of going from lost to found as I went from perfectly locatable in the Cotswolds to being utterly baffled in the wilderness. I still have no idea why I did it, and you’d never know how far I walked last summer: I’m now back to being fat, unfit and just one year closer to 50! That said, once the aches and pains subsided, about six months after I flew back home, I had this indescribable yearning to do it all again - and it’s never left. It’s like I have amnesia where the suffering was concerned.

Everything You Ever Taught Me by Person Irresponsible is available in paperback on Amazon, and Kindle.

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