At about 3 in the afternoon the three of us were almost halfway up the mountain. Brennan, our 15-year-old son, went ahead without his backpack to scout out the best route. My wife, Rhonda, and I gratefully sat down to rest and soak in the tranquil beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
We didn’t know if we had the energy to continue up the steep incline facing us. And it felt good to stay put. The buds on the trees were beginning to blossom, and the valley below was so picturesque. It was tempting to pitch a tent here, despite the severe slope. We had worked so hard to get as far as we did and would surely be justified if we stopped.
But we didn’t. We agreed that this was not what we had come for. We were here to get me up this mountain slope near Roanoke, Virginia, so I could set my feet once again on the Appalachian Trail.
When Brennan returned, Rhonda and I slowly continued our journey — climbing the side of a raw mountain without trail or map. The mountain got insanely steeper and rockier the higher we climbed. Brennan led the way, attaching a hook and rope to trees so I could pull myself up. Rhonda supported me from behind, making her climb even more strenuous. And I was glad I had worked with weights through the years to give me the stamina to keep going.
A couple hours later, Rhonda and Brennan dropped their packs and again checked ahead for a route through rocky impediments, leaving me to pull myself up on the rope. Somewhere along its 40-foot length, I lost my footing, fell and couldn’t get up. So I lay there, awaiting their return, trying to enjoy the scenery and thinking back over the events that had led me here.
My affinity for the Appalachian Trail — the AT — started when Rhonda, my girlfriend at the time, and I did a one-hour hike on the trail near Boonsboro, Maryland, during fall break of my sophomore year at Notre Dame.
A year later I was eating in the Huddle at LaFortune when I noticed a guy with state-of-the-art hiking gear and struck up a conversation. It was Charlie Bell, who was near the end of his 10,000-mile trek around the perimeter of the United States. He was planning to stay on the campus golf course, so I invited him to our quad in Holy Cross Hall. His stories of adventure inspired me and encouraged my strong attachment to the AT.
That summer, while I was working for the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., weird things began happening to me. My fingers would let go of the steering wheel and my arm would drop. I eventually grew concerned, but doctors and a clean CT-scan suggested my symptoms were due to stress.
Thoughts of hiking the AT that summer continued to spin in my head. I was still inspired by Charlie Bell’s accomplishment and was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Meeting a person who had hiked the entire 2,200-mile AT further sparked my desire to live an adventure.
My father’s living with as-yet undiagnosed symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other family stresses had created tensions at home that summer. Hiking the AT seemed to be the perfect solution — an enterprising escape. So I took the train early one evening to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and set out. After hiking the first few miles while singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” I found a campsite in the pitch dark just a few feet from the Potomac River. I built a fire that lit up the night, pitched a tent and ate dinner. The next day I was on the AT and, several days and 25 miles later, met Rhonda again, where I’d been introduced to the trail the previous year.
The medical symptoms went away soon after I returned to school. But they resurfaced during senior week in 1982 when I had a bout with double-vision while celebrating our graduation with friends on the Lake Michigan beaches. Rhonda and I were married in 1983, and a year later we hiked the AT in Maryland. I had an exciting few years with the American Red Cross and its biomedical services division and earned a master’s in health administration from Virginia Commonwealth University. But symptoms returned, and in 1985 I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Cognitive impairment related to MS appeared slowly. Managing multiple tasks became inordinately difficult as the years passed. Maintaining employment commensurate with my education became a formidable challenge. The slow erosion of my identity because of MS was facilitated by the decline of my mental abilities and body, even though I looked reasonably okay on the outside. Repeatedly losing jobs and having to move frequently became depressing. Challenging opportunities as a consultant were interspersed with jobs requiring only a high school education — subpar employment taken so I could bring money in to the family.
It shamed me that I did not function like I and those who hired me thought I should. How could I explain to others what I didn’t understand myself? While the MS symptoms were progressing in full force, I kept thinking that it couldn’t get any worse, and I tried to project the image of having it all together.
At one point I thought my decline was my fault, was due to sloth; only later did I learn that fatigue, a result of damage of the central nervous system, is a symptom of MS which in some can become increasingly prominent over time. Even though I headed a remarkably successful team of blood-drive reps in New York in 1997, I suspected my cognitive abilities were deteriorating. I even tested myself by taking the Barron’s GRE, which replicates the test required for graduate school admission, and didn’t come close to my score of 12 years earlier. As a matter of pride, I resisted applying for Social Security disability benefits, even though my condition caused our family serious financial stress.
I started avoiding activities related to Notre Dame. I didn’t advance professionally like my classmates did, and I didn’t fit what I believed to be the Notre Dame profile. Unfortunately I directed a lot of my frustration and anger toward members of my family, the people who became my caregivers as my physical abilities diminished. MS, I saw over time, was bringing about a painfully humiliating loss of my health, income and status within society and even my family.
In 2003 I was hired to manage the Rescue Mission’s health clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, and Rhonda was asked to manage Jubilee Acres, a 15-acre retreat complex owned by the Rescue Mission. Jubilee Acres, with a lodge, challenge course and hiking trails in a beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain setting, provides a summer camp for homeless children and team-building opportunities for recovery program participants at the Rescue Mission as well as for local churches and businesses.
Rhonda and I loved the scenic majesty of the mountains and felt blessed to reside in this bucolic environment while serving others. And we were excited to learn that the Appalachian Trail, coursing from Georgia to Maine, ran along the top of the mountains in our backyard.
I managed the health clinic for awhile but, like other jobs, this opportunity ended all too soon. This time, however, the CEO encouraged me to file for Social Security disability. I swallowed my pride, and two years after moving to Jubilee Acres I was approved to receive this support. The consistent income was a relief, but I wasn’t the achiever I thought I should be. Even though I was fighting a chronic disease, I still wanted to succeed at something, do more, be like I used to be.
So one spring morning I was lying in bed, thinking of time passing and of the AT along the mountain crest. I saw a vision of my son putting a metal hook around a tree and of me using an attached rope to pull myself along. I could get there one tree at a time! Knowing that my physical condition has the potential to deteriorate, I thought that if I would ever do this, now was the time.
I mentioned the vision to Rhonda and began taking steps to make it happen. At a utility store I purchased a 3-foot steel rod and 40 feet of thick, blue-white derby rope. I told my friend Bob, a skilled welder who works at a muffler repair shop, about my vision to climb the mountain in our backyard by using a rope and hook. Using a gas torch, Bob bent the steel rod into a shepherd’s hook with a loop where I could tie the rope. He added a notch to the end of the hook to keep it from slipping from a tree. I knotted the rope to the hook with two half-hitches and fashioned a loop at the other end that would go around me.
My old copy of the Boy Scout Fieldbook was useful for guidance on what to bring and how to pack for the excursion. I borrowed a Kelty backpack and tent, and Rhonda and I purchased lightweight but nutritive food. We seemed to be all set.
A few hours before the hike I wrote: “Climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Appalachian Trail has been an ambition of mine ever since we moved here. If I’m ever going to do it, it’ll be now while I’m on prednisone and it’s beautiful spring weather.” I noted that Rhonda’s backpack weighed 35 pounds, Brennan’s 40 pounds and mine 15. “We’re leaving soon, and I am banking on completing this by 2 p.m. Two people recommended that we overnight up there and come back tomorrow morning. Energy conservation is important here.”
Knowing that Brennan had taken about 75 minutes to reach the AT from our house without a backpack, I figured it might take us three times longer because of my MS. Ah, such optimism.
We headed into the woods at 11 a.m. After passing the familiar team-building ropes course and crossing a small creek, we entered the land of the unknown, with no trail or map to show us the way. Brennan served as our guide, steering us gradually left and away from the sheer cliffs higher up the mountain.
I soon became concerned that I was leaning too much on Rhonda for balance and support. As the backpack got heavier and heavier with each step, I ditched it after 150 feet. We decided all three of us would sleep in one tent and transferred the bare essentials from my pack to the other two. The next hurdle was a fallen tree we couldn’t walk around, given the brush and topography. Getting over it gave me a strong sense of accomplishment, but the log was nothing compared to what was to come.
The slope soon got steeper and forward movement became increasingly difficult. It was time to use the hook and rope, and I admit to an adrenaline rush when I pulled it out of the backpack, put the loop around me and watched Brennan climb to a tree about 40 feet away. I then pulled myself to the tree, just as I had envisioned. Somehow the slope and tension of the rope increased my stability as I continued up the hill, hand over hand, one small step at a time.
Brennan and I continued this ritual of placing the hook and pulling on the rope as the topography became more rugged and the angle of the incline more acute. The minutes of initial excitement gradually turned into hours of repetitive hard work.
Occasionally Rhonda would go ahead to fit the hook, but she typically stayed back with me, holding me up, pushing me upward from behind and sometimes using her foot to push my feet forward. The strain and support of her backpack and my weight were exhausting her. And we soon realized we hadn’t brought enough water.
Moving higher up the mountain meant rock climbing for about an hour. “Partly having to use the rope myself, I stood behind George on slick, slanted rock several stories high, using strength that I didn’t even know existed in me,” Rhonda later wrote. “I thought we had lost our minds to attempt something like this. One little slip and we could be killed or seriously injured. If someone had previously showed me what it would be like, I would never have attempted something this ridiculously dangerous. I prayed continuously for God to protect us. It’s amazing what humans can do when they are in a situation where there is no choice but to press on.”
And press on we did, our team of three: me, the initiator; Rhonda, the encourager and physical impetus; and Brennan, the Sherpa and Hercules.
Toward the end of the day Brennan strapped on his mother’s pack in addition to his own and headed on up the mountain to look for a campsite. The skies were darkening as he made it to the top, to the Appalachian Trail itself, dropped both packs and came back for us. As all three of us neared the height of the mountain, the terrain became smoother, the ground more level. The rope-pull was no longer necessary, but I could barely walk or keep my balance, so I hooked my arms around the shoulders of Rhonda and Brennan as we neared the top.
Nightfall approached, and my heart beat in anticipation as the three of us made our way along. Then in the dark dusk I saw it. The Appalachian Trail. It was 8 p.m. It had taken us nine hours to get here, this place that seemed distantly out of reach despite being close to our own backyard. We had made it.
Rhonda and Brennan hurried to set up camp and cook dinner, and I was soon crawling into my sleeping bag — missing the bear that Rhonda and Brennan heard venturing into our campsite.
The next morning Brennan and I prepared breakfast, and the three of us posed for photos. Then it was time to descend from the mountaintop we had struggled so laboriously to reach the day before. For me, even walking down the mountain was difficult. When we got past the rocks near the top, I primarily slid down with Rhonda belaying me with the rope or simply pulling me toward the bottom.
When the ground leveled out, I once again wrapped my arms around Rhonda and Brennan’s shoulders. We finally crossed the creek and entered the challenge course, the sign we were virtually home. It was midafternoon; it had taken us almost five hours to come down.
Our Great Expedition was the first step in mending relationships and introducing humility, gratitude and teamwork in a way that brought us together. But the clock ticks and the meter is always down. The struggle between a tenacious “I can do it” attitude, the despair of learned helplessness and the feeling of humble gratitude is a daily affair five years later as my MS symptoms progress.
Today I use an electric scooter for mobility, and my left foot, leg, arm and hand are significantly impaired. Occasionally I fall, and sometimes it’s hard to stand because I am exceptionally weak in a way I never have been before. But I do what needs to be done and summon a firm inner resolve to do it. Many times I think of the climb to the AT when I felt like I could not take another step but did anyway. That memory gives me the strength to do what I initially think I can’t today. Writing this article is one example.
And often I think back to the summer I walked the AT and was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which concludes: “Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”
George McAleer and his wife, Rhonda, live in Roanoke, Virginia. He is the immediate past president of the Notre Dame Club of the Blue Ridge. Reach him at email@example.com.