Molly Schneider: Limitless Sides to Outside

There are so many ways to enjoy time outside. This is one of many unique stories we’re sharing as part of our effort to highlight the Limitless Sides to Outside.

The pelting of rain on skin during a rainstorm. Watching the wind whip through trees as tall as hills. Soaking in sun as it cascades through pine needles to illuminate the forest floor. The crisp smell of air on an early morning in the backcountry.  

These are the places my mind goes when I think back on my 2017 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It took me five months and 28 days to “walk” the 2,190.9 miles that spans 14 states, from Georgia to Maine. 

I’ve always felt a calling to being outside. I have always felt at home among the trees. As a kid, I’d play in streams building clay sculptures. As a teenager, for my birthday every year, my dad would take me to American Whitewater’s Gauley Fest in West Virginia. I have always felt at home among the trees. 

I first heard about the Appalachian Trail as a junior in high school. I told my dad that that I would thru-hike the trail someday. I made a plan: I would hike the trail after graduating college and working for a few years. On the first day of my first job after graduation, I told my bosses I’d quit in three years to hike the trail—they didn’t believe me. But true to my word, I did.  

On the trail, I remember talking to my hiking partner about how unfortunate it was that some people would never see most of the incredible views and landscapes we were traveling through. Every once in a while, I’d notice an ADA-compliant bathroom for people with disabilities near a trailhead. I remember scoffing about how this basically only made the beginning of the trail accessible. It seemed like these additions were band-aids–an effort to retrofit trails after-the-fact for accessibility. It didn’t make sense.   

Then on the last day of 2018, about a year after my hike, I broke my neck during a fluke three-foot-fall from a porch railing, leaving me paralyzed from the neck down—a quadriplegic.   

Call it foreshadowing, a coincidence, bad luck, meant to be. Suddenly, my definition of the outdoors became constrained to those few miles near ADA-compliant bathrooms at the trailheads.  

Now physically challenged, I’ve been questioning my identity and relationship to the outdoors. Will I ever thru-hike again? Will I ever stand taller than the trees again? Will I ever be stuck in a rainstorm on the ridge of a mountain range again? Who can say?  

As an eternal optimist, it pains me to admit that realizing my definition of the outdoors has changed since my fall has been a slow, deep sinking unearthing. I can oftentimes barely look at photos of my thru-hike, my proudest moment to date, without finding tears. When I drive through the mountains and someone mentions my hike through them, I often fall silent. The first time I rode an adaptive mountain bike in the woods, I wanted to cry. To me, it was overwhelming to be taught how to use a piece of outdoor equipment before even knowing how to get myself outdoors again. I felt like I was missing a step.  

I didn’t need a community reintroduction after my injury. I needed a reintroduction to the outdoors. I wanted to explore options on my own, but I didn’t know where to get out. Eventually, I began finding social media accounts of individuals, disabled individuals, getting outside and getting out alone. I want that. 

Any outdoor enthusiast knows that when you make a connection to the wilderness, it roots down deep like a tree. It’s an incredibly emotional and physical connection. After my fall, I became disconnected from my physical connection to the outdoors—my feet. The very same feet that carried me through 14 states. 

But my thru-hike taught me something: If the trail changes, you adapt. And I promise you, we wheelchair users can adapt better than any other. We adapt and find solutions every day because we’re forced to. Our minds are puzzle-solving machines. We look to individuals with disabilities who are successfully navigating outdoor landscapes. I’ll continue looking to those trailblazers who are breaking through physical barriers to experience the outdoors again. 

To me, the outdoors is a combination of sensations. It’s everything all at once. An energy that makes me feel alive. Maybe in some way, I feel that even more now that my physical being has less sensation, and I can’t wait to get back to it.