On Cristal and the Cowbell: Reflections from the Appalachian Trail (part 2)

Chapter 3: 2193.1 Miles

Curiosity abounds about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for many people who have not experienced an adventure on this scale, and Sophia fields a wide variety of questions about her trek. One of the most common is, “what is a typical day like?” Sophia spent 190 days on trail, and after the first few, the days developed a considerable and comforting consistency. 
Daylight would penetrate the walls of Sophia’s tent around 7:00 each morning, and she would slowly open her eyes, take a moment to orient herself, and stretch her sore limbs, all the while hesitating to exit the cozy cocoon of her sleeping bag. But once she saw the previous day’s smudged “Be the sunshine” on her arm, and remembered the strawberry frosted PopTart awaiting her, she’d muster the energy to stand up. After that, the memory of her old friend, Cristal, coupled with the presence of new friends communing outside over groggy laughs and weather predictions, would give her the momentum to get packed up and set off, typically alone, for the day’s miles. 
A “backcountry latte” of instant coffee shaken with a vanilla Breakfast Essentials drink typically fueled Sophia for her first stretch of hiking. Since she wasn’t chasing a particular goal and didn’t have a date by which she had to finish the trek (she’d officially resigned from her position at Ulman before embarking this time), she could approach each day with freedom, able to stop and take in panoramic vistas, to filter water and fill her water bottles when she approached a teeming stream, and to share lunches of cheese and pepperoni wraps, Spicy Nacho Doritos, and sour Skittles with her pals. 
More than 250 backcountry shelters dot the AT, providing three-walled accommodations for those who like a level floor and don’t mind the company of mice, and a gathering point for those who choose the trade-off of a few roots under their sleeping mat for the privacy of their own tent. Shelters are situated every five to eight miles, so if Sophia arrived at one around 4:00, she might call it a day, or she could decide to press on to the next and hike into dusk. 
In the evenings, Sophia took the opportunity to get to know the thru hikers of 2021, and to build her trail family or “tramily.” During her season, the youngest person (Harvey Sutton “Little Man” – age 5) and the oldest person (M.J. Eberhart “Nimblewill Nomad” – age 83) ever to complete the AT made it to Mount Katahdin. While she didn’t meet either of them, Sophia did interact with a woman and her 7-year old daughter making the trek, as well as a group she dubbed “the field trip,” consisting of a mother and her four sons. She formed deep bonds with people who she wouldn’t likely have befriended in the same way in her life off-trail; Nacho, Bear Bait, and Engine to name a few. When everybody stinks, nobody shaves, and the same clothes – chosen only for function – are worn day after day, the trail strips away the superficial. Sophia reflects that when it comes to making friends on trail, “it becomes more about who you are,” as opposed to how old you are, what you do for work, or where you live. 

That importance of “who you are” is further reflected in the AT tradition of bestowing trail names upon fellow hikers. By the time she reached the Great Smoky Mountains, Sophia had taken on the moniker, “Wheelz.”  If you know Sophia, you know it’s nearly impossible to spend a day with her without hearing an anecdote from her 4K for Cancer ride, so it made sense that her companions in those early days came up with a cycling-centric trail name. And if you know Sophia, you also know she injects a bit of quirk into everything she does, hence the plural ‘z,’ just for the fun of it. 
Life on the trail isn’t all easy, as freeing and fun as it can be. Wheelz faced her share of challenges along the way, starting just seventy miles in with a threatening pain in her shin and a swollen ankle below it. After hitching a ride into Franklin, NC, and taking two “zero” days (no trail miles covered), she met a new friend, Bear Bait, amidst tears, and returned to the trail. A thunderstorm accompanied them, and constant rain made the misery continue. To top it all off, she got stuck in a privy on the top of a mountain! Sophia did some thinking in there and came to terms with herself: she would not let hard times beat her down. Still, it was daunting to think about being on this path for six months. She pledged to remember that while bad weather and difficult moments would continue to follow, the sun would always come out again. 
Miles, days, weeks, and months passed. Wheelz resupplied on essentials (Starburst and Cinnamon Toast Crunch), sent non-essentials (camping stove, winter gear) home, and fully embraced life on the trail. Friends from home came to cheer her on at the convergence of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. Pennsylvania brought rocky terrain and the realization that though she had already walked halfway to Maine, she still had halfway left to go. Feeling lonely, Wheelz was bolstered by a meet-up with Ulman community buddies JB and Vicki, who are no strangers to the challenges of cancer or life in the woods. Encouraged by JB’s reminder that so many cancer survivors, caregivers, and friends were being inspired by her every step, Wheelz recommitted to daily dedications to Cristal and others, and found new meaning as she tripped over Pennsylvania’s roots, trudged through New York’s heat, swatted away Connecticut’s gypsy moth caterpillars, and splashed and itched through Massachusetts’ record rain and resulting mosquitoes. With every new discomfort, Wheelz gained greater capacity to find humor in (nearly) everything and enjoy the best of each moment. 
That is, until the moment began to approach.

Chapter 4: Mission Accomplished

Finally, Wheelz entered Maine. Crossing that state’s boundary is one of the last major milestones of an AT thru-hike. Glimpsing Mount Katahdin – the northern trailhead, or “terminus” as it’s called on the AT, and her north star for the past six months – for the first time coincided with reaching her “stretch” fundraising goal of $15,000, when she received a notification that a couple she’d briefly met in Virginia donated the last $300 to get her there. When she had cell service to see friends finishing a few days ahead of her, her heart leapt with excitement for them. 
With these accomplishments came anticipation – of saying goodbye to her tramily, engineering the perfect summit moment, returning to Baltimore not knowing what was next for her. Sophia’s logical mind often overtook Wheelz’s chill, striving to control every detail of her ascent of Katahdin and her forthcoming reunion with family and friends. She got caught up in logistics and failed to fully relish her final few days of this life-changing experience; in hindsight, Wheelz recognizes these days were among the toughest days, mentally, for her, and she wishes she could have a second chance at them. 
Not surprisingly, though, just when Wheelz needed it most, the sunshine came, and she let it shine through her. On her final day while climbing Mount Katahdin, Sophia repeated those words, which had guided her over more than 2,000 miles, like an anthem: “Be the sunshine! Be the sunshine!” Her mindset was so focused on this that even when she learned halfway to the top that her (seriously amazing) boyfriend wasn’t going to be at the top to meet her, she was able to replace disappointment with dedication. She reminded herself that her goal had been to summit that mountain with Cristal’s name on her arm, and against many odds, she was going to do just that! 
On September 20, 2021, Sophia Garber, aka Wheelz, accomplished that lifelong goal: thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail! Over 190 days, 14 states, and countless moments of “trail magic,” she traversed 2193 miles, raised $16,000, and extended Cristal’s memory to areas she’d never travel and people she’d never know. Together, Wheelz and the Hill Doctor brought the sunshine to the Appalachian Trail. 
While her hike was finished, Sophia’s journey of dedicating the giant cowbell to Cristal wasn’t quite complete. She flew home to Baltimore (in her stinky trail clothes) and got to work pulling together the dedication and inaugural ringing of Cristal’s Cowbell. With the world still navigating COVID-19, travel was difficult, but Cristal’s community showed up to celebrate. Surrounded by Cristal’s sister and family, the majority of the San Francisco 2019 4K team, Ulman House residents and Ulman Foundation staff, and of course Wheelz, Cristal’s niece rang the cowbell for the first time. 
For Sophia, it was a second “Katahdin moment.” And this time, she fully let go of control and enjoyed it. 


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