On Cristal and the Cowbell: Reflections from the Appalachian Trail (part 1)

Chapter 1: Gearing Up

When Sophia Garber first visited the Ulman Foundation headquarters in 2018 in the midst of her preparation for the 4K for Cancer – the cross country bike ride and advocacy expedition young adults complete in support of their peers living with cancer – she admittedly became “a little bit obsessed” with the organization and its mission. Immediately upon meeting her teammates and members of the Ulman staff, and visiting the construction site that would become Ulman House, Sophia resolved to raise more than the $4,500 required for the 4K, and set her sights on one day supporting the new healthcare hospitality facility as an employee. 
Slightly goofier than most, Sophia has a serious side when it comes to accomplishing goals. Not only did she cycle 4,000 miles from Baltimore to San Francisco that summer raising $9,700 in the process, and return to Charm City in the fall with the job she wanted, she also unknowingly charted a course which would lead her to fulfill a lifelong dream while paying tribute to a beloved teammate a few years down the road. 
During both the 4K and her first year as the Wellness Coordinator at Ulman House, Sophia became steeped in the stories of others. Riding over the Smokies and up the Rockies, she was inspired by her teammate Cristal, upon whom teammates bestowed the nickname “hill doctor” for the way she crushed the climbs, despite having recently completed cancer treatment. Back in Baltimore, Sophia’s life was changed by letting residents of Ulman House into it. She put everything she could into her work, knowing that the young peers she was spending her days with had no choice but to put everything into their survival. 
Sophia and her colleagues created Ulman House traditions that persist today. They celebrated with patients finishing a stage of treatment by attending ceremonial bell ringings at the hospital and crafting “punny” posters that highlighted each resident’s personality. They completed countless puzzles, and came up with creative ways to bring a little bit of home to Ulman House, featuring a “pet of the week” on the information screen so residents could see and share their furry friends. Despite their best efforts, however, Sophia always felt there was something missing for patients whose treatment would never end, or for whom the outlook was bleak. They deserved to mark milestones too, and she was determined to design a way to let them – Ulman House style. 

Sophia doubled down on her determination to find a way to celebrate everyone when she experienced some significant losses to cancer in the fall of 2019. Several house residents who she’d become close to – Spencer and Himani – ran out of time, around the same time. Long-time Ulman client and friend, Josh, succumbed to his rare and incurable cancer. And Cristal, Sophia’s 4K for Cancer teammate who always aimed to “be the sunshine” and was so full of life, reached the end of hers in December after experiencing a recurrence.
 Inspired by the bells at cancer centers, by Ulman’s tradition of cheering on survivor runners and walkers with cowbells at Cancer to 5K races, and by Cristal’s tendency to be larger than life, Sophia proposed the fabrication and installation of a giant cowbell at Ulman House – to be dedicated to Cristal, and rung by survivors experiencing any kind of high point for years to come. Knowing the established precedent for dedicating spaces, she offered to raise $10,000 toward Ulman House operations, and knew she’d need to do something big to accomplish that.
Remember that lifelong dream mentioned earlier? It was time for Sophia to hike the Appalachian Trail. 
But first, a to-do list:
  • Set up fundraising page – check.
  • Google “giant cowbell makers” – check (but with no legit results).
  • Serendipitously find out that Dan, fiancé of GameChanger Ashleigh, builds iron bridges and could easily make a giant cowbell – check.
  • Get approval (on Cristal’s birthday!) for a six-month leave of absence from work – check. 
  • Take inventory of gear – check.
  • Sign up to be an AT vlogger for The Trek – check
  • Commit to my “why”check.
  • Announce the hike on social media – check.
  • Take a few practice camping trips – check.
  • Go get more gear – check. 
  • Fit in a few therapy sessions to tune up emotion management skills – check.
  • Cross fingers that this weird little “coronavirus” thing will die out in a week or two – check. 
Okay, time to hit the trail! 

Chapter 2: Setting Off

It was mid-March, 2020. Sophia’s parents drove down from her hometown of Yorktown, NY, near which the AT meanders, to pick her up in Baltimore and shuttle her to Springer Mountain, GA, where her journey would officially begin. Public fears around the quickly-spreading pandemic seemed to take hold overnight and grow in intensity as they drove southbound. Sophia noticed toilet paper was in short supply when she stopped to grab a couple of rolls for the first leg of her hike. Shoppers were fashioning face masks from bandanas and stocking up as if for a winter storm. NPR hosts announced that schools were shutting down and re-introduced the word “quarantine” into our daily vernacular. Still, Sophia snagged some extra hand sanitizer and pressed on, thinking she’d be in the safest place possible – outside for the next six months. It was an inauspicious start, though, and the unsettling feelings loomed large, even in fresh spring air. 
On March 15, Sophia embarked on the 2,000+ mile trek, accompanied by a college buddy and weighed down by a relatively lightweight but amateurly overfilled pack and a heavy load of worries.

She walked for two days in her signature tie-dyed socks and gaiters, and upon reaching an overlook, pulled out her phone to check in with reality. The news she found dulled the brilliance of the view in front of her; all thru-hikers were being asked to leave the trail immediately. While Sophia is usually a rule-follower, this trip was too important to her to give in right away, especially when she was surrounded by…almost nobody! She stayed on trail [insider note: thru hikers always say “on trail,” never “on the trail”] for two more days, but after reading lots of negative comments toward persisting thru-hikers on social media, discussing the situation endlessly with fellow travelers, and receiving a call from her boyfriend urging her to get on a flight, Sophia knew that heading home was the right thing to do. She begrudgingly texted a friend living in Nashville to ask for a ride to the airport, booked the next flight to BWI, and took an aisle seat so she wouldn’t have to look down at the terrain she should have been traversing on foot. 
If the staff at any organization understands how quickly plans can change as the result of unforeseen circumstances, the crew at Ulman sure does. They welcomed Sophia back with open arms, happy to have the consistency of her relationships and expertise at the outset of a tumultuous time. The COVID-19 time warp descended, surgical masks littered the sidewalks of East Baltimore, and visitors and volunteers sadly stayed away from Ulman House. Sophia’s experience of the world immediately shifted from communing in deep conversation around campfires with hikers becoming increasingly comfortable with being perpetually dirty, to conducting business through screens, behind masks and closed doors, in an environment which needed to be as sterile as possible. 
But, as it always does, time passed and the situation changed. The summer and its lower rates of positivity offered a welcome respite from some restrictions, and Sophia stole away for overnight hikes most weekends. A silver lining of the delay, those excursions in multiple seasons, conditions, and types of terrain helped her become better prepared for the AT, and she gained confidence which she realized she’d been lacking when she set out initially. 
Mid-March arrived again, and while the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was still advising against thru-hiking, Sophia felt confident in her ability to manage risk after having helped keep Ulman House free of COVID for the past year. 
On March 14, 2021, Sophia once again embarked on the 2,000+ mile trek, this time alone, carrying a lighter pack and more confidence, with Cristal’s name always visible on a patch sewn on the top of her colorful fanny pack, and with “Be the sunshine” inked in Sharpie on her forearm. 
To be continued…2193.1 miles left to go!

Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon!

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