Stories to Inspire: Hiking the Arizona Trail for Multiple Sclerosis

by Shawn Feliciano

Photo of Shawn FelicianoFoolishly, I told myself that I would not cry when I reached the border between Arizona and Mexico, thus having completed my journey of 817 miles through rugged mountains, water-deficient deserts, and stunning Ponderosa and Aspen forests that encompass the Arizona Trail. But my toughened trail demeanor that had been honed during the past three months was as elusive as the mountain lions I heard so much about but had yet to see.

After many months of long preparation and sacrifice, my dream finally became reality: I had walked 817 miles for multiple sclerosis.

Why, I was asked, would I hike 817 miles?

When I think of MS, I think of movement (and lack thereof), and how we are impacted by this sometimes physically debilitating disease. In my case, I was not impacted physically but was so emotionally. After my diagnosis in 2009, and after a period of time of fighting with these feelings, I realized I was not the only one who mourned an old existence. Because of MS, many former hikers, runners, and athletes could no longer perform as they had in the past, and the emotional impact of that realization can be staggering. This recognition inspired me to want to help others attain confidence and strength in their fight against MS.

As my husband Bob and I walked through a blizzard of snow in the Grand Canyon, one April day in 2011, “Hiking for MS” was conceived. Being avid hikers, it was a chance for us put our talents together and walk for those who might not be as fortunate (or could no longer hike themselves). The Arizona Trail had just conjoined its last individual segments, and to our knowledge no one with multiple sclerosis had yet walked the entire 817 miles as a thru-hiker (i.e., hiking the entire distance continually, without leaving the trail for any amount of time). If we succeeded, it would have taken us over two months to do so, barring any injuries or sicknesses.

After a few false starts that involved funding, our plans started coming to fruition. I had found another hiker to join me and we were slowly reaching our financial goals. I trained hard, driving my husband crazy with my obsessive need to work out. We set a date of September 11, 2012, in order to honor both those with MS, as well as those fallen heroes of 9/11.

After only a few weeks on the trail and having lost my hiking partner to injury, I realized that I had undertaken a huge task that I hadn’t been fully prepared for. I had never thought of the possibility of my hiking by myself (Bob’s main job was to drive to each meeting point, set up camp, and scout out the segments to come).

The Arizona Trail, although beautiful, can be quite treacherous. The difficulty in this hike was the lack of water, and for this reason Bob’s job was of crucial importance. He had to make sure that he cached water for me, so that I would not have to carry the weight, especially during a long day hike. If he or I missed the rendezvous point, I could die from dehydration or exposure to the cold at night.

Hiking by myself meant that I had to be focused and present at all times, and we know how hard that might be for those with MS. I needed to have directional sense (which is one of the reasons that I had planned to hike with a partner); I had none. I was acutely aware that I had begun this hike during early fall, which meant that the bears had not begun to hibernate, and mountain lions still abounded. When there is more than one person hiking, there is less of a chance encounter with these animals, but as a lone hiker, and especially a small woman, I was an easy target. I was told that the “young and stupid” male mountain lions were the ones that were more likely to take a chance at a morsel like me.

Photo of Shawn Feliciano hikingAnd if that was not enough to scare me, I had to contend with the human element – especially as I reached areas that were more populated. A woman hiking by herself drew attention.

Despite these real and perceived obstacles, I faced each day with exuberance and a sense of adventure. I had my days where I could not find the trail and had to retrace my steps. (The Arizona trail is a combination of trails and many are marked with old signage or unmarked – the Arizona Trail Association is working out these glitches).

One day, I was so turned around after trying to fruitlessly retrace my steps twice, that I hailed a family on horseback and begged for a ride. I wasn’t technically on the Arizona Trail, hence the problem, so it was okay to hitchhike (I could still claim that I hiked the entire trail, and not ridden for any portion of it). For someone who was afraid of horses, my fear was quickly dispelled as I thought of the miles my feet would be spared. Fortunately, the family gave me a lift, riding double with the mom. We started getting into creek beds that were dry and very rocky. At this point, the horse was afraid, so she got off and coaxed the horse along, leading him through the difficult terrain. It was quite an adventure!

After more hours of useless hiking, I had but a couple of hours to retrace my steps to my starting point before dark. Cell coverage was sporadic during most of the hike, but came through during these crucial times. And luckily, Bob could drive back to that morning’s drop-off point and spare me from having to spend a tentless night in the wild.

Many were the times in which I faced an impasse because of lack of signage, scouting the area in all directions in order not to make a rash decision. These times taught me about obstacles we each face at one time or another and what lessons we can glean from those times.

My mind had time to be still and so I learned how to be silent and appreciate myself; laugh at my blunders; have faith in others; overcome the pressures that the hike was having on my marriage. Some days the MS symptoms were worse than others and I would trip and fall more often. When I did I was grateful that I could do so, because I still have the ability to hike. And each day I walked for those who could not.

Originally, it was my intention to bring awareness and inspire others, yet it was I who was fortunate to be inspired by those who extended love and hospitality to me. Some of those I met on the trail, others wrote to thank me for encouraging and instilling hope, while new friends opened up their homes and volunteered their personal time to hike with me.

After 80 days on the trail, I was blessed to have had my dad and brother, as well as my best friend from high school join me on this journey. My husband, who supported me throughout every phase of the entire hike (while wearing the driver, camp-setter, cook, and hiker hats in the process), was instrumental in my beginning and successfully completing the hike.

So, on that momentous occasion as I took my final steps towards the 817th mile marker, I remembered all of those with MS for whom I had walked, all those who had helped or wished us well, and all our dreams, trials, and tribulations; and the tears flowed joyfully.

Now, on to the next adventure!