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A Hike in Recovery

Hillary Groover hiking McAfee Knob on Catawba Mountain in Catawba, Virginia, the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail.

By ELLIE GIVHAN

Hillary Groover’s inward and outward journey on the Appalachian Trail

This philosophical recommendation has helpedHillary Groover time and time again throughout her journey in recovery. After living nearly 11 years in active addiction, Groover found a life in recovery on March 28, 2013. She went on to attend college at Kennesaw State University and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

She served as an active member of the university’s collegiate recovery program (CRP), and today, she is the program manager for the collegiate recovery community (CRC) at the University of Alabama. Prior to taking on her role as program manager, Groover did not know what her future held. She was coming up on four years of sobriety, and graduation was drawing near. On March 28, 2017, her four-year sobriety anniversary, she announced her plan to embark on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Groover not only succeeded in completing the 2,189-mile trek but also met her fundraising goal for a recovery scholarship at Kennesaw State University. Through setting up a GoFundMe page with a goal of $2.28 per mile, she was able to raise $5,200 over the course of her journey.

Recovery Campus sat down with Groover to talk about her background, her journey to and relationship with recovery, and her adventures on the trail.

Recovery Campus: What led you to recover?

Hillary Groover: Obviously, my addiction and the quick progression of it led me to recovery at an early age. I got sober in March of 2013, so I was 23 years old. It was my second DUI charge, which led me into a DUI court program. A 16-monthlong intensive outpatient program really helped me get sober long enough to realize I could find recovery.

RC: What was your life and relationship with recovery like prior to hiking the trail?

HG: I experienced a lot of transitions. I like to say I always have a recovery existential crisis at least once a year. At that point, coming right up on four years, it was a little shaky. I had parted ways with my first sponsor and practiced, up until that point, a 12-step program of recovery. I was definitely in a transformative period in my recovery at that point in my life.

RC: What was your motivation behind hiking the trail?

HG: First of all, I was having that crisis that I feel like all of us do as college students in long-term recovery. I was coming up on senior year. I didn’t know what my future held. Like I said, I was in a transitional period in my recovery. The motivation was doing something I had never done. As an adult, learning a new skill. I had never hiked or really slept outside before attempting the trail.

My higher power put someone in my life who told me that this is going to change your life. She didn’t really explain how or why but that she knew that was a guarantee. In a time in my life where there weren’t a lot of guarantees and I was having a lot of fear of the future, the guarantee that it was going to change my life reminded me of the guarantee that I received four years ago when someone said, “I can’t explain how or why, but recovery is going to change your life forever,” and it did, so that was my motivation.

RC: Was your recovery a factor that influenced you to hike the trail?

HG: Yes. I had lost my faith in the fellowship aspect of my program. In seeking answers in life and in my recovery, I felt like taking a pilgrimage and really taking some time for some introspection would reveal the answers I was searching for. Really, all that was revealed is I don’t need to know the answers to those questions. My recovery had a big influence on those unknown factors for sure.

RC: How did recovery prepare you for taking on the task of hiking the trail?

HG: I think the No. 1 thing is that idea of resiliency and how that’s been built up in me as a person in long-term recovery. To get up and try again, even if I fail, even if I don’t make the mileage, even if I’m scared to keep moving forward.

I lost a lot of people along the way, just like I’ve lost a lot of people along the way in recovery. It was just sad when somebody left because they, too, had saved up money and time and aspired to do this their whole life. Then when they just couldn’t complete it, it was just devastating.

I think when I did have those moments if I was just tired or burnt out or couldn’t see that fifth 20-mile day in a row happening in the rain, really that resiliency that I had built up in maintaining my recovery definitely helped me be resilient throughout the trail experience.

RC: How did you prepare physically for the trail?

HG: I was a runner and taught dance 15 hours a week, so I was in pretty good shape. I realized very quickly though that hiking shape is different from being in regular shape. You’re going up and down, having as much as 4,000- to 6,000-feet elevation gain and loss in a day. You’re doing 26, sometimes 30, miles a day. You really can’t prepare for that physically. The preparation comes in the hiking of it the first month.

RC: What goals were you looking to achieve in hiking the trail?

HG: I am a very goal-oriented type A person, so, of course, I set out with some initial goals. I wanted to complete the trail. Only about 1 in 5 of the folks who start the trail actually finish and complete the entire thing, so I wanted to complete the 2,189-mile trek. I also wanted to raise a $5,000 scholarship fund for my collegiate recovery community at my alma mater, Kennesaw State. Third, I wanted to find myself, to find some of those answers to those existential questions that were just bogging me down at that period in my life.

However, those goals rapidly changed. There is a saying on the trail, “Last man to Katahdin wins,” and I didn’t really know what that meant until I was closing in on the finish of my journey. I realized I need to take this all in every day; this is such a gift. Probably about somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way through, I realized I needed to stop and smell the roses. I needed to take my time. What am I doing racing to this goal? Enjoying every day one day at a time became goal No. 1 as I got into the hike.

Groover summiting Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.

RC: How long did it take you to hike the trail?

HG: It took me five months and five days. I left on May 19. I actually started hiking the trail on May 21 and then I summited on Oct. 25.

RC: What was your trail name?

HG: My trail name was Three-Toed Mona. The rules and story behind a trail name are everyone gets one, you don’t use your real name and you don’t know anybody’s real name.

It is interesting because you can be hanging out with bus drivers and welders and doctors and lawyers and everybody is kind of on an even keel — all dressed like vagabonds, all talking the same jargon. That’s really an interesting dynamic to have all these social norms pulled out and get to connect and focus on the similarities rather than the differences between yourself and these other crazy hikers.

A thru-hiker has to give you the name. A thru-hiker who was hiking that year saw me and saw the back of my leg. It has a tattoo of a sloth, which is my spirit animal, in the character of the Mona Lisa. I was also a very slow hiker, so that kind of fit really well with the Three-Toed Mona, but everyone just called me Mona.

RC: What was the hardest part about being on the trail?

HG: Definitely the physical. I remember the first few weeks I would wake up in my tent, and I wouldn’t be able to move my legs. I would lose all dexterity in my feet because my fascia would have constricted so much. I would have to go through a 10-minute process of flexing and pointing my feet, rolling over onto my knees, and stretching out my arches before I would be able to stand up. It took me about a month before I got what they call trail legs.

RC: Is there anything you learned in recovery that allowed you to stay the course and persevere in times where conditions on the trail got tough?

HG: All along the Appalachia, there are people who live in the little cities, boroughs and towns that wrap around the mountain range. Thousands of those people will come to the trail — on whatever day; it’s sporadic — and do acts of service. They’re called trail angels, so things always worked out.

Even if I was almost out of food or if I knew I had a rendezvous point with a friend, but I didn’t know when they were going to get there, and we didn’t really have a ride anywhere into town once we got to that road crossing, things would always happen in a way that it would just work out. I couldn’t have planned it to work out as good as it always did. There would be a huge storm coming in, and we would have six people walking with us that day, and all of a sudden, a van that could hold 12 would show up and say, “Hey, we’re going to the next town. You wanna come?”

Those kinds of moments that continued to happen, despite my worst mindset, definitely reminded me of what recovery says to us. It’s not going to be easy, the journey, but no matter what the hardship is, it’s always going to work out as long as you trust the process and allow people to help you. Just trust that you’re going to do this horribly hard thing. You’re not going to break an ankle. You’re not going to run out of food. Everything’s going to work out. As long as I did that and opened my heart and mind to all the characters I met trying to help me along the way, it worked.

Groover hiking Lehigh Gap in Lehigh Township, Pennsylvania,

RC: What did you learn about yourself while hiking the trail?

HG: I really just discovered who I am and who I’m not. I think in our world of higher education, that’s where you’re supposed to figure that kind of stuff out. I did a lot of that flushing out and figuring out in college, but there’s something about plugging in like that and figuring out who you are. Then unplugging and stripping all of what you just collected away and then seeing what is still left there. That’s when I was able to discover who Hillary is, what my purpose is, what I value. I got so goal-oriented in early recovery and in this mindset that if I just achieve this next thing, then I’m going to be this happy, whole person who I envisioned. I think being on the trail and just being stripped of everything and being stinky and carrying everything I own on my back gave me this sense that like, hey, it’s just you. You’re enough. You’re walking for no reason, and this is probably the silliest thing you could do with your time, and still, it’s meaningful.

I really got to do some self-discovery about who I am as a human being.

RC: How did your experience on the trail impact your recovery today?

HG: In the 12-step program of recovery I practice today, we use a lot of metaphors. We talk about taking steps and trudging the road of happy destiny and taking one day at a time and one step at a time. All of that is oh so true for taking a long-distance hike. When I chose to write my blog about my hike, I realized the trek really allowed me to bring a physical understanding to my recovery. Teddy Roosevelt said something like, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” I know I didn’t truly capture what I experienced out there on the Appalachian Trail in my journaling, but I’m glad I tried, and that the experience ingrained in not only my body but also my spirit an understanding of my recovery and what it is to me.

Groover on McAfee Knob on Catawba Mountain.

I have to take my recovery one step at a time, one day at a time, just like I had to take that damn hike one step at a time. I couldn’t go any faster. I had to trust in the process, trust that I was going to get there. I could see my progress on a map just like I could see my progress across the years in my step work. I think to know in my recovery, too, just like with the trail, that it’s not about the end goal. They always say in this program that we have to get out of the business of outcomes.

To stand on the top of that northern terminus was amazing, but it didn’t hold a candle to some of those awesome days that I had on that trail and some of those God moments. I think it’s brought the most cognizance I’ve seen thus far in my recovery. To be super present in each day of it and not worry if I’m still going to be sober in 25 years or not worry about what tomorrow holds. Just enjoy all the connections and conversations and people and places and beautiful things I get to experience on this earth.

To read more about Groover’s experience on the Appalachian Trail, read the blog she kept throughout her journey at http://hgroover88.wixsite.com/hillshike.

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