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South Carolinians Bernie and April Hester plan to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (about 2,200 miles) beginning May 4. The couple wants to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects more than a million Americans. Courtesy photo
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Tackling Appalachian Trail to raise awareness about MS

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail — that is, hiking all 2,200 miles of it in one continuous journey — takes a Herculean effort by an able-bodied person. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only one-quarter of the nearly 2,000 people who attempt it annually are successful, so throw in the added challenges of multiple sclerosis (MS), and the goal of completing the hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine is that much harder.

Bernie and April Hester, however, aren’t focusing on the barriers to such a journey.

The South Carolina couple, who already has thru-hiked the state’s 500-mile Palmetto Trail, is gearing up to begin a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. The plan calls for a May 4 departure.

After completing the Palmetto Trail three times, April wrote in an email, “I felt I could push myself to the extreme and shoot for the AT. I’m hoping that we can really reach a lot more people and they can see that MS cannot stop you.”

April, who was diagnosed with MS in 1995 at age 20, wants to raise awareness about the autoimmune neurological disease, which strikes 400 people in this country every week. There is no cure, disease progression varies, and many, like April, take medications to ameliorate the symptoms.

“MS gives me a foot drop,” she said. “It’s kind of like walking with your foot asleep. It comes and goes. My legs get weak to the point that, if I fall, I can hardly get back up without help. I also have balance issues that can turn a simple trip into a hard fall. “

Amazingly, April’s symptoms have improved somewhat since she’s been hiking, knee and ankle braces help her stay upright, and she always uses two trekking poles.

Bernie has loved hiking since he was a kid but had to put aside his passion to raise a family. When he and April married, they each had three boys. When the youngest finally was launched, the Hesters decided to hit the trail. 

“After taking a short hike in the Smoky Mountains, we came across a shelter not far from the AT,” Bernie related. “We hung out there and I talked about my dream from when I was young, and from that moment on, we both decided to try long-distance hiking, with maybe someday trying the AT.”

Early in their relationship, Bernie (trail name Mule) never thought that April (trail name Inchworm) could actually hike the AT, and he admits that training has been a lot of “trial and error.”

“Her pace would sometimes be way slower than mine and she needed to break a lot,” he said. “Sometimes in the beginning of our first hikes, a mile could take more than an hour. April had so many struggles with foot drop, tripping and falling and fatigue.”

At one point, Bernie thought they should abandon the idea — “I didn’t want her getting hurt” — but he underestimated how important hiking had become to April.

Eventually, the couple found their rhythm.

“I let April set the pace and times when breaks are needed, regardless of how I feel,” Bernie said. “Once we discovered this, she got stronger and the breaks allow her to rejuvenate so we can go further.”

There are good days and bad days on the trail, but following the above rule, “we almost always make our distance for that day.”

You can follow the Hesters at www.trailjournals.com/muleandinchwormAThike; on Instagram @Mule_Inchworm; and at https://share.garmin.com/OurATAdventure, which maps their location.

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.