Gail Muller, from Falmouth, has been sharing her walks with Packet readers since 2019, after tackling the southbound route of the Appalachian Trail despite more than 15 years of debilitating pain. Now she's back, and she's written her first book.

It’s been a little while since I’ve had the pleasure of writing for you here in the Packet. I’m so glad to be back!

You were all here for the very beginning of my adventures on the Appalachian Trail in the USA; thank you. I really wanted to update you on where that journey has taken me: a Falmouth girl who had big dreams, but quite a few roadblocks to navigate.

If you’re new to me and my story, then let me just note here that before I walked over 2,000 miles along the longest footpath only trail in the world, I was unwell for a very long time. Invisible illness – chronic pain to be exact – and all of the side-dishes that come with being in agony and not being able to find answers; anxiety, depression and isolation.

It took me from the GP, to the Pain Clinic, around the world and back again to find a way through it – in fact over 15 years of digging deep in to reservoirs of hope and resilience that threatened to run dry. In fact, at times, it seemed preferable to give up entirely on everything rather than face another setback, disappointment or day of physical pain and disability. But on I went, back up on my feet and forwards (mostly!).

Day one at the Summit Katahdin with a St Piran flag

Day one at the Summit Katahdin with a St Piran flag

And here I am now – a published author this week, and proud to share my book with you about this mammoth journey which begins in my beloved Cornwall. It just goes to show that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, even when it doesn’t seem so.

When I first started sending dispatches into the Packet, I was preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail – the longest footpath only trail in the world. I was excited, naive and SO worried that my rehabilitated body would let me down again. Even so, in June 2019 I flew to the other side of the world, landed in Boston and made my way up to the northern wilds of Maine.

There, deep in the forest, I started the epic AT – 2,200 miles across 14 states of the USA, all the way down to Georgia. Every night I made notes in my tent or under the stars, and every week somewhere along the trail I wrote this column, sharing the ups and downs of the trail; literal and metaphorical, right here in my hometown paper. What a joy it was. I appreciated all the encouragement and support that you showed me, and I proudly tied my St Piran’s flag to my backpack for the whole six months of the US adventure.

Broken on the top of Saddlebacks Maine

Broken on the top of Saddlebacks Maine

After I returned to Falmouth I had great plans to hike other trails and write about them. Covid, however, had other ideas for us all. I did manage to walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path and share it with you, but then decided it was time to hunker down and write my book: all about my adventures in the USA, and the story of how I came through the darkest of times into a brighter future. So, it’s with some nerves and great excitement that I share an excerpt of my new book with you.

If you followed the story in the Packet then there will be characters you recognise, places you recall and the ups and downs of adventure that you read about in brief, but which are now writ large. Thanks for being along for the journey – I’m deeply proud of being Cornish, from Falmouth and a product of the healing and kindness that is found here by the sea on our doorstep. All part of living in our wonderful community.

If you’d like to read more, you can pick up a copy of Unlost from the wonderful Falmouth Bookseller or anywhere else online or in person that books are sold. You can also find it on Audible. I’ll be giving talks and signing books as soon as our latest Covid surge decreases – safety and the community first, always.

Let me know what you think of the book! Hope to be sharing another adventure with you all very soon!

Unlost excerpt

Edited excerpt from ‘Are We Hikers Now?’ chapter

My body hadn’t ever really been my friend and this was evermore amplified when I was consumed with chronic pain later in life. I ended up detaching myself almost fully from my flesh. Things I did or things that were done to me were just ‘happening’ outside of my internal safe space, so that I wouldn’t feel my body letting me down anymore. And now, on this very day, I was flying to the other side of the world to willingly walk deep into thousands of miles of forest where I’d need to rely entirely on my body. So I guess I was a little all at sea.

I rested alone in my tent later that night, marvelling that I’d got up katahdin, down again and now was actually in the 100 Mile. My hip hadn’t popped out of place, my legs were working ok and my pain levels were really manageable; perhaps only a little higher than you’d expect anyone’s to be after this quick immersion into physical activity. How had I got away with it? Had my body not caught up with what I was doing yet? Perhaps the pain was going to creep up on me slowly – it had before. In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if it did. My original illness had all started with only a few days of aching that... just... never went away.

The pain nagged me until I was struggling to lean over school desks at work and to get my shopping out from the car. I couldn’t really row anymore, but the team were counting on me for the Gig World Championships on the Scilly Isles. I was eating ibuprofen and paracetamol like sweets to get through the days, and sometimes the pain would surge enough to make me vomit. But I couldn’t give up on these things, the relationship I was in, the running, the rowing and my teaching. My body needed to buck the fuck up and get with the programme.

This is really where my pain story divides like sliding doors. In one direction is a sprain or a disk bulge that heals and I return to my normal life. The other is, unbeknownst to me at the time, the dark path into the woods of my life where I can’t go backwards, only further in. This is the same for all of us who suffer from some- thing chronic – in our minds or our bodies. Each week of pain, each therapy, each disappointment, each sacrifice closes a door behind you. This is the slow creeping beginning where you don’t even realise that your life has started changing, but when you look back you realise, fuck, it was then. That moment. That was the last time I was my old self, my real self. Chronic illness is like the child catcher – it sneaks in under the radar of an ache or a pain but puts a bag over your head, slings you in the wagon and drives you away from yourself. By the time you’ve realised what’s happened, you’re abroad from your old life and there’s no way to return. It’s possible to come back sometimes. I know I did, but your original self is no longer there. It’s moved. It’s an empty house. And if you want to move back in, you’ve got to furnish it with all the new luggage you carry – stuff that’s almost impossible to throw out.

Maybe this was the place to throw the luggage out. Maybe I could walk along this trail if my body let me, shedding bags and bags of the pain of the past as I moved through it, and go back to my old self. A kind of Leave No Trace but of my trauma not of my physical presence. Maybe by the time I reached the end I’d summit Springer Mountain as a tabula rasa, scoured and empty of all the old baggage. Wouldn’t that be nice? I thought, rolling onto my other side, my Thermarest crinkling like a multipack of crisps as I did so. I smiled at the idea of being scrubbed clean and luggage-less, and fell asleep on the honest earth, listening to the crickets with a heart full of hope.

Credit: Unlost: A journey of self-discovery and the healing power of the wild outdoors by Gail Muller, published by Thread, is out on September 7.