Interview & photography: Conan Marshall
If I told you to think of iconic trails to hike along, you might know of the Camino de Santiago or the Great Ocean Trail, but you have most likely heard of the famous Appalachian trail. Situated along the East Coast in the US, this series of trails is known for its stunning landscapes stretching along 2,200 miles through 14 states.
In this interview, I chat with Gail Muller, a Cornish storyteller, teacher and writer who is hiking along the Appalachian Trail this year. She has battled chronic pain throughout her life. In this Q and A, she shares her story, ambitions and more.
How did growing up in Cornwall shape your love for the outdoors and exploring?
Growing up here in Cornwall has meant that I have always been comfortable outdoors, whatever the weather. Our family home is out in the countryside and a fair distance from the village, let alone the town. This meant that instead of the streets of Falmouth as my playground I was more often to be found up in trees, running around fields and helping the local farmers.
I loved the wild freedom of being out in nature. When I grew up we had much more freedom to roam, with Mum and Dad keeping a good eye on us across the fields from a distance. I learned all about nature from my grandmother and father; able to identify birds; types of plants, trees and fungi; how to interact with wild animals and how to respect both the land and sea.
Hiking has always been something I’ve enjoyed, as I love the feeling of moving yourself and your possessions under your own steam. I also cherish the intimate knowledge of where you’ve been and where you’re going; paying attention to your surroundings rather than speeding past places in a car or on a plane.
We’re not short of areas of natural beauty here in Cornwall. Are there any specific areas along the coast that you hike along the most?
The paths around Falmouth are special to me, especially along to the Helford. My dad grew up in that area and the creeks and beaches are full of stories from his youth. That specific terrain isn’t as challenging as I need at the moment however, so further along on the Lizard Peninsula is better, as is the ruggedness of the North Coast.
You have mentioned before how you have coped with chronic pain. What difficulties did you face when you were younger?
When I was in my teens I was fit, healthy and involved in a number of sports like cross country running and swimming. Well, I was mostly healthy - my feet were shaped slightly strangely and when I was born, they were slightly bent and malformed. I had to wear casts on my feet for the first year of my life to straighten them out. As my feet turned in and my ankles often rolled, I was finally referred to medical specialists in London in my early teens. Astoundingly, they said I'd be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40 due to the musculoskeletal issues that would arise from the malformation of my feet and the consequent effects on my gait, as well as problems with my hips and knees.
First, I was in denial and trying to pretend it wasn’t all happening. I kind of internalized the doctor's message because I was only about 14. I didn't process it. I felt fine at the time, but then at about 23 years old, chronic physical pain struck and never went away. It crept through my right hip, back and shoulder like a sinister intruder through my body.
I tried everything to cure it. Over the years I went from that first innocent visit to the Doctor in my mid-twenties all the way up to the Pain Clinic at the hospital at age 32. It was there that they said I needed to accept my fate, stop trying to find a cure or answers, apply for a disability badge for my car and prepare for the worst.
Despair came when I realised that medicine didn’t have the answers and a cure wasn’t going to happen. There was some bleak suicidal ideation, but this was soon subsumed by a determined personal quest to find a cure for myself - I allowed hope to take the wheel and it changed everything.
I really wasn’t going to accept the status quo as being the end of me and my future. I refused to stop working, I refused to give up my mission to heal my body, and despite having to crawl and pull my body across the floor to the shower some mornings because I couldn't walk, I was determined to find a cure.
It’s well known that many athletes and adventurers use past adversity to become stronger and improve. How have the issues you have faced helped you build resilience and mental strength?
I think that there is NOTHING like adversity to hone you in to a better, stronger and more empathetic person. How can you understand the struggle of others when you haven’t faced struggle yourself?
There’s a need for great tenacity that comes from having to get out of bed every day when your legs don’t work properly. Especially when they used to work, and your body used to be ok. It’s genuinely agonising and humiliating when your body is in such torsion it feels as though it’s trying to pull its own joints apart whilst you’re busy trying to pretend to the world that you’re ok. Even simple things became hard such as: not being able to wear 90% of your own clothes because anywhere that waistbands or seams touch your skin is burning agony. These things humble you, and they are good lessons in many ways.
To just plough on and hope that the next day will be better, endlessly, is insanity in a way, but I did it. I feel it’s a blessing to be insane with hope rather than crazy with despair, because in the end that’s what kept me alive.
Not only do I now have significant patience with other people’s mental and physical struggles (especially invisible ones) on the back of my own experience, but I’m also able to put my life issues into perspective and I always come back to pain as my teacher – the teacher who is always inside of me.
I refer all things to my pain and it acts as my yardstick. What is really bad, what is really important and worth getting upset about? Does it compare to what I’ve already been through? This helps me in my day to day.
Are there any well-known books or outdoorsmen and women that you have taken inspiration from?
Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ - I read this book when I was in my early twenties and aimed to walk the Appalachian Trail then, but got so sick afterwards that I thought I'd actually lose the ability to walk. All the time I was ill I repeatedly returned to his book about the trail and lived in nature vicariously through him. I almost ‘travelled in his backpack’ when I couldn’t move far; I walked alongside him and laughed through his experiences. It kept me going.
Grandma Gatewood –This was the first woman to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. She did it in 1955 at the age of 67, telling her children only that she was ‘going for a walk’ and did it because she thought it would ‘be a nice lark’... although afterwards she said that it definitely wasn’t! She only used old school kit and walked in a pair of basic plimsolls.
I’m inspired by amazing, bold women like Nelly Bly, Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth I – strong, brave, acting against the norm and overcoming a variety of adversities.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is an impressive human too. I also like reading the works of people like Hemmingway, Theroux, Jon Krakauer and others in their depictions of the journeys they experience and the people they meet.
Another huge inspiration is my sister: Nicky Muller. She represented Great Britain in sailing for many years all over the world. Watching her tenacity and focus throughout all her training taught me so much. She sacrificed many things to be able to be the best sailor possible for her country; she has always inspired me and continues to do so. I learned from her that to be good anything isn’t about competing with the rest of the world first, it’s about yourself first – being the best you can be for YOU; having pride and dignity in whatever you do.
I emulated her in my recovery – she is calm, focused and with an incredibly resilient mental strength. These skills meant that all my health setbacks, which were especially upsetting after making some good progress, didn’t make me give up. Instead I just accepted them. I learned from them, analysed my performance and improved my form and approach - just like she did for all those years of competing at such a high level. She’s incredible and is my coach for my preparation and this whole journey along the Appalachian Trail.
Her favourite phrase is ‘Be captain of your own team’.
In terms of mental well-being, outdoors exercise has become a crucial way for people to remain healthy. Do you find comfort in nature and solitude or prefer walking in the company of others?
I like a balance of both but my natural go-to is to hike alone for silence and peace of mind. It helps my mental health for sure and is often a way of meditating for me. It’s also nice to walk with others too, as through the process of moving through nature and not actually ‘looking’ at each other, you can get some amazing topics of conversation that people feel comfortable enough to discuss.
That being said, it’s also good to be social and I like to invite anyone and everyone when we get together for a group hike; even people I barely know. I realised that some people don’t have anyone to go with and don’t have the confidence to go exploring by themselves.
I try to pay attention to the sights and sounds around me, or embrace the absolute stillness when it is apparent. Everything is so hyper-paced in my life that to be still and to move at the speed of my own boy is a total joy.
My brain uses hiking or running as a kind of waking dream – processing the events of the day or week and dealing with each one in a calm state. Once my mental weather is clear, I’ll just focus on birdsong, the wind in the trees and the visual feast around me.
Over the past several months I’ve had the chance to talk with endurance athletes and adventurers that have shared the importance of having a routine and clear set of goals in order to overcome personal hardships. Do you agree with this notion?
I do agree, because if you always look at the big picture it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re carrying injury or hardship with you. That stuff doesn’t trip you up in one grand gesture but leaves little spokes in your wheel on the daily.
That’s why you must focus on small goals and then step back every now and then to remember how far you’ve come. If you added up all the setbacks and thought about all the ways your hardship can fuck with you, you’d get one giant mass of bad stuff which would put you off, but taken piecemeal it’s all manageable.
I do like to have routine and often feel lost without it, but I need my routine to be packed into a flexible and varied bigger picture. For example: I want to train, but I want to be able to train wherever I am for work or wherever I’ve travelled for pleasure. Therefore perhaps my key routines won’t vary, but where I do them might.
That being said, I haven’t been able to establish my routine properly in recent months due to taking on a lot of different projects, and this has begun to undermine my mental health and resilience a little.
What’s most important is that I’ve recognised this and am taking some steps to remedy it - I am aware I need to sacrifice some other things to get my schedule back on line. There’s no shame in admitting you’re falling behind or off plan. Grit is continually trying to get back on it, knowing that it might not happen on the first try.
On trail, I will be aiming to stick to a reasonably strict schedule for the AT in terms of average miles a day. I hope to have some huge days which will allow for more Zeros and Neros (nearly zeros) so I can relax too.
I have an exciting commitment at the end of the trail which I need to return for. So it means my hike will be quicker than some. This discipline and daily achievement (whatever that looks like) might also help me overcome any mental wobbles when out there on my own and feeling isolated.
The Appalachian Trail
Could you elaborate on the training that you have undertaken in preparation for this adventure?
I have no set schedule – I work too much, stay in too many places and travel too frequently to make any rigidity work this year. I have lots of hiking trips or ‘shakedowns’ in the diary and I’ve already been on some. I have hiked all over the Cornish coast path with my pack loaded. I’ve done some wild camp trips and have some more lined up. Wales and Guernsey in the next two weekends, Dartmoor after that.
For each trip I try to take a friend/expert along with me to put me through my paces and teach me stuff (thanks guys! @fitforthat, @rawly28 @challengesnowdonia). It’s utterly humbling to be at the beginning of a new learning journey when you’re good at your own stuff, but it’s vital to ask for help.
In this instance I initially had no idea about camping for long hikes and the things to consider. These guys let me fuck up and didn’t judge. They let me ask heaps of questions and happily shared all their wisdom. I am so grateful and will be passing all that knowledge on. It also shows me that you can come from nothing and still set out to achieve something amazing with the right support team.
Are their certain parts of the trail that you are particularly excited about travelling through?
I can’t get my brain to think like that right now! I’m just excited to put one foot in front of the other. It’s not about specific places for me at the moment, it’s just walking a LONG way and focusing on one goal day by day. I can’t wait for that single focus in this crazy world of juggling everything AND a chronic condition!
With any adventure on a scale like this, there are difficulties that one will face. Is there anything that you are preparing for?
Bear bag/cannister for bears. Improving my first aid by quizzing medic friends and watching heaps of YouTube videos, learning about the snakes to watch out for and how to check for and remove ticks!
I’ll be learning to look for symptoms of Lyme, and generally learning to take care of my body. My osteopath (the fantastic Lizzie Bird at Falmouth Active Health) has given me a range of excellent articulation and stretches to do every day as a routine to keep my body moving through a range of movement. As she rightly points out, we’re built perfectly for long distance walking, but the movement plane is limited - I will need to keep reminding it there are other planes!
The 100-mile wilderness with no resupply points comes first, and that will take some planning. After that I think I’ll learn to resupply every few days and will narrow down what works best. Lots of things will come through trial and error I’m sure!
Are you planning to meet with fellow hikers along the journey?
Friends are coming out to join at certain points for a week here and there, but I’ll mostly be hiking alone or making friends (a Tramily – trail family) on the way, but it might be harder as SOBO is less populated and my pace is quite quick, I hope.
One tradition of carrying out a great adventure like this is to keep a journal and record the journey. Do you plan to write about your journey across the Appalachian trail?
Yes! I’ll be writing a book and making notes every day to add to it. This is my big project and will also cover my back story and motivation to walk. I’ll also be writing regularly for TheTrek.co and populating my own Instagram and blog too. I’m considering a vlog but haven’t got the know-how yet –working on it!
From the team here at Dure we wish Gail the best in her adventure along the Appalachian trail! Follow her on Instagram - @appalachiangail.