In the spring of 2014, 28-year-old Alex Newlon headed for Springer Mountain determined to complete a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. A lifelong hiker, Newlon appeared the portrait of health—tall, muscular, young, always laughing and smiling. However, compared to his thru-hiking comrades, he was starting at a deficit: Newlon had epilepsy.
“I suffer from grand mal seizures, where you lose consciousness and fall to the floor while all of your muscles contract, causing you to shake and jerk uncontrollably,” says Newlon.
Despite taking preventative medication and going almost two years without suffering an incident, in attempting to thru-hike the AT, he was risking his life. Dehydration, sleep deprivation, heat exhaustion, and strenuous activity were prominent triggers for seizures.
Newlon had been dreaming about an A.T. thru-hike since his days as a teenage Boy Scout. Sick of being identified by a condition he’d inherited through the hereditary dice-roll, Newlon set out to claim his life as his own.
“Sure, I could have a seizure anytime, anywhere, my life is always on the line, no matter what. But I couldn’t let something totally random keep me from pursuing my dreams. I wasn’t going to let epilepsy control and limit my life.”
From Georgia to the border of New York, Newlon did just that. Then, with over two-thirds of the trail finished, he was struck by a seizure.
“Luckily, I was on my way down to a road crossing where the trail flattens out and is less rocky. While I suffered a few scratches and bruises, it could have been much worse. Still, it left me feeling incredibly weak and disoriented. It took all of my strength to hike that last half-mile down to the road.”
Newlon had to end his thru-hike in late 2014.
That’s where the story could have ended. But not for Newlon. The next year, after working long hours, saving every penny he could, and launching a successful crowd-sourcing campaign, he set out again from Springer Mountain, confident that, this time, he’d reach Katahdin.
“A lot of people didn’t get why I’d want to start from the beginning,” says Newlon. “But I knew if I didn’t do it that way, the itch to thru-hike the trail in its entirety would never leave me alone. I had to do the whole thing in one shot. Otherwise, it wouldn’t feel quite real.”
Newlon summited Katahdin this past September. Reflecting on his journeys, he says they were well worth it.
“I think epileptics are told much more often about what we can’t do instead of what we can,” he says. “I wanted to inspire others with epilepsy and show them that we are strong. I wanted to prove that we’re capable of doing anything in this life, no matter how difficult or strenuous our dreams may be.”