The Fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What is your personal favorite instance of trail magic?
JoDean Nicolette: Picking a single favorite instance is hard, because honestly, it was the kindness and generosity that felt most moving, not the actual acts, no matter how big or how small. I came across certain examples of trail magic regularly over the 2200 miles, all touching. Those included rides to and from town, or to the store or a restaurant. Or coolers with food and drinks at road crossings. I mention other examples in the piece. My husband walked parts of the trail with me and he remembers a guy lugging a fresh watermelon into one of the shelters; my husband loved that because hikers don’t usually have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Some instances of trail magic had a more powerful impact, just because of the circumstances. The instance I mentioned in my piece, in which one of the men had hiked down that long hill and filled my water bag for me was very touching because of the long, exhausting day, and the storm. Another time I was battling these incredible waves of fear that seemed irrational and impossible to control. They almost forced me off the trail. Sitting on a log, I pulled out a bag of peanut M&M’s from my front pocket and starting chewing. A Japanese couple had given them to me at a road crossing earlier in the day. The couple had clearly been tourists—squeaky clean, and almost no English—and they offered them just saying “Hiker. Hungry, right?” I said thanks, but barely slowed down to take them. The M&M’s were one of the most powerful pieces of trail magic I had ever received because when the sugar hit my bloodstream I had an almost instant euphoria, and I realized that it was hypoglycemia that was causing my jitters and anxiety, not actual fear. That couple and their tiny yellow bag saved my day and probably my hike. I learned to snack on a mouthful of something every forty-five minutes after that.
RR: How did your medical experience influence your experience of the Appalachian Trail?
JN: This is hard to answer, because I really only know what it’s like to be me; I’m sure medicine affected me and made me different from other hikers in ways that I’m not aware of. Of course there’s how I became hypersensitive to competition, as I talked about in the piece. I’ll mention a few other things: When I first starting walking I was fresh out of residency. Currently, there are work-hours laws protecting residents, but there were no such protections when I went through. When other hikers complained about how hard the trail was—the fatigue, hunger, exhaustion, the general need for endurance—I would think to myself, “You’re kidding, right? I mean this is hard, but not like working-hundred-hour-weeks hard. Not like working forty-hours-straight hard. Not like dreading the drive home every day, sure-you’ll-fall-asleep-at-the-wheel hard. This, this walking without the beeps, shrieks and din of the hospital, actually laying your head on a pillow every night, this is challenging, but it’s not hard.” I don’t mean to minimize how hard hiking the Appalachian Trail is, because it kicked my butt more than once, but when I first started, it was nothing next to residency. It was an escape. Another thing about medicine, I felt like I could help here and there. I never announced that I was a physician, but sometimes hikers heard about me, because trail gossip travels in either direction like the wind. Someone would ask me if I was “the lady doctor,” and ask me medical questions about an ankle, or a knee, or a bee sting, or a rash. Or about their bowel habits (gee, thanks!). One time I came across a couple in a Virginia shelter about two miles south a road crossing. The woman was lying on her back on the shelter floor. She had sweat on her brow and lower abdominal pain. Her partner was so worried. I evaluated her the best I could, and thought “appendicitis, ectopic pregnancy, ovarian torsion…?” I told them they should get to the road and get help, she might need surgery. So we divvied up her pack and got her there. I little further north, I heard she had been helicoptered from the small community hospital to a larger medical center, but I never heard more details than that. On a more comic note, my husband and I walked the Hundred Mile Wilderness together (part of the AT in Maine). We came upon a group of young hikers eating lunch at a lake. One of the young men leapt up and yelled, “Hey, are you the doctors? Look at this!” and he turned around and dropped his drawers, showing us a nasty pack-rub on his bottom. We did the best we could with that. Good for a laugh all day.
RR: The idea of competition is a driving force throughout this piece. When it comes to the work you produce, how do you keep yourself from competing with other writers?
JN: Before I got involved in medicine, I wasn’t competitive, and was completely blind to it. It was a real epiphany to me to see that others were competing with me without my knowledge. But it explained a great deal about interactions that I hadn’t understood before. I’m still not competitive, but I never found a way to deal effectively with competition in my training, (or even now, at work, where it gobsmacks me still). Honestly, I don’t feel competitive with other writers at all. It’s art, and emotional expression. Even if I had the tendency to compare myself to others, I couldn’t, each person’s work is so unique. I will tell you that high quality writing truly affects me, but it is in a very energizing, motivating way. It’s just like how I step higher and with more energy on my runs after watching the Boston Marathon, or the Olympics. It’s just inspiring.
RR: With the use of trail names instead of birth names, identity becomes an interesting component in “Trail Magic.” How do you find your identity as a writer differs from your everyday identity?
JN: My everyday identity, no matter how much I tried to temper it, was defined by medicine. As sensitive as I tried to be, I felt stuck in the concrete and left-brained framework. I didn’t start writing in a committed way until I was forty-five. When I claimed my identity as a writer, I began to feel much better about myself, wholer, more complete. And I certainly liked myself more. Writing allowed me to expand my right brain, the part of my psychology and intellect that wasn’t governed by rigid concepts like facts, algorithms, and schedules. I felt more fluid, more intuitive, more creative, more graceful, more able to just be present and observe my life. I just felt more. So much of my spirit and my heart was just under the surface, waiting for a channel to bubble up. Writing offered me that. When I am writing, I am in an almost altered state. Despite all the years I have been in medicine, I still have trouble claiming the identity of “physician.” Without any effort, I fell right into “writer.”
RR: You mention that on your hike along the Appalachian Trail you set out to decompress and refocus. Did you find success with this, and what other goals did you accomplish by the end?
JN: Medical training felt like an assault, mentally and physically. Each day, I felt more defended. By the finish I was so well-defended, surrounded by emotional walls, that I couldn’t even enjoy life. I instinctively fled to the AT for solace. Biophilia is the term we use to describe the healing and well-being that humans experience in nature. I didn’t understand biophilia when I fled to the trail, but it turned out to be strong medicine for me. One significant aspect of long distance hiking is the opportunity to deconstruct. When you are walking, with all your “stuff” on your back, you are left naked. None of the things that define you, buttress your identity, (your clothes, your job, your car, your friends, your geographic location…even your name) are with you on your trek. You fall apart, and if you can stand it, you can reconstruct a stronger you from your core. This was a large part of what the trail did for me. I also accomplished some goals like losing weight and regaining my fitness (I had gained 40lbs during residency), and regaining some of my confidence and faith in myself. Finally, an unexpected benefit came when I began to write the book about my experiences. I found that the processing that came with constructing the story help me come to peace with many of the personal and professional struggles I faced. Writing the first chapter, about how I ended up so broken, made me shake and cry, but I felt drawn to it. It was cleansing. I am a better person now that I was able to tell my story.
“Trail Magic” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 4.1
JoDean Nicolette succumbed to the field of medicine for years. Still a physician and teacher, she has now dedicated herself to a career in writing. JoDean’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Printers Row Journal, Sugared Water, and she was awarded the 2015 Grand Prize for Prose in The Maine Review’s Rocky Coast Contest. “Trail Magic” is from an unpublished book about JoDean’s development as a physician as she walked the Appalachian Trail. She currently lives in northern California with her dogs and horses, and her extremely patient husband, Ben.