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Plenty of people dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Some make it a reality only after years of dithering. Some never do. And some—a rare few—find themselves faced with life events so challenging the goal becomes urgent, immediate, “now or never.”
Dan Schoenthal falls into the latter camp. The trail, which has been a goal of his for years, took on new urgency when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. His doctors told him that, in order to maintain his mobility, he had to stay active. He got out his maps and started planning.
“The docs stressed that exercise and medication combined would be the ticket to fighting it,” he told Outside Business Journal from the trail in Tennessee this week. “They said, ‘If you just take the medicine and sit on a couch, you’re done.'”
After he’d planned his trip and gotten himself ready, Schoenthal hiked the first 300 miles of the trail last year to assess his energy and pace. Encouraged, he returned this year, starting on April 3, to hike the rest. He said the trail—as it is for most people—has been healing, enlightening, and emotional.
“You do a lot of thinking because you’re on your own all day,” said the 56-year-old Schoenthal. “I wonder constantly where the disease is going to take me.”
Each year, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that leads to movement problems. While the symptoms usually onset slowly and worsen over time, many are able to manage the disease with medication and therapy.
For Schoenthal, that therapy means notching miles on the nation’s most famous trail, while building strength, both mentally and physically, for the future.
“Parkinson’s isn’t who I am, it’s what I have,” Schoenthal said. “How I deal with it is going to be determined by me alone. No matter where you are with challenges like this, you can get up and do something.”
Schoenthal plans to finish the rest of the trail—about 1,900 miles—by late July or early August.