A Columbus quadriplegic and a bunch of his buddies didn’t reach their goal to hike the entire Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail, but they are savoring what they did achieve, persevering past the halfway mark.
O’Ree Crittenden, 44, was an active outdoorsman until he broke his neck 15 years ago while trying to retrieve a boy’s lost kite in the ocean. This past week, thanks to a special wheelchair and financial and physical support from friends, he participated in one of the activities he so dearly has missed.
Lee Griffith and Chad Pepper, two of his fellow alumni from Shaw High School, led the fundraiser to buy a special wheelchair and other equipment enabling Crittenden to experience this adventure. Before the Ledger-Enquirer featured their story this spring, they had collected $1,725 from 31 donors in two months on their GoFundMe.com page. As of Tuesday, they have collected $15,825 from 83 donors in seven months, surpassing their $15,000 goal.
The special wheelchair is called a TrailRider, a one-wheeler with an all-terrain tire that moves like a rickshaw, one person pushing in the rear and another pulling in front. The group affectionately called those folks sherpas when it was their turn in the rotation.
Crittenden and his crew, ranging from five to 10 members, left Aug. 27 from Springer Mountain on their trek, scheduled to take parts of 12 days to cover 87.6 miles on the Georgia section of the trail. They intended to arrive Sept. 7 in Dicks Creep Gap. But brake trouble proved too much to overcome, and after eight days and 46.4 miles of hiking, they unanimously chose to halt their journey.
“Going downhill, the guy in front would get overrun by the TrailRider,” Pepper told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Tuesday. “Every half day or so we had to adjust the brakes, but then they were too far gone and it started getting dangerous.”
Despite covering a little more than half the mileage they had planned, Crittenden considers the trip successful.
“For me, finally realizing the dream of hiking the AT trail with friends was phenomenal,” Crittenden told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email. “It was one of the most life-affirming experiences I may have had thus far. To be back out in nature, in the back country that is completely inaccessible to even those that are able bodied, what we accomplished was no small feat. The distance traveled, many weekend warriors won’t do that in a year.”
Although some crew members injured a knee or ankle, Pepper said, “I think everyone was just overjoyed that we made it as far as we had. We were just elated that everyone was safe and we proved we could do it.”
And to be clear, O’Ree wasn’t just along for the ride, Pepper noted.
“He was a trooper,” Pepper said. “He absolutely took care of himself. He was very low maintenance. He was in his element and took everything in stride. That TrailRider beat him up because it took a lot of core strength to stay seated while we were going up and down rocks and boulders. He was sore, but he didn’t complain one bit, so how could I complain?”
Griffith remarked in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer, “It was an amazing experience to see O’Ree on the trail with a big ole smile. It was special to have a crew that came from all over and worked so well together to get as far as we did.”
They actually came within about 5 miles of the North Carolina border, Pepper said, because they skipped approximately 30 miles of the trail by car because some of the terrain was too tough for the wheelchair. Their last shelter was Plum Orchard Gap, in Hiawassee, Ga.
But they are not done with hiking the trail.
“We plan to fill in the missing parts of the trip for O’Ree over a couple of weekends,” Griffith said. “We plan to make the needed repairs and modifications to the TrailRider and begin offering opportunities for others to use the TrailRider. We are in the process of setting up a nonprofit to continue this service.”
To participate in that effort, message the crew on their Facebook page O’Ree on the AT.