Most Appalachian Trail hikers think they need killer legs to finish the 2,200 mile trek. Stacey Kozel, a paralyzed outdoor enthusiast unable to take a step on her own, begs to differ.
Kozel, who lost control of her legs during a 2014 bout with Lupus, is hiking the east's classic long trail with the help of specialized leg braces and a rechargeable battery pack. So far, she's halfway done.
When Kozel first learned of her diagnosis, she was certain her independent life was over. “I remember laying in my hospital bed, looking out the window and wondering if I was going to be able to walk down the street or even sit up on my own,” she said.
From her bed, Kozel began to research alternatives that would, perhaps, give her a second chance. She found the C-Brace, a custom-fit leg brace so rarely used, her doctors didn't even know they existed.
Kozel's medical insurance provider initially refused her claim, telling her that the braces weren't medically necessary. After a year of appeals, they reversed their decision and covered the braces, which cost $75,000 apiece.
Tricked out with a pair of semi-bionic legs, Kozel set out to fulfill her pre-paralysis dream of thru-hiking the AT. She began in March, from Springer Mountain, the AT's southern terminus.
“When I was dropped off on Springer Mountain one of my braces locked up,” Kozel said. The brace was badly broken, and she knew she could not fix it herself. But Kozel could not bring herself to leave the trail before she even began. She walked in lockstep for 200 miles before flying home for repairs. Once the brace was operational, "I came right back and continued hiking.” she said.
Kozel’s braces were not designed with the trail in mind. Rain drops send Kozel scurrying for cover, and river crossings are a non-starter. And if she forgets or neglects to recharge her battery pack, her knees become locked in place. Kozel describes her setup as similar to an early cell phone: It's not pretty, but it works.
“The worst day on the trail is far better than the best day in the hospital,” Kozel said.
Her pace varies between 15 and 20 miles every day, far slower than most successful thru-hikers. Even so, Kozel hopes to reach Mount Katahdin by the end of the year.