It’s the first day of spring on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts when Bobby Zabarsky and his 20-pound pack round a bend and reach an inclined granite slab that is two stories high. The painted white blazes are unmistakable; the trail goes straight up.
He stops, turns, and cracks a grin at his mother, who is following a few steps behind.
“It’s a thing,” he says.
“Yes, it’s a thing,” says his mother, Trish Whitehouse. “Better get going.”
He rolls his eyes, then scrambles to the top. His score: 7 for grace and a perfect 10 for vigor.
This onlooker was warned to expect a slow pace and frequent breaks, but Bobby is leading robustly on this hike through what thru-hikers call the PUDS (pointless ups and downs) of the Berkshires. It seems like a miracle because the 20-year-old backpacker from Southbury, Connecticut—who goes by the trail name Braveheart—literally has only half a heart.
His disability notwithstanding, he and his mother plan to section-hike the AT over the next two years.
Bobby Zabarsky was born with a single ventricle heart and now lives with just two heart chambers doing the circulatory work of four. Multiple surgeries, beginning when he was only a few days old, left him close to death with septicemia several times. He spent months on a respirator and six years on a feeding tube. A stroke during a surgery when he was three months old impacted his cognition. A surgeon accidentally severed the nerve to his vocal cords during another procedure. Side effects of the powerful drugs that kept him alive robbed him of much of his hearing.
Yet ask him what he thinks of the Appalachian Trail and he lets rip a movie-star smile. “You get a different view of life and how to live on the AT. How to challenge yourself,” he says, adding. “The scenery out there is so good. It looks amazing.”
Bobby’s 60-year-old mom, Trish, is no less surprised by how he’s doing today as he hikes toward the Tom Leonard shelter with a 20-pound pack—his heaviest so far. She is a cardiac nurse specializing in exercise counseling for patients with chronic health conditions, and a passionate backpacker. Last summer she and two of her older kids hiked Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness in eight days. She thought hiking might be good for Bobby but wasn’t sure if he could handle it. It was Bobby’s cardiologist, a hiker himself, who reassured her.
“He says to Bobby, it’s the best thing you can do for your heart,” says Trish. The doctor told her he had no concerns that Bobby would have a heart attack, and that Bobby could do it as long as he set his own comfortable pace. Those words from the cardiologist opened the door to bigger adventures for both of them.
The first few hikes were just three or four miles long. Trish closely monitored his color, how much he was sweating, his hydration levels. But with each hike, he grew stronger and went farther. One day, he and Trish hiked 8.5 miles while tackling Caleb’s Peak and St. John’s Ledges near Kent, Connecticut. Bobby continued to push his boundaries when winter arrived and he completed several more AT sections on snowshoes. On one, he spent sub-zero overnight in a lean-to.
“When we finished Connecticut, I said ‘what do you want to do now?’” said Trish. “He said, ‘how about the whole thing!’”
The pair has by now also finished sections in New York and Massachusetts, with Bobby’s father John providing shuttle service as needed. Next up: Vermont. Trish says parts of the trail— which they expect will take two years to complete—will require longer hikes of three to four days and a great deal of logistical planning. Her job and Bobby’s classes at Post University (he studies computer science) are also factors in the planning calculus. But for Trish, all of the trouble is worth it for the transformation she’s seen in her son. He’s gained strength, lost weight, and, most important of all, built confidence.
“I really feel he’s starting to act like a young man instead of a dependent special-needs kid,” she said. “There’s something special about the Appalachian Trail. It’s almost spiritual. It heals like nothing else does.”
Bobby “absolutely” suggests that other disabled people should tune in.
“They should know that someone else with disabilities is out there,” Bobby said. “I’m out there doing it.”