Extreme journey for Rockhampton couple in US wilderness
CRAWLING up a rock face with one hand "like a claw" full of stitches after a deep gash, facing 50km/h icy winds, and miserable and in pain - it was hardly how Ken and Julie-Anne Fox had pictured their reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin's Baxter Peak which would mark their completion of America's Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Just 10 days from the finish of the iconic hike, known as the AT, Ken's misstep on a rock almost brought their five-and-a- half-month trek to a halt.
The scenic trail is roughly about 3500km (about five million steps) and passes through 14 states, the equivalent of hiking from Adelaide to Darwin.
The couple, who have cycled across North and Central America since giving up the rat race of full-time work several years ago, had just hit the part of the trail known as the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Although now less isolated through the slow introduction of various logging roads, hikers are still at least a day away from reaching a satellite phone in an emergency.
With packs on their shoulders, Ken and Julie-Anne had, over the course of the hike, become accustomed to climbing over tree roots the size of cars, boulders and sometimes sheer rock faces.
But this time, Ken slipped, and pulled "this way and that" by his heavy backpack, landed flat on his back.
"I've never fallen so hard in my life," he said.
"If I had cracked my pelvis, I would not have been surprised."
Unable to move at first, it took some cautious movements for Ken to sit up, which was when Julie-Anne noticed her hands were now covered in blood.
Ken's training as a nurse kicked in as he realised his hand had been sliced open by a shale rock.
Although they spent time picking out as much of the rock as they could and washing the wound, it took doctors at the closest town another half an hour to finish cleaning Ken's hand.
The couple replenished their stocks and hitched back to the trail to start the hike the next day.
"My hand was phenomenally sore, my back was killing me, but I knew I was going to sit around miserable and feeling sorry for myself (if we didn't keep going)," Ken said.
"I was miserable, don't get me wrong, but so much better hiking past waterfalls and still making mileage."
The following days would have been tough enough for anyone coming to the tail end of an AT through-hike.
By this time Ken and Julie-Anne had hiked from Georgia, facing some of the most challenging hiking conditions over five months and still had to conquer climbs of up to 3600m.
The couple had taken photos at each major mile marker along the track, but 3380km was something else entirely.
Ken remembers tears sliding down his face, despite the relief at finally getting so close to the end of the trail.
"This was the last week we had and it wasn't supposed to finish like this," he said.
The dream had been sparked on a whim, about six months earlier when Ken suggested they give the bikes a break and instead travel on foot.
They set themselves a 48-hour deadline to research and decide if the AT was achievable.
In any trip the couple undertake, they walk a fine line between planning and the freedom to enjoy life on the road.
"You're just setting yourself up for failure if you don't have flexibility and an open mind," Ken said.
Ken and Julie-Anne had noticed the tendency for people to overthink their trip, meeting some hikers who would send food boxes to every town on the trail before setting off on the path.
"Plan the big stuff, get yourself sorted and go. It all falls into place," Julie-Anne said.
This was their approach to life on the AT too, taking each day as it came and not locking in unrealistic walking targets.
After all, why walk the trail without having time to sit with other hikers chatting for hours, taking in panoramic lake views?
As well as a physical challenge, the AT is a mental slog, but life wouldn't be the same for Julie-Anne and Ken without their constant attempts to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Some days, the couple pushed themselves to get up and plod along, only to spot a bear or find some "trail magic" (unexpected acts of kindness defined as a quintessential part of the AT) which would turn their hike around.
"Trail magic is a huge thing across the trail," Ken said.
"The best example was a couple who every Monday and Thursday between 1pm and 5pm, they drive 70 miles (110km) from where they live to a dirt road.
"They set up a barbecue, they cook hot dogs and hamburgers, not knowing who or how many people are going to be there.
"They do it for hikers for four hours, twice a week. They've never hiked the AT. They just do it because they love meeting people, they love helping people."
As with their previous adventures on the bikes, the couple said this kindness and generosity was the best element of the hike and just a little more special than anything they had previously experienced.
"You get a lot of spontaneous kindness," Ken said.
"But this trail has a community about it unlike anything we've ever seen. I'm willing to say we would never in our life find it again."
It took the couple 169 days to complete the trail, with only 11 "zero" days, where they weren't making headway on the trail itself.
"Zero days" don't mean a total rest; Ken and Julie-Anne walked half of Manhattan during one of their days off the trail.
Once you've accepted the physical trials the AT will offer (extreme temperatures, fatigue, hiker hunger), there's a mental hurdle to push through the longer you're on the trail.
"We're not afraid of failure," Ken said.
"But the idea of not doing it just because we're slack doesn't cut it.
"We make an active decision not to do something, but we just don't throw in the towel because we're done.
"Maybe it's easier for us now because we've pushed ourselves to some limits we never thought we would be able to push ourselves to.
"We've had some of the nastiest experiences ever ... and I believe they can get 10 times nastier, but we haven't, and hopefully won't, reach that.
"Never once on this trail did either of us turn around and say, 'I think we need to finish'.
"This broke us more than anything before.
" It never broke our spirit, which is good, but it broke us physically with injuries," he said.
It's this fear of failure which Ken and Julie-Anne believe holds too many people back from exploring the world, or following a passion.
"We're making our own choices," Ken said.
"We're not dictated to by money, we're not dictated to by society.
"We have the open life which we're very fortunate for. It's fortunate we learned to live on nothing."
Ken and Julie-Anne were back in Rocky in time for Christmas and have been working, with plans to travel again in the middle of the year.
They're not sure where the next adventure will take them.