Photo: Justin Fountain
Carden Wyckoff is used to being carried around.
The recent University of Georgia graduate, who was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy when she was nine years old, hasn’t let her decreased physical mobility keep her from racing, running, walking and climbing through obstacle courses. In Carden’s case, the only difference is that these activities have been completed with the help of her brother, Spencer, who has been carrying his younger sister on his back during Spartan Races for more than a year.
Last month, however, Carden was carried further than she’s ever been — 82 miles to be exact, through the entire Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
The idea for the nine day piggyback hike came about when the Wyckoffs were featured on an episode of “American Ninja Warrior.” During the episode, which originally aired in June, Spencer dedicated his performance to raising awareness for his sister’s condition.
Marshall Mosher, who graduated from UGA in 2015 with his masters in Public Administration, knew Carden from their time working together at the university’s Disability Resource Center. Mosher hadn’t seen Carden much since graduation— until he saw her on TV.
“As I was watching the [‘American Ninja Warrior’] episode I sent Carden a text, as I’m sure every single friend she has probably did,” Mosher said.
“As I was watching the [‘American Ninja Warrior’] episode I sent Carden a text, as I’m sure every single friend she has probably did.”
-Marshall Mosher, UGA alumnus
In his text, Mosher asked Carden what she and her brother had planned next. During her time at UGA, Carden had advocated for curb accessibility on campus, worked for increased elevator access in university buildings and fought for greater accessibility at The Arch. Mosher knew she would be looking to plan another awareness event as soon as the last one had ended.
After reconnecting, Mosher and the Wyckoffs came up with the idea of carrying Carden through the Appalachian Trail. Since graduating, Mosher had started Vestigo, a technology startup centered around making outdoor adventure more available and accessible for both travelers and local guides, so he knew he could handle everything on the logistical end.
Up until that point, Carden had only experienced the Appalachian Trail through her friends’ Facebook and Instagram posts.
“It was kind of always something on my bucket list, but something I knew wasn’t gonna be physically possible by myself,” Carden said.
Once the hike was set for Oct. 22 – 30, Mosher helped Spencer and Carden make the information about the journey public on their website — when they were starting, where they would be on what day and how hard each section of the hike would be — that way, anyone else who was interested in participating could tag along. By making sure each day’s walk would end at a road crossing, Mosher made it possible for others to join in throughout the week, helping to not only carry supplies, but also Carden herself.
“It was humbling that people would want to come out and do that,” Carden said. “And I know it sounds selfish, but they’re doing it for me, you know? It’s really cool to see that, how people come together when they realize that someone can’t physically partake in the beauty of the mountains and the forest. It was truly incredible.”
For Carden, the greatest part of the trip was how quickly it grew into something larger than she and Spencer had originally planned. By the time the journey was over, about 25 people had joined Mosher and the Wyckoffs on the trail — many of them being total strangers.
Travis Miller was one of those people. After hearing about the hike through a friend on Facebook, Miller decided he had to hike with the Wyckoffs for at least a few days, despite the fact that he lived nine hours away in Fort Myers, Florida.
“We walk up [to the Wyckoff family], and I’d never met him before. And they go, ‘oh, do you go to UGA?’ And I’m like ‘no, actually I’m from south Florida.’ They were so excited about that, for their reach to go that far and to have someone come up and join them.
Mosher said people like Miller made the hike possible, as having more volunteers to carry Carden and hold supplies became crucial once they realized the journey would be more difficult than anticipated.
“I can honestly say that if we didn’t have the amount of support that we did, we probably wouldn’t have finished,” Mosher said.
One of the things that made the hike so hard was the simple physical strenuous that comes with holding another person’s full weight. Carden said people became understandably exhausted after carrying her, even for a short period of time.
“Sometimes a person would walk like 15 minutes and it was like ‘I’m done, this is really challenging,’” she said.
The trail itself also posed some challenges. The added requirement of ending each day at a road crossing meant some hikes were longer than others. Carden remembers the fourth day of the trip, when the group walked 14 miles — its longest trek of the entire journey — as being particularly challenging.
“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you have to just crawl up in a ball and stay in your room all day — you can experience life.”
-Carden Wyckoff, UGA alumna
“At the end of [that day], we were proud we had accomplished it. But we were like ‘holy crap, I don’t know if we can continue going on this,’” she said.
Despite some hardships, Carden said the group was able to stay motivated after realizing how many people the journey had brought together, and how many people were counting on them to make it to the end.
“We were all in agreement that we had to keep going — we couldn’t stop,” Carden said. “We had people that wanted to hike with us on days seven, eight and nine, and we couldn’t let those people down.”
While the hike ultimately became much more the Wyckoffs or Mosher had initially planned, Carden still emphasized the main goal of the journey as well — to show people that they can accomplish a lot more than they may think.
“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you have to just crawl up in a ball and stay in your room all day — you can experience life,” Carden said.
Originally published in The Red & Black