At A Taste For The Woods, we focus on people who overcome challenges to participate in the natural world. I recently had a phone conversation with Dan Mussulin, survivor of a traumatic brain injury, and future through hiker of the Appalachian Trail. At the time of the interview Dan was in a contest run by National Geographic called Expedition Granted, and we talked about that in addition to his recovery. Dan’s proposal to hike the Appalachian Trail didn’t make the finals of the contest, and his plans are on hold for now while he figures out what next to do.
Q: Hello Dan, and welcome to A Taste For The Woods.
A. Thanks for speaking to me.
Q. So, why do you want to through hike the Appalachian Trail?
A. During the hike I want to promote awareness and understanding of Traumatic Brain Injury. Also, its something I’ve always wanted to do.
Q. Your love of the outdoors started in childhood?
A. Yeah, growing up in Ohio I was always mountain biking and hiking and backpacking. And now I live in North Carolina, where if you drive an hour you are in wilderness.
Q. To get a better understanding of your goals and your challenge in recovery, let’s go back to the accident. It took place mountain biking?
A. Yeah. I had gone mountain biking with a friend, and we were almost back at the car, and I must have hit a rock or something, and I went over the handlebars.
Q. Mountain bikers often crash. But this fall was more serious than most.
A. I don’t remember what happened after going over the bars. At one point I remember seeing the ceiling of the ambulance, and then in the hospital, when I came to, my wife’s face.
Q. And then you found out how lucky you were.
A. I had injuries to the left side of my brain, and the brain stem.
Q. The brain stem is near the area most of the motor and autonomic functions operate from – breathing, for instance.
A. My doctors told me I was lucky to be alive.
Q. Once you began recovery, what was that like?
A. I had to relearn everything. Everything you take for granted – walking, talking.
Q. How long was your recovery? Or are you still undergoing it?
A. In some ways I’m still recovering. Traumatic Brain Injury is a hidden condition.
Q. So if I were to meet someone on the street with a Traumatic Brain Injury, I wouldn’t be able to tell they’ve suffered a TBI?
A. Yeah. You couldn’t tell from just meeting someone if they’ve had it.
Q. OK. How long was the therapy part of your recovery?
A. That was about three years.
Q. Many people after such an accident would shy away from the ‘risks’ of the outdoors. You are an experienced outdoorsman. Being inside must have been hell for you.
A. Yeah. I didn’t want to be inside. Many people would have given up, but I chose a different path.
Q. How did you get on that path?
A. My wife helped me when I was discharged from the hospital. She had to help me with everything at first. We worked on walking outside. First we walked from the house to the car and back. When I was comfortable doing that, we walked from the house to the mailbox and back.
Q. What was it like being in the woods again?
A. At first I had a problem. I had trouble differentiating the trees from each other. They all blurred together. But in time I overcame it. The world is an intimidating place for a person with TBI, but the woods are sanctuary for me.
Q. So five years after your accident, you are back doing everything you did before?
A. Not mountain biking. But hiking and backpacking, yeah, I am.
Q. Which brings us to your Appalachian Trail expedition.
A. Yeah. Our Expedition Granted entry is to finance my trip on the AT. During the trip I’ll speak in towns on TBI.
Q. You will be hiking northbound or south?
A. Northbound, from Georgia.
Q. Will this be solo, or a group hike?
A. Solo, but I’ll have support people meet me in places.
Q. I suspect you will have a lot of support just from hikers you meet.
A. Yeah, the AT is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you were or what you did off the trail, when you are on the AT you are just like everyone else. It’s a very accepting group of people who hike it.
Q. Thank you very much for allow us to speak with you Dan.
A. You’re welcome. Thank you for talking to me.
Q. And for the people reading this interview, here is the link to Dan’s Expedition Granted page, and the video he recorded talking about the project.