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Luck of the Trail

I’m currently enrolled in an 18 month DUI treatment court program. How I got here at age 32 was a long journey. 

It began as your casual social drinker out of high school and marijuana smoker.  Which lead me to some poor life decisions.  Gambling played a huge part in my life for the past 14 years as well.  I chose this way of life for myself and didn’t know where it would lead me.  The roller coaster ride was a long unpredicted one.  My troubles with the law started as I was counterfeiting money in high school. The FBI came to my house and confiscated my father’s computer and printer that I used to make it but never had the intent to spend the money when charged so I got a free pass early on in life and thought I was invincible.  

During high school I started working at a friend of mines father’s dental lab he owned. Which I currently still work at. It was great having a job that early and able to freely spend my money.  Incorporating gambling early on in my career I was easily distracted on what money was worth to me and its importance.  Ever sense I’ve built my life around gambling and having money to do so. I’ve been warped in a 18 year old mind for the past 14 years with no care in the world for my future. No girlfriend moved out of my parent’s house for 2 years but decided to move back in to have more money to gamble with. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs. At one point I was ready to buy a 150,000 house and had 20,000 to put down on it with a paid off brand new car and motorcycle. And at my lowest point I was 80,000 in the hole to gambling and had to bet my land rover on the super bowl game.

What leads me to this point in my life? 
Going through my 3rd DUI and being through work release jail, being in and out of the system for the past 15 years is that I wanted change! After hitting my rock bottom over the 4th of July weekend of 2014 with that being passing out drunk at a McDonalds drive-thru  I’ve decided I needed to get out of my bad habits. That’s when I found the York county DUI treatment court. They gave me a second chance of living a life that is meaningful. Also during this time I filed chapter 7 bankruptcy. Finally it was time to turn a new leaf over in my life. With my addictions out of the way I needed some new things in my life.

So I thought back to what was fun to me before I started all this nonsense.  When searching I thought of family vacations we would take when I was just in middle school and hiking we used to do out west. Our first trip we took we went to the Grand Canyon, Mt. Zion, Yosemite and the great basin. I was hooked.  A couple years later we traveled to Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, and the Redwood forest.  My father being a cartographer had everything mapped out to a T. Probably not appreciating it at the time as much as I do now; I still enjoyed those hikes and are some of my fondest memories.  Those hikes had a great impact on my sister as well and she went off to University of Utah and became a recreation & permit manager for the Unita-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. I stuck with my addictions until now.

"I needed to get more spiritual in my life. While searching for a higher power, one day it hit me. Nothing made any more sense to me other then mother nature herself." 

All her beauty she provides us with we connected right away. I began to change my ways and live a healthier lifestyle. I started off taking a walk in the local park after work, going to the gym and running to training for a half marathon in 2 years.  Just being outdoors more made me a better person and more clear minded. I’ve lost 75 lbs. since my lifestyle change and couldn’t feel any better. 

Part of my treatment court program was to find some community service to do. In searching I volunteered at a food bank and did some organization at some charity 5k runs/walks for different causes.  Little did I know how fulfilling it was to help out and help people in need.  One day a close friend of mine emailed me a link about the ATC needing help to open up the visitor center in boiling springs over the weekends during the summer months. My interest was peaked! This is something that really connected with me. Right away I emailed Kelly McGinley and told her I was interested. She sat about 7 of us down at the center in a couple weeks and took us through orientation.  At first I was overwhelmed about all what the conservancy did! All the years I grew up around the AT and never really looked into it. What a great resource it was and now it’s all at the tips of my fingers.  After working 5 or 6 shifts I really started to get the hang of the visitor’s center and felt a great vibe around.  I wanted to do more. I wanted to be able to fit in a little more with the thru-hikers.

My one year of sobriety date was coming up and I wanted to celebrate.  I’ve hiked a lot of local trails off the AT around there but never really did a long stretch of the AT. So that was it, I set off on a journey to do one long day hike from the Boiling Springs visitor center north to Duncannon. A 26 Mile marathon hike! Took me and my friend 9 hours to complete and we were completely spent! I thought to myself “ Wow, imagine sleeping on the ground and waking up doing the same thing tomorrow!” Now I had a better understanding of what these hikers were experiencing and what to expect just ahead.  That was my longest hike I’ve taken. I’ve also took a sensory deprivation tank float after that.  It helped heal my muscles and joints and put me in a great set of mind.  It was perfect completion to my spiritual journey weekend.  

A couple weeks later Kelly organized a group trip south out of Boiling Springs to the monumental center point knob.


 "That’s when I got to thinking. Here I am located on the original midway point of the trail. And I feel like I’m at a midway point of my recovery.  I still need to set goals after I graduate the treatment court program to keep me motivated."  

During a routine day at work my mind wondered off and I asked myself why am I working here? Maybe I’ve had the same job for 14 years because I was stuck in my ways and scared of change and just wanted that paycheck to prolong my addictions.  

"I almost broke down in tears when I knew my head was going in the direction of wanting to hike the whole Appalachian Trail myself. Maybe I need a change in my life and this trail is here for me to do so before I set off on a true journey that is meant for me to live a happy and fulfilled life."

A thru hike just might be what the doctor ordered! I wouldn’t be able to do it until spring of 2017 due to court restrictions. I know that day will come quicker then I can imagine and I’ll have to make a decision on what to do. Just having an open mind to it now is a great thing for me to experience. I believe you really can do anything you want if you set your mind to it!

We shall see what the trail has in store for me in the future. 

- Mike Popola

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