The Bionic Woman of the Appalachian Trail

While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I met so many amazing people from all over the world and experienced so much compassion from strangers along the way. While every person I came in contact with shaped my hike, there were a few who stood out. One of them is a woman known to most as Niki Rellon, but I knew her as The Bionic Woman.

The Bionic Woman started her thru-hike the day after I did, March 9, 2015. After losing her left leg in a canyoneering accident in 2011 (she fell while on rappel, breaking her pelvis and spine and shattering her left foot severely enough that it needed to be amputated), she took on the same 2,189.2-mile trek I did with a prosthetic one. Like everyone who sets out on the Appalachian Trail, she was met with many setbacks. She continued to hike through infections, wearing out prosthetics and even losing so much weight that her prosthetics no longer fit.

Even though she had started not far behind me, we never met until I was nearing the end of my thru-hike. It was a rainy day in Maine, and I could hear thunderstorms rolling in. I had just passed the 2,000-mile marker and was less than 200 miles from being on top of the mountain I had spent months hiking towards. It was July 21, 2015, and I was at the Horns Pond Lean-Tos, which are nestled underneath Bigelow Mountain. There were two small eight-person lean-tos that were a great place to hide away from the impending storm.

I made it with some time to spare and set up my spot in the shelter with some friends who had beat me there. We got dry, warm, and ate as the thunderstorm got closer and eventually passed overhead. We were happy to have been under a shelter and not caught out in the storm. All too often during our journey, we had not been so lucky.

Shortly after the storm passed, a woman hiking south on the trail showed up looking for space in one of the two lean-tos. The woman was wet. She had been caught in the short burst of rain while hiking down from one of Maine’s 4,000-foot peaks in the Bigelows. We exchanged names, and I found she called herself the “Bionic Woman.” When I was curious about how she got the name, she moved her poncho to show her prosthetic leg and said she was hoping to be the first female amputee to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She told us about how she started and had been making progress slower than expected as a result of many setbacks.

She had decided to do a flip-flop thru-hike rather than a NoBo (northbound). At Glasgow, VA, about 780 miles from where she started at Springer Mountain, Georgia, worried that she wouldn’t be able to get to Mount Katahdin before the park closes and winter set in, she decided to head directly to Katahdin and then hike roughly 1,400 miles south to where she left off.

After talking with her some more, we all went to sleep as “hiker midnight” (most would just call it nightfall) was soon approaching. Morning came, and we went our separate ways and toward our separate destinations. Nine days later, while I was standing on the top of Mount Katahdin with a sense of disbelief that I had finally made it, the Bionic Woman still had a long way to go. I followed her on social media until she triumphantly made it to Glasgow on December 27th, 159 days after we met.