Update: Critics have questioned whether Kozel completed the hike. Read more here.
CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. -- When Stacey Kozel is not hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, people want to meet her.
“Well, best of luck to you. Best of luck,” said Diana Janzen, as she gave Kozel, who is from Ohio, a hug in a parking lot near the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks.
They had just met but Janzen learned enough of Kozel’s incredible story to realize she was talking with someone special.
Even people who do not talk with her can tell there's something up with the way Kozel walks, with the heavy metal braces and the stiff knees.
But many have no idea she's paralyzed from the waist down until she lets it slip.
“Because I’m paralyzed, I think maybe the healthier me might not have gotten through. Because I think I would have taken more chances,” she said with a laugh when asked about trekking through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
On Thursday she met Jai Ralls, who is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada heading south to Mexico. Kozel is going the other way.
“Well there's lots of animals up north. You'll enjoy it,” Ralls said.
Indeed she will.
Stacey Kozel is 42 years old. Her body has battled the autoimmune disease lupus since she was a teen. It flares up and damages nerves in her spinal column, she says. The last flare-up happened in 2014.
“Within a couple days I lost all mobility, even my arms. I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t lift my head up, I couldn’t do anything. It took like, two, three people to fight with my body because it was real tense, to get into a seated position and transfer me into a chair,” she said.
Kozel often uses a wheelchair at home. But for more than four months now it’s been just her and the braces and her trekking poles.
“I’m able to balance better. And the more I’m out on these trails, I continue to learn how to balance. These trekking poles help me a lot with my balance so I can really lean into something, like the tougher terrain. I really depend on the trekking poles and my arm and shoulder strength. But mostly everything’s coming from my arms,” she said.
Kozel started the PCT on March 28 on the Mexican border and expects to finish in September in British Columbia.
She is hiking alone but welcomes chances to socialize. In Oregon, someone from the Cascade Locks Ale House, which has a sign-in book just for PCT hikers, invited her to drop by and she did.
On the trail she's much slower than everyone else. She works at staying positive, focusing on what she's able to do, instead of what she's not.
“I try not to live there too long if I do go there," she said about negative thoughts. "I just, I think that it happens for a reason. And my faith is pretty important to me so I always look for the reasons why and you know, maybe this is part of my plan and I’m supposed to be out here meeting awesome people on the trail.”
And on she goes, refusing to accept the limitations her disease wants to impose, pushing her body until she collapses at night.
Conquering the Pacific Crest Trail, and much more, one difficult step at a time.