Epilepsy Won’t Stop Long Distance Hiker from New Zealand’s Challenging Te Araroa Trail

By Richard Rhinehart

Frenchtown, New Jersey, November 5, 2013 – Patrick Shannon won’t allow a medical condition to keep him from his love of long-distance hiking. Though he experiences epileptic tonic-clonic seizures, Shannon and his wife Sue will walk New Zealand’s newly-opened 3,000-kilometer Te Araroa Trail this winter. The five month hike will in part benefit non-profit World T.E.A.M. Sports.

Patrick and Sue Shannon.

Patrick and Sue Shannon on a recent hike. Photograph courtesy Patrick Shannon.

“New Zealand is always a place I’ve wanted to go,” explained Shannon from his New Jersey home in Frenchtown, on the east bank of the Delaware River. “What is unique about this trail is that it is not really a wilderness trail like most of the long distance hikes in the world today. It makes a point of going through towns in addition to its long stretches of more remote wilderness. What attracts me to that is I also get to explore the culture of New Zealand along with its amazing landscape.”

A veteran long-distance hiker who successfully completed a solo hike of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2003, Shannon is aware of precautions epileptic persons must take. “I count myself as extremely lucky that I always know my seizures are coming on,” said Shannon. “This allows me to get into a safe position prior to seizing and thus allows me to safely partake in many activities I may not be able to do otherwise, including long-distance hiking.”

Still, Shannon finds that life with epilepsy can be challenging, particularly when he was young. “I was different,” he recalls. “I had different needs from most kids – considerations that had to be taken that most didn’t need to worry about.”

Growing up in Mahopac, New York and Belle Mead, New Jersey, Shannon said he had “amazing” support from his parents, teachers and coaches “that taught me not to use my epilepsy as a crutch or to be embarrassed by it. They encouraged me to have the confidence to pursue my dreams even when others told me that wouldn’t be possible for people like me. Without those supports I would likely never have attempted the Pacific Crest Trail and would not be going on this trek now.”

Meeting his wife Sue at the clinic where they are employed, Shannon notes that “both of us grew up loving the outdoors.” Exploring the woodlands and learning orienteering in upstate New York, Shannon found he appreciated outdoor activities. Sue spent her summers “exploring the streams by her home looking for fossils and going on camping trips with her Girl Scout troop.”

Sue and Patrick Shannon in Yosemite National Park.

Sue and Patrick Shannon during their visit to California’s Yosemite National Park. Photograph courtesy Patrick Shannon.

Exploring together national parks such as Yellowstone, Zion and Arcadia, Pat and Sue also hiked the John Muir Trail through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. The couple also undertook a multi-day canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. “Each of these adventures has meant so much to us for so many different reasons. They have allowed us to explore ourselves as individuals, as a couple, and the strong spiritual connection with nature we both feel,” said Shannon.

With the support of family and friends, the recently married couple will travel to New Zealand’s northern island in the coming week to begin their lengthy trek to the southern tip of the southern island. The Te Araroa Trail, opened to hikers in December 2011, traverses varied terrain from forests to alpine peaks to volcanoes, beaches and cities. Most “trampers” as New Zealanders call the long-distance hikers, take from 100 to 150 days to traverse the trail.

“No matter how much planning you do, you are still going to run into situations you are not anticipating,” Shannon explains. “Being a big planner myself, this was a challenging lesson to learn, but it is during these times that you rely on your wilderness skills and your ingenuity.”

Calling their honeymoon hike “Journey Beyond Limits,” Pat and Sue’s five month tramp can be followed online through their official website. “We will be updating our journals and galleries every few days as we reach towns that have Wi-Fi,” Shannon said.

As a part of their hike, Pat and Sue will be raising money to benefit World T.E.A.M. Sports and the non-profit’s inclusive outdoor sporting programs for disabled and able-bodied persons. “Having grown up with epilepsy and having seen first-hand the limitations perfectly well-meaning role models put on people with disabilities based on their stigmas of what such an individual is capable of, I wanted to send the message to all individuals and particularly young people, to have the courage to reach beyond those limits,” said Shannon. “I see this journey as an example and hope it inspires other disabled individuals to pursue their dreams as well, whatever they may be.”

Considering the hike along the Te Araroa Trail as a journey of a lifetime, Shannon is looking forward to getting out on the trail with his wife. “It is a chance to experience a simpler life where our focus can entirely be on each other and the beautiful world around us. It is also a chance to challenge ourselves as a couple and to hopefully make our bond that much stronger by overcoming these challenges. And of course, along with all these deeper reasons, it is simply a chance to explore an absolutely gorgeous country and to experience the culture New Zealand has to offer.”

Richard Rhinehart serves as Director of Communications for World T.E.A.M. Sports.

Patrick and Sue Shannon on a mountain hike.

Patrick and Sue Shannon are experienced long-distance hikers. Photograph courtesy Patrick Shannon.