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Trekking Against Trafficking


Last year, Micah Pexa (MA, Asian Studies, 2005; MA, Second Language Studies, 2012) walked the 2109.9 miles of the Appalachian Trail to raise money for Friends of Thai Daughters (FTD), a non-profit organization which fights child trafficking in Northern Thailand. He recorded his entire journey in blog form, which you can access at his website Trekking Against Trafficking.

Read on to learn how this UHM alum found himself on one of the longest trails in North America.

Out on the Appalachian Trial

Travel and Service

Twenty years ago, Micah was traveling across South Asia. He was in his early twenties, had dropped out of college, and was facing uncertainty about his future and career. Traveling was a way to escape those concerns. But while visiting an ashram in India, he was told to re-evaluate the purpose of his travel and to consider focusing on service to others. “That kind of blew my mind,” he says. This new perspective would have a hand in shaping the rest of his life.

From India, he hiked his way through the Himalayas, where he met a couple at an Everest base camp who told him about opportunities to teach English in Asia. “Teaching English” was a completely new concept to Micah, but he realized that this could be his chance to give back to others while traveling abroad.

Thailand

In 1998, Micah was fresh out of the Himalayas, backpacking through Thailand and looking for an English teaching job. He remembers picking a book off the shelf in the first guest house he stayed in. It was by a couple who had written about their experience thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. (The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines thru-hiking as completing the entire trail in 12 months or less.) While reading the book, the call to focus on serving others rang in his head, and he remembers thinking that the Appalachian Trail could be done as a charity hike. But without a charity in mind, the idea sank down to simmer for the next seventeen years.

While in Thailand that first time, he befriended two women, one a waitress and the other an office worker at the school he taught at. He soon left Thailand to go back to school, and returned three years later in 2001 on a Thai language study abroad program through UH Mānoa. He reconnected with his friends, both of whom had started working in bars, singing and drinking with male clients. This line of work was more lucrative than what they had been doing, but their mental and emotional wellbeing had suffered. Women who end up working in the nightlife scene often face pressure to begin prostituting themselves. The populations most vulnerable to being trafficked are foreign migrants, ethnic minorities (such as the Thai hill tribes), and stateless persons, due to “language barriers, a lack of access to social and official safety nets, and low economic and social status”.

What had happened to his friends shook and depressed Micah. And so he began looking for organizations that were fighting human trafficking.

Micah earned his BA in English as a Second Language in 2002, his MA in Southeast Asian Studies in 2005, and his second MA in Second Language Studies in 2012, all from UHM. Interspersed were stints in Thailand as a volunteer or student of Thai language. He was a Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) awardee for the 2004-2005 academic year. 

Throughout his studies he returned to Thailand several times, never forgetting his mission to find a way to help at-risk individuals avoid human trafficking traps. In 2003, he volunteered for two months with DEPDC, an NGO working in Northern Thailand to combat human trafficking by providing at-risk children with safe shelter and education. Micah was deeply impressed by their model of using education to intervene in these children’s lives in a positive way.

Friends of Thai Daughters

Then, in 2009, he connected with the non-profit organization Friends of Thai Daughters (FTD). FTD’s mission and model was similar to that of DEPDC, providing education, safe shelter, and emotional support to girls at risk of being trafficked in Northern Thailand. The idea for FTD was conceived in 2002 by co-founders Jane McBride and Patricia Zinkowski. They were travelling in Thailand when they came across a group of fifteen girls fending for themselves in an abandoned school building; many of the girls were stateless, lacking ID and thus vulnerable to traffickers. The solution, FTD’s website recalls, was to “provide them with safe shelter, education and support”, until the organization was officially incorporated as a non-profit. Now, Friends of Thai Daughters runs two Sunflower Houses. At each house, up to fifteen girls live with a house mother in a safe and loving environment, with their educations funded up through the university level. FTD has plans to establish three more Sunflower Houses in the Golden Triangle region.

Micah and the girls from the Chiang Khong house of Friends of Thai Daughters

Micah volunteered with Friends of Thai Daughters for six months as an English teacher, researcher, and program assistant. Afterward, he remained in touch and donated to the organization regularly. But as time passed, he began to wonder how he could do more.

Lighting the Fire

Eventually, six years went by since the last time he had been to Thailand to visit Friends of Thai Daughters, although he had been promising to visit. In 2015, he was working in Saudi Arabia to pay off student loans. Thailand wasn’t too far away, and on his first vacation he finally had the time and money to go back and see everyone. He visited FTD’s new Chiang Rai Sunflower House and saw how the operation had expanded to being able to help even more girls. “I left there with my soul on fire,” he puts it. He had still been donating every month, but now he wanted to do something bigger.

The pieces began to fall together on the flight back to Saudi Arabia. The onboard entertainment included Wild (2014), a movie about a young woman who hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail as a means to get her life back on track. Watching it pulled the idea of a charity thru-hike right back to the surface of Micah’s brain. And this time he had a beneficiary in mind: Friends of Thai Daughters.

At the Southern starting point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, March 2018

Micah spent the next few years working in Saudi Arabia, saving money and intensively researching North American long-distance trails. There are three major ones in the US: The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and the Appalachian Trail (AT). Devising a pros-and-cons list between the PCT and AT, he decided on the AT, and poured his time and energy into reading blogs and books, watching documentaries, and learning everything he could about the culture of the AT and how people went about thru-hiking it. He knew that online tools would help him easily organize donations, and he set up a website and a GoFundMe page. 100% of the donations would go to FTD, as he had saved enough money to completely fund his trek. Finally, in 2018, when he decided he was prepared enough, he left Saudi Arabia, picked up his gear, and set out on the trail. He picked the trail name Imua, from the Hawaiian phrase “i mua”, which can be interpreted as “to move forward with strong spirit”.

Out on the Trail

The Appalachian Trail in its entirety runs 2,190.9 miles across 14 states. The southern terminus is Springer Mountain, Georgia and the northern terminus is Mount Katahdin, Maine. It takes the average thru-hiker 5 to 7 months to complete the trek. About 4,000 people attempt it every year and only about 25% of them will finish the trail in one trip. It’s hard to fathom the trek in its entirety, Micah says. More often memories of trail towns, fellow hikers, and different legs of the journey will bubble up as he talks about it with people, and social media is reminding him of a lot of things he’s forgotten about. Facebook Memories are showing him where he was a year ago — which was, between March and October, out on the trail.

Some hikers prefer to stay out on the trail, camping most of the time and keeping resupply excursions as short as possible. Others stay out on the trail out of necessity. The latter are usually younger hikers in their early twenties who, having scraped together the money for gear and travel, can’t afford trips into town to stay at motels or eat at restaurants. This places mental and physical stress on the hikers and along with the very real possibility of running out of money and time, contributes to the high non-completion rate.

Micah says he was fortunate to be able to prepare, save enough money, and take enough time off to do the trail at a pace that kept him in a healthy state of mind. He kept to a weekday/weekend schedule, hiking for 5 days and taking the weekend off to come into town, access Wi-Fi, resupply, and sleep in a real bed. Getting into town was also part of the experience — he had never been to the East Coast, so everything was new, and getting off trail, exploring new towns, and seeing how people lived was something he looked forward to.

He wrote a blog post every night and would publish the posts when he got to the next trail town on the weekend. These blogs and associated social media posts helped donors to follow along on the journey. Initially, he brought along a tablet with a keyboard to facilitate blog writing, thinking that at the end of the day he could also read some e-books. This turned out to be unrealistic; by the time the day drew to a close there wasn’t much time left for reading, and the tablet was extra weight. He switched to tapping out blog posts on his mobile phone.

The Flip Flop

There are three ways to hike the AT: Northbound, Southbound, and Flip Flop. Flip flop hikers do the trail in whatever segment order makes sense to them, either starting at a terminus or somewhere in the middle. The official Appalachian Trail website explains that flip floppers are able to choose the level of difficulty of terrain they start with, resupply more frequently, avoid crowds, and follow good weather conditions.

Micah’s journey started at the southern terminus in Georgia, but along his northbound journey he was called out to a Friends of Thai Daughters fundraiser in Maine. Leaving the trail in New York, he met a friend and they drove up to the fundraiser together; there, Micah spoke about the hike and his involvement with FTD. After spending a few days in Maine, he decided to turn his trek into a flip flop hike, which meant he would start from the northern terminus, Mount Katahdin in Maine, and hike back down to where he had left the trail in New York. Every year in the middle of October, Katahdin is closed to hikers due to weather, and making that deadline is a constant underlying anxiety for many. If he flip flopped, it would mean being able to cross Katahdin well ahead of the close date.

Micah on top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus of the AT, holding the FTD flag

Hitting a Wall

Micah got back on trail in Maine, and as he worked his way back down the trail he began to run into hikers he’d met earlier on, who had all started around the same time and were hiking at a similar pace. Catching up with the “tramily” (trail family) he’d left behind by going up to Maine was a joyful experience. However, one thing he had not accounted for, was the point at which he had passed a majority of the hikers and ended up, for the most part, alone on the trail.

The northern part of the AT is the hardest part of the trail, with the most extreme elevation gain, rocky trails, and tough stream crossings. The major problem Micah ran into was miserable weather: it was getting cold, and rainy, and the trail had turned to mud. He hit a low moment about 200 miles from the finish line where he decided that he had had enough. This moment is something most hikers have to face. He thought: “I’m just going to make the 2000 mile mark and hike to the next town, I’m done; I’ve raised enough money and 2000 is a nice round number”.

Earlier on the trail, Micah had met a Thai woman who was going by the trail name Bear Claw. She was hiking on a similar schedule, spending 4 or 5 days on trail and then taking a couple days off to meet up with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Her family was following her trek in a camper van and meeting her at waypoints, all the way up to the finish line. She had finished before Micah, and he thinks she saw his blog at the point at which he hit the wall.

Pushing to Finish

The trail is approximately 5 million steps long (2190.9 miles).

From the point at which he decided he was done, it took a couple of days to make it to town, where he took another couple of days off to reassess. “Thankfully,” he says, “I decided to finish”. At that point, Bear Claw’s husband messaged Micah on Instagram to say that she missed the trail and was thinking about getting back on. Even after trekking nearly 2200 miles, she wanted to hike some more; and he thinks part of it was that she wanted to help him finish because she knew he was doing it for Thailand, for charity. The three met in a town in Vermont, talked, and they decided Bear Claw would join Micah for the last 100 miles, or about another week and a half of hiking. They hiked the last segment, sometimes together and sometimes separately, but for Micah, just knowing there was another person out there to check in with at the end of every day made all the difference in the world. Not only that, but the way the cosmos aligned such that he finished the trail with a Thai woman, while doing the hike for women in Thailand, was pure serendipity. On their last night on the trail, he had his final dinner — freeze dried Pad Thai.

Micah finished the trail on October 21, 2018. It had taken him just over seven months, across 14 states, and he had raised $21,040 for Friends of Thai Daughters.

Post-Trail and the Future

Post-trail depression is not uncommon in thru-hikers. It is difficult to go from having a daily, achievable goal of a certain number of miles to hike, to the gap of inactivity created by leaving the trail behind, and abandoning this lifestyle you have lived for 5 to 7 months. Micah says he didn’t really experience that, though. He kept busy post-trail, first traveling West across the US to visit family and friends, and then flying out to visit the girls at Friends of Thai Daughters in December, then again in the spring and summer to serve as a volunteer coordinator and run an English summer camp.

Micah with co-founder Jane McBride (far left) and some of the girls at an FTD fundraiser in Bangkok in May 2019
A thank you from the FTD girls at the end of the Summer 2019 English Camp

He says he has, in a sense, mentally buried the trek, because the sheer immensity of two thousand miles is impossible to fathom in its entirety. Even on the trail he made sure to focus on one day at a time, which while still challenging — hiking 5 days on/2 days off averages to 13 miles a day (not accounting for extra days off) — felt achievable. To think of the trail as a whole, while out there walking it, would have too easily caused a slide into doubt that he’d finish.

He’s done some small hikes since then, including Maunaloa on Hawaiʻi Island. People ask if he’s planning to do the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail next. Some of the hikers he met on the Appalachian Trail last year are on one of those other trails this year. (People who thru-hike all three are called triple-crowners.) Micah doesn’t have plans at the moment to attempt the other two trails — circumstances happened to align in a special way in order for him to be able to hike the AT. Right now, he’s thinking of planning for retirement.

This August, Micah started as an English teacher at Kalākaua Middle School in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. He says he’s excited to start working with the students. “There’s some nerves and some trepidation,” he says. “I’m excited to get my hands in the dirt and get down there with the people that need the help.” He knows it’ll be challenging, “but it is what it is. You take it a day at a time.” Just like out on the trail.

McAfee’s Knob, Virginia

End

If you want to donate to or get involved with Friends of Thai Daughters, you can do that here.

Direct quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

All photos provided by Micah Pexa.

Written by Diliaur Tellei.