Stacey Kozel’s Second-Second Life

I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.  ~Joseph Campbell

Way back in the dim dawn of the virtual world there was a phenomenon known as Second Life. A beautiful, interactive virtual world populated with avatars of real-time others from all over the globe. And I was absolutely obsessed with it.

In Second Life I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could look the way I wanted to look, dance like a ballerina, party like a rockstar til all hours with no ill effects, and get a little kinky with a hot looking avatar person. For a little bit of real-life dough, I could buy a stunning piece of property, build and furnish my own home in one day, totally landscape the heck out of it the next. There were real-life interactions aplenty, but they existed behind a world of my own choosing. My fantasy life felt oh so real at times, as it did to so many others who often ended up forsaking real-life marriages, jobs, friends and family relationships to a virtual world of their preference.

 

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Stacey Kozel

Last week some members of a Facebook group that I have been a part of; the PCT Class of 2017; became obsessed as well. We sliced open and spent hours dissecting the second-second life of Stacey Kozel. In Stacey’s first second life she claimed to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) last year. In her second- second life; the one that captured our group’s fascination and, sometimes, fury; she claimed to have hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this year.

So, she took a hike, you might be thinking. What’s the point here?

The point is this: Stacey Kozel is paralyzed in both legs and has been since 2014. She can only walk with the aid of either stiff-legged braces (which do not bend at the knee,) or a set of electronic ones which she just received in December of 2015. One of her claims is that she soloed both trails, meaning that she did these trails absolutely alone, without anyone with her. At all. No one. (I emphasize this because it will be important later on.)

And she didn’t just claim to take a hike. She claimed to thru-hike two of the longest, most challenging thru-hikes you can traverse in this country, both over 2000 miles long.

Some of you might be scratching your heads here and thinking to yourselves, “Huh? Hike? Thru-hike? Is there a difference?” Well, by golly, there most certainly is!

The short answer to the question, “What is a thru-hike?” is: you hike with everything you need for your survival stuffed in a backpack. You hike day in and day out. For MONTHS!. Every few days you have the opportunity to get into a town or a hiker rest area (some may be at homes of those known as “trail angels”,) to re-supply on items that you need: food, shoes, gear. You might even get a shower and a nice bed to sleep in. And pizza! (Good lawd, let there be pizza!!) Then, you pack it all up in your pack, and you set off for a few more days. Up mountains, down mountains, around mountains. And sometimes miles and miles of desert. Over boulders, through rivers, across snowfields. In misty rain, drenching rain, whipping winds, scorching heat, life-sucking humidity. You spend about ten to twelve hours a day hiking, the rest is camp time: finding a “comfy” rock or log to sit on if you can…but mostly the ground. Crawling in and out and in and out of your tent. Re-hydrating something resembling food in your Ziploc baggie, although, if you are too exhausted you’ll just stuff a bunch of peanut butter into a tortilla, wolf it down and be done. You are constantly dealing with bugs you never knew existed and hoping you don’t meet up with the bear/cougars/snakes you absolutely know exist. Are we having fun yet?

So, back to Stacey and her claims of her completed thru-hikes.

 

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Stacey wearing her electronic C-braces

There are numerous videos showing her walking with the electronic pair of braces which she says she used to thru-hike the AT. You can find these videos online and watch her gait and pace for yourself. As you watch ask yourself: how can she climb boulders in those? Since these cannot get wet because they will short out, you may also ask yourself how she managed to make her way along the 2100+ miles of the wet and humid AT? Those questions are just for starters.

 

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Stacey wearing non-articulating (stiff-legged) braces

 

She claims to have hiked the PCT using stiff-legged braces, not her electronic ones. Now, remember, these do NOT have the ability to bend at the knee at all. One might now ask: how did she manage to get into her tent? How did she get across a river alone (remember…she claims she hiked with no one at all!) Oh! She also claims that a lot of her hiking was done in the dark of night, which requires that you just wear a single headlamp to illuminate the trail ahead. So, another question would be, how safe would that have been for someone barely able to walk who now is limited visually as to what is ahead on the trail?

Maybe you have never done more than a walk in the park yourself, but these questions stir some nigglings, don’t they?

So, last week up pops the question in the PCT Class of 2017 group asked by Donna Saufley, one of the most renowned trail angels from Hiker Heaven in California. The question is simple: Does anyone remember meeting Stacey Kozel on the trail this year?

(insert sounds of crickets chirping)

Within hours the group chatter and buzz has exploded as it becomes extremely clear that no one in this group who hiked this year saw her at any time, on or off the trail. Immediately many go to Stacey’s websites (she had three) to look for one of the most common items in almost every thru-hikers grab bag – the mountains of photos chronicling this monumental and life-changing time event. The only photos briefly available for viewing on her sites are the same ones from interviews posted on the web, and these photos show her in areas of both trails that anyone can reach with a car and a short walk. Hikers began to ask each other why she doesn’t have any photos from peaks of great import? Or selfies with other hikers or in camp?

Before the questions about her photos can continue, Stacey goes dark. Her websites all come down. She vanishes into the night. (Again…)

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So, our super sleuthy group begins a journey to examine and question every news article they can find on the internet. They sift and ponder and prod and poke.

And, as the hours fly past, still, there is not one single hiker who can attest to meeting her on the PCT this year. Not. A. One.

As evidence mounts up over the next couple of days; as reporters who did initial stories about Stacey, Enjoli Francis of ABC News and Sara Roth from station KGW in Portland,  join our group and write follow-up pieces; the consensus amongst the group is that Stacey Kozel never hiked a single mile of the PCT this year and, most likely, her claim of a full AT thru-hike is also false. (Links to the follow-up pieces: ABC report  Sara Roth’s article )

There did emerge one solid piece of actual hiking evidence. ESPN utilized the services of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Crag F. Walker, to follow Stacey as she attempted to summit Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus for the AT. This article and the photo essay turned out to be the one piece of solid evidence AGAINST either of Stacey’s claims. The math of the distance hiked over time simply did not support anything that Stacey reported. (Links to both the article and photo essay:  ESPN article      Photo essay by Craig F. Walker

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I am going to take a moment to settle myself into my armchair here and throw out a thought for your consideration.

WebMD has a very clear and concise definition of a condition known as Munchausen Syndrome. It states: “Munchausen syndrome is a factitious disorder, a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Munchausen syndrome is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties.” A struggle which goes far beyond hypochondria.

I believe that what we may be witnessing with Stacey may be some form of “reverse Munchausen syndrome” such that, instead of her affliction being one of someone who is healthy and believes they are unwell, she is someone with a disability who believes she has none. I think that, in her mind, she can climb mountains, ford streams, battle severe weather and reach the highest summits with no limitations. Just the way you can in Second Life.

I will keep speculating and say that she wanted to believe this about herself because she was, at one time, a person who may have been able to do these very things. The Lupus did not show up until she was nineteen years old. Before that, we might posit that she was an active, healthy young woman. She has indicated that she was very involved with sports in high school. She has indicated that the progression of the Lupus to the point of becoming a paraplegic is actually fairly recent. I imagine that it may have been nothing short of soul-crushing and this may have mentally pushed her over an edge.

When she received those electronic C-braces she was given one thing that may have been dwindling for her – hope. When life has been filled with despair and you are suddenly offered hope you will grasp at anything. She may have believed that these new devices would, indeed, allow her to get out of her wheelchair and climb mountains. Was this a promise offered to her by the manufacturer? Did she just assume this on her own? Who knows. But it may have been what initially motivated her to try. And, in trying, she may have realized very quickly that her new found hope was dashed. She was less limited in mobility than when she had to spend all her time in a wheelchair, but not to the point of participating in something she claims to have once loved….climbing around forests and mountains.

For this reason, I offer up a great deal of empathy. The closest experience I have to anything like this was tearing my meniscus in two places in August of 2015 and having surgery in December of the same year. Struggling to get my hiking body back from this has been low and much slower than anticipated. I have experienced my own rounds of deflating depression as I seem to progress with making miles but suddenly find that I have back-stepped, often for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.

So struggling against paralysis from a degenerative disease like Lupus is almost unfathomable to me. Where would I be mentally if this situation struck me down? What stories would I need to tell myself about my life to make it through, day after day? Would I find that sitting online, in my virtual second life; dancing, partying, and climbing mountains; would be the only way to feel “normal” again? And, when I was done, would saying to others, “Yes, today I climbed a mountain!” be a complete lie?

After thorough analysis within the group, it is clear that Stacey lied about her achievements.Not just once, but twice. Not just to herself and her friends and family, but nationally via the news media. She profited from speaking events as a representative of both the long distance hiking community and as a representative for those with Lupus and other disabilities who may have followed her story and believed that they, too, can now dream of doing the things they could not before. In the case of the latter, the false hope she offered up is unconscionable. As to the former, Stacey can bank on the fact that the hiking community will be watching every step she tries to take from here on out and will call her out every time.

She believed so deeply in her second-second life that her boundaries and distinctions between real and unreal, fact and fiction, simply disappeared. Now there are some real-life consequences that are raining down on her that she would never find in Second Life.

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The initial momentum and energy of this unfolding had me riveted. My emotions whirled around between shock, disbelief, amazement, and a protective anger fueled by my love of hiking and long-distance hikers. I had just spent a whole week prior in Packwood, WA driving 280 mile round trips helping as many PCTers as I could get from White Pass to Snoqualmie Pass because the trail was closed in-between. I cheered for them to complete their dream of getting to Canada. The PCT was brutal this year, with three known hikers having lost their lives. Many hikers I encountered were looking more beaten down and wearier than I had seen them look in years past. Stacey’s fairy tale not only dishonored the memory of those who lost their lives, but her lies cheapened the story of those who struggled unbelievably amidst this year of major obstacles.

The din within the group has dimmed a bit now. I still read through the postings but they aren’t as flurried and the truth has been revealed enough to satisfy most of us.

As the days since this firestorm has passed, I have often found myself lowering my eyes and looking at my own, two, basically healthy legs and can’t help wondering about Stacey’s inner workings and the feelings which comprise her deeply injured life.

And I am so grateful that within my own, common, basic real life I can find my mountains with my own two feet and pause along any trail long enough to “actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kris
    Sep 29, 2017 @ 12:48:47

    I’m going to go out on a limb, in question whether she is really paralyzed? Maybe she had a flare up of lupus and got very weak, and started to like the sympathy that she got from that episode. And with the psychiatric illness Munchhausen, you often exaggerate your symptoms for more sympathy. What ever the case, I think she is a very sad soul

    Reply

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