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Farewell, Robin

I never expected to feel this much sadness at the death of someone I didn’t know. I never expected to feel compelled to write about the death of someone I didn’t know when so many others have already done so, eloquently and with far more depth than I can muster.

But here I am, writing. I have to write something, because Robin Williams killed himself, and that’s something I twice tried to do.

I have lived with depression off and on since high school. For about a decade, from my late teens until my late twenties, the depression was mostly on. It was at its worst in the years right after college, when it ruled my life. I was unemployed, broke, single, with no prospects that I could discern. Meanwhile, college classmates were writing bestselling books and making boatloads of money and doing groundbreaking doctoral research. Everyone, it seemed, was wildly successful; everyone had something to offer the world. Everyone had love. Everyone except for me: that was what I believed.

Years of this hopelessness beat me down. I tried to keep going, not to give up hope, but the pain was just too bad. Eventually, I gave in to it. 

When I tried to kill myself the first time, I meant it. Four and a half years later, when I tried again, I meant it. I wanted to die. Both times, my failure made me hate myself even more. Months passed as I bided my time, waiting to make a third and final try, but I couldn’t do it.

… And then, not long after that, things started getting better.

Which brings me back to Robin Williams. Throughout those shadowed years, he was someone I looked to as a shining light, a model of someone who could bring joy to the world despite struggling with his own personal demons of depression and addiction. His films were sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful, but always honest.

Understand that Robin Williams, the actor, was a touchstone for my generation as we grew up. He became famous around the same time I was born, and was always a part of the scenery of my young life. I didn’t really pay attention to him (as a kid, I never saw the appeal of “Mork and Mindy”) until I was in middle school and Dead Poets Society came out. I was a nerdy social misfit, and that movie called to me in ways I didn’t fully understand until much later. As an idealistic twelve-year-old I raged at the injustice of it all. I wept at the tragedy of the ending, how a lack of understanding and compassion between characters allowed disaster to unfold.

A few years later, in high school, I found myself watching Aladdin on video, over and over and over again. I knew most of the genie’s lines by heart (a favorite: “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS! Itty-bitty living space”). I mimicked his voices when no one was around to laugh at me. Soon after that, I joined the rest of the nation in laughter and delight with Mrs. Doubtfire. Around the same time, my brother introduced me to Good Morning Vietnam. And not long after that, as a senior in high school, my English teacher showed us a very different Robin Williams in Seize the Day, an overlooked drama based on a novel by Saul Bellow.

My formative years were some of Robin Williams’s most prolific. Of course he left a mark on me.

As I got older, I discovered that Robin Williams, the offscreen person, was a man I admired. I moved to San Francisco in 1999 and stories of him being a normal guy doing good were everywhere in that fogbound city. His name was on an adopt-a-highway sign on Highway 101, over near Candlestick Park. I assumed that meant that Williams sent his staff out once a month to clean up alongside the freeway, but no, my cab-driver boyfriend at the time said, Robin Williams himself would go out there to pick up other people’s trash on the side of the road.

Robin Williams stood in line with me and hundreds of other grief-stricken, bewildered San Franciscans on 9/11 as we waited to donate blood, imaging that there were hundreds or thousands of people wounded and bleeding in the streets of New York and northern Virginia. (There weren’t. But we didn’t know that until later.) He was wearing camouflage pants. Solemn, patient, and quiet, he didn’t do anything to draw the attention of the staff. After a while, they noticed he was there, and they whisked him out of line.

But I didn’t forget that he had stood there, just like the rest of us.

There have been several suicides in my little world within the past few months. A close friend’s cousin. A guy from my high school class. Now, a world-famous and much-loved comedian. All laid low, in the end, by inner torments we cannot begin to understand.

How do you deal with depression? There are probably as many possible answers to that as there are depressed people. To some extent, you put your head down, grit your teeth, and plow through it. But that’s incredibly tiring. And the thing that scares me the most is that you can get through it–you can beat it–but you never know if it’s gone for good.

What a Month: From the Appalachian Trail to the Joshua Tree Desert

Instead of being fully present on the trail, in the total immersion in nature that I had enjoyed so far, I found my thoughts drifting ahead and growing chaotic. My busy brain abandoned the beautiful simplicity of trail life before my body did.

Read more

Off the Trail, on to the Next Stage of My Life

It’s strange, watching the landscape roll by without having to work for it.

I write this from a bus, hurtling down a highway from Blacksburg to Roanoke, VA. I am borne passively along in a cushioned seat, my pack–constant companion of these last two months–occupying the spot next to me. I’m not using my muscles, and the views are spooling past much too fast.

I have left the Appalachian Trail after 660 miles of foot travel. I have received the job offer I’ve been working towards for the last right years: a permanent position at Joshua Tree National Park with more responsibility and more room for creativity than I’ve had before. It’s a phenomenal opportunity, an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I feel conflicted, of course. Accepting the job was the obvious right choice. The AT will be still be there when I am again ready for it. But that doesn’t change the fact that I have made the conscious decision to relinquish a long-held dream. Even though getting off the AT allows me to attain another goal I’ve been chasing for a long time, it is still bittersweet.

I’m filled with questions. Will I be able to readjust to “normal life” (whatever that means)? My time on the trail reminded me of something I have long known: significant time active in the outdoors is crucial for my physical and mental wellbeing. Will I be able to stay active enough, get enough time outside, to avert the blues? How will I come to feel about the desert environment that is to be my new home?

I’m eager to re-join the California Native Plant Society and get involved with the California Master Naturalist program. I think I’ll have to start training for a half-marathon, at least; it would be fun to do another full, too.

Regardless of what the future holds for me, I am grateful to have had the chance to spend these past two months on the trail. In the woods, I have delighted in watching spring unfurl its leafy self across the land, rediscovered a deep sense of self, and seen many acts of kindness and caring from strangers.

I may not have achieved my thruhiking goal, but the memories I have formed are ones I will always cherish. Thank you to all of you for being part of my journey.

Ask a Thruhiker: Your Questions Answered

From Teri, via Facebook:
Is it easier or more difficult than you imagined?

Overall, I would say the trail has been easier than I expected. I don’t mean physically so much as mentally: I really thought I was going to have to cope with at least a couple of major crises of purpose. You know, “Why am I doing this? What’s the point of all this?”

I haven’t experienced that at all. Perhaps that’s because I came into this undertaking with a very clear set of goals and expectations for myself.

That’s not to say I haven’t fallen into mental traps every now and then, but for the most part, I think I’ve handled them well. I mix up alone time and social time, and I’m not afraid to head for a hostel or turn to off-trail friends when I need a pick-me-up.

Physically, the trail is definitely challenging. It’s constantly going up and down and up again. The two biggest surprises there have been how tough the descents are on the body, and how arduous even a fairly level stretch of trail can be if the footing is rocky. But it’s been incredibly rewarding to witness the body growing stronger!

From Tim, via Facebook:
Do you still have toenails?

Yes, I’m pleased to report that I do! My feet have actually held up remarkably well, with few blisters.

From Tom, via Facebook:
What’s your strangest skin condition?

Strangest … that would have to be what I’ve dubbed “thruhiker hand.” I have tan lines on the back of my hands from the straps of my hiking poles, and I’ve developed calluses and new wrinkles on my palms, again from the poles.

From Marina, via Facebook:
What’s the most annoying song that you sing when you are hiking?

Ha! Annoying to me, or to others? No, I don’t generally sing aloud.

The most annoying songs are the ones that remain stuck in my head for multiple days, despite my not knowing the words! The best example of this is that “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. I know two lines of that damn song and I had them on repeat in my head for a solid three days.

And now I’ve gone and gotten it stuck in my head again. Sigh.

From @halfmoonmama, via Twitter: How do you deal w/mishaps throwing you off schedule? Extra miles another day, or accounted for when initially planning hike?

Generally speaking, I am not tightly bound to a schedule, so it doesn’t matter! This has been one of the delights of the trail – enjoying the freedom and flexibility to do whatever I want on any given day. On a couple of days, that has turned out to mean being very lazy, staying in my tent until 9 am or even later. On other days, though, I’ve felt strong and the terrain has flowed by beneath my feet, and I’ve covered many more miles than I expected.

Before my hike, I drafted out a rough itinerary for the first six weeks or so. I built in a few rest days, which also served as a cushion in case of delays. Now that I’ve passed beyond the bounds of that initial schedule, I’m essentially just estimating my location up to a month in advance based on my expected weekly mileage. Over the course of a week, those day-to-day blips balance themselves out nicely.

I did have a few specific time constraints during the first few weeks on the trail. A friend came out to hike with me for the first week, and we had to get him on a bus on time. Another friend flew out from Chicago to join me for the a Smokies, so I had to meet her on the planned day. Oddly, it was a bit of a transition after the Smokies to go from scheduled to flexible! It took several days for me to adjust to not having a specific plan for each day.

From Sam, via Facebook:
How many other women have you seen?

At the start of the trail in Georgia, there were more women than I expected, but our ranks seem to be dwindling.

My rough estimate at Springer Mountain and in the first few days of the hike was that about 40% of the people starting out were women. This was a pleasant surprise. My backcountry experiences in the western national parks had led me to believe that less than 5% of overnight hikers are female. In the West, too, it was rare to see a solo woman in the backcountry, or a group that was all women.

Here on the AT, there were a decent number of solo female hikers at the start, but I haven’t seen many in the past couple of weeks. I don’t know if I just happen to be in a mostly-male bubble right now, or if the women have dropped off the trail.

I would be very interested to see stats on this, rather than just giving my highly subjective impressions.

From Christine and Pei, via Facebook:
What would you say is the age range of the hikers you’ve encountered?

The thruhikers I’ve met personally have ranged from 9 to 74. The young kids were a bit of a surprise, but there are at least three different families out on the trail. The parents seem to be doing some homeschooling as they go.

The majority of hikers, though, are either in their early to mid 20s or are old enough to have retired (though many must have taken a pretty early retirement). There have been very few other hikers in their 30s. I can’t say that was a surprise: our socioeconomic system makes it hard for normal people to take so much time away at this point in life. I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do this.

From Tom, via Facebook:
How remote are you? After years of living in Montana, I pretty much think of everything east of the Mississippi as urban.

I’m not as remote as I feel, that’s for sure. Most of the time that I’ve been on the trail, I’ve felt nice and secure in the illusion that I’m way off in the woods. The thick deciduous forests of the east help with this because hour sight lines just don’t extend all that far. But I had a bit of a rude awakening when I stayed with a friend in Roan Mountain, TN. The AT makes a big loop around there, and it turned out that I spent four days hiking and was never once more than a few miles from his house! Trail miles are not the same as straight-line miles, though.

Ultimately, it varies. Overall, they say, the AT crosses a road about once every four miles. Yellowstone or any of the other vast western wildernesses, it is not, but it still feels like legitimate backcountry. Most of the time.

Another from Tom, via Facebook:
I’m also curious about how the whole hiker culture works. You all come back with names and life long friends – shouldn’t you pretty much be alone out there?

Not on the AT! You can hike alone for lovely, long stretches, but it isn’t solitude in the same way that I have experienced on, say, the Two Ocean Plateau in Yellowstone, where you can feel pretty confident there is no one else around for miles.

The trail is downright busy in Georgia if you start in peak thruhike season, as I did. I knew there would be a lot of other hikers, but I wasn’t really prepared for how that would feel. But now that I’ve hiked several hundred miles, the crowds have thinned out nicely, and peace and quiet sent hard to find.

From @AaronBatesPhoto, via Twitter:
How has being a Ranger prepared you for the thru-hike and what made you want to take this challenge?

Being a park ranger, I have often thought, isn’t a job so much as it is a lifestyle. The parks that I’ve worked in (Yellowstone, Badlands, Big Bend) have been vast and remote, and those of us living there tended to spend our free time out exploring. Though I had done some backpacking before I started working in parks, I have grown tremendously in experience and confidence as a result of all the trips I’ve done by myself and with friends.

It probably also helps that I’ve taught others about safe, Leave No Trace hiking skills while leading groups in Yellowstone. Though the park unfortunately doesn’t offer full-day, ranger-guided hikes any longer, I got to lead many of those trips over the course of several seasons. We would do things like have the group act out bear encounters (kids love being the bear!) to think about different scenarios that a hiker might encounter.

Really, though, it was a couple of experiences in grad school that made me realize I was entirely capable of thruhiking. First, I did my master’s project research on alpine plants in a wilderness area in Sequoia National Park, living for extended periods in the high country. That reassured me that I could be out for long periods and still enjoy it. Second, I trained for a marathon while in my final semester of school. Successfully completing that months-long effort involving a planned physical activity just about every day made me realize that yes, I really did have the stick-to-it-ness necessary to complete this kind of undertaking.

From Susan, via Facebook:
Is there a stinkiness index with which to analyze thru hikers?

It’d be a fun project to create one! I definitely notice the people who are all fresh and clean from a town stop. I think the opposite end of the spectrum is when I start to feel ingrained with oils and sweat and dirt, and when I catch a whiff of something gross that turns out to be me!

From Deanna, via my blog:
I have a somewhat personal question, so of course feel free not to answer. But I’m curious how this particular hike has been affecting your mental health, in comparison to other trips you’ve been on. Happy trails!

Being on the trail has worked wonders for my mental health. 2013 was, bluntly, a kind of crap year for me, and I failed to do the things to help myself that I really needed to. Spending serious time outdoors has always been one of those things that helps. Being physically active is another. For most of 2013, I was an indoors and inactive, and it was bad for me both mentally and physically.

So being outside and active every day has been a much-needed reset to my system. It’s tough to compare this trip to others–it’s a different order of magnitude, if you will. But I’ve always found backcountry trips to be rejuvenating to the spirit, even when they’re only quick weekend jaunts; this is like that, only more so!

As one hiker said about a week ago, when we were hunkered down in a trailside shelter, dodging a snowstorm: “Well, a bad day on the trail still beats a good day in an office.”

From Teri, via Facebook:
Is there one item you wished you had packed? What can you not live without (besides the basics) on the trail?

There isn’t anything that I brought that I haven’t needed (except some of the items in my first aid kit, thankfully), and I haven’t really needed anything that I didn’t bring. It’s interesting to see the gear choices other hikers make–some of the ultralighters travel without a sleeping pad, for instance. As a side sleeper with broad hips, skipping the sleeping pad simply not an option for me.

The one thing I’m carrying that isn’t “standard issue” is my Exped AirPillow. I bought it in 2011 and have found it greatly improves my backcountry sleep. It packs down smaller than my fist and is worth every one of its 3 ounces.

From Frank, via Facebook:
What type of pack do you have and how would you rate it so far?

I am currently carrying one of the heaviest packs on the trail, a Gregory Petit Dru Pro. The thing weighs in at over 7 pounds before I even put any gear in it! (For reference, the thruhiker pack of choice is an Osprey that weighs around 3.5 or 4 lbs.) It’s bigger than I really need and, now that I’ve swapped out my warmer gear for my summer stuff, I’ll be downsizing into my smaller pack. That one is also a Gregory, a Deva 60.

Many thruhikers buy gear specifically for the AT. I already had everything. Rather than re-outfit myself with equipment optimized for long-distance hiking, where weight really does start to matter more, I decided to save money and use what I had. In doing so, I chose to sacrifice a little bit of speed and daily mileage. I remain comfortable with that decision. My pack is durable and it fits me great.

From Alice, via Facebook:
Are there any ghost stories on the AT?

There certainly are a few true-life horror stories that get shared around, like the lovely waterfall where a father and son drowned a few years ago, or a pond where some poor guy hiked 20+ miles, went for a swim, got leg cramps, and died.

The closest thing to a ghost story that I’ve come across so far had to do with a young woman who was hacked to death with a hatchet in the Vandeventer Shelter in Tennessee. I of course learned about this the morning after sleeping in that shelter! The structure made weird banging noises in the night. Very creepy, in retrospect.

And, in closing, from Dan, via Facebook:
Are there any things that duct tape cannot be used for?


But what they are, I don’t know.

Happy trails!

Curious About Thruhiker Life?

I’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for six weeks, and have passed the 500-mile mark. Are you curious about what life is like for me and the other thruhikers out here? I will write a blog post answering your questions.

Ask anything you like in the comments below or by tweeting @RangerCathy, #AskAThruhiker. Be prepared to wait a week or two for my response – I don’t have many good opportunities to write while I’m on the trail!

Right before starting my hike, I posted a thruhike FAQ here. If you know you have something you want to ask but aren’t sure what it is, that might spark some ideas.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Blogging from the Trail: Harder than Expected

Well, I’ve been on the trail for six weeks now, and I’ve written only two blog posts! It turns out that thruhiking doesn’t actually leave very much time for writing. I wake up in the morning, eat, get water, pack up camp, walk all day, make camp, cook dinner, and go to bed. I write in my (real, physical) journal once I’m tucked in, then fall asleep. The next day, it’s the same thing all over again.

Even on those days when I’m in town, I’m surprisingly busy. There are lots of chores to do. I usually need to hustle over to the post office before closing time to pick up a package or two. Shower, food, and laundry all have to be dealt with. Family and friends like to hear from me occasionally, so there are some phone calls and messages to exchange. By the time I’ve done all that, there’s precious time left over for the blog.

So, quick trip report: I started hiking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, about six weeks ago. I have covered nearly 500 miles on foot since then and am now in Damascus, Virginia, just in time for the Trail Days festival.

Crossing into Virginia, I felt positively triumphant.

Virginia felt a bit like the promised land. You have to understand that, for weeks, when a fast hiker flew by me and I never saw him again, I’d think to myself, “Oh, he’s probably in Virginia by now.”

I’ve taken a great deal of pleasure in crossing state lines, but I won’t get another one for a while: the Appalachian Trail winds through the Old Dominion for roughly 550 miles. That’s about a quarter of the length of the whole trail, all spent in a single state.

Luckily, Virginia–what I’ve seen of it so far, anyway–is an awfully pretty place.

I am sure no one is surprised to hear this, but I’m really enjoying trail life. I love the hiking, the views, the people, the whole experience.

Thanks for following me on my journey!

Coming Soon to a Forest Floor Near You

By the end of April, I’ll have hiked the first 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It has been a delight to watch spring begin to unfold on the landscape. Hiking up and down and up again, I’ve had the chance to see all shades of the season, from leafy green valleys to still-wintry 6,000 ft. summits.

If you live farther north or at higher elevation, here’s a preview of some of the beautiful spring ephemerals – those all-too-fleeting wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out – I’ve been seeing over the past few weeks.

One of the very first flowers to appear is bloodroot: 20140428-213713.jpg

Bluets are another very early bloomer. I was seeing these tiny little flowers even in very early April in the Georgia mountains:

There are several different species of violets in shades of yellow and purple:


But it is spring beauty, this lovely little white flower (often with pink rays on the petals), that really signals to me that spring has come:

Not long after the spring beauty, and often intermingled with it, the cheery yellow blooms of trout lily will begin to appear:

Subtly tucked in amongst the showy flowers are the more discreet green blossoms of jack-in-the-pulpit:


Several species of trillium, like the toadshade featured at top or the painted trillium here, also make an appearance:

So if you’ve been hankering for spring, never fear, the ephemerals are here!

At Last! A Trail Name!

The past few days have brought some significant milestones in these early days of my AT thruhike. I’ve crossed my first state line; taken in expansive views from high points like Blood Mountain, Standing Indian Mountain, and Mt. Albert; and passed the 100 mile point from the trail terminus at Springer Mountain. I’ve hiked on beautiful spring days and hunkered down in a trailside shelter to avoid a major rainstorm.

Now that we’ve been on the trail for over a week, my fellow thruhikers are starting to feel comfortable introducing themselves by their trail names in place of their real-world monikers. I’ve chatted in recent days with Zen, Down Dog, Mama Bear, Cornflake, Osprey, Yellow Beard, and Viva.

I started my hike with a proposed trail name of Artemisia, given to me in a bar in Pennsylvania as a reference to the geyser in Yellowstone, but while it was pretty, it didn’t feel right.

So I was positively delighted today when I was given my trail name by another hiker, a speedster who passed me at a rapid clip. I caught up with him twenty minutes later while he was stopped, adjusting his pack. He soon got out ahead of me again … but again, I caught up before long.

After several iterations of this, I came up behind him and he said, “Here we go again, the tortoise and the hare!”

While he went jackrabbiting off down the trail, I thought about myself as the tortoise. Slow and steady? Yup, I like the sound of that; I get passed a lot on the trail in the mornings but somehow end up covering more ground than many other hikers by nightfall.

Like the tortoise, I carry my home on my back.

And I’m pretty sure that if you rolled me onto my back while I had my pack on, I wouldn’t be able to get up again.

And so, just like that, today I became Tortoise.

3 a.m. Thoughts on a Hike Transformed

Sitting on an Amtrak train in Charlotte, NC, in the middle of the night, I find myself awash with unexpected feelings that I find hard to articulate.

I got a beautiful note the other day from an old friend. She has been reading my blog and wanted to express her support for my AT thru-hike, even though she’s not in a position to contribute money.

I replied, of course, that her thoughts mean far more than a donation would, and I meant it. There are parallels between her situation and mine that bring tears to my eyes. She is going through some terrible times right now and it seems she is drawing some comfort from my writings.

I can’t begin to describe how odd this feels to me. A motivator in trying to be open about my struggles with depression is certainly the hope that my story can help others. Still, somehow it feels very strange to know how strongly my words are resonating with people, and how much hope they seem already to be bringing to their lives. How much hope I seem to be bringing to these people who are themselves so wonderful, so caring.

I find it a little uncomfortable to see this evidence that I actually do have an impact on others’ lives, far beyond a level of which I feel worthy. It sits strangely to know I am, in many ways, already accomplishing exactly what I set out to do, but on some level never really believed was possible.

I’m not talking about the physical journey of the hike so much as the emotional one.

I hadn’t realized, when I posted a few links to a fundraising page, that doing so would completely transform the nature of my hike. The generous response from friends, acquaintances, and people I have never even met has taken what is, at its core, a fundamentally very selfish thing and morphed it into something imbued with all these levels of meaning beyond just my own happiness.

I now feel a tremendous obligation to the many kind people who have shown support that I make it all the way to Katahdin, whereas before
–just a week ago!–this trip was just something I was doing for me, with no consequences beyond personal satisfaction.

Over the next six months, I will be hiking the 2,185-mile length of the Appalachian Trail. I am dedicating my journey to HIKE for Mental Health, an organization that directs donor contributions to mental health research and the preservation of wilderness trails. At the time of this posting, I am 89% of the way to my dollar-a-mile fundraising goal. Learn more and help me get there.

Almost Time

All planning complete,
all logistics done, I am
now growing nervous.

I benefit from
abundant experience
of backcountry trips,

But I am also
acutely aware that
this is different.

I cast myself on
the waters of the world, and
Hope they bear me up.

My Appalachian Trail adventure begins this week at Springer Mountain, Georgia.  It will end when it ends.  I don’t know when that will be, but I hope I know where it will be: Mount Katahdin, Maine.


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