Thoughts on Depression and Time Spent Outdoors
Three days ago, on March 26, I announced that I would dedicate my 2014 Appalachian Trail thru-hike to HIKE for Mental Health, a nonprofit that directs donations to mental health research and preservation of wilderness trails. While building my fundraising page, I hesitated over what dollar amount to set as a goal. I settled on $500, which seemed a modest but attainable figure.
I vastly underestimated the generosity and caring of my friends, family, and readers. Together, we surpassed that $500 goal in just two days. I decided to step it up and go for a new reach goal of $2,185, or one dollar for each mile of the AT. Can you help?
That new $2,185 goal seems unattainable to me as I write this, but perhaps that is fitting: for many people, the very notion of walking all the way from Georgia to Maine must seem like an unrealistic fantasy. Lots of things are like that, though, unimaginable right up until you try. I felt that way about my senior thesis, back in college. I felt that way about running a marathon. I felt that way about thru-hiking the AT when I was in my late twenties and early thirties—it was something I had always wanted to do, but couldn’t make myself see how.
As I mentioned in my AT Thru-hike FAQ, hiking the Appalachian Trail is something I have wanted to do for as long as I’ve known about the Appalachian Trail. As a teenager, it seemed like something I would do right after college. But then I needed to get a job, so the timing was wrong.
And then, in the frantic scramble of post-college life, I became cripplingly depressed. I couldn’t hold a job, and I tried a few different things with long periods of unemployment in between. I felt useless, purposeless, unloved, lost. I had the time to thru-hike, but no money and no motivation. Embarking on a journey of this length and difficulty was inconceivable to someone who couldn’t even get out of bed some days, much less out of her apartment.
After losing five years of my life to this darkness, I reached a point where I simply had to change my life in a drastic way. Just when it seemed that no options remained for me, I was offered an SCA internship at Big Bend National Park. I boarded a train to the desert of West Texas, not having the slightest idea what I would find there. On an overnight canoe trip through Santa Elena Canyon, I lay outside my tent, looking up at the brilliant stars in the desert sky. I felt something foreign, something strange, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt happy.
Becoming okay again was a long, slow process, and it’s one that is never truly over. Depression is never far away for me, despite my having been truly happy for most of the last eight years.
Thinking about that too much, though, tends to feed the dark, devouring beast of depression. It is better, I have found, to act.
I am hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2014 because of this need that I have, the need to act, to keep the beast at bay. Periodically, I crave the simplicity of purpose that immersive time in nature provides. I have never indulged this craving before in quite as thorough a way as I am in 2014, as I prepare to spend five to six months in the woods. If, through your generous help and support, my inherently selfish act can make a difference in the lives of others, then all the better. Please consider contributing as I HIKE for Mental Health.