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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.

Thank you.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. gabbartrip #

    Hello Cathy. Wishing you good luck on your noble and adventurous trip! Looking forward to reading about it! Thank you for sharing the website for ‘Hike for Mental Health’ – will surely go through it. Cheers and Regards.

    March 29, 2014
    • Thank you! I can’t wait to get out there.

      March 29, 2014
  2. Shaina Niehans #

    Reblogged this on Middle of Everywhere and commented:
    The amazing Cathy Bell, park ranger extraordinaire, is through-hiking the WHOLE Appalachian Trail this summer [that’s 2,185 miles!]. But more than that, she’s also dedicating her hike to mental health research. She’s asking for a dollar per mile–anything helps!!!

    March 30, 2014
  3. Thanks so much, Shaina, for helping me get the word out! It means a lot.

    March 30, 2014
  4. concretesummer #


    Hi.. please introduce myself,,I am Asian,24 years old. I am unemployed. I have been fired from the job I was in twice. I can hardly find any other job bcs of my bad working experience on my cv.
    Since then, I realized that I am a slow learner. I was fired bcs I did mistakes for so many times and didn’t understand the instructions properly.

    Well, I have big problem with learning new thing. I used to be a very hardworker but still there always be some flaws on my work. My supervisor always mad at me like, “I’ve said it so many times!”. They did right thing. I didnt blame my previous supervisors who fired me. All I am blaming is my ability of learning and understanding.

    Because of this,I know my weakness well. This leads me to have a terrible feeling when it comes to talk to someone, I’m always getting nervous and panic when I have to explain something. That’s one of the reason why I got fired. I have bad communication skill. Why, because I am afraid if I’m doing wrong.

    Ever since the last day of my working, I haven’t applied for any job yet. I have traumatic feeling about getting fired. My mom always scold me and asking why I’m not looking for another Job. In fact, I never told this to anyone before include, (especially) my parents. I told them that my contract was terminated because I had to handle another job outside my Job desc. I didn’t tell them the honest reason.

    I can’t even share this to my bestfriends bcs they are the people I am envy with. They are the people I wish I could be. They are now having good position in their company with good salary. I feel so much intimidated when we go out for cinema or just hanging out,, they’re all proudly spending their self-earn money and sharing their working experience. Meanwhile, I am still using my parent’s money,, and the leftover money from my last salary.Things are getting harder for me when they ask what my daily activities are. In fact Im just doing nothing at home.

    I keep telling lies to everyone. I am really afraid to tell the truth and to be judged. Having myself as a slow learner has already become the most hurtful thing I have to face.

    Now I am fighting so much againts my own anxiety and low self esteem. I am so afraid what if I never get a proper job.
    I am really expecting for you to do me a favor about what to do? What am I supposed to do ?
    I am so much thankful for your help..

    Best Regards

    April 4, 2014
  5. Mariana #

    Hi there Cathy! I just wanted to say how much I love this. I have also struggled with depression my entire life, and I too found direction with an SCA internship! I had never heard of Hike for Mental Health, but what a great cause! Keep up the good work chica, and happiest of trails to you!


    April 6, 2014
    • Thank you, Mariana! Best wishes for continued happiness in the future.

      April 9, 2014
    • Thanks for the kind words, Mariana. I’m so glad for you that you’ve found happiness and a sense of direction. Some of us have to fight a little harder for these things than others!

      April 12, 2014

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