Mountains and Depression: Ups and Downs
49 Days and 492.5 miles since Springer Mountain.
My apologies for the delay to anyone reading these posts. I put together a full blog a week or two ago and decided I didn’t like it so discarded it. I’ll get to a chronological update shortly but first a little background that I feel is important and will become important again as this entry continues.
I’ve been dealing with depression since high school. Maybe that’s not what I called it then but that’s when the first cracks appeared and the first inklings of darkness started creeping in. Numbness and sadness sometimes rational but more often not.
I had an issue with my cerebellum and spine that was rectified in 2004 with a brain surgery. While it concerned my brain, the malady didn’t directly effect thought, dopamine, norepinephrine, or serotonin. What is important to my story is the nearly four years prior to this I learned to live with an excruciating, blinding white headache that went without diagnosis or explanation from my freshman year up until essentially high school graduation. Along with the headache came a waning strength and dexterity in my fingers, hands, and wrists. It was a time that taught me to isolate, deflecting conversations about my shortcomings and avoiding situations where they were more apparent. It caused me to ruminate, living inside my own head where there was often only pain to hold on to, eventually coming to find a Stockholm Syndrome style of comfort in something that was always familiar and dependable, albeit torturous.
So anyway, the head thing along with a probable predisposition served as the gas leak, and then I don’t even really know what the spark was. Maybe leaving home for college, maybe alcohol, maybe nothing. But within a year after high school it was obvious something was wrong and we began treating my (now clinically diagnosed) depression with medication. Tried a few and eventually found one that did the trick.
After a small handful of years on the meds and some really productive chats with a clinical psychologist, I was feeling fairly balanced. Eventually even getting off the pills. This went against most medical advice and I also wouldn’t condone the decision in others, for the record. That being said, after restabilizing and finding a new balance, I felt better. Free of a tranquilized sensation derived from the medication. My new and still current treatment plan centers around forced introspection on a regular basis, self assessments if you will. Forced openness and honesty about my well-being with loved ones.
Forcing myself to fulfill these expectations is my attempt to push back directly against my depression. Because its goal is to shut me up about it. Don’t ever talk about, stay in bed all day and don’t think about it. Cancel dinner plans with friends because faking happy just sounds too hard tonight. Eat a bag of Goldfish crackers for all three meals because going to the grocery store is just too many steps to handle today. But that’s all ok, you can just stay in bed or on the couch and say you worked late yesterday or that you’ve got a little stomachache. It’s easy. Just do it.
That’s how it gets me. It’s different in everyone but that’s how my monster attacks. But I know my monster, and I know how to fight it. I know what it feeds on and how to starve it. And I’ve been starving it on the trail. Fresh air, vitamin D from sunrise to set, no obligations and nowhere to be. My depression monster might not even know what state I’m in right now I thought. Well on Friday the 6th that fucker put on his hiking boots and caught up to me in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.
But before that I was leaving Hot Springs, North Carolina. It was sunny out and deceivingly hot. I was only doing eleven miles to catch up to my friends at Spring Mountain Shelter but the immediate ascent coming out of town had me pouring sweat within the first couple miles. Dripping on the rocks that had seconds earlier been the hot, energy giving basecamp for dozens of five-lined skinks and one brown snake that I couldn’t identify. It was a tough little eleven miles but coming out of a town day is always a little inherently more difficult. There’s a feeling of shaking the dust off your equipment and the creakiness out of your overly rested joints. I was happy to see camp that evening.
The following day, Tuesday the 26th, was good for me. It was forecasted to rain all day and I planned to hike all day. It did and I did. Cold, wet, unrelenting, but during it all I realized “what’s so bad about this?” There was the recognition that things couldn’t get worse and these worst case conditions weren’t even that bad. It’s like jumping into a cold lake or pool. The decision to do it and the initial impact of beginning can suck. But just for a second. Then you’re fine. Get to camp, pitch a tent, dry off in the tent. Goes back to trusting your equipment too!
Made good enough miles getting to Erwin, Tennessee and some trail acquaintances began turning into real trail friends. There’s a real comfort developing out here.
In Erwin we stayed at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel right off the trail. We just put up tents in the grass out back along with 30 to 40 others. Uncle Johnny’s was cool, and a bit of an institution. Well known throughout the trail. It was a cool place, more organized and established than some hostels, dirtier and with more “character” than some as well. We had a blast there my first night in Erwin. Afterwards I did two more nights in Erwin at the Super 8 hotel. Pretty low key. I tended to my passively corroding feet with Epsom salts, ice, and compression socks.
Sunday I broke a twelve year streak and went to church. It was more of a practice in absorbing the culture than anything else. I have never been to a Southern Baptist service and I wanted to see one. Every town down here has a Baptist church for every ten citizens and as such an apparent lynchpin to their community, I was curious. My mind is wide open these days too. Folks come to the trail for many reasons. I’m here for many reasons. Sure I’m looking for answers, I’m even looking for some clarity on what the questions are. So anyway, checked it out. The people were welcoming and lovely. The sense of community was palpable. The sermon was a spectacle. The teachings and shared beliefs were what they were. I’m glad I checked it out.
The two days in Erwin were to coordinate meeting up with my buddy Hunter from Minnesota. He flew in to Johnson City and Ubered to Erwin from where we started hiking within minutes of our meetup. It was awesome having an old friend on the trail. Showing him what I’ve learned, and hearing about his life pretty much since we moved to Chicago. It was a beautiful little slice of familiarity.
The first night Hunter was there was hilarious. First terrifying, then hilarious. We camped right next to a dirt road that one would have conservatively guessed gets roughly six cars a year on it. All was routine and all was well. I was back making miles after three nights off, bullshitting with an old college friend over ramen noodles and Clif bars in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. We retired to our tents with plans to get packing around 7:00 the following morning. Flash cut to 1:30am when we are jarred against our wills into a sudden state of profound and confused awakenness. Techno music and searing high beams act as our atomic alarm clock. As I return to my senses and remember my name and where I am, I hear the distinct sound of three or four loud and drunken voices happening about thirty feet from me. About twelve feet from Hunter on his first night. Assuming we were about to experience a nightmare that everyone assures never happens on the trail, I unsheathe my knife and unzip my tent. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag and crawl my top half out of my tent. Everything is just an effort to minimize my vulnerability. Never did I plan to make an offensive motion. I didn’t have full view of the two trucks but I could tell there were two, the closer of which was playing the DJ Tiesta at 160 decimals. Individuals were briskly walking from truck to truck. Hooting, hollering, and laughing. This was it. I brought my old pal, who incidentally has a baby on the way, to the Tennessee mountains to disappear in the most nightmarish scenario imaginable. I was just waiting for them to arrive at my tent vestibule with my respective gagball when an old guy sharing our camp area finally decided he wanted to die first, “Hey we’re trying to sleep here!” he yelled. The music cuts after five seconds and one of the voices begins claiming he heard something in the woods. He is the minority as his cohorts assure him he’s crazy. The old guy speaks up again “there’s five of us here! We’re trying to sleep!” The true nature of the situation revealed itself as the pickup inhabitants simultaneously screamed their favorite curse words. Terrified that they’d be hearing voices from the dark forest adjacent to where they decided to park at random. “We could have been killed!” one of the drunk youths exclaimed. I zipped up my tent and began trying to rediscover some sleep. Knowing if I’d be murdered tonight it would be properly by a bear like it should be. It turns out the guys were having issues with one of their trucks. Colorful first night for Hunter.
The next couple of days were great. Little bit of rain and hail one night but otherwise pretty straightforward hiking with my friend. Together we climbed Roan Mountain which is around 6,200 feet up. We also crossed into Tennessee out of North Carolina for my final time on the trail, leaving state number two behind. On Thursday we decided it was time for a shower and laundry so checked in at Mountain Harbour B&B in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, a hostel famous for having the best breakfast the entire stretch of the trail. It was a really fun day of soaking my feet in the river, sun and beers followed by a night of beers, and bullshitting with folks I’ve met along the way. Went to bed happy and content.
The next morning I woke up different. I woke up in a haze. I know, I was drinking and certainly that cannot be denied as a possible contributor but I’m familiar with a hangover and this wasn’t that. Just a cloudy all too familiar funk that had joyously been avoided for the first 40 days on the trail. Without any clear reason it was just there.
Despite no real inciting incident bringing the depression on, I can point to a few exacerbating factors that sent it spiraling into much more than the mere inconvenience it usually is. My foot and ankle that had been bugging me lately had swollen to nearly twice their normal size, paired with about 36 straight hours of forecasted rain the next two days of hiking, was enough to just stress the wind out of my sails. I didn’t want to get up, didn’t want the world famous breakfast, and I didn’t want to hike. I wanted to pull the blanket over my head and hibernate for a few months. But that’s when you have to recognize it for the destructive monster it is and fight back. It would’ve been a tough one if Hunter hadn’t been there but I also knew it would be unspeakably unfair if you flew in from Minnesota to hike and I stole one seventh of his trip because “I didn’t feel like it.” So we hiked. I’ve trudged through rain, the dark, mud, hail, boulders, and near constant pain. You just have to shrug your shoulders, put your head and stomp through it. You’ll always get through it. Eventually there’s always a hot shower and a pizza waiting for you. Even the toughest days end. Depression is no different. It’ll be difficult some days but the game plan will be the same as the plan for any other days of adversity on the trail. Keep hiking and hike through it.
The next day, the mental storm had lifted but the rainstorm was in full swing. Wouldn’t you know it, it was one of the more fun days I’ve had on the trail. I was wet and happy all day. As bizarrely as it had showed up, the monster had entirely disappeared.
Hunter and I closed out the week with a stay at “Boots Off Hostel and Campground” where folks were flexing their capacity for drugs of all kinds in preparation for the upcoming Trail Days festival the next weekend in Damascus, VA. Not especially interested in any of those activities, we hung out by the bonfire and just reflected on the enjoyable week we shared and promised each other we would make time to do it more often. I hope we do.
Hunter and I parted ways there outside of Boots Off in Hampton, Tennessee and once again I was alone on the trail. The next couple of days provided perfect weather, perfect scenery, and a mercifully small amount of elevation gain and loss. I was able to hike my longest day into Damascus doing 26.4 miles in a day. Felt real good.
From there I was able to crank out another day and a half worth of miles before arriving at the scheduled meeting time with my wife who will be visiting through the weekend of Trail Days with our dogs. I couldn’t have been more excited to see their amazing faces. Proving again that even on the worst days, something beautiful is on the way. Sometimes you’ve just gotta hike to it.
**I don’t know much but I know talking helps. If any of this depression crap resonates and you have questions or need an ear, my phone’s not always on but I can be a resource. 651-491-3498 or [email protected]**
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Thanks for the post and the honesty. Good luck.
Big Mike, thank you so much for your complete honesty. I was meant to read it. I also fight this demon. In fact, I read your post while laying in bed, hiding from the world. My months-long episodes most often follow being downed by a running or hiking injury. During my 4 LASHER section hikes of the AT, the monster hit me very hard when finishing that year’s section ( injured on 3 of those sections, hence, not a thru-hike), so be forewarned, injured or not. 2 years ago, I also went on a medication, which really helped. So of course I stopped it after several months. I am now in the process of healing a knee injury, and have started the process to start the drug again. Given the strong family history for depression, I guess it’s going to become a permanent part of my life now. I’m sharing much more than the typical comment, but please know that your post was very helpful for me. It encouraged me to keep up the good fight and accept that modern medicine can be very helpful in this battle. It’s not a sign of capitulation, but of self care.
Sending healing prayers. 💓 Keep fighting!
Besides your wife, friends and family who are your greatest fans, I am your greatest stranger fan! Your writings are relatable, thought provoking, educational and yet, you still make me laugh out loud. “The old guy decided he wanted to die first.” I look forward to your articles!
This was so helpful and motivational. I have depression which I hate. It sucks being sad and unmotivated. But I agree so much with the fact that hiking helps so much. When I feel it creeping in I know I need to reconnect with nature. Keep giving people good reasons to hit the trails. Thank you!
Mike, this was your best post yet – sincere, serious, but also funny and uplifting at the same time. I always knew you were an awesome guy and the strength you are showing on this hike amazes me. Glad you enjoyed your time with your friend and one of my other favorite human beings, Alicia (and of course Eddie and Newt!). Keep it up! Love you!
Mike I have really enjoyed and appreciated your posts. Your honesty and openess is refreshing. In this day and age where everyone on Facebook are trying to convince everyone how great their lives are its nice to have some honesty for a change that most people can relate to. I wish you the very best on your endeavor and will.be praying for your success.