A Trek With A Purpose: To Spread the Magic Beyond the AT
My first ever time receiving trail magic was also on my first failed shakedown hike. I got a late start on my first day, did not stop for water, hiked too far, packed too heavy….typical mistakes. Add the worst lightning storm in a decade, knocking my pot I had used to collect rainwater over in the morning, and getting sick into the mix and I was done. As I pondered my options from my hastily set tent right on trail to beat the storm, a fellow section hiker passed by and offered me water. Her heart was set on seeing McAfee’s Knob so she trekked on quickly but I will forever be thankful for that small gesture. The water gave my sick and sore body the strength to pack my gear up, reluctantly admit defeat, and turn southbound to meet my father, and encounter more trail magic.
My dad and I had decided on a meeting point from a comparison of the mileage in my guidebook, a farm tractor road I had crossed, and google maps. The dirt road led down past a farmhouse which eventually connected to a paved road. The problem was I would have to pass through their land to get back to the road, which being from Appalachia and knowing how much we enjoy our privacy, made me a tad nervous. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a grandmother babysitting her two year old granddaughter and my dad already there with a cooler of drinks and medicine. The grandmother informed me that hikers find their way down to her farm between McAfee’s and Tinker Cliffs every summer, one who had even had a hard fall and suffered some broken bones but still managed to get off trail. She gladly helps how she is able. My dad and I visited on her porch for a while then I headed home to rest.
Now there is the question of why was I even out in the woods, during hundred degree temperatures, hiking miles over rough terrain with a (too heavy) pack, and camping under raging lightning storms? For mental health.
Hike For Mental Health
Leo Walker, the President of Hike for Mental Health, and his friends Tom and Nancy came to the same conclusion when they were contemplating where to direct their funds from their budding non-profit. They hiked for mental health.
I originally decided to hike the Appalachian Trail as part of my own personal process in recovering from depression, but when I discovered Hike for Mental Health I realized this could be an opportunity to not only help myself but others. So many hikers speak of the sense of community and love that surrounds the Appalachian trail and now I can be a part of spreading the love beyond the trail. Twenty percent of all funds raised go to organizations such as the ATC and the other eighty percent goes to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. One of my favorite things about this organization is one of the main focuses is simply opening up conversation about mental illness. Mental illnesses can be associated with a certain stigma and too often those of us who suffer either do not know how to ask for help or are too proud to.
Upon signing up for the fundraiser I immediately e-mailed Mr. Walker to profusely thank him for all of his hard work and during our correspondence he offered to do a small interview for the Trek.
- What motivated you to start Hike for Mental Health?
Walker: “Tom, Nancy and I founded HIKE for Mental Health in 2011 when we met by seeming coincidence at Gabriel’s, the restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Hasbrouck Height, NJ. Tom lived in the neighborhood behind the hotel and sometimes stopped in to Gabriel’s for dinner. Nancy lived in Houston and was sent on assignment to NJ for a 2-3 month project and was put up at the Holiday Inn. I lived and worked in Toronto; my company sent me to their headquarters in NJ for an extended period. I stayed at the Holiday Inn. None of us had previously met, and we all worked for different companies, in completely different fields. Somehow we met and soon found a common love for hiking. We hiked portions of the AT in NJ together on weekends. We were all successful in our careers and looking for the right way to give back. One day, Tom and I were talking about forming a nonprofit that would help introduce others the benefits of hiking and help educate people about Leave No Trace principles. We wanted to use the hikers to also raise money for a cause and were discussing options. To help us choose the right path, I pondered out loud, “So why do we hike?” to which Tom responded, “We hike for mental health.” We quickly realized that we both have family members and friends who live or lived with mental illness. That solidified for us the connection between the mental health benefits we het from hiking and the opportunity to combat the stigma that accompanies mental illness while raising funds for research that would increase understanding and improve treatments.”
- Do you enjoy hiking and where is your favorite spot to hike?
Walker: “I love hiking, although with a full-time day job and our near-full-time work on HIKE for Mental Health, I do not have nearly as much time as I would like doing it. My favorite hiking spots are in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. The Zumi-Acoma Trail is rugged but amazing, as is anywhere in the Red Rock area of New Mexico. Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains are majestic and less developed than some of the more well-known trail systems. In New England, the White Mountains are amazing when not over-crowded.”
- Do you have a personal favorite success story from someone with mental illness who has benefitted from this program?
Walker: “We know of many hikers who say with complete sincerity, “Hiking saved my life.” For most of these folks, conventional treatment methods alone were not effective in treating their depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or other mental illness. But on the trail, away from the judgement and stigma that so often accompanies mental illness, they were able to find the grounding and balance they needed. Some were able to discontinue other treatment entirely while others maintain medications and therapy in conjunction with hiking. HIKE for Mental Health also sponsors a day-hike program that is free for anyone to attend. Since one in four American families is affected by mental illness, we regularly have hikers, after several miles of walking together in the wilderness, say, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but I suffer from….” Our hikes are not therapy, but the simple act of taking a walk in the woods seems to have a naturally healing and restorative affect for all of us.”
(For those of you who wish to know how hiking effects our brains scientifically, please read this outstanding article from National Geographic, “This is Your Brain on Nature.”)
- How did you connect with the BBR Foundation?
Walker: “We connected with BBRF almost immediately. We wanted to use our hikes to raise money to alleviate the suffering of mental illness and to help preserve wilderness trails using a voluntary social fundraising model. We thought about where the funds we raise would have the most impact. If we donated to direct-care organizations, we would only be able to help those few people receiving care during that time. If we supported ground-breaking research that would expand our understanding the brain and behavior and discover new treatment methods, however, we could potentially benefit hundreds, thousands, even millions, not just in the moment but for years to come. That is exactly what the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation does. When we learned that they, like us, pass 100% of the funds they receive onto the research grants, we were sure we had found the right partner.”
- How much have hikers raised for BBR and how much for organizations such as the ATC?
Walker: “As anyone on the trail knows firsthand, the hiking community is amazing in its generosity. Through the efforts of long-distance hikers and day-hikers and their supporters, we have raised more than $41,000 for organizations like the ATC and the PTCA. Last year at the ALDHA Gathering, we were thrilled to present the ATC with a check for $11,250. We reserve 20% of the funds we raise from our hikes to “give back” to the trails. The 80%, of course, goes to our mental health programs, especially to the BBRF research grants.”
- How many hikers have registered a thru hike with your foundation so far this year?
Walker: “More than 220 long-distance hikers on the AT, PCT, and other trails have registered with HIKE for Mental Health since we started. Already this year, not counting our day hikes, we have 67 hikers registered. For anyone interested, there is still time to register. It is completely free. All we ask is that you help us spread the word.”
- Do you or someone you love suffer from mental illness?
Walker: “Yes, I think we all know someone who lives, or has lived, with a mental illness, and my family is no exception. My mom lived with some form of schizophrenia, but with the strength of the stigma at the time, we never talked about it as kids even though we saw the effects every day. Depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, eating disorders, addictions, and mood disorders are widespread. Sometimes I am amazed at little public conversation there is about conditions that are so common. But step by step, we, along with many others, are helping to erode the stigma and make it possible to shine a light on these conditions and to separate the diseases from those who live with them.”
Even though Mr. Walker may not physically be out on the AT, he is a trail angel. Thanks to him, his friends, the rest of the HIKE for Metal Health team, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, progress towards treatment, recovery, and possibly even a cure for forms of mental illness can be achieved.
How You Can Help
One month from today I will be taking my first steps on my thru-hike, and hopefully that will also mean steps toward recovery for myself and others. I want to take this opportunity to challenge you, to offer you a way to help. Get off your sofa, and take a short hike. Then upon your return donate one dollar for each mile you hiked that day. Help me spread the magic by donating here.
Also, two of my fellow Trek writers are also participating…so on your second and third hike give their fundraisers a boost!
Or you can also register your own thru-hike or lead a day hike!
Thank you all and happy hiking! I will see you on the trail soon!
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