High Highs and Low Lows

It is perhaps the optimistic nature of planning a long distance hiking adventure to imagine optimal conditions. Some of us see a vision of ourselves bathed in happiness on the summit of a mountain at sunrise or sunset or moonlight, and even when we imagine cold, soggy misery, we imagine what a good attitude we’ll have about it. Those of us who reminisce about our trail adventures have a tendency to emphasize the good times, and like a good pro quarterback, forget about the bad times. But there are bad times, both circumstantially (like broken equipment, illness, dangerous weather) and the bad times generated by our own attitude and the moods that can drive it. A hiker could chart his or her own mood like an elevation profile. In this sense, just as the trail goes up and down over mountains, the hiker’s mood goes up and down, sometimes in recognizable relation to elevation profile, though more often, in relation to the weather. Thus, I am fond of saying that the Appalachian Trail “is a trail of high highs and low lows.” It is worth minding these highs and lows.

Nobody likes to talk about their mental health in public. I write here representing no community of particular sufferers, nor as a clinician. I hope it is sufficient to say that some people are diagnosed and treated for illnesses that affect mood, some are diagnosed and go untreated, some are undiagnosed though everybody knows something is wrong, and the rest of you just get sad. It is probably a good idea to have a sense of your overall mental health. While most people seem to benefit mentally from daily strenuous walking, a thru hike may not be the occasion to try to go off one’s psychiatric medication. Someone out there probably has a story about just that, but my emphasis here is only to acknowledge bad moods and negative emotions, that they arise in the hiker as part of the ups and downs of trail life.

A hiker, after weeks on the trail, can experience the intoxicating rush of a sustained endorphin high. A hiker’s metabolism changes. The hiker’ body changes. All of these things influence mood. Like all highs, the rush of long distance hiking also brings crashes. High mood days can be followed by low mood days. These can send people home, but maybe more pressingly, an especially depressed person can make poor decisions in the back country. Some of the most accomplished hikers I’ve known are even keel in their overall mood. However, I know a few accomplished hikers who are of a more volatile nature.

The trail provides many growth experiences, and one of them is time and space to feel one’s feelings. I am not ashamed to say I have spent hours alone in the woods weeping remembering something I had forgotten a long time ago. I have cackled madly to myself. I have, while walking twenty miles, felt a great rush of emotions, as if feeling joy and sadness all at the same time. The body and mind make an amazing organism and learning to make them work together can be the task of a lifetime. On the trail, riding the waves of one’s emotions can be an adventure unto itself.After several days in the woods, I always have especially intense dreams. I have them most nights for several weeks if I’m out that long. I will wake up in my sleeping bag a little disoriented. Once I woke up in the darkness of a shelter and thought I was at home, so I started talking to my wife about the crazy dream I just had even though she wasn’t there. It’s as if my brain does a massive data dump whenever I go spend significant time in the woods. It is always a mind bending experience to wake up on a mountain. Sometimes the mind bends this way, sometimes that way. I have woken up sore and limping but happy, and I have woken up physically rested and utterly bleak in mood. Sore feet and a wounded mind do not mix on the trail. While we probably should seek healing in the woods, maybe it is also a good idea to bring it with us too. I don’t think a healing spirit weighs too much either.

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Comments 4

  • Matti : Jan 29th

    Such a great, thoughtful post, thank you!

  • Joe "Triton" Schmidt : Jan 29th

    Matti, thanks for reading, and your kind words. Happy Trails.

  • Terry Gandy : Jan 31st

    Hey, Joe, thanks for the advice and insight. I gotta’ watch those moods.

  • Patrick Brown : Feb 4th

    Excellent post. Thanks, Joe, for reminding us of maintaining a strong mental balance.


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