Backpacker Radio #176 | Kevin Conley on Wildland Firefighting, Mental Health, and Bike Touring from California to Florida
In today’s episode of Backpacker Radio presented by The Trek, we are joined by Kevin Conley. Kevin is a thru-hiker, wildland firefighter, and the author of Above the Ashes, a memoir about battling mental illness during a 3,500 mile bike ride from California to Florida with his dog. Kevin shares the history of his troubled upbringing- and how this eventually lead to his discovering the Appalachian Trail, and consequently his infatuation with thru-hiking. Kevin goes in-depth about the life of a wildland firefighter, how his crippling panic attacks nearly lead to his demise, and his spirit of giving back and bettering the community around him. This is a really deep, honest, and at times dark conversation- and we’d like to offer a trigger warning to listeners that the following interview touches on talks of suicide.
We wrap the show with a chat about whether rain pants are necessary for backpacking, the triple crown of fast food breakfasts, if weekend warriors are allowed to use limited AT campsites, an update from MG, and more.
Download this episode.
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Interview with Kevin Conley
Time stamps & Questions
00:05:18 – QOTD: Would you rather live in the Avatar, Jurassic Park, or Avengers universes?
00:07:20 – Reminders: Hiker Meetup, Saturday December 10!
00:07:53 – Introducing Kevin
00:09:09 – Tell us about your origin story and first thru-hike.
00:14:58 – What about wilderness therapy didn’t work for you?
00:17:56 – How did you go from that experience to the AT?
00:19:27 – What sort of trouble did you get into as a kid?
00:20:30 – Discussion about high school background
00:22:46 – Walk us through the early days of starting on the AT.
00:25:10 – Tell us your trail name origin story.
00:27:15 – When did you feel like you hit your groove on the AT?
00:28:17 – Did you ever think you may not finish the trail?
00:28:55 – Tell us about getting bit by a black widow.
00:30:40 – Tell us about fracturing your foot twice.
00:32:08 – Tell us about getting and treating Lyme disease.
00:37:05 – At what point during the hike did you know you would hike another trail?
00:41:34 – Do you feel like the hike helped you process your grandfather’s death?
00:44:37 – Tell us about starting the PCT.
00:46:32 – Do you feel like you processed your grandmother’s death better due to spending more quality time with her?
00:48:08 – How was the PCT experience different from the AT?
00:50:05 – Tell us your PCT love story.
00:51:25 – Why didn’t your relationship continue?
00:53:54 – Discussion about Burgers and Love
00:55:10 – Were the burgers the start of your charitable endeavors?
00:57:17 – How much money have you raised on your hikes and bike tours?
00:58:18 – Give us more of the background on Backcountry Ninjas.
01:02:07 – Talk us through the evolution of your relationships with your parents.
01:03:53 – Tell us about hiking the John Muir Trail four times.
01:05:52 – How did you meet Hawaii?
01:07:01 – Tell us about how you got started bike touring.
01:10:42 – If you had to pick bike touring or hiking from now on, which would you pick?
01:12:28 – Why did you bike south from Canada?
01:13:12 – How did you get into firefighting?
01:16:17 – What do you have to do to get the job or during training?
01:18:20 – Do a lot of people back out once they get onto a Hotshot crew?
01:20:09 – How does the toughest day of firefighting compare to the toughest day of thru-hiking?
01:22:09 – What other days have stood out to you from firefighting?
01:27:07 – How do you go back to doing your job after a near death experience?
01:29:05 – Did you follow a specific training program or did you have to pass a test to join?
01:31:57 – Zach & Chaunce kill time
01:33:39 – What firefighting tasks did you favor?
01:39:51 – Can you say “I’m a Hotshot burn boss taking care of a dinner plate”?
01:41:10 – Tell us about the mental illness you were dealing with before your bike trip.
01:47:00 – *Begin trigger warning*
01:54:30 – *End trigger warning*
01:55:30 – Story about the man in the well
01:56:30 – Discussion about the bike trip.
01:59:57 – Was there a trigger to the panic attacks?
02:04:10 – What do you see as your path out of the panic attacks?
02:08:54 – Bison facts and gratitude
02:13:33 – Can you speak to changes you’ve seen in firefighters talking about mental health?
02:16:00 – *Begin trigger warning*
02:20:19 – *End trigger warning*
02:20:19 – Did you ever tell your dad about hearing his voice?
02:22:07 – Tell us about the book, Above the Ashes.
02:24:42 – Any other parting messages you want to share?
- Do You Really Need Rain Pants for Backpacking? by Rachel Shoemaker
- I’ve Thru-Hiked Over 8,700 Miles. This Is the Gear I Brought on My 99-Day CDT Thru-Hike by Joseph Gonzalez
Triple Crown of fast food breakfasts
Backcountry Meal Critics: Heather’s Choice
5 Star Review
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