When Hiking a Long-Distance Trail Is the Road to Recovery
While serving in Iraq in the early 2000s, Will Robinson was rummaging through a box of books when he found an unlikely distraction: A guide to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Raised in Louisiana, Robinson had never been interested in hiking. But after reading the book over and over, he set a goal of hiking the trail. More than a decade later, living with post-traumatic stress disorder, he’d forgotten both book and goal.
“I no longer interacted with people and I had self-medicated for years. I tried various forms of therapy and medications for anxiety, but it just wasn’t working for me,” says Robinson, now 38. “My life was getting darker and darker, to the point where I barely left my house.”
One night in March 2016 he happened upon Wild, Reese Witherspoon’s 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, which detailed how her section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail helped save her from depression, drugs, and a destructive lifestyle.
“That movie jogged my memory instantly,” Robinson recalls. “I knew it was going to take something that extreme for me to find my way out.”
After reading a few blogs and scrounging up the limited gear he could find on the bayou, he set out on the PCT less than a month later. Three years later, Robinson—trail name Akuna—has completed not just the PCT, but also the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, making him the first African American man known to have earned the Triple Crown. He still lives with PTSD, but the trail changed his life.
“Hiking isn’t a cure. I still deal with some things, but I’m much better equipped to handle it,” he says. “I handle social environments better. When I have an anxiety or panic attack, I can calm myself better. When I’m depressed or down in the dumps, I think back on my adventures, look at pictures.”
Keys to Recovery
At first glance, undertaking a long-distance hike to deal with an addiction or mental-health challenge may not seem the most advisable avenue to recovery, considering the inherent mental and physical stress, frequent exhaustion, and general lack of comfort.
And yet, many struggling people come to believe that nothing short of radical action will save them. And what’s more radical than walking thousands of miles with your whole life stowed in a backpack?
“I was like, ‘I have to get out of here,’ ” says Alexandria “Pocahontas” Cantrell, 28, who had become trapped in a downward spiral of cocaine and alcohol use while working in the Atlanta restaurant scene. “I knew I needed to be in the woods, away from all the craziness.”
For many people, undertaking a long trail has provided many benefits seen as key to recovery by mental-health and addiction experts, including exercise, structure, social connection, resilience, validation, and more.
Many hikers have discovered that the physical challenges of walking 15 or 20 miles a day provided a significant boost to their recovery.
“People ask, ‘Why would you want to go do that?’ Blisters, you’re in cold, in heat, in rain, it hurts, it’s so hard,” says Cantrell, who hiked the AT in 2016. “But a lot of hikers say that really fulfills them and it’s fun. It is pain, but it’s also an accomplishment.”
Exercise is widely recognized as a critical tool for recovery. Numerous studies have shown that “exercise-based interventions … reduce compulsive patterns of drug intake in clinical and at-risk populations,” according to 2012 article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
“Exercise works from the top down in the brain, forcing addicts to adapt to a new stimulus and thereby allowing them to learn and appreciate alternative and healthy scenarios. … While it may not provide the immediate rush of a snort of cocaine, it instills a more diffuse sense of well-being that, over time, will become a craving in its own right,” writes John J. Ratey, M.D. in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “Exercise builds synaptic detours around the well-worn connections automatically looking for the next fix.”
Battling Boredom and Bad Influences
It’s true: Trudging mile after mile through the rain or enduring an endless green tunnel can sometimes induce a sense of boredom in a tired hiker.
But where boredom at home can lead recovering addicts to seek out old friends and bad influences, striding through woods and mountains miles from the nearest town doesn’t afford the same temptations.
“The monotony of the trail, how simple everything is out there, that brings people down to who they are at the core. You’re stripped, with no shiny car to make you look cool, no cool shoes,” says Brady Howbert, 28, who section-hiked the AT from 2017 to 2019 after having gone through nine different rehab programs.
When life is boiled down to a few critical tasks–walking, eating, finding water, sleeping–it dictates a certain unavoidable structure.
“Life on trail is difficult, but it’s simple. It’s task-oriented. It builds a good routine,” says Louis “Wolf” Cormier, author of From Addiction to Fitness, a memoir of his addiction to alcohol and AT hike at age 63.
Which isn’t to say the trail is a temptation-free zone.
“I had a hard time hiking in the bubble since it seemed like every time I was in town my hiker friends wanted to drink,” says Triple Crowner Cicely “Cougar” Kolb of her 2015 hike on the PCT.
For Andrew (who asked to be identified by first name only), the source of his addiction was always within reach–his smartphone. He and his wife decided to hike the PCT in hopes that “being in the mountains for six months” would cure his addiction to pornography. But simply walking the trail wasn’t enough, and Andrew found himself slipping.
“I felt super ashamed. Here I was, quietly on my phone, Instagram or something, and somehow I’d see something that triggered me,” he says.
The trail didn’t turn out to be a “detox,” but the experience still led him to recovery. After recognizing his inability to kick his habit on his own, he joined a recovery program after returning home.
“I thought the PCT would be the solution,” Andrew says. “Instead, it was what brought me to my knees. It proved to me my inability to stay away from the stuff.”
Into the Wild
Experts have long understood that time in the wilderness, away from distractions and temptations, provides opportunities for the kind of reflection encouraged by many recovery programs.
“One of the gifts of the wilderness is the way it gives us an honest look at ourselves, our gifts, talents, weaknesses, character defects and our true potential are all made obvious. It is this honest look at ourselves that allows us to find love and acceptance for who we are and a vision of who we can become,” Ray Barlow, co-founder of Legacy Outdoor Adventures, a youth-recovery program in Utah, said in an interview with Psychology Today.
“Walking meditation is how I sort out my problems, my thoughts, how I arrange my decisions and how I make sense of the world,” says Kolb, who has now been clean for 10 years. “One day in Virginia, a young boy I met in a Boy Scout troop asked me what I do on Sundays when I’m hiking and there is no church. I looked around and said, ‘This is my church. I’m in my church all day, every day.’ ”
The Right Crowd
Being among people who are pulling in the same direction and rooting for one another, whether on trail or in a recovery group, can be critical to recovery.
“Loneliness and isolation are risks for recovering addicts who are dealing with feelings of shame, guilt or emptiness. During this vulnerable time, social support can make the difference between relapse and recovery,” writes psychiatrist David Sack, M.D., CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs.
Rich “Muffinman” Wilson, 29, didn’t expect to find such a supportive community when he hiked the AT in 2016. Expecting his first child, addicted to opiates, and totally inexperienced, he just knew he had to break his routine.
“A lot of people thought I was just bailing on the kid,” says Wilson, who now shares custody of his son with, and lives next door to, the child’s mother. “But I had to get away from it, walk it off for six months. It does not help when not five minutes down the road you can find (opiates).”
In Hot Springs, North Carolina, he decided get off Suboxone, a drug prescribed to help wean addicts from opiates. After a rough weekend in a hotel, he hiked out with his trail family and 10 days’ worth of food in his pack, hoping to forestall the temptations of town.
“That week was mentally the toughest I had on the trail,” he says. “The first day, I planned to do 10 miles, but everybody in my group wanted to do five more. I was being an asshole, but they were just so supportive. ‘Come on, man, we’ll walk with you. You can do it.’ I wasn’t surrounded by drug addicts, but active, determined, helpful, and supportive people.”
Which isn’t to say that everyone on trail is supportive.
“On the CDT in Silver City a hiker kept asking me if I wanted a beer, and why did I keep saying no. So, I told him why, he shut up real fast,” Kolb says. “But I am grateful when I meet hikers who understand, and it seems that since I hiked the PCT in ’15 I see this more and more.”
Experts warn that the shame and guilt commonly felt by addicts can lead to relapse. Walking long trails can teach resilience and restore self-confidence, powerful antidotes to such emotions.
Cory McDonald, aka Second Chance, was mired in an uncontrollable addiction to junk food, slugging down four liters of soda a day and eating fast food for nearly every meal.
“Living alone, I was just getting fatter and fatter. I felt like committing suicide,” he says.
Desperate and weighing 400 pounds, he made what many would consider a crazy decision: “Get rid of everything, get away from my addictions, and hike the PCT.”
“On top of a mountain, camping by yourself, you can’t just wake up and hop in a car and go for hamburgers and soda,” he says. “If I hadn’t done the PCT, I’d be 500 pounds.”
Instead, he finished the trail at 295 pounds and completely transformed his diet, eliminating sugar and fast food.
For those in recovery from certain food-related disorders, trail life can be tricky; for convenience, pack weight, and other reasons, many hikers default to fueling their bodies with hefty doses of sugar and processed foods, and weight loss can be a concern.
Reanna Leisure, who plans to start her thru-hike of the AT on March 1, says her hiking dreams helped her focus on recovery from an eating disorder while she was in a residential program.
“In treatment, for an eating disorder or any kind of addiction, you kind of lose your identity, your sense of self, what brings you joy,” she says. “I couldn’t physically go out and hike yet, because of my health, but thinking about it got me to start eating again.”
When she left the facility, she began building her strength with day hikes and researching the AT. She’s been working closely with her therapist and dietitian to come up with an eating plan that will keep her healthy on trail.
“One of my goals is to be as authentic as I can be on trail, to not act on my eating disorder, to be present and not worry about negative thoughts,” she says. “I honestly think this will really kind of solidify my recovery.”
Being on trail serves as a kind of unexpected rehab for many hikers, a way to strengthen their resolve to avoid temptation or fall into old patterns, that extends long after the hike is through.
“I struggled with heroin addiction and alcoholism for over 10 years. I’ll always be an addict. However, the trail did more for me than I ever thought it could,” says Kyle “Mouseking” Rollins, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017. “I stayed 100 percent sober on trail and remain so to this day. I will always give a chunk of the credit to my experience on the AT.”
Some even use their experience to carry a message of hope to others suffering from addiction or mental-health challenges. Dan “Grasshopper” Devaney, a former college football player for the University of Oregon, who broke eight months of abstinence before starting a long section of the PCT in 2014, is now two years clean and recently completed field work to win certification as an alcohol and drug counselor.
“The trail is both the perfect place to start a journey in recovery, and also one of the hardest places to do it,” says Devaney, who carried the ashes of a brother who “drank himself to death” just months before they planned to hike the trail together. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but you’ve got to really want your recovery.”
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