Mental Health and the AT – experiences on the trail
So far on the Appalachian trail one of the biggest experiences going northbound has been interactions with people on and off the trail. Northbound or NOBO hikers tend to hike in larger hiker bubbles and social groups than Southbound or SOBO hikers. This isn’t to say at all that SOBO hikers will not experience what I share, their experiences may differ based on the volume of hikers and trail supporters they interact with on a daily basis.
When hiking with others on this journey, both hikers and locals along the trail often share things with you which they may not reveal upfront in non-AT social situations. The topic of mental health and mental health challenges hikers face both on and off trail seems to a regular topic of conversation.
People hike the AT for a variety of reasons. Some as a lifetime goal, others as a break from their lives, while others to help them escape or cope with personal struggles or loss. What people share with you as you hike or have conversations around the shelter, on the trail, or at the hostel, can sometimes be surprising, or take a moment to process what’s being shared.
There seems to be a lot that others are coping with these days. Some people have shared mental health challenges like being bi-polar, depression, drug addiction, a death in the family, trauma or PTSD from life experiences, being homeless or unhoused, or even mental health issues like schizophrenia. Some people are medicated, others are not, and people have been very open with these personal situations without directly asking for such information. It just comes up in conversation!
I bring this up because I think it’s important to understand that the social dynamics of the AT help people shed some of the pressures and expectations of normal day to day life. The hard reset to the basics and the routines the AT requires of hikers to function seem to enable people to reflect and understand the person they were before the trail and who they are on trail. It can also help them form aspects of their new selves after completing their journey on the trail, be that post-Katahdin summit or wherever they exit the AT.
Overwhelmingly, those who have shared mental health challenges with me have said time and again the AT has helped them cope with their mental health better than just medicine or therapy. Many still see or interact with their therapists as part of their journey or have found ways to cope. Some openly admit they’ve stopped medication or stop taking it at all because they feel better than they ever have in normal society.
For me, the time to reflect and take stock of my own life so far and where it is going in tandem with the vast and multi-faceted experience of the AT has helped to build confidence in myself to accomplish my goals and help laser focus my time and energy going forward. The journey on the AT gives everyone space, time, silence, and a unique camaraderie found in few places outside of the trail. There is also very little judgement as to why people are out here, they’re just out here hiking!
Meeting those locals along the trail also helps create fresh perspective. Some of the conversations I have had with local drivers, gas station attendants, waiters, or locals in town really show how much the AT connects people and cuts through the social norms and otherness that may occur if you’ve never been to a small town in the mountains. People seem to be people whether they are in NYC or Hot Springs NC.
The amount of empathy and respect I have experienced on trail from total strangers helping myself and fellow hikers has been breath-taking and positively redeeming of my own take on humanity. Kindness and charity often does not have a religious or material form. Sometimes it’s just encouragement and locals being aware of your journey and simply rooting you on with a note or a cheer.
Overall on the AT everyone’s spirits rise with seeing progress and the ability to endure physical challenges with a peer group of wildly different people from many different backgrounds. The gradual progress mile by mile, state by state, mountain by mountain seems to both tire each hiker and nourish them simultaneously. I am grateful for each day out here and the challenges it presents to me. The personal growth while out here has been amazing.
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