Hiking Home: Mental Health and Why I Hike
“This is so FORKING beautiful! I’m so forking lucky,” I said through gritted teeth and a scowl aimed at the top of the mountain ridge. 12,000 feet. This was my first hike. Ever.
My first real hike did not take place as a child, like many others. I’m a city girl and while my family has always had an appreciation for nature, I did not.
I Hate Bugs
We took epic road trips as often as possible. My dad, a photographer and foodie, would drive 100 miles out of the way for the best barbecue wherever we were. My mom grew up in Colorado and is all things nature. She loves to sit on her back porch and bask in the summer or hike in the area with our family dog, Gracie.
I did not share this sentiment. I hate bugs. Mosquitoes are the enemy of which I have no defense. In Texas, mosquitoes run the show. And this actor would not be taking the stage. STOP. I know what you are thinking. If you don’t like bugs girl, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will traumatize you! Yes, there is that.
I’ve read so many blogs on this site about the transformation of one’s self through nature. I think the PCT is there waiting for us to transform ourselves. Before I thought about the PCT, I wasn’t sure anything could transform me, but since then I have. I wish I could say that I had experienced this transformation willingly, happily, and without struggle. I can’t.
My Secret Struggle
When I was 29, I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety, among other issues. I always had depression and anxiety, but until my late 20s, I didn’t realize that what I had was more than what was “normal.” I was living in a state of mania, unmedicated and dealing with postpartum depression. My husband was at a loss and my behavior was out of control. I dealt with suicidal ideation. It was at that point that I sought inpatient treatment and received my diagnosis.
While manic, I had lost so much weight that I was unrecognizable to distant family members. At the time, they strangely commented on my weight loss as “awesome” and remarked, “You look so good.” In my manic state; I would have LOVED this, but medicated, I did not. From then on, between medication and therapy, I gained over 100 pounds. Even though, my weight gain bothered me, I felt better.
I’ve come to learn that a family that suffers an experience like this needs time to grieve. I had to quit my job, sell our house, and we moved in with my mom. With the stress of not having a job, my anxiety rose, and even therapy started to become less helpful. I sunk into what I’ll refer to as situational depression.
At this point, my mother had enough of my sleeping all day and doing nothing. Understandably. She told me to get up and that we were going on a road trip to go hiking; I gave her the biggest side-eye ever. Pretty sure that this road trip would end up with her playing some motivational book on CD about self-help through sweaty yoga. I was skeptical. (Disclaimer: If you love that hot yoga, go on with your sweaty self!)
My First Hike: Mount Everest
I picked up some hiking boots from our local outdoor retailer. The store shall remain nameless until I receive their sponsorship (the company name MAY be an acronym, but I’ll never tell). I threw some stuff in a bag and we were off! Clearly, I did not know what I was doing and packed all things cotton and a fire-starter. I mean, you never know, right?
Mount Yale is one of Colorado’s 14,000-footers, standing majestically at 14,196 feet. I’ll soon find that Mount Yale might as well have been my Mount Everest. This mountain can be scaled easily by seasoned hikers or even small children within a few hours. But for me, the endless switchbacks, rocky terrain, and a strange relationship to my water bottle made for a difficult hike. To be fair, the paper map said it was a moderate hike. Which apparently means “hell.”
My mom had no intention of hiking to the summit, but rather to go to an alpine lake at treeline. This was a point of contention between us that led to us sitting at a fork in the trail for 45 minutes eating beef jerky. My mom thinks she knows EVERYTHING about the outdoor world. You know, “those” people. I was annoyed because I wanted to summit a mountain and conquer the world! I was here, and I surely did not go up those switchbacks for nothing! But, my mom, the seasoned “professional” wouldn’t budge, so I begrudgingly followed her to some lake, a 5.8-mile out and back with 1,637 feet of vertical gain. Whatever that means.
Saving My Life
It was HARD. Like HARD, HARD. I wanted to stop. I could have stopped, but there was something in me that wouldn’t let me. My mind started wandering; it was probably the altitude. But I thought I was experiencing a force from some sort of spirit, god, wizard, or whatever. This force pushed me to keep going.
In retrospect, it was the pain. The pain equated to my illness and it was the trail that was my true therapist. But it was me, my grit, my determination that would ultimately get me to that lake. The hike became a way for me to overcome my demons, my mania, my trauma. I remember telling myself, “Every time you stop and feel you can’t go on, look around and say to yourself how beautiful this is and how lucky you are to be here.” And that was exactly what I did.
We made it to the lake and back in EIGHT hours. Joking about how many people passed going up and down, we still ascended the trail. When we drove home to Texas, a spark had ignited within me. I had discovered a place that held no judgment. This place was raw, unforgiving, and beautiful. The spark ignited a fire that fueled me to find a way to blaze those trails and conquer those demons. That stubborn daughter would hike that Mount Yale summit one day.
Five Years Later. Today
Five years later, during another difficult time for me and my family, I did hike those switchbacks and take that path at the fork in the trail leading toward Mount Yale. I stood on Mount Yale on my 35th birthday.
While I didn’t summit this time, I did make peace with a part of myself. It was only with my mental illness and the support from my family that I had come to this place. I would not be standing in that spot without those experiences. It was then as I descended for the second time that I realized: it isn’t the summit that matters. It is conquering the summit within yourself that makes the trail lead you home.
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