Trail Science: Grief, Depression, and Identity in the Time of COVID-19
Last fall I interviewed 20 hikers about their experiences transitioning from long trails—specifically, about their experiences with so-called post-trail depression. I wanted to examine similarities and differences among peoples’ experiences, as well as to identify any protective factors that may buffer the intensity or unpleasantness of post-trail transitions. The result was this article. I recommend reading it before you read this one, but I’ll review some of the key points just in case.
When I coded everyone’s answers to the questions I asked about the trail, five common themes emerged, capturing what hikers deeply love about being on trail: simplicity, purpose, adventure (i.e., type 2 fun), community, and extreme exercise (i.e., endorphins). I’ve come to refer to this as trail SPACE. The loss of trail SPACE appeared to be the initial source of negative emotions while transitioning back to the “real world;” but, what emerged as a more influential factor in difficulty with post-trail transitions was actually negative emotion about the loss of one’s sense of self in that SPACE. It seems that so-called post-trail depression isn’t about leaving the trail itself; it’s about leaving behind the person we become on trail. In any case, the experience appears to be about loss. And this, in my opinion, makes post-trail depression a misnomer: it’s actually grief.
As I watched and listened to people deciding what to do about fulfilling their thru-hiking dreams in the face of a global pandemic, I was struck by a second wave of questions centered around what I wrote in that article last fall. What were the pros and cons as people weighed their options? What thoughts were going through their minds as they made their final (or, in some cases, not so final) decisions? Would it be harder to deal with this if you started a trail and had to get off? Would it be easier to deal with this if you’d never hiked a long trail before? And what about the people who decided to keep hiking–was there something different about their thought process compared with those who postponed or went home thousands of miles early? Finally, how do peoples’ experiences with this fit into the framework of trail SPACE and the idea of post-trail grief?
So, I set out for round two. This time I interviewed 30 people (47% female, age range: 22-39, average age: 29), classified into three groups: (1) 12 people who cancelled their thru-hiking plans for this year, (2) 14 people who postponed their thru-hiking plans, but were still in limbo with regard to what exactly they would do, and (3) 4 people who kept hiking (it was challenging to get these people to talk to me–more on that, below). While each person’s experience of the situation precipitated by COVID-19 is unique, there once again appear to be some common threads. Before I describe what I observed, I’ll provide a little background information on grief (and, importantly, the distinguishing features of grief versus depression). Then, I’ll discuss peoples’ experiences making decisions about the trail, as well as the thoughts and emotions frequently accompanying those decisions. Finally, I’ll take a gander at how these experiences fit into the framework of trail SPACE and loss of a cherished ideal.
Nerdy Background Information: Grief vs. Depression
Grief is arguably one of the most non-stigmatized domains of mental health; at its most basic level, it is broadly understood and accepted as a thing that people understandably experience when someone dies. Common public knowledge even seems to include at least some vague awareness that there are stages of grief and that it can potentially also occur in contexts beyond the death of another human being. But what are those stages and how do they work? And how does grief apply to other elements of human experience besides actual death?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the first to outline the five stages of grief. In her book On Death and Dying, she proposed a series of emotions/reactions that predictably arise in response death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (I know, I know, I can hear you saying, “Depression! See!” Just keep reading, it’s not what you think.) This is now known as the Kubler-Ross model. Later amendments to this model have included the addition of two more stages: shock and testing.
Shock is understood as a sort-of paralysis in response to bad news, and denial is an attempt to avoid assimilating the information into your reality. Anger typically involves a flood of agitation-related emotions (frustration, irritability), and commonly a sense of injustice (“Why me?”). Bargaining is a futile attempt to negotiate a way around the cause of grief (“What if I just never stay in shelters, then can I go?”). Depression is a tricky stage to describe, and in my opinion should really be called sadness or despair or some other word that doesn’t have clinical implications. In some cases, it does involve actual depressive features like hopelessness and isolation. But, it’s really better thought of as immense sadness. Sadness and depression are not the same thing–more on this below. Testing is not always acknowledged as a grief stage, but it is useful for the present context. This phase is basically realistic bargaining, in which people begin looking for viable coping strategies (“I can’t thru-hike, but I can run an ultra-marathon in my backyard”). And the acceptance phase is precisely that: acceptance of the loss that has occurred. This does not mean that everything is hunky dory. It’s more like, “I’m bummed, but it’s time to move on.”
It is essential to understand that not everyone goes through every phase in the same order or in the same way, and it is possible to fluidly shift in and out of phases even if you’ve already been in a phase before. It’s just a model, not a prescribed series of linear experiences.
Grief is distinct from depression in several ways. First, and very importantly, self-esteem usually remains stable during grief. By contrast, a major depressive episode is often accompanied by feelings of self-loathing and other indicators of damaged self-esteem. The primary emotions associated with grief are usually emptiness and loss, and these emotions usually come in waves, following quite closely from thoughts about the loss. In a major depressive episode, however, persistent low mood and an inability to anticipate happiness and pleasure form the primary emotional landscape, following from self-critical thoughts. It’s certainly possible to be experiencing grief and a major depressive episode at the same time, but I think it’s valuable to understand the distinctions between these mental phenomena.
Expansions to the Kubler-Ross model have clarified that grief is not a response limited to death and dying; rather, grief can arise in response to any form of personal loss–past, present, or anticipated. This includes the loss of a job, the end of a relationship (with a person, with an addiction, with a way of life), and the loss of a cherished ideal. For the vast majority of the long-distance hiking community, the last of these has become painfully relevant this summer. I certainly had a hypothesis that what people were experiencing was grief, but I really just wanted to try to identify and understand what was happening. What people shared with me about their decisions and experiences regarding COVID-19 was so closely aligned with the stages of grief I was honestly kind-of surprised. Many hikers made comments capturing all the phases, while others’ comments were isolated to only a few phases; I likely would’ve needed to speak with each person multiple times over a couple weeks to get the whole picture. And, again, it’s not a prescribed set of experiences. I’ve attempted to organize content from my interviews into the stages of grief, but it’s pretty hard to isolate comments to one phase. You’ll likely be able to discern the complexity of this endeavor as hikers shift from one phase to another all in one breath.
The Trail’s Pandemic-induced End: Making the Decision, Making the Transition
Shock and Denial
When I asked folks to tell me about the initial realization that they would have to make a decision about whether to hike this summer, people described a combination of shock and denial. Shock was more heavily expressed among people who started a trail and got off, while denial was more heavily endorsed among those who had yet to start. A PCT hiker who was about 100 miles in told me about the first phase of her decision to get off. She remarked, “I went through a lot of ‘Can you believe this? This is ridiculous’ thoughts.” Another PCT hiker who was about 150 miles in said she experienced, “lots of disbelief, and immediately massive sadness.” That’s not to say shock was absent for people who hadn’t started hiking yet. A PCT NOBO hopeful talked about his initial slow-motion realization of what was happening and said, “I went to sleep feeling sick to my stomach and woke up the next morning thinking this can’t be real.” A hiker who was slated for a CDT NOBO hike described a combination of bargaining/testing and denial, explaining, “I’m only mildly hopeful about SOBO. Lining things up so that it’s a possibility is mostly denial and putting off this disappointment.” Another hiker, who was about to embark on her third trail of the Triple Crown said, “I’m still in denial. I’m picking up shifts with hope, and I’m not willing to commit to anything in June. I go through waves of realism and optimism.” Incidentally, those waves sound a lot like waves of grief in the form of bargaining/testing and acceptance.
This was an interesting phase to hear about, and I have to wonder if it might have been diluted by the big picture context within which trail-related grief was occurring (i.e., global pandemic–more on that in the limitations discussed below). In any case, it was definitely there. Sometimes this got expressed as general frustration; other times, it got directed at other people. Specifically, other hikers who were still hiking. On one hand, there are a lot of very strong opinions about social distancing and pandemic-related precautions circulating among the population at large, so to some extent it’s probably likely that anger directed at people not following CDC guidelines has absolutely nothing to do with thwarted thru-hiking plans. On the other hand, most of the time when people described these sorts of feelings, they were honest enough to acknowledge that they were angry because they were jealous, and more than one person actually directly stated “it’s not fair.” For example, one hiker said, “Last week I was really angry. I was trolling social media, watching people who were still hiking, and I think I was angry because I was jealous. If they’re still on trail, I should be able to go. That’s not fair!” Importantly, this person switched gears just a moment later to say that she was proud of being part of the thru-hiking community which she suggested “as a whole is stepping up and doing the right thing.” Her identity as a thru hiker was actually a huge element of what prevented her from leaving for the trail. Another hiker said, “I was very sad and frustrated at first…stomping around being mad. You put so much time and effort and money into something and it just gets ripped away from you.” She concluded, “You have to grieve the loss of it for a minute.” Well, how about that.
This was a big one—lots of bargaining in the minds of thru-hikers. Honestly, that makes loads of sense to me. Generally, the type of person who wants to thru-hike is naturally fairly resourceful and willing to make do with what’s available; perhaps we are predisposed to think in bargaining terms? An interesting conversation for another time. In any case, the most common bargains proposed were, 1) not sleeping in AT shelters, 2) not staying in hostels or hotels, 3) not eating in restaurants, and 4) “just getting out of town as fast as possible.” Several hikers also mentioned bargaining with transportation to the trail. For instance, “I had five flights arranged and three rental cars reserved…I realized it was bad, so I changed plans from flying to driving. I wasn’t worried about places to stay in town, or resupplies, that would just add to the adventure.” Another person slated to hike with her partner echoed, “Part of why we only extended our lease through June was to leave the possibility of being able to go SOBO. We’ll just get a one-way rental, we don’t have to sleep in hotels, we’ll just camp.” And still another, “There are a lot of what-ifs. I find myself getting trapped in thoughts like, ‘Oh, if we just go to the post office and not stop in towns at all, it will be okay.'” Interestingly, the magnitude of bargaining thoughts seemed to be hugely influential over how people were feeling about the situation.
I refuse to contribute to societal misunderstanding by calling it depression, so I’m going with “sadness” for this category. Some of the people I spoke with did actually also sound like people with depression, but for now we are talking about sadness as it relates to the trail. When I asked people how they were feeling, responses included, “Pretty dead inside. I’ve been preparing for this for two years and it’s like time rewound and I accomplished nothing…one of the things getting over this emptiness that helps so much is that this is so much bigger than me.” A nice capture of shifting from sadness to acceptance. As you may recall from the nerdy background information above, emptiness is a keystone of grief. Another person who started hiking and got off the trail said, “I wouldn’t trade the miles, but it does make you more aware of what you’re losing. I feel a lot of sadness….This is something that means so much more to me than just a hike. Being outside is the only place that feels like home, that makes sense…Even with days that I’m terrified I’m gonna get struck by lightening or I’ve been rained on or snowed on–type 2 fun days…something just ingrains itself in your heart. Having that taken is a feeling of grief.” This person’s explanation was not only an explicit endorsement of grief, it also merged pretty perfectly with what I’ve proposed about trail SPACE: it’s not about the trail, it’s about what the trail does to you.
Testing and Acceptance
I heard pieces of acceptance from nearly everyone I interviewed who postponed or cancelled their thru-hikes, but this was the hardest to remove from the other grief phases. People almost invariably described acceptance alongside some other emotion or thought process. This actually makes sense to me, because 1) most of the people I spoke with had not had much time to process, and 2) again, acceptance is not an “everything’s fine” sort of mentality. There were also surprising degrees of variability here. By far one of the most positive/optimistic hikers I spoke with had actually completed nearly 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail and was shooting for a calendar year triple crown. He offered a combination of testing and acceptance: “I’m trying to focus less on lamenting that I had to get off and more on gratitude for the 800 miles I got to do. And I feel good my actions aren’t harming anyone. And! Odds are, I’ll still get to do some form of hiking, or a big race or something in the fall.”
Gratitude was a common strategy for arriving at acceptance, and the possibility of running an ultra marathon was an alternative outlet considered by many. Another hiker offered, “I’m just trying to keep it in perspective. All my immediate needs are met…and ultimately this is very insignificant. Plus, everybody has had huge set backs and disappointments because of this, it’s not just me. It’s kind of comforting to know we’re all in this together. It’s sad, but at the end of the day I’m safe and healthy and fine and that’s not the case for a lot of people.” Silver linings were another common path to acceptance. Numerous hikers reframed the set-back as an opportunity to get things dialed in more carefully before hiking or to use the time to take steps towards careers that would allow them the flexibility to do more long-distance trails in the future. Almost everyone also discussed the possible benefits of our most heavily travelled long trails having a break from thru-hiker foot traffic.
What about the people who kept going?
It was pretty challenging to get people who kept hiking to talk to me, and all four people I was able to interview ended up getting off trail (all were on the AT) within about a week of our conversation. One of these people actually decided to stop the night before our conversation, so I don’t think he can really even be included in this group. He said he realized he needed to go home as soon as it became a moral decision he couldn’t stand behind, which was primarily a function of the second advisory issued by the Appalachian Trail Coalition (ATC) asking hikers to go home. The other three texted to let me know they were off, indicating that it was basically impossible to continue. Three people is not enough to make any meaningful extractions, so I don’t feel very comfortable attempting to compile their comments to try to understand what was different about their thought process.
That said, from those three people, a few things stood out that are perhaps worth mentioning. First, all three of them genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. We talked about the ATC’s first set of recommendations regarding privies and shelters, which all of them were following, and it was very clear to me that they had all given more than casual consideration to what the “right thing” actually was. All three of them also proposed economic considerations were important, noting the impact the absence of a thru-hiking season could have on small town economies.
I collected all sorts of demographic information from everyone: hometown, age, gender, history of anxiety and depression, religious values, level of education, and several other pieces of information I thought might be valuable predictors of who made which decisions. I entered all of that data into my statistics program (I’m two weeks away from defending my dissertation, give me a pass on nerd action here) and calculated associations between demographic variables and which group people were in (i.e., whether they decided to cancel, postpone, or keep going). The limited sample of three people creates all sorts of mathematical violations and the statistical results really aren’t that reliable, but one variable did emerge as significantly different between the groups: political orientation. I tried not to define these parameters for people because it’s such a contentious issue, but the people who postponed or cancelled overwhelmingly identified as “left to extremely far left.” The people who kept hiking, on the other hand, identified as moderately conservative and libertarian. Does this mean anything? Without more people, I really don’t know.
Could it be that people who kept hiking were also experiencing grief, and they were just deeply stuck in phases of denial and bargaining? Definitely. Again, without more people, I really don’t know.
What is the Grief Really About?
It was pretty clear to me about half-way into the interviews that what I was hearing was grief, but I also wanted to try to understand/capture the nature of what the grief was really about. On the surface, the “thing” that people lost seems relatively clear–especially for people who started a trail and got off–but when you think about it, losing something that never happened is sort-of an abstract concept. I asked people several questions trying to tap into this from different angles, including questions about what people were hoping to get out of the trail, what motivated them to hike, and for those who started hiking what they loved and missed about the trail. Here’s some of what I heard.
- “What I’m missing most in the idea of hiking the AT is that sense of purpose–chipping away at the long-term goal. You’re working towards something, and every day you accomplish a little. Yes, I love the beauty and the nature and the solitude and the community, but the high I get from the endurance aspect of it. I value my determination to stay the course, even through the lows and the hard times.”
- “I was hoping to really delve into the community I’ve heard so many amazing things about; being a part of that was…something I was really looking forward to. And really actually being able to put myself into a mentally challenging situation by choice, to strengthen my relationship with myself.”
- “There are so many things I love. I guess the simplicity–you’re more in tune with yourself and your surroundings.”
- “I was hoping to grow as a person, to be more comfortable with being alone, to have a sense of purpose and direction in what I want to do after, and to have more confidence in terms of rising to the occasion no matter what’s presented.”
- “I just really wanted to do something difficult. You just have one thing to focus on, one really hard thing, and by the end of it I’ll be able to say ‘hey look at me I did that really hard thing.'”
- “In knowing several people who have done thrus, I have a sense of how broken down you will be–it will strip you to your core and good luck when you see what’s there. I really wanted that experience. I wanted to push myself to do something that was harder than anything else I’ve done.”
They are pretty much all like this. It’s uncanny how closely this echoes what I wrote last fall about trail SPACE and who you become in that SPACE. But it sheds some new light on the topic as well. Hikers apparently quite commonly set out for a long-distance trek hoping to change their relationships with themselves, and this does indeed happen as a function of trail SPACE. But when hikers get home and start feeling post-trail grief, it seems as if they’ve associated the change in the way they feel about themselves with trail SPACE instead of recognizing that the change is not unique to the trail–it’s internal. Whether the end of the trail is voluntary or involuntary, whether you had a chance to actually become your best self by way of trail SPACE or you’ve only imagined such a transformation, it strikes me now as quite clear: the grief is about identity.
Things That Made This Experience Easier
One of the only things that seemed to make the decision to stay home easier was whether someone had hiked before. Before I started interviewing people, I hypothesized that having hiked previously would make it harder to stay home (because you know what you’re missing), but it was the exact opposite. Time and time again, people who had already completed at least one thru-hike expressed their love and respect for the trail community and the small towns around the nation’s three most popular long trails. That love and respect made the idea of threatening those communities absolutely abhorrent. The more someone had hiked, the more passionately they expressed their distaste for any decision besides staying home. Some people also expressed a parallel between this experience and thru-hiking: life is full of uncertainty, and there’s only so much you can control. It was almost like lessons from the trail were funneling this experience into a different mental filtration system of overcoming adversity for people with thru-hiking experience.
Also influential was the extent to which people expressed feeling part of the hiking community and, specifically, the extent to which they respected the trail coalitions as organizational bodies trying to keep that community safe. Some people indicated they were ready to make the decision to stay home (or to go home) before the ATC, PCTA, and CDTC issued their advisories, but nearly everyone said those notices were firm markers in the finality of their decisions. Interestingly, one of the three people I spoke to who kept hiking explicitly remarked that he didn’t think that ATC did a very effective job communicating the rationale for asking hikers to stay off the trail. Perhaps there’s something to that; I wish I could’ve talked to more people.
As I mentioned in my article last fall, there are several limitations to the type of “research” that forms the foundation for this article. Many of the same limitations apply here, including selection bias, a small sample size, limited age range, and the fact that all my interviews were with residents of the United States who were embarking on one of the three primary long trails in the United States.
For this article, there’s a big additional limitation to note: the inability to control for global grief. The entire world is arguably grieving the loss of normalcy, the loss of lives, the loss of jobs, and so on. I did my best to isolate questions to only the topic of the trail, but it’s basically impossible to control for global grief seeping into the experiences people told me about. There is a pandemic. It’s real. It’s on peoples’ minds, to say the least. So how much of what people described was grief about thwarted thru-hiking goals, and how much was grief about the very strange existence we are all currently required to embrace? I can’t know for sure.
It’s also worth mentioning that some of the people I interviewed had read that article I wrote last fall. I explicitly asked about this at the beginning of each interview to get an idea of how much the interview might be tainted by the person’s expectations of what I was “looking for” (which truly wasn’t anything except information, but I have to expect some people might not buy that). I actually don’t think people tailored their responses, but it’s there as something that deserves to be acknowledged. And, along with that, there’s the fact that this is just me. It would be interesting to do a similar project with more than one person sifting through literally one hundred pages of notes to have what’s called inter-rater reliability.
Creating SPACE = Creating Goals
I feel torn over how to conclude this article. On one hand, my heart breaks for all the hikers whose dreams are going to be left unfulfilled this summer. For a relatively young person, I’ve had an unusually high number of transformative life experiences and the trail is by far the most magical and powerful. The hiker in me knows what it’s like to seek personal transformation through the trail and, although I don’t know it in the context of pandemic, I do know what it’s like to be prevented from doing that due to something out of your control. (I broke my leg on trail in 2018 and had to go home hundreds of miles early. I pretty much never talk about it because it generated such darkness for me.) On the other hand, the therapist in me wants to tell everyone that the trail is not the only means by which to achieve the type of personal growth that seems to be the cherished ideal so many people are grieving the loss of.
What type of person do you wish to become? What do you want your life to look like? My guess is that you do know the answers to those questions. What would you have to do to make it happen?
Despite the fact that it’s an enormous privilege, taking responsibility for what your life looks like can be downright terrifying. What if you fail? What if what you thought you wanted isn’t really what you wanted and you get trapped in a sad, dried up, boring existence that makes you feel like you’re already dead? Valid concerns. Thru-hiking will teach you that it’s far less likely you’ll fail if you 1) have a goal in mind and 2) take steps towards that goal every day (Purpose). Thru-hiking will teach you to live simply, with people who unconditionally love and accept you ranked higher in your values system than possessions (Simplicity, Community). Thru-hiking will teach you to embrace uncertainty with openness and a willingness to be with what is; it will teach you to embrace the brutality, the discomfort, and all your emotions as they come and go like clouds (Adventure). Thru-hiking will teach you to enjoy pushing your physical limits and show you how strongly your body and mind are connected (Exercise). You can create that SPACE in your every day. You can start being the type of person you wish to be without waiting for the trail to transform you. You can start living the type of life you wish to live without waiting for the trail to show you what that is. The first step is having a goal. What’s yours?
DISCLAIMER: Please seek help from a mental health professional if you are struggling with prolonged, intense negative emotions and/or having suicidal thoughts.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.