Editor’s note: Throughout October, our #hikeOctober guest writers share what hiking means in their lives.
I could never articulate exactly why, but I have always loved to hike. I remember begging friends to accompany me on day-long hikes and trail running to my favorite lookouts. I daydreamed about hiking long stretches of the Appalachian trail and bought a hiking backpack in anticipation of taking such an adventure. I remember the scrapes caused by slipping on wet rocks, wet socks, and being proud of my tired legs.
I remember when I cried because I wasn’t sure I’d ever enjoy hiking again. One afternoon, I woke up in a fog after spending nearly a week in bed. In the months leading up to that day, everything overwhelmed me. I did not eat, or shower, or answer the phone. Getting out of bed also became immensely difficult, so I stopped doing that, too.
I spent a lot of my time sleeping, crying, and enduring the physical and mental effects that comes along with unchecked depression and anxiety. Some days, my anxiety swelled until my symptoms reached a nearly intolerable apex. And then I’d sink, exhausted, into depression’s far corners where not even anxiety’s spiny fingers could reach me. I’d lay inert for hours before the cycle repeated.
The hiking backpack I’d bought, clean and new, was still beckoning me from the corner of my room. I kept promising myself that, once I felt well again, I’d take it on a trip. It still pains me that I sold the backpack before that day ever came.
I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder during what I beg will remain darkest period of my life. While I grappled a bit, I felt something I hadn’t in a while: hope. I began to focus on making room for these newfound components of my identity and prioritizing my health– especially my mental health– by making better choices for myself. I started yoga and went back to the gym. I journaled and reconnected with parts of me I thought I’d lost.
Eventually, I began hiking again.
I realized, a few years later, that the reason I’d always loved hiking is because the trails liberated me. And now, that’s exactly what I appreciate most. When I hike, I check in with my mental health; I ask myself how I’m doing. And of course, I have good, old fun just like I used to.
But now, I appreciate those dirty scrapes, wet socks, and tired legs all the more.
I still dream about hiking the Appalachian trail, and have promised myself once more that I will embark on that adventure someday soon. Like anyone with mental illness, I have good days and bad days. Sometimes on those dark, bad days, that dream becomes cloudy. However, I also have the wisdom of knowing that the sun will always rise and the trails will always be there to welcome me back, no matter what. Because of this, I will never again give up on myself, or on hiking.
This is why I #hikeOctober, and hope to inspire others to do the same.
– Cristen Heavens
Click here to learn more about #hikeOctober, an annual program to raise awareness of the challenges of mental illness, fund mental health research and conserve wilderness trails. #hikeOctober is free to join, open to hikers with all experience levels, and an easy way to have your walk in the woods, or around the block, make an impact!