by HIKE for Mental Health co-founder, Tom Kennedy
This week we conclude our interview with Susan Letcher. Now a tropical ecologist and assistant professor of environmental studies, Susan made history as one of the Barefoot Sisters who completed a round-trip thru-hike, a yo-yo, of the Appalachian Trail. Click here for part one and part two of the interview.
Tom: At the very end of your second book you say “we hiked over the knife’s edge and into the rest of our lives”. For many people, a journey like this would be a life changing event, and I think it likely was for you. Could you tell us who you think Susan Letcher would be and what she might be doing if she had not gone on this incredible journey. How did the experience help make you the incredible woman you are today?
Susan: Part 1 has a short answer: no. I don’t think I could tell you who I’d be if I hadn’t hiked the AT, because that adventure has in a way shaped everything that followed. I have no idea where I would be and what I’d be doing if I hadn’t hiked, just that it would be very different from what I do now. And probably more boring.
The long answer, about how the Trail changed me… I guess the lessons I learned on the Trail were not exactly the ones I was expecting. I went into it expecting something about connection with nature, solitude, self-reliance, and learning my strength. Instead the major lesson for me was humility. I learned about the all-consuming, implacable power of nature, before which the human spirit is reduced to a guttering candle flame in a tempest. There are forces out there completely beyond our control or even understanding, and situations where we have no bargaining power.
In the modern developed world it’s easy to lose sight of this, but when you’re stranded on a mountaintop in a blizzard or outrunning a summer thunderstorm on a ridgetop you realize how powerless we really are when stripped of the conveniences and trappings of civilization. We could be snuffed out so easily. And the storm is beyond malevolence or benevolence; it just has its storm nature, which is about redistributing the energy of the universe. When you see that kind of power in action and your own insignificance beside it, you have to be humble.
The other big thing I learned out there is to value that spark of brightness that is the human soul, and the way it glows so beautifully against the backdrop of the maelstrom. Despite our pettiness and the horrors we are capable of, inside every one of us is the power to stand in the storm and reach out to the others around us and say, “we’re not alone.” We can share the heartbreaking joy of living in this world. We can build trails together and write silly songs, and sit around the campfire debating whether any of it means anything at all. Companionship of kindred spirits got me through that winter on the trail, and I know it will get me through anything life throws at me.
Thanks for establishing Hike for Mental Health. I am honored to be counted as an inspiration for this effort. As someone who has suffered from depression, I value your efforts to support research into healing mental illness.
Susan, all the thanks goes to you for inspiring us and being willing to share your story.