Written by Jesse Cody
I nearly wept with pain and fatigue as I willed myself to keep going. My body and my mind were in a grid lock--but at least my mind had found something else to occupy it in lieu of the barrage of dark, self-deprecating thoughts it had been pummeling at me over the last several years. I was climbing this mountain at a snail’s pace. My knees screamed with every step as I crawled toward an alleged peak that was nowhere in sight. I was hiking one of the hardest and longest trails in America: the Appalachian Trail.
I had never even camped overnight before setting foot on the 2200 mile trail for the first time. I was far beyond my comfort zone. I was a strictly urban SOB who knew how to sling drinks, not skip stones. It wasn’t my nature, at the time, to hurdle over life’s peaks and valleys; it was my nature to let myself down, and those I loved.
The desire to hike the AT wasn't some wild idea that I came up with because I had nothing better to do with my time. It wasn't my life's dream to become a wilderness explorer. I found my way to the AT because I was struggling with my mental health and needed help. I needed guidance. I had to find a way to stop thinking that my life wasn’t worth living. I had yet to discover that this life of mine was not only worth living but that it had immense purpose.
I can’t quite remember the first time that thoughts of suicide crossed my mind. There’s no one particular moment in time that sparked it. Becoming suicidal was something that developed over time after accumulated letdowns (my own), insecurity, dishonesty, anger issues and depression.
After poking at me gradually throughout my life, the mental agony finally grabbed me in its gut-wrenching vice-grip. I couldn't figure out how to find my way back to safety. Not that I could ever remember a time where my thoughts felt “normal”. I wish I could say I sought professional help. That I turned to love ones admitting what I was going through and that I was terrified of where my head was taking me. I did none of this. Instead, I honed my acting skills. I showed everyone around me that life was grand. I had a solid job as a food and beverage director at a country club. I lived in a nice place and drove a new car. I had amazing friends and a great family. I always tried to be there for anyone or everyone who asked me for help. I believed if I showed my true cards, I would be judged. I was embarrassed by my thoughts of suicide. How could someone who lived such a solid life want to end it?
Those close to me knew I was struggling. They didn’t realize I was suicidal, but they certainly witnessed my bouts of depression. A few witnessed my emotional breakdowns, and women I dated unfortunately found themselves on the receiving end of my anger, shame, and insecurities. I was a tornado of emotions spinning further and further out of control.
My saving grace was my love for those who loved me in return. No matter how often I thought about suicide, the impulse to act was tempered by thinking about the pain and suffering I would cause so many if I followed through.
I reached the moment when I realized I needed to find help in some form. I wasn’t ready to tell my family the full extent of what was going on with me, but I was ready to understand who I was and why I was suffering so much. The next step was to figure out how I could do so.
I had never been a believer in the whole “the universe provides” thing. I truly didn't have much of a belief system or any spirituality at this time in my life, but just when I was searching for a sign of hope or inspiration, the novel A Walk In the Woodsfound its way into my life for the second time. Years earlier, a friend had given me the book. It made an impression on me, but I had forgotten about it. Then in 2014, Robert Redford announced he would be making this book about hiking the Appalachian Trail into a motion picture, and something in me felt called to give it another read.
It was just a few chapters in that I understood why this book had come back into my life. I needed to go for a walk. A long walk. I needed to work through my inner turmoil. I needed to reprogram the voices that were telling me such negative stories.
Considering that I’d already been contemplating suicide, I figured hiking the Appalachian Trail was worth a try. After all, the worst that could happen (e.g. an untimely death) had more or less become my preferred back-up plan. My chances of actually finishing the hike were low, but I had nothing to lose, and the more I researched the Appalachian Trail, the more I believed it was what I needed.
The day I stood on Springer Mountain in Georgia and took my very first steps towards Maine is the day I not only became a hiker but also took my life into my own hands. I embarked on some long overdue conversations with myself.
The trail threw everything it had at me from the start. Freezing rain fell viciously from the sky for the first few days. At night, my tent did little to insulate me when the temperature dropped below freezing. When the weather wasn’t something to contend with itself, the climbs made my back and knees scream with agony. I passed through the Green Tunnel in Virginia, 500 miles of the same deep wilderness whose monotony made me feel like I was living in groundhog day. Pennsylvania was covered in rock, and the pounding my feet took made it hard to remove my sneakers at the end of the day due to the swelling. The summer season brought simmering heat, blood sucking mosquitos, and wildlife that looked cute in children’s books but that you wanted to avoid in the wilderness--especially black bears.
I often asked myself why the hell I was putting myself through this. You would think the trail was doing its best to make me quit. But I had been a quitter all my life, and I no longer wanted to be curled up in a ball in my bed crying myself to sleep because I had given up on myself. Any tears moving forward would be the result of facing my demons and working through my shit.
At some point something shifted. The more difficult the journey became, the more I wanted thrown at me. Every challenge I overcame deepened my resolve--my will to live. I began to understand that it wasn’t supposed to be easy. What would I ever learn, how would I ever grow, if everyday I faced a smooth, even trail with 70 degree weather and scattered clouds? The trail needed to throw everything at me. It would cut me some slack when I earned it, not when I asked for it. The trail was teaching me that I could actually survive, that I could cultivate the strength and determination to live.
It was just a few weeks into the six month hike that the words “Hike the Good Hike” fell from my lips. I understood that as difficult as this hike we call life can be, there's always some good to glean. I recited these words like a mantra as I trekked from Georgia to Maine, no matter how hard the journey on the trail--and in my head--became at times.
Hiking through the wilderness saved me. It didn't cure me. It didn’t erase the dark thoughts that had been taunting me. Rather, it empowered me to honestly confront them and showed me that I had something to live for, that I was part of something bigger than myself. Hiking handed me a sense of purpose, along with a deep reverence for Mother Nature, and demanded that I do my very best to serve her.
I can’t let her down.
Since my completion of the AT, I’ve written a lot about the many lessons I’ve learned hiking around the country over the last five years. My tone changed from one of sorrow to one of hope. My upcoming book is about how hiking gave me the inspiration to live. Aligning with my purpose and improving my mental health is a day by day journey. The bad days are unavoidable, but I accept those days as opportunities to better understand myself.
I wrote this in honor of mental health awareness month, but for those of us who struggle with mental health, the awareness needs to be year round. It’s a difficult journey that ends tragically for some. As we navigate the treacherous terrain of a global pandemic, many people are suffering from isolation, economic collapse, and existential uncertainty. The need for a collective conversation around mental health is more important now than ever. The wilderness is a powerful resource available to us during this time, and I want to inspire people to turn to it for grounding, guidance, and a big breath of fresh air.
My hope is that we come out on the other side of this frightening abyss with greater knowledge about ourselves, and a deeper will to live; that we establish the necessary support structures to nourish each human life, so that anyone seeking help can easily attain it; that we learn, even through immense struggle, to embrace love.
I hope my story ignites a flame in even just one person to venture out, take a chance, and follow Mother Nature’s trail.
Hike the Good Hike
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Covering those four miles an hour seemed like a distant dream. I moved at a pace dictated by the desert. The quicker you moved, the more you slipped about. It could be agonizing. This was a discomfort unique to the desert, one that I knew well from previous sandy sojourns in the Mojave and White Sands. My twisted mind invited the discomfort in. Let’s tango, desert.
My pack was stocked to survive three days in the backcountry. Though there were a good amount of clouds in the sky, the sun somehow found a way to shine through. And my skin found a way to chafe in the only place the sun don’t shine. My feet felt the burning heat from the sand through my lightweight trail runners. My calves punished me for subjecting them to such a rigorous sandy workout.