Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail didn’t cure my depression–but my life was changed by it

Women go to the woods not to prove themselves, but to find each other.

For five minutes late on a Friday afternoon, I was completely lost somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. I couldn’t see or hear my friend Ruth, who should have been just behind me on the opposite side of the ridge. Or the ridge prior to that. I had crossed a lot of such ridges, thinking I’d catch sight of the lake just over the second one.

Classic rookie mistake.

Alone and around my hips in the middle of a quiet green wilderness, I could picture our photographs splashed across the newspaper, a cautionary tale of the dangers faced by women who decide to go it alone in the woods. Ruth and I had teased each other about the possibility that we would need to get rescued during our three-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’d never really been worried about dying. The entire point of the trip was to help keep me alive.

***

When men enter the woods, they frequently seem intent on proving something about their inner courage and strength. Bill Bryson wrote in A Walk in the Woods about his quest to earn the “granite gaze” of a true mountain man. There are people who long for a survival experience, and although they’re not all men, they do seem to be looking for the sort of masculine narrative assembled by stories like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Laurence Gonzales’Deep Survival. Society and pop culture suggest that diving into the wilderness can help you to get in touch with a basic, grizzly inner masculinity that thrives on loneliness and barebones living.

Women make up just 30 percent of hikers, according to the majority of self-reported surveys. A 2015 survey in Backpacker magazine found that they frequently get into overnight trips due to a man. When women do go into the forests, either independently or with one another, they do it for different reasons. As Cheryl Strayed shows in her best-selling memoir Wild, a lot of women enter the woods to not prove their toughness in the face of the elements, but to begin the process of healing.

For my own part, I’d brought a broken heart and clinical depression on my first overnight backpacking trip–along with minimal orienteering skills. I was hoping a while on the trail might replace my emotional pain with physical fatigue, if only temporarily.

On that first day when I lost sight of Ruth, we had an ambitious aim of hiking 11 miles from the small town of Cle Elem, Washington into Lake Spectacle. When Ruth and I found each other again, we stopped to eat a snack. Then, as the more experienced hiker, she brought it up: “So, one of the things we probably should have discussed is not losing vision with a landmark or your partner.”

I nodded. I knew that I never should have lost sight of my friend. Ruth and I were sharing a target and a burden–both literally and metaphorically. She had the stove I had the tent. There was no question of leaving the trail without her. If not for her, I would not have been on it.

That night, we didn’t reach our goal. When we got within sight of the lake, we lost the trail again trying to descend down to the shore. We gave up and set up our tent, as much from the wind as we could be on the side of a mountain. That night, I slept without waking for the first time in months.

But I didn’t feel some deep sense of achievement, either that evening or the next morning. My bones were cold even when I put on every item of clothing in my package. I made instant coffee and Ruth scrambled eggs over the open flame of her camp stove. She took a photograph of me crouching, semi-feral, on the floor with a fork after I’d dropped our eggs in the dirt. They were delicious.

That afternoon, fully conscious that we were feeding a stereotype by studying self-help books on a quest for empowerment, we took turns reading advice columns from Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things to one another on the cold, rocky shore of Lake Spectacle. Then, scary day, the remainder of the trip seemed smooth by comparison. We went skinny-dipping, built a fire, and ate s amores. We attempted primal screaming and didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about. We waved off skeptical (man) hikers who tried to “help” us.

And we talked–about our careers and families, her desire for her boyfriend to propose, my efforts to get over my ex, other goals and aspirations. When we ran out of things to talk about, we were quiet together. I have never quite felt the sort of peace that I did spending time with one of my best friends in the middle of the forest.

And I’ve never felt quite so close to my friend as I did side by side with her, tackling physical needs and unpredictable circumstances. So much of the way that female friends tend to interact focuses on romantic chats over drinks or coffee. But on the PCT, I understood how trekking and backpacking can cement a bond from the way civilized get-togethers sometimes can not.

Former first lady Laura Bush gets it. She hikes in a national park with her girlfriends every year.

“One of the nice things about being women is that we turn everything–pouring rain, wild horses–into a funny story and there are no tense moments like there may be if George was the one trying to put up the tent,” Bush told PeopleMagazine this past year. When women are brave enough to confront a survival experience together, the result is not only self-confidence but what you could call friendship-confidence: The ability to think your buddies will be there for you when you need them.

Backpacker’s survey also reported that 43 percent of all female backpackers cry during a trip. I didn’t cry till we were on our way back to Seattle. Ruth texted her boyfriend, and I tried to think of anybody who needed to know that I’d made it safely back to civilization. But I had been in the midst of a lonely time; I had not found it necessary to tell anyone I was going out of town for a week, much less going off the grid for three times. I wasn’t scared of getting lost in the woods since I was lost in life.

***

When I got home, my life was still a wreck. However, the time on the PCT had helped me do some sorting through my essentials. Those of us who struggle with depression often pack our bags a little differently than everyone else. It doesn’t get easier to carry all at once. However, you can learn how to pare it down.

I live in Colorado, where hills are a status symbol. “How many fourteeners have you done?” Is a routine question–a reference to Colorado’s 53 14,000-foot mountains. Climbing them does represent me achievement. However, the achievement isn’t conquering them. It’s that I keep putting one foot before the other.

Nowadays, I have invested enough in the wilderness experience to own a back pack that fits, hiking poles, waterproof sandals, and my own tent. Last summer, I reached the summit of three 14,000 foot mountains and hiked the Continental Divide–and I did it all with different women, sharing the challenge and the achievement in an experience that was more about bonding than survival. I was in Ruth’s wedding in June, and we’re planning another trip to the PCT soon.

Meanwhile, I’m in therapy. And I understand now that there are people who will care, and try to help, if I get lost in the forests.

You can follow Alicia on Twitter @aliciacohn. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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