In 2017, suicidal and depressed, I dropped out of Cornell University to hike in Patagonia and then hike the 2,000-plus miles of the Pacific Crest Trail solo. Here are lessons learned from thousands of miles in the wilderness —then and since.
I had been suicidal and depressed for a year and had not slept properly in weeks.
I just have gotten up from taking a twenty-minute nap under my desk. And I have knocked down the acrid-sweet flavor of a Starbucks double shot espresso and scratched my pen intently on printer paper for the second-to-last microfluidics problem, smearing blue ink across the side of my hand and forearm. I am under fluorescent lights at my cubicle at Cornell, the clock ticking towards the submission of my take-home final.
One year previously, an ACL injury had incapacitated me physically —and surprisingly— psychologically and emotionally as well. My reality became consumed by depression and insomniac hallucination.
Sometime during those sleepless weeks, my dear friend had invited me on a trip to Patagonia, and I was in. A few days after I turned in that last final, I walked away from a full-ride to a world-renowned graduate education. And opened a brave —and scary— new chapter. One without clear road signs or train tracks.
I got on a plane to Argentina and the depression of the past year disappeared with the snap of a seatbelt buckle. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
This was my first feeling of rightness.
The second feeling of rightness came a few months later. I knew my time in Patagonia had concluded, and I had this deep feeling that it was now time for me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. In a week, I was on a plane back to the States, printing maps, gathering gear, and packing food in the apartments of my incredible and supportive friends —lacing my boots onto trembling feet —being dropped off at the trailhead by my mom, who had completely changed her mind about graduate school being the best direction for me.
Setting off towards Canada, I felt it again —that distinct sense of rightness. In stark contrast to the deep wrongness I had felt for over a year, I knew that this was more than just what I would have fun doing, but that I was taking a vastly important step towards becoming my whole self.
This was my first lesson on the Pacific Crest Trail: trusting in my deep and intuitive sense of knowing. My internal direction that points towards my soul’s purpose.
Our society teaches us that rightness is structural. It’s formulaic. It can be predicted through logical reasoning and it can be found in getting a specific job, a specific salary, in marrying a specific person. Rightness, the billboards say, is in looking a certain way, in weighing a certain amount, in having just the right amount of cheekbone, but not too much.
Somehow, I had concluded that the ‘right’ thing for me to do was to go to Cornell to do a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. Even though my gut was screaming NO.
Hiking began to teach me that rightness is intuitive. Rightness is not a specific thing, but a feeling —a knowing. And our knowing points us like a compass towards the magnetic draw of our destinies.
A few years later, on an afternoon hiking in Montana, I looked up to see an intricate spider web. The spider was in the process of weaving, I stared —fascinated. And as it glided between each strand, knitting its glimmering thread onto the growing web.
It occurred to me that no one had taught the spider to weave its web. It was born knowing.
And at that moment, I realized that humans are no different — we were born knowing how to become what we were meant to become. Just as the spider knows how to spin its web, and the acorn knows how to become an oak, we too knew what we supposed to become.
—Before a billboard told us who we were supposed to be.
All Lessons Learned from Hiking 2000 Miles Solo, Episodes: