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.
It is impossible to know when the suicidal thoughts finally stopped, but somewhere into hiking 700 miles through the desert, I realized I just did not have them anymore.
I had been suicidal and depressed for more than a year before starting on the Pacific Crest Trail. During that time, my internal world alternated between a storm of toxic thinking and a feeling of numbness. I never would have thought that I could just walk it off. But as the days, weeks, and even months went by, they slowly disappeared.
Until one day I woke up and realized I just… did not have them anymore.
When I went through Oregon, the weather decided to dump snow, so I hiked through foot-deep snow for eighty miles. The going was tough, but my mind was crystal clear like the snow on the peaks and I had a smile on my face even in sleet, fog, or hail. Snow shimmered on the trees, and when the sun came out, the pines would pitter-patter as they wept tears of joy.
My mind had shifted from a tight, frenzied panic into a loose, drifting flow. Instead of clenching and buzzing, my thoughts would land on one thing, then flutter to the next. I realized they had unwound, opened out, freed themselves, and become relaxed.
When I got off my 5 months on the trail, I landed in Seattle. My friend called me one day and began to talk about how busy she was, and how stressed she was. About all the things she needed to do and become.
None of it made sense to me anymore.
All these things that I used to relate to were now a figment of an imaginary past. Papers, exams, due dates… It was all rush, rush, hurry, hurry. Getting things done but going nowhere. It was charging headlong alongside the caffeine-frenzied stampede of society, without ever looking around and figuring out where the whole darn herd was going.
Nearby, the subway arrived at the station, and —as if in slow motion— I saw a hundred people go by dressed in suits and sweatshirts and dresses. They were carrying laptop bags and wearing headphones. All of them were staring straight ahead and ignoring each other, looking stressed and sad and angry. My heart broke a little, and I wanted to cry.
We were a society shooting up on busyness to distract ourselves from the beauty of a maple in autumn.
I turned back to my friend talking on the phone. I heard the tightness and constriction in her voice, the clenching, and buzzing of her thoughts. The underlying sense of urgency. I realized that this was society. This was humanity. This was our world. When I got off the phone, I walked through the downtown and saw the advertisements for makeup, for cars, for insurance. They said: “You are not beautiful enough, you are not sexy enough, you are not worthy enough, you are not safe” …until you buy this product.
The advertisements began to sound LOUD. I heard the voices of the people writing those ads whispering into peoples’ minds. Then I felt those voices begin to flicker in my mind – I shook them off and shuddered.
I knew at that moment why I have depression, why I had panicking, buzzing, self-abusive thoughts. The civilized world had become a swarm of messages, humming like a hive of bees, echoing what everyone else had said. I was hearing the echo of humanity.
I continued to walk through downtown, my mind as still and clear as a mountain lake, feeling the panicked rush of humanity reverberating around me and felt like a Zen student returning home from 5 months at the monastery.
I looked up to see the light shining through the maple leaves.
All Lessons Learned from Hiking 2000 Miles Solo, Episodes: