So, why do I hike?
I get asked this question a lot. Well, I guess it really got started in 2013 when I was suffering from some back pain and went to my physician for treatment. While sitting in his office, the nurse took my vitals and called the doctor into the room to look at my blood pressure reading, which was 185/120 at rest. I wasn't able to leave the office with those numbers unless it was in an ambulance, so I was started on blood pressure medication on the spot. Further testing from that visit confirmed even more bad news -- I was diagnosed with uncontrolled type-2 Diabetes. I also weighed my heaviest at 263 pounds. I was devastated.
I have never felt my own mortality as much as I did that week. Hell, I wasn’t even 40 yet and I was already on the path to an early death. I had been a pack-a-day smoker for 21 years, never got any routine exercise since my 20's, had a desk job, and my eating habits were out of control. So, I made a commitment to quit my bad habits and do something about it instead of just popping prescriptions and waiting to die.
Getting started with a consistent, productive and enjoyable exercise was the hardest part of my recovery. I knew that I would never stick with a routine that wasn't fun for me, and we all know how tedious it is to keep up a regular schedule at the local gym. I knew I had always been an avid camper, hunter and fisherman who had a passion for just simply being in the outdoors, and I was always envious that there were people who hiked and explored for many miles at a time on a single trip. Long hikes were completely inconceivable to me at the time, but I craved being on the trail more than I knew. Regardless, I knew that I had to start somewhere.
There some amazing backcountry locations in the U.S. that I haven’t seen, hidden in our own national forests, parks, and public recreation areas. Millions of acres of lands available to us in our own backyards that are barely seen by even a small percentage of the population. That was my motivation to use getting outdoors as my way of finally getting healthy and surviving my chronic illnesses. Thus begun a journey of better habits, exercise, and the birth of a strong internal competition to challenge myself to be stronger and healthier than I had ever been in my life.
So, I started walking. Walking around my neighborhood streets in the evening is where it began. That lead to trying to hike a local 3 mile trail close to my home, which I failed at. On my second attempt to climb this small mountain, I reached the summit and felt that rush of accomplishment which grew into a desire to do it again. And again. And again. Before I knew what was happening, I was looking for other local trails to test myself.
Within 2 years, my wife and I set foot on my first section hike of the John Muir Trail with a full pack of gear and food on my back and 28 miles of alpine wilderness ahead of us. I had never felt so physically fit in my entire life after that adventure, and I was hooked. Training continued with local hiking, and the following summer we set out on another section of the JMT again, conquering Mt. Whitney in a 48 mile trip. I came back to the JMT in 2017 and finished the final 160 miles in the solo adventure of a lifetime.
In the process of all of my hiking to this point, I have naturally brought my blood pressure down to manageable levels, almost to the point of being removed from my medication. My Diabetes a1C reading after my 2017 JMT hike was at completely normal levels without taking any medication at all. I have naturally lost over 45 pounds in these past 3 years simply by eating better and hiking. When I came off the JMT in 2017, I weighed 215 pounds. My back pain is gone, my legs are the strongest that they've ever been, and my old creaky knees are pain-free.
These significant improvements in my health inspire me to push things to the next level. How can I make sure that I don't lose progress on my health now? How can I improve my numbers before my next doctor's visit? I just keep walking, and it works.
All I can think about now is "what's next?". The experience of hiking and backpacking keeps me exercising without it ever feeling like a burden. The freedom of walking through incredible scenery, and the feeling of accomplishment after each hike, is what drives me to keep going for more.
It’s never too late to start taking good care of yourself and to accomplish great personal feats. What better way to do it than with an activity that you love? Think about what you enjoy, and make a physical activity out of it. Get out there and see the world, but do it differently than you ever have and truly challenge yourself. Ditch the pavement and the crowded tourist traps, and let your own two feet to take you somewhere special. Who knows -- it might just save your life.