Suicide-awareness hike ends in time for funeral | AspenTimes.com

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Suicide-awareness hike ends in time for funeral

Paul Conrad/The Aspen TimesHunter S. Thompson fan Rick McKinney, with his Duke doll and gonzo tattoo, says hell be watching the Thompson service at the Belly Up. August 19, 2005. He says he'll be watching the funeral at the Belly Up on live, closed-circuit TV

After about 500 miles of walking, Rick McKinney has arrived in Aspen by way of the Continental Divide Trail.McKinney, 38, is a California resident who struggled with depression and contemplated suicide before discovering, after four acquaintances took their own lives, that hiking was therapeutic. He has since gone on medication for his depression and hiked all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.What brought him back to the West this summer for another epic hiking trip was the suicide of author and Woody Creek resident Hunter S. Thompson in February. McKinney, who considers the gonzo journalist a mentor and a hero, chose to embark upon a portion of the Continental Divide Trail in Yellowstone National Park in July and keep hiking until he reached Aspen in time for Thompson’s funeral, which is today.The purpose of the hike was raising awareness for suicide, clinical depression and mental illness. McKinney said it was a “Suicide Prevention Hot Hike” – there are about 30,000 suicides annually in the United States.

But like life, McKinney’s long hike through the West wasn’t perfect. Although Backpacker magazine and Trimble Outdoors, a GPS software company, teamed up to sponsor his hike and lend him a cell phone with GPS technology, when the trail wasn’t well marked, McKinney said, he found himself winging it.”I probably tacked on 60 or 80 extra miles for the times I got lost, going up or down the wrong mountains and fording endless winding rivers,” he said. The Continental Divide Trail is much more desolate than the Appalachian, he said, and he often had to thumb a ride into tiny towns along the way to pick up supplies.He also twisted his ankle the week before embarking on the hike, which slowed his progress and meant that instead of hiking into Aspen, he ended his venture in the town of Empire, near Silverthorne.Although he feels he didn’t raise as much awareness as he would have liked, along the way he did make some personal connections with people who had experienced the suicides of loved ones.

“It underscores how much of a problem this is – in the four weeks I was hiking, I heard of four suicides amongst people I knew,” he said. One friend of a friend who he ran into in a small town told him his best friend from childhood had taken his own life just two days prior.”I talked with him about it, but it was hard having to put my money where my mouth was,” he said. “I’d never done one-on-one counseling like that – it has always been me suffering, hiking to help myself, and here I was hiking in the Wind River Range having to help someone else through this.”McKinney believes a stigma surrounding mental illness and getting medications for depression can lead to people not seeking help when they contemplate ending their lives. When it comes to his favorite author, McKinney said he believes Thompson’s suicide was a more deliberate act – he said he’s more concerned about people for whom depression is an illness and who are continually haunted by thoughts of suicide.

Several years ago McKinney was convinced by a friend to go back on medication for his own depression and that, along with hiking, has stopped his own suicidal thoughts. He plans to publish his own book, “Dead men hike no trails,” this fall – it’s a collection of writing from his hike on the Appalachian Trail.As for the private funeral for Hunter S. Thompson, he said he tried to use various local connections in order to attend the event but said on Friday that he would be watching the author’s send-off cannon blast this evening at the Belly Up nightclub, where there will reportedly be a video of the event shown.He’s also holding a news conference today at noon at the fountain on the Hyman Avenue mall, inviting anyone who wants to speak about suicide and depression to attend. For more information on McKinney’s cause and his writings, visit http://www.jigglebox.com.