To California man, hiking is a step toward mental health | AspenTimes.com

To California man, hiking is a step toward mental health

Naomi Havlen

Rick McKinney of Idyllwild, Calif., plans on hiking the Continental Divide Trail this summer. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

Three acquaintances and one close friend of Rick McKinney’s killed themselves in 2003. McKinney, reeling from the loss of his friends, feared for his own life since he had been suffering from severe depression himself. Two years before, he was living in San Francisco and making a good living in the computer industry. But he woke up every morning wondering whether to jump off the Bay Bridge.A friend convinced him to go back on medication for his illness, and his condition improved. But with the suicides in 2003, something else nagged at his mind – the need to get moving. McKinney, a resident of Idyllwild, Calif., put on some shoes in the spring of 2004 and started hiking in Georgia. Six months later he wound up in Maine, having completed the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.”I met a lot of people along the way, and it was very therapeutic,” he said. “Nature is a great healer. There’s something about getting up in the morning and only having to do one thing – walk north. It was nice to not think about anything else.”

Suicide awareness will bring McKinney, 38, to Aspen later this summer. On his next long hike, he’ll start in Yellowstone National Park and walk south along the Continental Divide Trail, skipping the basins of southern Wyoming and arriving in Aspen in mid-August.It was author and Woody Creek resident Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide in February that made McKinney conceive this most recent journey. Although he never met the late author and creator of gonzo journalism, McKinney loves to write and considers Thompson a mentor. He originally planned to attend Thompson’s Aug. 20 funeral service before learning that the ceremony, in which the author’s ashes will be shot out of a cannon on his Woody Creek ranch, is closed to the public.”I was devastated [by his death],” McKinney said. “It was like one more blow. It made me feel like I had a mission to take what I’d learned and spread the message, as it were.”He started researching death statistics and was surprised to find suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death for men in the United States and that there are about 30,000 suicides annually.His own experience with suicidal depression makes him want to give back to the world, reducing the stigma that exists around both depression and suicide.

“There is an understanding about depression, but there’s still an onus about it that makes people like my close friend Luciano [who killed himself in 2003] not talk about what’s going on in his head,” McKinney said. “He was ashamed and then we lost him.”By going on medication, McKinney admitted to himself that he had a disease. And by going hiking, he found a larger sense of inner peace that he hopes to communicate to the world.With a Palm Pilot and a collapsible keyboard in his pockets, McKinney wrote more than 150,000 words during his long journey in 2004. He has compiled his writing into a book, “Dead men hike no trails,” that he plans to publish this fall.”[Depression] is a tough thing to live with, but like any illness, if society becomes more accepting of it, the people who suffer from it wouldn’t feel as bad about it,” he said.So far, he has obtained sponsorships from Merrell shoes and MontBell outdoor clothing for his summer hike on the Continental Divide. Once again he plans to do some writing from the trail, but he has the added goal of getting the word out about his hike so people will learn about suicide and depression.

“I believe that someone can get out of bed and start hiking and experience the beauty of the forest and the freedom of it,” he said. McKinney still takes medication for his depression, and he said that’s another critical component of his health. “But I also think you should crawl to the nearest trailhead and start hiking – it’s that simple.”McKinney’s writings and news about this summer’s Suicide Prevention Hot Hike are available at http://www.jigglebox.com, or e-mail him at duke@jigglebox.com.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com