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Mental Health Trail Lesson: The Right People Reenergize Us

When our human batteries run low, physically and mentally, we need to plug in. At times, recharging means sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness or other forms of self-care. Often, however, the most nourishing self-care comes from spending time with good people.

This may be a mental health insight, but it applies equally well whether at work, home or play. For me, a hike etched the concept into my mind. The mental health trail lesson was clear. Sometimes we need people to reenergize us.

I can’t even begin to explain why I kept going past my planned limits.

I arrived at Yellowstone National Park only late the evening before. I woke up early to hike the Seven Mile Hole Trail. It’s a 10-mile out-and-back round trip, with the equivalent of less than 200 flights of stairs down and up in elevation change.

Looking up the Yellowstone River from the bottom of the Seven Mile Hole Trail.

Heading down to the 6,600 feet of elevation at the trail’s Yellowstone River bottom, I was okay. I had worried that hiking on my first day at altitude might hit hard. I did struggle coming back up. I stopped frequently to let my thighs and calves calm their throbbing. I had to control my heart rate and breathing. But I had expected to hurt with so much of the trail’s elevation change packed together.

Once I made it back out of the hole, my legs quickly reenergized. I hydrated and inhaled enough calories while I rested on a long-downed log. I drank extra to stave off risk of altitude sickness.

As I hiked back toward the trailhead, I saw a turnoff toward Mt. Washburn. Mt. Washburn had been my hiking plan for the next day. I decided to try and do it then in order to free up a day to see more. I didn’t consider that I was adding an extra thousand feet of elevation gain, and more miles too, taking the spur trail rather than going up and down from Dunraven Pass. More importantly, I was doing it on depleted muscles.

As I approached within about a mile of the peak, my legs gave out. I simply couldn’t go any more. If I could have taken an hour to rest, they might have refreshed. But thunder and lightning in the distance were moving rapidly my direction. As much as I wanted to reach the summit, I didn’t want to be exposed in the open just as lightning arrived. I certainly didn’t have the legs to speed up.

So I quit on the hike, turning around to head back down the spur trail. I had planned to say a prayer for my recently deceased uncle and godfather when I reached the summit. I don’t pray often, so was disappointed I hadn’t made it, feeling like I’d failed him.

Although the return down the spur trail was far easier than going up, it was still a struggle. By the time I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, I had 15 miles on then-aching legs. I’d done a decent job hydrating so was fortunate not to feel altitude sickness. Still, I was short of water and had sucked down the Gatorade I packed. I was moving very slowly.

As I turned back onto the Seven Mile Hole Trail, two women were coming back from their hike down Seven Mile Hole. They slowed for a few minutes as we exchanged pleasantries and talked about the challenges of steep, gravelly trails. We talked about where we were from and what we did. After a while, they were anxious to move quicker. I couldn’t keep up.

Before long, they were out of view. Minutes later, I heard a voice shouting from ahead. It was one of the women. “Hey, we didn’t get your name,” one yelled back. I sped up enough to catch up and introduce myself to the couple.

They walked more slowly. I pushed as fast as my legs would allow. We talked about politics, religion, suicide prevention and the responses they received when they came out to their families, seemingly covering just about every subject that societal stigmas would tell us are taboo when meeting new people. The last three miles of what had been a tough hike passed quickly. I learned from their experiences, and hopefully shared some ideas in return. They reminded me of another couple, close friends who make life better every time I see them.

I’d been barely functional when I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, but their energy gave me the motivation to keep moving. Their stories and insights distracted me from physical pain. I was grateful to have met them.

That day isn’t the only time I’ve felt sapped of energy. Even without the excuse of having already hiked 15 miles, I’ve found many times through life that I just didn’t have it in me to take the next step. I couldn’t get myself to do more. I wanted to collapse in front of the television and stay there immobile for countless hours, days, even weeks and months. Depression can have that effect, but so can pushing our bodies and minds past their capacities.

On the worst days, the best way for me to find the energy to get up and go is to walk side-by-side with someone who takes the time to care. The boost of energy I got from spending time with these women I had met as strangers carried me through the day. Family, friends and colleagues have served that role countless times over many decades, often at times more critical than they would know.

Maybe that’s why the best jobs are ones shared with good coworkers and managers. Perhaps that’s why the best relationships involve the give and take of recharging each other. Certainly that’s why the right human interactions are such an important part of mental health.

At a recent mental health forum, a speaker who had spent years in prison solitary confinement talked about how people there would deeply cut themselves just to be taken to the prison hospital. There, they would talk to someone who seemed to care. They would feel the long-lost sensation of touch, just enough to remind them of their humanity.

Appropriate hugs and other touch are certainly important parts of human connection. On that day, during that Seven Mile Hole hike, it was words that I needed.

Those words, suggesting care, concern and interest, gave me the energy to keep going.