FRH Philosophy: The Cure for Millennial Depression

Get out and walk in nature today. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, a full-fledged hiking trip or anything extravagant. Just get outside, get some fresh air and enjoy the dirt under your shoes and the sun on your head. We now live in a society where it is normal to spend entire days of the week inside. Some people only see the sun and outdoors on their way to and from work. That is not how our bodies have evolved to function. Millions of years of evolution have coded us to find our homeostasis (tranquility) outside in nature. That’s why the sun on our skin creates Vitamin D that gives us energy, smelling flowers and walking in the woods or through the open plains, or feeling a calm breeze on your face releases dopamine in our brains that makes us happy. We NEED to be outside. Not cooped up in an office hour after hour, day after day.

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I’m a part of the millennial generation, the generation that is called “entitled” and “ungrateful”. We’ve grown up in a world dominated by television, microwaves, cell phones and the internet. But instant gratification has shown us time and time again that it is just the opposite of what the title suggests. We form shallow and meaningless internet based relationships with people who want to hang out and do things with you as long as there is nothing better to do anywhere else. If you’re depressed, take a pill. If you have anxiety, take a pill. If you have PTSD because you’ve been through some messed up stuff, just take all these pill and everything will be fine. I went through that following my return from Afghanistan in 2012. The pills don’t work. They make you numb to the world so that you walk through every day like a zombie in The Walking Dead.

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You can’t synthesize happiness. You can’t make and keep friends, real friends, by liking pictures, sending snaps or swiping right. Real happiness comes from experiences, walking to the top of that hill to see the countryside laid out before you. Walking down the dirt path next to work, or next to your house, or school. Not because you NEED to, but because you can. One of the most peaceful sounds on the entire planet is the sound of rain falling on the forest floor. When the plants open up and the aroma of the forest comes to life. The dopamine dump in your brain erases the stress of what we call the “real” world. This might sound too good to be true, it might sound too easy, or maybe like too much work. But it is EXACTLY what you need.

sunrise

 

Happy Trails,

 

Aaron

Clifty Falls

Back before the promotion and move to Texas we hit the creek bed trail at Clifty Falls in Indiana.

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This trail literally follows the creek bed from the terminus all the way to the waterfall.

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The waterfall is technically off limits because of the risk of falling debris from above. But we’re not the type of people that find a waterfall and don’t have a little fun.

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Aside from the AT, this was the coolest hike I went on in 2016 and I hope to make several more trips in the future.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/parks/us/indiana/clifty-falls-state-park?ar%5B%5D=10164113

Happy Trails,

 

 

Government Canyon: Back Country and Nature Reserve

For the last month I’ve been itching to get my pack back on and put in some good miles. My wife Britni and I have both been putting in 60 hour work weeks for nearly the last two months. I’ve been listening to all of the thru hike audiobooks that I can get on Audible, and I reread Lost on the Appalachian Trail (my new signed copy) to try to get me through. But nothing but being out in the wood can get rid of a craving like this. Over the last year I’ve really grown to resent the city, modern conveniences are nice, but dealing with traffic, crime, and hoards of people all the time are enough to make anyone want to run for the hill. Both figuratively and literally. But since I’m still in peak season at work my weekends are reduced and my time off is next to non existent. Nonetheless, I was determined to put in some miles anywhere other than on the industrial concrete floors at work. So I decided to hit up Government Canyon yesterday and hike the biggest loop I could construct from all of its interconnected trails.

Since my foray into the Smokys I’ve redoubled my resolve to get back into shape and lose all the weight that I picked up in Alaska and shortly after separating from the Army. I’ve used hiking to destroy nearly all of my PTSD symptoms, aside from occasional nightmares that broke through even when I was heavily medicated, and seem to be commonplace for other sufferers as well. But hiking helps in that aspect and in the weight-loss department. I was about 285lbs when we made our trip to Tennessee to test ourselves against the mountains. They broke me off, bad. I left feeling demoralized and ashamed of what I’d let myself become. But I knew then and I know now that it wasn’t the last time I’ll be in those mountains, and when I go back, I’ll be taking on all 70 miles and not looking back.

Shortly after the trip to the Smokys, when my resolve was the lowest. I took a promotion that landed me in a huge Amazon building in Florida. I went from having a sedentary 10 hour a day job to having a heavily active (15-20 miles of walking a day) 11 hour a day job. This was all in preparation to launch a new warehouse in South Texas. Where I currently reside. It was hard at first to go from sitting in an office treating sick and injured employees to constantly being out trying to fix the problems before they happen. After my first month of walking close to 50 miles a week I was exhausted and every part of my lower body hurt. But after a while it started to hurt less and less. Now it’s routine, and instead of being a hefty 285lb hiker, I’m a streamlined 265lb hiker (kidding, but I really lost 20lbs from walking at work).

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So 20 pound lighter me decided to get back out on the trail yesterday. Government Canyon was my destination and I was determined to walk all over it. When I first got to the nature area there was no guard in the guard shack where they usually have you pay. It was a brisk 26 degrees in San Antonio and as far as I could tell all of the locals had begun to hibernate. I only encountered 1 other person as I was coming into the park. A lady looking to be a little older than myself was heading out with a day pack, I followed her to the Visitors Center where the only employee, a retiree aged woman was happily passing out park maps and car passes (so you don’t get towed for being in the park illegally). As I was waiting I glanced over at a small bucket full of walking sticks and began to wonder to myself if I should give one a try instead of my trekking poles. I’ve been carrying trekking poles since I started hiking again but I only ever use them in inclement weather, and even then I usually just use one.

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Once I left the Visitors Center, put the car pass in my windshield and got my pack on I had to fight the urge to run down the trail. After about a quarter mile of walking along the access road I hit the trail head and started down one of the many connected trails that I would be on today. The access trail was just a gravel road, like most of the trails that I’ve been on start out. But once I got to the trail I was surprised by how rocky it was. The other portion of government canyon in the front country had been a flat dirt road. The back country was undeniably “hill country”. I haven’t been on rocks like this since the Smokys, it definitely wasn’t as steep as our ascent to Clingman’s Dome, but there were some decent level changes for being in Southern Texas.

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The main trails were all rocky like this and had a few steep climbs leading up to some spectacular views of the surrounding area.

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Once I got back to the nature trails (only open October-May) the rocky terrain changed into soft dirt roads and overgrowth. You could immediately tell that this portion of the trail see’s significantly less traffic. Besides being off limits most of the year, the trailheads to these specific trails are 7 and 8 trail miles into the forest respectively, so most hobby hikers don’t want to put in the extra miles when they get to them.

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The best part about the entire trip, aside from getting to spend 5 hours out in nature, was that this was the first time I’ve ever completed a 15 mile hike and felt like I could have kept going. As it turns out, walking 15 miles a day and climbing countless stairs for 11 hours a day 5 days a week actually translates hiking fitness.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/texas/government-canyon-loop

Happy Trails,

 

Road to the AT: The Beginning

As far back as I can remember one of the things my father has always said is that he wants to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in his lifetime. Most of the time when I was growing up this was a “someday” muse. Something he would say infrequently and I would say that I wanted to go with him, then conversation would change to something else. We always spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up, riding bikes, camping and exploring several acres of forest behind my grandparent’s house. The latter being a favorite past time of my siblings and I, every time there was a family get together or excuse to go to our grandparent’s, we were out in the woods. But sometime after graduating high school, while juggling a bills, work and responsibility I became a homebody. Even during my military service (aside from Afghanistan) when the day was over we were having get togethers at the house, watching movies or some other indoor activity. Even in Alaska, where there was so much to do in vast wilderness. I kick myself now for not hiking some of the awesome trails that I was within driving distance of for those years.

I didn’t really find my love for hiking until about a year ago. Just before the New Year, having struggled with increasing weight, alcoholism and marriage woes stemming from PTSD symptoms that I have been dealing with for years. Having been medicated by the VA to the point that I was numb to everything and basically going through my weekly routine like a zombie. I decided that 2016 would be a different year for me. I had gained so much weight that running was painfully hard on my knees and ankles, but walking was easy enough to manage. So after doing a few quick google searches about how to optimize calories burned while walking, I came across article after article about backpacking and hiking and just how many calories the sport burns.

Shortly after that I sent my father a cryptic “I think I’m going to start hiking this year so I can lose weight’ text. To which he replied that he would hike with me to help me lose weight and get healthy again. A few weeks later and after several hundreds of dollars’ worth of Amazon purchases to outfit myself, we picked a snowy Sunday the second week in January as our first hiking trip. We looked up local trails in the Morgan Monroe State Forest area, about a 40 minute drive from my house at the time. Once we decided to check out the “Low Gap Trail”, Dad drove up about an hour from where he lives and we set out in the fresh snow. After about an hour long 45mph drive on treacherous highways, and passing the trail twice (this picture is from a power line access ¾ of a mile down the road from the trailhead that we thought we were at) we set out.

I threw a 40 pound pack, laden down with an enormous amount of crap that I never could have used on a day hike under any circumstance, on top of my 290lb frame (at the time). Now, if you’ve never hiked on a trail in fresh snow. Imagine trying to walk uphill at a 15/25 degree incline in the finest powdery sand that you can imagine, with an extra 40 pounds on your back. Needless to say I was questioning my life choices after about the first quarter mile. We stopped at the top of the second “big” hill that we encountered and I vividly remember standing there, in the middle of nowhere with my Dad, catching my breath and watching the snow continue to fall. I remember how peaceful it was in that forest, away from the sounds of the city and people complaining about the snow and the cold and everything else that we can think of to complain about. The only sound I heard was the soft patter of snowflakes bouncing off my hat and the calamitous thumping of my heartbeat in my ears. We continued on past newly fallen trees, over a creek bed and down a ravine. About a mile and a half into the 10 mile trail when we came across a camp site completely buried in snow. So we decided to drop our packs and get a fire going to warm up. My Dad was an Eagle Scout growing up and spent most of his adult life in the Army, I spent 4 years in Alaska, soaking up extreme cold weather and deep wilderness survival skills from field problems and mandatory trainings that you get living in a place as frigid and deadly as interior Alaska. But none of that mattered to the fire pit that day. We dug the pit down to the ash base, carved the ice covered bark from the twigs we found for kindling (it had rained for days before it froze and snow came) and found some dry leaves on some standing deadwood nearby. But after 30 minutes of trying everything, including torching everything with a propane cook stove, we still had no fire.

At this point we decided that the best way to war up would be to hike back to the truck the way we came. As we were backtracking, following our footsteps from 30 minutes earlier that were already filling in with new snow, I started to realize what I’ve been missing. Sweaty and out of breath despite temps in the low teens, lamenting myself for getting so out of shape and letting something like PTSD change so much of me I started to feel like this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Out on some crazy winter adventure with my Dad, bragging about how outdoorsy we are but failing to start a fire when we really could have used it. My first of many hike therapy sessions took place on that 1.5 mile stretch of the Low Gap Trail in the fresh Indiana snow. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to fall in love with the outdoors again and it would change my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.

2016 Hikes: My Favorite Pictures

We had a very active year in 2016, logging hikes in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee/North Carolina and Texas. We put hundreds of miles on our trail shoes and even more knowledge in our heads. These are just a few of my favorites from the hundreds of pictures that we took during all of our hikes.

Be sure to follow our social media links to see the rest.

Lytle’s Loop at Government Canyon

Back in October, before things started to get crazy at work. My wife and I found Government Canyon not far from where we live, just South of San Antonio.  There’s an entrance fee of $6 a person for the day, I don’t like it, but I pay so that I can get my fix. There are a handful off trails ranging in length between a few miles and 8-10. Both split between the front country and back country areas. We have to hike in the front country area on this day because we have our dogs with us and they are only allowed in this portion of the park.

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Up until this point the majority of my hikes have been in cold weather since renewing my love for the past time in January while still living in Indiana. Indiana hikes were through heavily wooded areas with running streams and small hills throughout. The few summer hikes I managed before leaving to Florida for work in June had been mild, with the exception of one 90 degree day. South Texas is altogether different than what I’m used to. The temperatures remain in the high 90’s to low 100’s most days but we get lucky today and the temp stays in the low 80s, the terrain in flat and rocky and the soil here is heavy with clay. I’ll find over the course of the next few months following this that the soil is the reason for the frequent flooding in San Antonio following just about any significant rainfall. There are very few hills in this particular area even though we’re in the “Texas hill country”. Most of the trail is flanked by wildflowers this time of the year and there are many cactuses lining the trail as well, which is new for me so I enjoy seeing them.

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I do have a heightened fear of rattlesnakes in this rocky terrain, not because I’m afraid of being bitten. Because I have my dogs with me and I know they will not know the danger and will try to investigate if we come across one. Today the trail was very lightly trafficked and we only come across a few other hikers on the 5 mile loop. We decided to choose a shorter trail because this is first hike that our dogs have come on and they are not ready for a longer trek. As it is we finish the 5 miles dragging the dogs behind us because they’re tired of walking across the rocks and are used to being idle in a small apartment every day, so they’re unprepared the sudden increase in physical exercise. They complete the trail and are happy to jump back into the air conditioned truck, once we get back home they move slowly and sleep often for the next couple of days. I’m not sure they appreciate the trail quite as much as Britni and I do.

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Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/texas/lytles-loop-trail

Happy Trails!

 

Hiking into the Future: What comes next.

I’ve been on hiatus from blog posts since a work promotion took me from Indiana to Texas to launch a new Amazon building. The move was expensive and taxing and work has been so hectic that I’ve only been able to day hike twice since relocating. But I hope to get out and start hiking more frequently again once things slow down after Christmas.

In the time since relocating I’ve struggled with my vision of Free Range Hiking and what I want to do moving forward. I initially started this about a year ago as a way to share some of the adventures that my father and I were going on during out weekend hikes. But along the way I started to see benefits to the weekend hikes that I didn’t anticipate when I started doing this.

I went from dealing with near crippling PTSD, heavily medicated by the VA to deal with my “issues” and having a severe drinking problem. In the last year I’ve managed to overcome my PTSD symptoms, no longer need to use any of the medications that I was on before and have developed a healthy respect for the bottle and what it can do if you let it take a hold of you.

For me, being out in nature is a form of healing. I feel “reset” after a day or two out in the woods. The peace and comradery that comes with hiking alone and in small groups outdoors, sharing knowledge and enjoying all of the simple things that the world has to offer is such a stark contrast to the concrete prisons that we have all become accustomed to living in that it feels almost alien at first. But after a while you start to understand that this isn’t just where you WANT to be, it’s where you NEED to be. There is something deep down within all of us that comes alive when we’re out in nature, something that dies a little bit the more we confine ourselves in our decorated dungeons that we call home, with fancy electronics and shiny cars that marry us to payments and mortgages that we resign ourselves to for our entire lives. Things and the pursuit of more things. Now when someone says something along the lines of “When it’s all over it won’t be the things that you had that you remember, it will be the experiences that you cherish” it’s almost like reading a hallmark card. The words are nice, we think about it for a moment before we go back to dreaming about that big house and fancy car that we want to get.

I don’t want to live by those rules anymore and I don’t want to chase the things that society says I need to be happy, because I don’t need them. I want to show other people that they don’t need them either. If hiking and enjoying the outdoors can help me overcome two crippling disorders without the use of medication, why not use it to help other people?

I ask myself this question almost daily now, I talk to family and friends, veteran buddies, colleagues and anyone that will listen. During these conversations I’ve found other people who have gone through the same things and found outdoor recreation to be as therapeutic as I have. So I keep asking myself, why not share this with more people? That question burns in my mind day in and day out. So I’ve finally come to the decision that I want to use the Free Range Hiking name as a platform to help other Veterans and sufferers of PTSD and other anxiety disorders. I want to use it as a way to help people who feel like the VA healthcare system or the traditional healthcare and mental health routes are not working or are not for them. During the next year I plan to establish a donation fund or possibly register FRH as a 403c Charitable organization with a mission to fund trips and outfit those in need of alternative or “hike therapy” to deal with PTSD, anxiety and depression. During this time I plan to work with members close to the organization to branch out and begin accepting applications across the country for event hosts and hike guides. Experienced, capable, qualified individuals that would be willing to donate time to help out people in their area that need these hike therapy trips. I expect the growth of FRH to be slow out of the gates and it will likely operate mainly out of Texas where I am currently located. But may also have a limited capacity in Indiana.

We will still be doing leisure hikes, posting pictures and sharing articles that we find helpful. Our ultimate goal is still to become Thru Hikers on the AT. But in the mean time we want to start helping people along the way and do our small part to make a positive impact in the world while bringing more people into the world of hiking as a way to heal from within.

Happy Trails Everyone,

Aaron