Trails for everyone, forever
By Anna Roth
In the early days of the pandemic, Washingtonians were relieved to have hiking and outdoor recreation declared an essential activity “for everyone’s physical and mental health.”
There is plenty of research to back that up, and WTA has been instrumental in making some of that research happen. In 2019, thanks to efforts from WTA and our hiking advocates, a study — Economic and Health Benefits of Walking, Hiking, and Bicycling on Recreational Trails in Washington State — was funded. Later, WTA worked with the Office of Recreation and Conservation (RCO) to publicize the study and the findings, which were impressive.
Collectively, Washingtonians spent 292 million days on trail in 2016. Statewide, people who spent time on trail contributed to $390 million in annual health savings. Adults who spend more time outside report lower rates of depression, and time in nature is particularly good for children’s physical and mental health.
This is critical. Washington reports higher levels of adults suffering from depression or mental illness and more children with major depressive episodes each year than the national average.
The benefits — both mental and physical — of time in nature go on. But the overarching takeaway is that access to green spaces and fresh air is essential. And in 2020, that was more evident than ever.
While the health benefits from trails is a common theme, everyone’s connection to trails is unique. To better understand those connections, we recently asked hikers to tell us why they need trails. Your answers covered a lot of ground (pun intended). From providing a path to recovery to a completely new way of moving through the world, here are a few insights from some of your fellow hikers.
Six years ago, Marie was living in New York, doing weekly mixed martial arts (MMA) sessions with her coach Sal. One day he stopped her during a workout and looked closely at her arm.
“He’d noticed I wasn’t sweating,” she said. “At first he said we needed to rethink my workout, but I still wasn’t sweating, so he finally told me I needed to go see a doctor.”
The doctor diagnosed Marie with hypohidrosis — inability to sweat. Because the body cools itself with sweat, people with hypohidrosis can get muscle cramps or pass out if they exert themselves.
“There’s no cure,” Marie said. “The solution was to tell me to stop doing physical activity. But my job was stressful and I needed the outlet MMA gave me. I loved it. It was fun. I didn’t want to have to give it up.”
Soon, Marie’s work sent her to Dallas, where she had to stay inside for 8 months out of the year to avoid overheating. Even so, 4 years after her diagnosis, her doctor told her she couldn’t stay in Texas.
“I had to live somewhere cooler, where I could be outside,” Marie said. “I couldn’t do most physical activities, except swimming or hiking, and I didn’t know how to hike. You have this mentality living in New York that the hustle and bustle is what it’s all about. I knew nothing about hiking and being outdoors.”
In search of a cooler climate, Marie headed to Washington so she could spend more time outside. When she arrived, she saw photos from a coworker’s hikes and was stunned by the natural beauty.
“I wanted to go to those places,” Marie said. “And (my coworker told me), ‘If you want to learn how to hike, look at WTA.’”
So she did. She read trip reports and browsed the Hiking Guide. She got a tip to check out The Mountaineers’ classes to meet people who like being outside, and folks were only too happy to give Marie advice.
“This was amazing. In NYC, no one helps you, people just rush by,” Marie said. “Sometimes I ask people here why they’re so outgoing and they usually say something like, ‘Because I have a passion for being outside and I want other people to enjoy it too.’”
Marie is building her own knowledge base to share, since she has to do a lot of research to select a hike. When you can overheat in even mild conditions, you have to know exactly how physically demanding a hike is going to be. The data in the Hiking Guide and trip reports were crucial for her research.
“I get up at 4 a.m. because I have to be sure I’m done at 11,” Marie said. “When we’re out there, people think I’m checking my phone for a text, but actually I’m monitoring the weather.”
All that research pays off. Marie says the time she gets to spend outside is essential for her, physically and mentally. Hiking provides a much-need mental break and the physical outlet she needs to de-stress.
“I go out there and forget about work,” she said. “I think sometimes my condition has helped me realize there is more to life than work. The trails here are an incredible experience. This place is beautiful.”
Originally from Chicago, Richard made Washington his home 36 years ago. For most of that time, he worked for the YMCA at the national level, consulting for the nonprofit. After retiring, he took a break but returned to the working world in 2013 to serve as the CEO of the Spokane YMCA. That’s when he started hiking.
“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors — I started my career as a YMCA camp counselor,” Richard said. “And all through my professional career I was exposed to health and fitness programming. So I knew it was important.”
Richard wanted to spend more time outside, but he didn’t know where to go.
“I started using wta.org to find places to go,” he said. “I had no idea we had so many trails around Spokane, within 30 to 45 minutes of my house.”
Those trails became essential to Richard’s physical health in a new way after a motorcycle accident in 2015. He was on Highway 20 when he lost control while trying to avoid a pile of gravel on the roadway. He ran off the road and hit a tree.
“I was in the hospital for the next two and a half months,” he said. “I broke three vertebrae, 10 ribs. My ankle, my shoulder. Dislocated my hip. Broke my wrist. When I got out, it was all I could do to walk 150 feet.”
Richard saw a physical therapist for 4 years after the accident, and she recommended hiking or biking to supplement the therapy. The hip injury left Richard with nerve damage in his right leg, so he feels like there’s extra weight in his right foot. Hiking on uneven surfaces helps him stay sharp.
“She told me the more I get out and move, challenge myself, the better,” he said.
Richard’s recovery plan included getting back on trail, so this was welcome advice. He started with short walks, working up to a couple of miles, then longer.
“My sweet spot is 6 to 8 miles,” he said. “After 8 miles, my right leg gets tired. But I get a lot out of being outside. I find it so energizing and peaceful. It has been so helpful to regain my strength and balance. And it’s nice to have quiet time alone.”
Richard also enjoys hiking with company. His extended family is in Spokane, and he loves that hiking offers an inexpensive way to connect while enjoying a healthy activity. He gets on trail with family frequently. He loves to see his grandkids interested in hiking, and believes time on trail is teaching them other values as well.
“I think they’re going to respect the environment and have an appreciation for it,” he said. “When I see them go hiking, I feel really good about that.”
Bonnie builds her confidence and physical fitness through hiking, but challenging herself outside has also guided her through addiction and times of uncertainty. Beginning in the late 90s, she started taking annual trips to national forests, where she spent time with other folks who taught her the basics of backpacking and Leave No Trace.
In 2008, Bonnie saw an opportunity to experience the outdoors in a new way when she got into a study abroad program that involved trekking through the Himalayas in India.
“I was pretty out of shape but I wanted to go on this trip so badly,” she said. “When I was accepted into the program, we did a get-to-know-you hike. I remember I wore Doc Martens and really ripped my feet up. I bought my first pair of boots after that.”
Better boots helped her hiking experience, as well as a cane Bonnie bought from a local merchant to help her move through the mountains.
“I never would have made it without that cane,” she said. “But as difficult as it was, I did it. I was in love with hiking.”
A year later, Bonnie was in addiction recovery and discovered a 12-step program that met on Tiger Mountain. She joined them on a hike up West Tiger 3, a popular training trail.
“I remember standing at the top, dripping with sweat and looking around at the group thinking, ‘These are the healthiest sick people I have ever met in my life,’” she said. “I went back to that meeting a lot.”
Attending those meetings helped Bonnie through recovery physically and mentally. She made friends who were in a glacier climbing group, and the idea interested her. Again she found herself unsure she could do something, but yearning to try. She started training, gaining skills and losing weight she’d hoped to shed as part of her recovery process.
“Over the course of 6 months, these people taught me amazing skills,” she said. “I learned the physical part of climbing, and the skills you need to do it, but also how to deal with my fear. And I got more and more conditioned.”
As she built her physical strength and endurance, she learned more skills. She’d struggled with imposter syndrome for years, but the more she learned, the more confident she became.
She started climbing bigger mountains. Mount St. Helens and Eldorado — “Boy, was that hard!” — and in 2019 she made it to the top of Mount Rainier. She remembers the day vividly, particularly the moments before reaching the summit.
“It felt like I was watching myself on a GoPro — I was looking down at my feet and watching myself put one foot in front of the other, seeing my breath and my feet moving and my ice pick,” Bonnie said. “And I was saying to myself, ‘I am a mountaineer.’ It was an absolutely incredible moment.”
So much of Bonnie’s physical and mental well-being comes from being outside. So the limitations the pandemic put on hikers were a challenge.
“When trails closed, I was distraught. Hiking is my self-care,” she said. “For me, there’s no replacement for getting out in nature. When I found out they’d reopened Point Defiance, I headed straight there.”
She came up with a game: Try to stay at the park as long as possible and avoid seeing other people.
“I packed my bag like I was going on a big hike and spent all day there,” she said. “If I saw someone coming, I would duck down another trail. That was the only thing that kept me relatively sane. That and my job.”
When more trails reopened, Bonnie was right back out there. She’s continuing to train for her next hike or climb, whatever that may be. And she has some advice to share, whether you’re navigating addiction, a pandemic or climbing a mountain.
“Someone told me one time — ‘You can do anything that your brain tells you you can do.’ I think there is truth to that. I start going up some crazy steep hill and if I tell myself, ‘You can do this,’ every step of the way, I make it to the top,” she said.
Those are some good words to remember when the going gets tough.
Trails are a significant contributor to our economy and our health. Now, as always, we hope you’ll join us in championing them, as a member or an advocate. We rely on trails to provide us with respite and relief, but we need your help to ensure they’ll be there in the future.