Shilletha Curtis "Dragonsky" is a hiker, writer and influencer from New Jersey who is currently pursuing the Triple Crown of Hiking. She graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 but found her calling in nature. She recently completed the Appalachian Trail in 2021 and is headed out to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail in April of 2022. Shilletha's goals are to be the first lesbian Black woman to achieve the status with the completion of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2023.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine was extremely physically challenging, but there's another component: this 2,193 mile trek is purely a mental game.
These rugged mountains seldomly bare mercy and will indeed chew you up and spit you out like a piece of gum. Carrying a pack is one thing, but carrying my brain along with it added more weight than one can imagine. Having been diagnosed with severe treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD, and hiking as a solo woman, made the AT thru-hike a perilous journey.
Long-distance hiking is a journey of love and war. My mind is a battlefield and I'm just trying to navigate through the forest unscathed. Silence can be my best friend or my worst enemy, and usually it's the latter. The stillness of the forest is a stark contrast to the storm that bears its fury in my mind. Hiking through four seasons without the safety and comfort of the support I have back home meant that I had to adapt and learn new things to help me along the way.
Here’s what worked for me on the AT and what I look forward to carrying along with me on my next adventure — thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
Safety Device: Garmin inReach
Whether dealing with a mental health crisis, physical injury or for general ease of mind, having a Garmin or other safety device is a game-changer.
Being a solo woman, especially of color, in the outdoors comes with its unique set of fears. Not only am I being targeted (generally by men) because I’m a woman, but I’m also targeted because of the color of my skin. Hiking through the South placed me in situations in which I generally felt that my life could be endangered. At one point my phone died, and I was being followed.
Having the Garmin allowed me to text a friend for help and I was immediately taken out of the situation. There was also a situation in which I had to hit the SOS. The folks on the other line immediately reached out to check if I was safe and offered to send help. I attached my Garmin to the front of my pack for easy access and took it with me to go to the bathroom just in case. I like to be prepared rather than scared.
Journaling/Filming: Rite in the Rain Notebook
If I could do the AT again, I would have chosen to write and film more. Writing was healing for me in the sense that I was able to see my growth and process any negative emotions that I was feeling. At the start of my hike, I woke up early in the morning and journaled for ten minutes. As time went on and the trail became more challenging, I neglected writing. I regret it to this day. When my depression was intense, just seeing my thoughts on paper and shredding it up into pieces helped me cope. After my hike, I wanted to remember what I felt in Georgia versus New Hampshire. I wanted to see where I had been and where I was going, who I used to be and who I became. Plus, the memories are precious and easy to forget as the clock ticks. I like the Rite in the Rain waterproof journal.
This is a huge one. Every single morning, I stretched every inch of my body from head to toe. I figured well, my dog is doing this every morning so there has to be some health benefits!
Not only does stretching before and after a hike prevent injury, it decreases stress and prepares your body to crush some miles. Stress injuries are no joke. I have never experienced one but have met many hikers who have cut their hike short due to repetitive stress and strain. Being tired can be a deterrent to stretching but tiredness is the cost of thru-hiking. We only get one body and it deserves the care it needs.
Whether thru-hiking the AT, CDT or the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), I plan to continue to take care and listen to my body. Hiking as a solo woman with mental illness can be daunting but having these made my journey that much more meaningful. Staying safe physically and mentally has always been my biggest priority.
After all, my feet have carried me 2,193 miles, and they are gearing up to take me 3,100 miles more. I want to remember my biggest challenges and greatest victories and I will by making sure that my ink hits the paper every single day in the valley of the mountain gods.
The Continental Divide Trail calls and this time my body and mind will be more prepared than ever.