Welcome to season two of A Little Green, a podcast from Avocado Green Brands. This season, we invited guests to share stories about how the outdoors has impacted them in positive, life-changing ways.
In episode two, we heard from Mike Fuhrmann, who, after struggling with mental health issues for years, took a chance hike in the woods and discovered the healing power of nature.
Here is his story.
This episode contains a brief discussion of suicide, which may be upsetting to some listeners. If you or a loved one is in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, help is available, please call 988, the National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Hotline, or visit their website at www.988lifeline.org.
Christina Thompson: Welcome back to A Little Green. I’m Christina Thompson. Making this second season has been such a joy, and one of the coolest things about this whole process for me has been realizing how many great storytellers there are out there. Like, people who were born to do it, but they never would’ve thought so. Mike Furhmann is one of those people.
Mike’s story was one of the earliest that we recorded, and I’m really, really grateful for that because his story helps set the stage for just how much nature can play a role in creating a real shift in our lives; how it can be a light through some of our darkest moments.
We caught up with Mike as he was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Because he was about 450 miles in, carrying only the essentials, you may hear some issues with his audio quality. So without further ado, here is Mike.
Mike Fuhrmann: My name is Mike. I am currently in Damascus, Virginia, about 500 miles on the Appalachian Trail. When I was a kid, I went outside sometimes. I grew up in a small town in southern Oklahoma, so it was kind of a case of “Go play outside,” and there were some trees nearby. Riding your bike around the neighborhood or playing basketball with a friend in his driveway, that was about the extent of it. I just picked up hiking toward the end of 2019. I think I was 35 years old when I started hiking. Nature was not a part of my life really at all. I was working in factories, usually a minimum of 60 to 65 hours and sometimes up to 80 hours plus. My life was: go to the factory, come home, and that was six days a week, if not seven.
After I finally walked away from manufacturing, I had a small cleaning company, but I was just working in the middle of the night, which didn’t really help things for me since I would sleep during the day, not see anybody, and then go scrub public toilets in the middle of the night by myself.
The work didn’t bother me, but I don’t think that sort of isolation was what I needed right then. I had spent most of my time relatively isolated in the factory. I would spend a lot of my time in my office or with the cleaning company. I was by myself in a library in the middle of the night. Life was filled with just depression and anxiety, uh, crippling depression, where sometimes I wouldn’t leave the bedroom for several days at a time.
It was a sort of anxiety where somebody knocks on the door, and I know there’s a UPS package coming because I just got the text, but it still is — you kind of freak out and just freeze under the blankets and lay in bed and hope the whole thing is gone, everybody leaves you alone.
Several months later, I also found myself not with idle suicidal thoughts, but I, I realized I was planning it out actually and called a friend who picked up. After that, I started thinking about what I should be doing, or rather, what I should not be doing is a better way of putting it. I had tried therapy, I tried meds, I had tried new hobbies, and a variety of other things and nothing really worked, and I came across a study that said spending two hours or more each week in green space away from home can help alleviate symptoms of depression.
I basically thought, “I’ll give it a shot.” For some reason, I went hiking, and it started out as almost a, “Whatever, couldn’t hurt, right? How’s it going to be worse?” So I went hiking and, uh, it didn’t get worse. It got better.
The first hike was quite a bit different from what I’m doing now. I just had to Google hiking trails near me, and I found something that was about 15 minutes away from where I was staying at the time. I got off of work — I was working overnights — and I went home around sunrise, changed clothes, and went out to the trail, and it was about five and a half miles in late August.
Didn’t see anybody else. Uh, just a few squirrels, a bunch of leaves on the ground. I just wandered through the trees for a while and got myself a little bit lost, and eventually found my way back to the car. I pretty quickly noticed a distinct connection between hiking and elevated mood. I was living with two of my best friends at the time in a spare bedroom, and just coming down into the kitchen in the common areas while other people are awake was a pretty big change. It was the only thing that had changed in my life for a while. Like, I got out of bed a little more easily and took a shower, and I made breakfast, so I called it a win.
At the very beginning, it was almost a distraction, and it was an effective distraction since I have to pay attention to where I’m walking, but that was the only brain power required. Hiking provided me with some time, and some clarity, and maybe a little distance where I could actually start exploring all of the things that had happened, and the feelings, and the thoughts, and what my life ought to be.
I spent a lot of time just laying in bed under my blankets and doing nothing except for not moving and just trying to go unnoticed. And the more time I spent outside, it, you get sunrises for dopamine, you get sunshine all day for vitamin D, it’s physical exercise. I basically did everything I could to cheat the brain chemistry, and it seems to have worked. Hiking became everything. I started, you know, just doing Missouri State Parks and sometimes four or five times a week, six times a week. And anytime I would have days off, I started going backpacking. So I found a trail that’s 2,650 miles on the west coast, and I got a permit and walked from Mexico to Canada. Spent seven months hiking.
Newscasters: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Tuesday that a 20-year-old woman in St. Louis County has tested positive for Covid-19, the disease spread by the new Coronavirus. County and state health officials have not said where else the woman went. The World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 a pandemic…
Mike Fuhrmann: Before I started the Pacific Crest Trail, we knew that Covid was a thing, and it was starting to spread around the world. But when I left Missouri, I, there was only one confirmed case of Covid in the St. Louis area. So I went ahead and took my early season permit, and I started hiking and it was about a week and a half after that that San Diego started shutting down beaches, and the schools and businesses were closing.
And at that point, I decided I just wanted to stay isolated in the wilderness.
Started out in the desert, and it went from dirt and brush to sand and nothing, and it was just miles and miles of sand. And occasionally you’d find a canyon with a stream or something like that. I spent a lot of time in the desert getting over a lot of hatred and bitterness about how things had turned out, so I just kept going.
It took over 2000 miles on the PCT, I was in the middle of Oregon, and I’d gone through such a wide range of bitterness, and then just despair, and sometimes happiness, and then feeling bad about the happiness, and then the freedom. And it hit me one day in Oregon. I was hiking, and by that time, I’m in great shape. We’re doing 35-plus miles every day, and I was cruising down the trail and I just stopped dead suddenly. And I realized, like, all of the things that I had been mulling over, they’re all okay, like, that’s just part of the human experience. And it was almost the revelation of my own humanity, like the epiphany that there’s still something there, and the sadness and the, the contrasting happiness, the whatever feelings you’re having, that’s just the human condition and that’s all okay. That’s just part of being human.
I was not expecting to meet really anybody out there that I would have lasting relationships with, or relationships at all. I just went out to go hiking, and that’s all I wanted was to wake up and hike all day long, and then camp, and then wake up and hike all day long. So the fact that I met people that I got along with and still keep up with is kind of astonishing.
It was a very unusual hodgepodge of characters, but you’re going to find unusual people doing something like this. Being surrounded by other people from all walks that just wanted to go out there and chase a beautiful trail for 2000 miles was pretty spectacular. I actually, I realized that I have a lot of new interests while I was hiking, and one of them was photography.
I’ll take pictures of hikers having fun or having an absolutely miserable time, having eaten cold-soaked, instant mashed potatoes for breakfast, and then getting caught in a hailstorm above the ridge line. And that’s the human experience. I like getting authentic photos of what life really is out here, and I started doing all of the Portrait of a Hiker stories where it’s just stories about people I meet while hiking and what I think about when I’m just wandering through the wilderness. And never had any interest in it before hiking, but now it’s fantastic.
One of the things I realized when I started getting much deeper into hiking and spending all the time in the wilderness is that it just feels natural and right. I mean, humans have spent so much time outside for so long, and now you have people constantly staring at their smartphones. And I know I sound like a grumpy old man, but that seems detrimental.
In learning to completely eliminate all of that and just accept the moment that is, and, whatever it is, embrace it, get through it, it kind of sparked a new curiosity about life in general. It has completely changed me.
Christina Thompson: Early this fall, Mike summited Katahdin, completing the nearly 2200-mile journey that is the Appalachian Trail. To follow along with Mike’s journey, check out www.portraitofahiker.com.
*All photos courtesy of Mike Fuhrmann.
A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast.