Depression, Tech Fatigue, and What I Found in the Mountains of Utah
It’s not easy to walk away from security.
Especially security that you’ve worked hard for. In my case, it took decades.
See, I loved books and some time between watching Dead Poets Society and my first college literature class I decided I was going to be a professor.
So I was in it for the long haul.
I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in 2006. Then my Master’s Degree. Then my PhD. All told, it took about fourteen years. (There’s a great Simpsons episode where Marge admonishes her son, “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students, they just made bad life choices.”)
I was happy with my path though. I loved the feel of campus. I loved the energy of each new fall semester. I loved teaching and writing.
But it did require a lot of sacrifices. And very little money. I crossed the country twice with my family in beat-up cars, from Utah to Rochester, New York, back to Utah, and finally to Massachusetts where I landed the Golden Ticket in academia: a tenure-track job as a professor.
The first few years were great. I worked hard and enjoyed it. I liked my colleagues. Time flew by creating courses, advising students, writing books and articles.
I was a rising star in my field. It felt good. Invitations started pouring in. This journal, that lecture, this committee, that publisher.
In 2020, I earned tenure. Job security for life, as they say. Almost immediately I was asked to serve as Chair of my Department, which I accepted.
I’d reached the apex of my profession.
I should have been thrilled. Or relieved. Or proud. I guess I was proud.
But the truth was I was not in a good place.
After several years clearing hurdle after hurdle, I stopped and looked around. Turns out in the quiet there was a lot of sadness.
It’s hard to talk about sadness. People want to know why. What happened? I thought….
I’m a mostly optimistic person. But I’ve also felt this ache — this feeling that something is missing — for most of my life. I guess my entire life, really.
When I was younger, the ache had a tinge of sweetness because you felt that soon, very soon it would come. That connection. That wholeness. That fulfillment. And there were fleeting moments when it did.
But now that I was older, I was losing that horizon. I knew what I wanted life to feel like. But there was not only a gulf between that life and the one I was living, there was the diminishing possibility of it ever happening.
This sadness was heightened by a sequence of painful blows. I won’t list them all. The toughest ones involved family. My mom, the anchor of our family, had a life-altering brain injury just two years after retiring. About a year later, my dad was rushed to the hospital and nearly died of Covid. Those two things alone left me shaken.
Then my marriage of fifteen years came to an end.
I began struggling with serious depression around 2018.
Almost no one knew. When you’re successful in your career everyone assumes you’re fine. I was pretty good at hiding it. A lot of people who struggle with depression know how to wear the mask.
Or course around that time we were all wearing real masks too.
The pandemic amplified the sadness and disorientation. It felt like a strange dream. It still does in retrospect. It happened so fast and so slowly. Something would feel surreal — walking through a grocery store with everyone around you in masks and the sudden fear of other bodies, and arrows taped to the floor so you didn’t cross paths and some aisles suddenly empty and the underlying panic that one day something important would be gone, maybe the milk or the soup or bread. Everyone would adapt and every month or so there would be some new protocol, a new normal. Even though none of it was normal.
My kids’ school moved online, like most schools across America. Then it was hybrid. When they returned in person they were spaced apart in classes. Masks were mandatory, of course. I say this not as a political statement, just as a description of reality. Two years of kids not seeing other kids smile. Or making physical contact. Sports were canceled. Extracurriculars went remote. Parks were closed.
Strange times. You tried to navigate it all as parents. You tried but you wondered and worried a lot and so many things were out of your control.
Meanwhile, the things I loved about being a professor, about being on campus, were mostly gone. It felt more like a cold, antiseptic hospital.
Every week we got tested for the virus. We’d wait in long lines. It was like one of those apocalypse movies. They took your temperature when you walked in. Everything smelled like Purell. You’d give your information. Then you went behind a curtain and they stuck a swab up your nose. Later in the day an app would tell you if you were clear for the week.
Outside, the courtyards were mostly empty. It felt like a ghost town. Once upon a time we were an 80% residential campus. You’d hear voices and laughter and music blaring out of Bluetooth speakers. Not anymore. Dorms were half-empty. Offices were shut.
Our classrooms had large plexiglass walls to shield us from our students. Hand sanitizer dispensers were everywhere. Students wiped down their desks with clorox wipes.
About half my students now attended class via Zoom. I’d bring my iPad and try to position so they could see and hear. Only a handful turned on their cameras. We all tried to adapt but it was tough. The online students couldn’t hear because of the masks. The in-person students, meanwhile, sat somberly.
Or they dropped out. A lot of students dropped out.
There was a huge mental health crisis going on among students and faculty alike. It was obvious why. All the normal social experiences of college — of life — were gone.
People turned to their phones and laptops, but there, amidst the latest viral TikToks and memes, they’d see the rising death counts and the fever-pitch rage and political wars and hysteria.
The president of our college, like college presidents across the country, was in panic mode. Enrollments had dropped precipitously. There were long, suit-vetted emails about new policies and expectations. Threats were issued to students and faculty who didn’t sufficiently comply. Longtime staff were laid off. Older faculty members who worried about returning in person were pressured to get on board or retire.
It was a rough time. Life felt different. The texture and rhythm of everything. The college felt soulless. The country was in disarray. People were angry, overwhelmed, exhausted, lonely.
I was one of those people.
The Pandemic would end, of course. All things pass.
My instinct was to push through. Work harder. Don’t complain. Other people had it worse.
I tried to be strong for the people around me. For my parents. For my kids especially. But I wasn’t doing well. All the death and near-death. The pending divorce. The changes to every aspect of life.
I felt it physically. In my chest. In my heart.
Not an ache. Dread. Nights were the worst. I used to love nights. I’d read. I’d feel the warmth of a partner. I’d see my young kids asleep in their beds. Now the nights were something to survive. Now the goal was to feel nothing.
We usually flew out to Utah a couple times a year to visit family.
Those visits now became more frequent because of the health situation with my parents.
It was different. Things were different now. I helped my parents with errands: groceries, pharmacy runs, neurologist visits.
I’d sit by my mom’s bed and talk to her for hours.
Sometimes I’d go downtown and eat alone and think about why my marriage ended and whether I’d ever find love again.
But something interesting happened during those visits.
I started to go out for hikes in the canyons and mountains I’d grown up in. Just simple day hikes. I’d take a backpack and water bottle. Maybe pack a sandwich or some trail mix. Maybe bring a Hemingway novel. Sometimes my kids would come with me. Sometimes I’d go solo.
It’s difficult to explain without sounding melodramatic but…
Some part of me I’d lost or forgotten about.
It was beautiful out there. Wild and quiet and free. I could feel things again. Subtle things.
Sometimes I would cry out of nowhere. I’d feel it come up inside me and my body would tingle and then I’d feel the release. There was sadness in it but something deeper too. Something familiar.
Like a sacred reunion. Like I’d come home.
Mount Timpanogos was a fixture in my youth.
I grew up in the Wasatch foothills. Just beneath Slate Canyon. Timpanogos (or “Timp” as everyone called it) was to the north. Most of the Wasatch Front faced West, but Timp slanted south. It was breathtaking from just about every vantage point in the valley. It’s one of the most majestic mountains in America.
I’m biased of course. But it started to mean something more to me on these visits. Just seeing it looming in the distance, those sky scraping peaks, elegant and unchanged, snow-coated near the top. It represented both the familiar and the sublime, the past and the future.
It takes about fourteen hours to hike to the top of Timp and back. There are two main trails. It’s a rite of passage for many young people in the valley. They used to give out badges to people who made it to the summit.
My son and I hiked both trails one of those summers.
The first time was after a big storm. Everything was wet and fresh and quiet. Some trees had fallen down. Some trails were covered in fallen rocks.
We only saw a handful of people the entire hike. It was just us and the wildflowers and the sound of our shoes on the gravel. We stopped at some of the waterfalls and watched the water slide down the dark rocks, our hearts beating fast, sweat dripping down our necks, the mist on our faces.
We talked about things. We saw deer in the Aspen groves and, as we got higher, mountain goats climbing the hills above the Alpine basins.
We ate lunch at Emerald Lake just beneath the snow glacier on the back side of the massif.
On the other side of the mountain were all the cities and towns and traffic and stores and billboards.
I thought of that Wordsworth poem:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; —
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away…
I’d grown up on the Romantic poets. Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Shelley.
And the transcendentalists too. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau.
They were the reason I chose my profession.
I think when you mention “Romantic poet” in everyday conversation, people conjure “roses are red, violets are blue” kind of stuff.
But I’d studied them for years and knew that they were actually writing about the most profound aspects of the human experience. Imagination. Love. Loss. Especially about loss. And that universal ache, that longing.
They were writing at a time of great change — at the cusp of the industrial Revolution. Machines were changing jobs. Factories were popping up everywhere. Mass production would soon alter what it meant to create and make a living. There were legitimate fears about where science, technology, and “progress” were taking us.
In many ways, we are still living in the long shadow of this transformation and the sense of anxiety and alienation it produced.
The poets recognized the Faustian Bargain we’d made as a society.
They also recognized there was something integral about our relationship to nature. It wasn’t just nostalgia. It wasn’t just window dressing — something pretty to look at. It was something deeper. If we lost that connection we would also lose an important part of ourselves.
And we did.
The idea for my business came to me one restless night, lying in bed in a dim, cluttered basement in Massachusetts.
Few things in life are greater than those creative-lightning moments. When an idea is just a seed but you catch a glimpse of what it can become.
I could see the name in my head.
And the tagline: Escape the noise.
We would offer hiking-themed shirts and hoodies but the real impetus would be about mental health.
About reconnecting with what matters. Leaving society behind for a while. Leaving behind all of its strange logic and stresses and distractions and tranquilizers.
We like to think society has the answers. But look around. Look at the evidence.
I was an idealist once upon a time. I thought I could change the world. But now I had a more modest goal:
Finding meaning and beauty and clarity amidst the madness.
That’s what I found in the mountains.
Sometimes you need to take leaps in life, I texted my brother.
I was parked near Slate Canyon, just a few blocks above the small red-brick house I’d grown up in back in the ’80s. I was looking at Mount Timpanogos.
I was trying to decide whether to sign a lease for a physical store in Downtown Provo. It was a great location: a walkable area. Less than 15 minutes from Sundance and the base of Timp.
I’d just taken a long drive, soul-searching.
The business was six months in. It was doing really well, but there was still a lot to figure out. I was learning new apps and integrations every day, it seemed. Registering for this and that. Fulfilling orders. Responding to customers. I’d never done anything like this before. It was still more of a side hustle. But I could see the potential.
I had to make a choice.
The author James Baldwin observed that Americans are unusually obsessed with security. Safety.
He described it as the “illusion of safety.”
The truth, he reminded, was that there was no guaranteed safety in life. No matter how much we tried to shield ourselves with money, masks, 401ks, health regimens, suburban fortresses, walls, ideologies.
Death was inevitable. Suffering was inevitable.
He wasn’t promoting recklessness. He was simply suggesting that we often lead timid, insular lives because we are so afraid to venture outside society’s templates.
Sometimes what we think of as security is actually a prison.
I left my job as a professor.
It was a leap. But I wanted my life to be about leaps.
I wanted my life to be creative and bold.
The main reason I wanted the brick and mortar store is because I wanted the business to be physical. Not just so it was more real, but because in my trips to Utah I had stumbled upon another epiphany.
I wanted a more analog existence.
I believed in physical things. We lived in a digital world. The digital world was fine for what it was. I wasn’t going off the grid or becoming a Luddite.
But the best things in life were physical.
A first kiss. A smoke-filled concert. Making brownies with your daughter. Playing catch with your son. Growing something. Hiking.
There was nothing remarkable about hiking. It wasn’t climbing Denali or Everest. But in a way that was what was great about it. It could be whatever you wanted it to be. It could be for solitude or companionship. It could be a trail run or a slow, present walk. It could be an escape or adventure or free therapy. Just about anybody could do it and benefit from it in their own way.
The amount of people that took up hiking in the US nearly doubled from 2006–2019. That number exploded even more in the wake of the pandemic when people flocked to the mountains and canyons and national parks in unprecedented numbers.
It was a fascinating, almost primal human response to the circumstances.
Man cannot live by Zoom and TikTok alone.
I’d been intrigued by Downtown Provo for a while.
Home to the picturesque campus of Brigham Young University and a predominantly Mormon population, Provo has a reputation for being conservative and boring, a throwback in many ways. Think 1955 Hill Valley from Back to the Future.
It definitely has some of those vibes.
What amazed me though was how much downtown had transformed in the nearly two decades I’d been away.
It was bigger now. But there were almost no chain stores. Businesses were independent and diverse, manifestations of their owners’ dreams and scrappiness.
There were ice cream stores. Coffee shops. Record stores. There were pizza parlors and bookstores and cafes. Even some clubs.
They had cool names and interesting facades. Streams of people strolled along the sidewalks, sat for dinner at outside tables. Lights were strewn up on lamp posts.
The people were unusually happy and friendly.
It was wholesome as hell. It felt good.
It was another encouraging trend amidst so many other bad ones. Downtowns were decimated in the ’80s and ’90s with the rise of malls and strip malls and box stores. Now they were making a comeback.
The mountains were good and this was good. Simple. Physical. Analog.
This was the kind of world I wanted to live in.
Hiking has not solved all of my problems.
Neither has starting a business.
One thing hiking reminds you though is to embrace the friction. We are not intended to live a tepid, passive, sedentary existence. We are not resigned to lives of quiet desperation.
We live in an age of convenience but too much convenience leads to atrophy.
We’re supposed to move and sweat and ache and struggle and strive.
Society has sold us so many illusions. So many shortcuts and drugs and distractions.
But we still have a choice.
I chose the mountains. I chose to build something. I chose to be close to the things and people I care about the most.
It has seemed crazy to a lot of people. Inspiring to others.
But to me it was about survival. I couldn’t live that other life anymore.
I think of the movie Field of Dreams a lot. How he plowed down those corn fields. How he built that baseball field and the way it looked lit up at night and the players coming out of the stalks and the crack of the ball off the bat.
And that long glittering line of cars at the end.
We’re not made to simply scroll and consume and cower and pay bills.
The digital world is changing us, but we can still choose to hold on to what makes us human.
The resistance will be physical.
Joseph Vogel is a bestselling author and entrepreneur. He is the founder and owner of Timpanogos Hiking Co.