My 600-Mile Walk For Mental Health
My eight-month trip across Michigan was originally about exercise, but it turned into something much bigger
On Nov. 24, as the sun dropped below Michigan’s western horizon, I found myself in two places at once.
Physically, I was walking a 2.5-mile loop around my 75-year-old neighborhood a few miles north of Detroit. It was 37 degrees, and I was being pelted by some combination of rain and snow.
Mentally, though, I was 490 miles away, hiking alongside M-28 and US-41 in the state’s Upper Peninsula. It’s been eight-and-a-half months since I’ve walked where I was really walking.
As I’ve explained before, my life took a drastic change at the end of 2019. My doctor told me I was a fat 50-year-old man with diabetes. My kidney numbers weren’t great, and my liver enzymes were worse. I weighed 260 pounds, my blood sugar was 250 and I got winded walking up the stairs.
The dietician suggested I try short walks once or twice a day and try eating smaller portions with more green food. She didn’t tell me to give up everything I enjoyed — just be smarter about it. That seemed reasonable, but I wanted a second opinion.
When my mom was fighting cancer and when my wife was on the kidney-transplant list, they were both told they could always trust one health website: The Mayo Clinic. So that’s where I went as soon as I got home from the appointment — their page about Type 2 diabetes.
Getting active. Aim for a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity — or 15 to 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity — on most days. Take a brisk daily walk. Ride a bike. Swim laps. If you can’t fit in a long workout, spread your activity throughout the day.
I started walking.
It was a Michigan winter, so walking outside wasn’t much fun, but I had an advantage. As a sportswriter, I spent several days a week at Little Caesars Arena, covering the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings. One lap around the arena concourse is a quarter mile, and I could get in a couple before the game and a couple afterward.
This worked beautifully. Without any painful diet changes, I started losing weight and my blood sugar came down. Before I knew it, I was down to 240 pounds and my glucose was getting into the normal range.
That’s when COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Suddenly, walking through the arriving fans on the concourse seemed like a terrible idea, so I tried zig-zag routes through the arena’s lightly populated lower levels. Soon, though, sports had shut down and I was out of work.
I spent the last two weeks of March in quarantine — I had interviewed an NBA player who tested positive — and we’ve never come out of lockdown. The diabetes makes me a high-risk individual, but it is more important for us to be extremely careful because of my wife’s extreme risk.
She’s immunosuppressed after getting a new kidney in 2018, which means her body would be fighting the virus with one hand tied behind its back. The dangers are important enough for the CDC to have a dedicated webpage for the proper precautions.
No one has set foot in our house since March, and we normally only leave the house for medical purposes. The only exceptions were a few baseball games in August that I covered from a private suite instead of the press box, and one masked trip to the Detroit Zoo this summer when Michigan’s case and death rates were approaching zero.
How little do we travel? My car is running on the tank of gas I bought on March 13 — the day Michigan declared a state of emergency.
Medical experts, though, were still encouraging outdoor exercise, so I started walking around the neighborhood. At first, it was a mile a day and I slowly started stretching it out. I still wasn’t doing it consistently, though, so I decided to set myself a target.
After playing with the numbers, I realized if I averaged two miles a day, I’d have walked about 275 miles by Labor Day. That was perfect — that’s the distance from our front door to the Mackinac Bridge.
If you aren’t a Michigander, you might not know about our bridge. Do you know how we point to the palm of our right hand to show you where we live in the state? The Mackinac Bridge — the third-longest suspension bridge in the United States — is a five-mile connection from the top of our middle finger to the state’s prettier half: The Upper Peninsula.
(If you live in the U.P., you are a “Yooper”. If you live in the lower peninsula, you’re a “troll,” because you live under the bridge.)
Mackinac is a special place for me — I’ve gone there almost every year of my adult life and it is where my wife and I normally spend our anniversary. Getting there by Labor Day was also significant because it’s the only day it is open to pedestrian traffic. They put all the traffic on one side and the governor leads a massive march from Mackinaw City north to St. Ignace.
Obviously, the walk didn’t happen this year, but it gave me a set goal — something I knew I’d need to make walking a consistent habit.
I knew walking two miles a day would have a major impact on my physical health. I didn’t understand how important it was going to be for my mental health. The walks quickly became the most important part of my day — the one time each day when I could clear my head without staring at the same walls.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise. My therapist had suggested an exercise regime to deal with my anxiety and depression, and there are also plenty of studies that show the benefits of physical activity.
Talking out my issues
I’d been keeping a journal since March, but the walks let me do it in a new way. I’d put on my mask, pop in a pair of earbuds and turn on my phone’s voice recorder. Every evening, for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, I would simply deliver a stream-of-consciousness monologue into the tiny microphone built into the headphones.
When I got home, I uploaded the audio file into Otter, a voice-to-text app I use to transcribe interviews. A few minutes later, I’d have a rough transcription that I could edit and paste into my journal.
The daily self-reflection saved my sanity. As part of a high-risk family looking at being locked down until the arrival of a vaccine, my depression and anxiety were ready to rip me apart. Walking and talking kept them at bay. Instead of being crushed by my mental illnesses, I was handling things with relative ease.
However, the end of summer brought a new complication. I had not only made it to the Mackinac Bridge, I was early. I reached the 275-mile mark in mid-August … and didn’t know what to do next. I hadn’t planned for anything beyond the bridge.
I certainly couldn’t stop. I had lost another 15 pounds, dropping from my original 260 to 225, and my blood-sugar numbers were normal. I knew some people can reverse Type-2 diabetes with lifestyle changes. I wanted to be one of them.
So, my physical health required me to keep going, but it was just as important for my mental health. The end of summer is a tough time for me, because on top of my other issues, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In June, I started my sunset walks at 9 p.m., but I was leaving a lot earlier by Labor Day.
Within weeks, it was going to be much worse. By Thanksgiving, our sunset would be rapidly approaching 5 p.m. and I knew my mood would start crashing as it got dark.
So, I sat down with Google Maps to find my next destination. Luckily, the Upper Peninsula is enormous, so I had plenty of options.
It was an easy choice to head for Munising. It’s a gorgeous village on the shores of Lake Superior and home to the incomparable Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
It’s also another place with deep personal meaning for me. My dad died in 2005 and my mom passed away in 2016. That summer, we took Mom’s ashes and a small amount of Dad’s — saved for this occasion — and spread them in the place she requested.
Our house to Munising is exactly 400 miles and I got there in the middle of October. By that point, I already knew where I wanted to finish the year.
If I averaged two miles a day until December 31, I would end up at another of Michigan’s famous bridges: The Portage Lake Lift Bridge. Like the Mackinac Bridge, the lift bridge is the only driving route connecting two parts of Michigan.
Look at a map of Michigan. See the part of the western Upper Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior? That’s the Keweenaw Peninsula — home of America’s copper-mining industry for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Portage Lake shipping canal cuts the Keweenaw in two and the lift bridge connects Houghton on the southern shore to Hancock on the northern side.
That was my final target.
My dad grew up in Hancock, about 100 yards from the bridge. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve walking across it with my grandmother and watching it rise to allow ships to pass beneath. It seemed like the perfect finishing place for 2020.
The lift bridge was a great target with wonderful childhood memories, and it would mean I had walked 543 miles since the lockdown started in March. That would be a fantastic achievement with life-changing results. When I went back to my doctor in October, all my blood results were normal. She’d been considering sending me to a specialist for more tests on my kidneys and liver. Now it wasn’t necessary.
She told me, with six more months of work, I could put the diabetes into remission. My therapist said I was in better mental shape than she’d seen me in years.
That was supposed to be the end of the story. It isn’t.
Every time I looked at the map of Michigan, I’d see Houghton and Hancock … and then I’d see the rest of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It’s 49 miles from the lift bridge to the Copper Harbor lighthouse — the place where the Keweenaw disappears into Lake Superior. If I could do 543 miles, I could do 592. After all this work, I didn’t want to get to New Year’s Eve and say, “maybe I could have made it to Copper Harbor.”
I had to try.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy — getting there would mean averaging 2.7 miles a day for all of November and December. That meant a lot of walking in sub-freezing temperatures, rain, and snow. I changed my daily walk to a 3-mile, 50-minute loop and I invested in a headlamp and reflective vest to keep me safe as darkness fell earlier and earlier.
I’m getting close
By now, two days after Thanksgiving, I know I’m going to make it to the lift bridge. I only need to average 1.3 miles, which means I can lose a couple of days to weather without putting my goal in jeopardy.
That’s a crucial factor at this time of the year. In 2019, we got eight inches of snow on Veteran’s Day and I’ve already lost two November days this year to rain, snow and 40-mph winds.
I’ve also made three-mile walks in 37-degree rain, carrying my glasses in my hand because they were so wet and fogged up that I almost hit a lamp post. Having them off wasn’t a great option — I have 20/400 uncorrected vision — but I could at least see shapes on the sidewalk.
Copper Harbor is going to be tough. I’m within 100 miles, but I still need to average 2.7 miles for the rest of the year. That means 45 minutes a day without a break for another five weeks. One major snowstorm could make the sidewalks impassible for two or three days and wreck any realistic chance of making it.
I really want to do this. I believe I can.
What I’ve learned
My appointment with the dietician came in the last week of December — eleven months ago. I was in a bad place, both physically and mentally, and that was before I knew about the pandemic, losing my job, and nine months of lockdown.
I didn’t leave that appointment planning to walk 600 miles and lose 50 pounds by the end of 2020. All I knew was I had a chance to change my life and I didn’t know if I’d get another one.
There’s no magic formula. I don’t have a self-help book to sell you or a mailing list to join. There’s not even a cute acronym to remember. There are only a few suggestions.
- Start Small: I didn’t go on a crash diet, I didn’t start training for a marathon, and I didn’t try to cure my mental illnesses in one day. I discovered I liked I broccoli, I could live on fewer slices of pizza, and I could walk around the park three times without falling over.
- Don’t Fight Yourself: Nothing is going to work if it makes you miserable. If you hate Brussels sprouts, don’t eat them. If you hate jogging, go for walks or ride a bike. If you’re a night owl, walk at sunset.
- Keep Track of Your Successes: Find a journaling system that works for you and focus on the good things. That might mean a pen-and-paper journal, a system like my walking-and-talking, or a simple bullet-journal app where you click on some emojis to record your activities for the day.
- Forget Your Failures: Don’t use your journal to beat yourself up. You’re going to have days where you eat badly, blow off your workout routine, and wallow in self-pity. It’s over. Get up the next day and give it another shot.
- Find Joy: This is last on the list, but it’s the most important one to remember. I try to take at least one photo a day of something that makes me smile. My walking targets were all places with wonderful memories. I make sure to tell the most important people in my life that I love them. My wife and I try to end every day with laughter.
It sounds simple, but that’s how I changed my life for the better in the hellscape of 2020. You might not think it’s possible, but give yourself a shot.