5 Powerful Stories of Thru-Hikes That Healed

The outdoors can do wonders for mental and physical health, but there’s a special transformation that comes with a long journey on foot. These five people found healing through thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

1. Heather Starbuck

Heather Starbuck and Matt Adams were so excited when they decided to get married in August 2017. But before they could even tell family and friends about their decision, Adams was found dead from an overdose; he had struggled for several years with an opioid addiction. After two years sober, Adams had a relapse.

Eight months later, the Appalachian Trail, or “AT,” is providing Starbuck with a way to heal. The trail, about 2,181 miles long, stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

After her fiancé’s death, “Everything was unraveling and out of control,” Starbuck told the Citizen Times. “I was depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. I felt like I couldn’t move, like I was going to die because of my grief.”

But she’s resilient. When Starbuck discovered that Appalachia was the heart of the opioid crisis, she decided to hike the AT — not just for the love of her life, but also for all those struggling with addiction.

She has found solace in nature.

“It feels most natural being outside in the woods because I can openly talk about him (Adams) and his drugs and really connect with people,” Starbuck said. “That’s what I needed.”


Photo Credit: daveynin

2. Cheryl Strayed

In perhaps the best known tale of a woman hiking to heal, Cheryl Strayed — not her real name – walked 1,100 miles of the 2,663 mile long Pacific Crest Trail , or PCT, from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon-Washington border.

Her experiences are captured in “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail,” which was ultimately made into a movie.

At age 22, Strayed had watched her 45-year-old mother die of lung cancer; her siblings left Strayed to take care of their dying mom alone; and her father was long gone. Wracked by grief, Strayed abandoned her husband, hooked up with a heroin addict and became addicted too.

Four years later, with no further down to go, she made the decision to hike the PCT alone. In spite of many problems on the trail — including sexual harassment and so much snow that she had to temporarily leave – Strayed kept going, grew strong and ultimately felt healed by her lone adventure.

3. Aspen Matis

Aspen Matis was a freshman in college in Colorado when she was raped on her second night of school. By the following spring, she couldn’t take the pain anymore – Matis had to leave. 

She called her parents in Boston to tell them she was planning to walk the PCT — all the way from Mexico to Canada — so that she could be alone. 

As she recounts on setting out, ”Here the desert dips and swells like the sea, and among the dusty waves I saw no one. But I wasn’t scared of the solitude. Desert wilderness, I believed, was the safest place. And I knew how to walk.”

Matis grew strong in her solitude and ultimately fell in love with a fellow hiker — a beautiful turn-around from the pain she was in at the beginning of her hike.

4. Paul Stutzman

For Paul Stutzman, it was a different kind of grief. Stutzman’s wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the big C as he calls it. When his wife died, Stutzman felt that he just couldn’t go on in the same life. 

So he turned to hiking, something he already loved doing; He quit his job and flew to Georgia, where he embarked on the AT.

He completed the thru-hike in four and a half months, which is pretty fast, but as he walked he discovered a new sense of purpose when he shared his pain with fellow hikers. Stutzman also found peace within himself; a highly religious person, he deepened his faith and was able to come to terms with his wife’s death.

5. Andy Lyon

The story of Andy Lyon is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Lyon was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was just 18 years old and a student at the University of California at Berkeley, studying astrophysics. He spent four years undergoing chemotherapy and then a stem cell transplant, which ultimately failed. Lyon was told he had a 1-in-10 chance of living another five years.

That’s when he announced his intention to hike the PCT. Lyon began in early April, 2012, at the PCT monument at the Mexican border. It was a diff hard journey for him, as it is for all thru-hikers.

But at 2,302 miles, he was in such pain that he left the trail to find a doctor and learned that he had a new tumor on his spine, pressing down on his nerves and causing increased pain.

Nevertheless, Lyon completed his goal of hiking the entire PCT. He was so proud of achieving his goal, but Lyon sadly passed away the following August. 

What do all these stories have in common? 

Here’s what Lyon said: “Ultimately the greatest healing lies in new things and opening yourself up to the power of the spirit, the power of the universe, the power of nature, letting go and letting that take you.”

All of these thru-hikers were in such pain that they had to take some action. And when you are hiking a long distance, you exist only in the moment. All that matters is putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. You really can’t focus on anything else. 

These hikers needed to be alone to work through their problems but as the poet Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Nature quiets the mind by engaging with an intelligence larger than our own.”

This is the healing power of nature.

Photo Credit: BLM/Flickr


Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

JoAnn P
JoAnn Paris8 months ago

Thank you for this very interesting article.

Jen S
Jen S9 months ago

Inspiring stories!

Lisa M
Lisa M9 months ago


Lisa M
Lisa M9 months ago


Marija M
Marija M9 months ago


Winn A
Winn Adams9 months ago


Winn A
Winn Adams9 months ago


Danuta W
Danuta W9 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Alea C
Alea C9 months ago