Hiking the PCT for PTSD

This weekend Ibex sponsored hikers, Brett and Lori Stephensen (aka Poppyseed and Pancake) will walk away from their everyday lives and begin an ascent into the Northern Cascades, taking the first of approximately 19,000,000 steps that will constitute their southbound truHike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which spans 2,660 miles between the US borders with Canada and Mexico.

Their entire family, each of whom has assumed a role that helps make the journey possible, will support Brett and Lori along the way.  Lori’s eldest son, Scottie Isom (aka Scooter Pie) and his faithful canine companion will be taking time away from their lives to provide logistical and emotional support along the way.

They’re calling it a truHike because the essential goal is not the hike itself but rather a truing of minds and of lives. Truing is a verb that describes a process of realignment, a refitting, in order to correct that which no longer fits—that which is no longer, or perhaps never was—true.

In the backpacking universe, particularly for thru-hikers there is, for very practical reasons, great emphasis placed on the weight that one carries—and the effect of that weight on one’s journey—with ultralight being the ultimate ambition of many long distance trekkers. Their intention, then, is to move step-by-step and moment-by-moment toward the creation of ultralight minds.  Their hope is for a healing of the sometimes debilitating effects of PTSD, a disease that has recently gripped their family.

Lori was originally diagnosed with PTSD decades ago and believed it had “gone away” but it was retriggered in the last few years and returned with a vengeance landing Lori in the hospital in January. It was in the hospital that she learned something that doctors didn’t understand when she was originally diagnosed, which is that it is possible to develop new, more resilient neural pathways that can override those formed during early traumatic experiences. In other words, it is possible—though not easy—to physically heal your mind.

According to one of the leading experts on trauma, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, “allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma” can transform the neural imprints of the past allowing people the previously unimagined possibility of “regaining self-mastery.” There is mounting evidence that extended exposure to nature and the arts as well as meditation and yoga can be catalysts for just such a physiologically transformative experience.

Dr. Van der Kolk emphasizes that is a common misunderstanding that, in fact, people don’t have PTSD, they experience it. Brett and Lori have decided to speak openly about their experience with PTSD and the mental health system in order to push against the stigma that still cloaks those topics in silence and hopefully to contribute to a dialogue and to an understanding of and for others caught in the throes of dis-ease, whether it effects them personally or burdens a family member or friend.

In order to allow time to undertake their journey mindfully, in a way the will actually promote healing, rather than being pushed by the natural constraints that exist on the PCT, specifically the need to clear both the Cascade and Sierra mountain ranges before the snow returns in October, Brett has devised a sort of sling-shot approach to the Trail.

Although they chose a southbound route for the solitude it affords, Brett and Lori will begin this weekend, heading north from Harts Pass in the Northern Cascades to E.C. Manning Park, the northern terminus in Canada. Since 9/11 it is impossible to enter the US via the trail from Canada so the only way to hike the whole trail going southbound is to head north first.  Scottie, who will be driving the “truTruck” will meet them in Canada and deliver them back to Harts Pass where they will begin again—this time heading south.

Once they’ve cleared the Washington section they’ll head to the Sierra.  After the Sierra they’ll swing back up to hike Oregon and the northern California section before bouncing back down to finish the Mohave. So that’s the plan!

Ironically, or as the fates would have it, the geography of the trail actually traverses the geography of many of the traumatic events that initially led to Lori’s PTSD.  In fact, Brett and Lori anticipate meeting their family at the southern terminus in Campo, California sometime in late November shortly after Lori’s 56th birthday. In 1966, shortly after her 7th birthday Lori’s family crashed in a small plane in the Mojave Desert in late November. Hopefully the universe has aligned and its finally time for healing.

Ibex has adopted Brett and Lori as trail ambassadors, becoming their primary partner, and will be following their adventure as it unfolds. You can follow them here and at truhiking.org, or on Instagram and Twitter @truhiking.

Meet the truTeam:

Brett “Poppyseed” Stephensen

Brett is a 36-year old rock star of a grandpa and in keeping with his status he received his trail name from his granddaughters, Joey and Lexie who usually call him “Papa.” They explained that “Poppy seeds are kind of like apple seeds and apple seeds grow up to be apples which are delicious!” Who can argue with that? Brett studied cultural communication at BYU Hawaii and received his master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University where his focus was on ecotherapy and trauma healing.  He is an experienced primitive wilderness guide who has led hundreds of treks through the Arizona desert, with the Anasazi Foundation, with youth whose lives were entangled in turmoil. Brett most recently worked as a contractor for the US Environmental Protection Agency as a facilitator/trainer, a job he loved and left to walk the PCT with his wife Lori.  It has always one of Brett’s dreams to complete a thru-hike of a major US trail—and because he knows the healing that trekking thru nature offers—the truHike was naturally his brainchild.

Lori “Pancake” Stephensen

Lori also received her trail name from Lexie and Joey. According to 3-year old Lexie, “Pancakes are delicious and I love to gobble them up. Sometimes I wish I could gobble my Mimi up!” Lori is the mother of 4 amazing adults and Mimi to 4 incredible little grand people. After 25 years of full-time single parenting, and at the urging of her youngest son Mason, Lori decided to follow her dreams and finish her education. So they packed up their belongings and moved from Oregon to Hawaii where she studied cultural anthropology and where—quite unexpectedly—she met and married the love of her life, Brett Stephensen. Brett had previously worked and been friends with all of her kids (that’s a long story but hey it’s a long trail so maybe we’ll get to it!). From Hawaii Brett and Lori moved to Virginia for graduate studies at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Lori is currently in the dissertation process for her PhD. During grad school Lori discovered her passion for teaching undergraduate classes. In many ways it has been her students along with her family who have kept her on her feet during this difficult time—she sends much love and respect to all of them. Lori also has training in wilderness survival from the Boulder Outdoor Survival School but it has never been her dream to thru-hike a major trail—in fact, sometimes she has nightmares about it! Nevertheless…

Scottie “Scooter Pie” Isom

Scottie is Lori’s eldest son and he received his trail name from his brother Dalen who has been calling him that for years. The deep meaning behind the name is veiled in some history they share—always accompanied by knowing laughs—one can only guess! Scott most recently worked as Director of Logistics for the Anasazi Foundation an outdoor wilderness therapy program where, like Brett, he has walked thousands of miles in the desert working at various levels of direct care with young people who are struggling in their lives and relationships. Scottie also graduated from BYU Hawaii where he studied cultural anthropology. While in the Islands he worked as a foreman on a 1700-acre ranch on the North Shore. He is an accomplished horseman who is interested in equine therapy. Scottie is also a certified yoga and meditation instructor. As it happens, Scottie is in the process of divorce and when the idea of the hike began to take shape he signed on as support—offering a stabilizing presence for Brett and Lori both personally and logistically—while carving out the time for his own reflection and healing. Scottie will be driving the truTruck and hiking parts of the trail with his dog Pants as they resupply Poppyseed and Pancake.

Smarty Pants

Pants is a five-year old border collie, German short-haired pointer mix who was born on Gunstock Ranch on the North Shore of Oahu and raised herding cattle. Pants is the only member of the team that did not graduate from BYU Hawaii, but, as indicated by his name he is wise and perceptive!  In fact, Pants has served from time to time as a therapy dog for young people because he is gentle, strong, and faithful. He will be riding shotgun in the truTruck and hiking the trail for resupplies.

STAY TUNED For more updates on Lori and Brett as they continue their journey down the PCT.