Trail Stories

A Hero’s Journey

Rue McKenrick would hike the perimeter of the country to demonstrate our nation’s unity—if only he and the country could hold together long enough for him finish.

When Rue McKenrick came out of the desert in West Texas in January 2020, he’d been without water or food all day. So the little convenience store he spied just north of Big Bend National Park at first seemed like a mirage, an answer to his prayers.

He imagined gorging on ham sandwiches, ramen noodles, whatever they had, but as soon as he stepped inside, the clerk lunged behind the counter, fumbling until he grasped a handgun and then steadied it to point the weapon at McKenrick’s head.

“Who are you?”

McKenrick is a short and sturdily built 40-year-old with crows feet creasing his eyes and a kind, open manner. Still, very, very few people move about on foot, carrying backpacks, in West Texas, and the clerk had been robbed a week earlier. He’d assuaged his fears by buying a gun. Two, in fact. The second handgun was in his other hand now, behind his back.

“Who are you?” the clerk said again.

What could McKenrick say to sum himself up for this suspicous stranger? That he’s a professional hiker subsisting on small donations made by admirers on Paypal? That he was 2,300 miles and 6 months into a quest to complete an 11,000 mile-counterclockwise loop along the edges of our country? That he was scouting routes for a footpath that he’s currently developing, the American Perimeter Trail? That he was desperately thirsty?

Hiker Rue McKenrick on tree-lined road

McKenrick is a student of Buddhism and transcendental meditation—a lover, not a fighter. Back home in Bend, Oregon, he lived an almost monastic existence. He gave up his car. He volunteered twice a week at a soup kitchen, and he landed upon his hugely ambitious scheme to create America’s longest footpath after deciding that, by doing so, he might help to create a better, more harmonious society. “When people are on trail,” he reasoned, “they depend on each other. They connect.”

It’d be hard to find a goal less in step with the year 2020. The global pandemic made neighbors scared of neighbors. Politics and racial strife fractured us even more, and widespread wildfires brought home the end-times vibe.

Out on the open land, moving through remote towns unaccustomed to hikers, McKenrick would find himself an unbidden stranger and a receptacle for the hurt and rage 2020 had wrought. In East Texas, after two restaurant workers welcomed him to camp on their property, their boss reacted to the sight of McKenrick’s tent by firing a warning shot over his head. In Tennessee and Kentucky, he experienced the depths of coronavirus isolation. With the Appalachian Trail effectively closed, he hiked north along the western edge of that range, through pelting rain and along little-used trails overgrown with rhododendrons, shivering with bone-deep cold and seeing so few people that eventually his spirit slumped to match the national mood.

In small towns all over the country, McKenrick got stopped by police more than 20 times. Random bad luck stalked him, too. He suffered giardia, back pain, and a weird attack by biting ants that swelled his face until he could only see out of one eye. In West Virginia, a tree fell on him while he was sleeping in his hammock.

In the West Texas convenience store, as McKenrick stood there silent, searching for the answer that would deliver him safely from this latest trial, the clerk raised the second gun, so that now the intruder was staring into two barrels. And in that moment, Rue McKenrick broke with his mission, looked the clerk square in the eyes, and said, “Go fuck yourself.”

He met crazy with crazy, and it worked, kind of. “The clerk’s eyes changed when I confronted him,” he remembers. “Weirdly, he relaxed.” The moment seemed to contain possibility, so McKenrick tried to defuse things by asking, “So, what kind of guns are those?”

“This one’s called Billy,” the clerk said, “and this one’s called Chris.” As the clerk spoke, he slowly lowered his weapons and told McKenrick about the recent robbery. The tension remained, though, and McKenrick decided against lingering to buy ham sandwiches or water. He left the store and kept moving east through the scrublands, into his thirst. “When you get to a second night without water,” he tells me, “you can’t sleep. Your mind just keeps telling you, ‘Go get water. Go get water.’”

Portrait of hiker Rue McKenrick

Rue McKenrickMichael Hanson

Nine months later, it’s just before dawn on a cold October morning, and I’m a few miles west of the North Dakota border, searching for McKenrick. He’s about 9,000 miles into his hike by now. I’m planning to spend three days and 75 miles following him west, asking how a hurt pilgrim might search for hope in a broken country. We’re supposed to meet in a city park in Lisbon, North Dakota (population 2,052). But McKenrick is nowhere in sight. When, finally, he comes striding out of the woods, he’s brushing his teeth, explaining that he slept through his alarm. His tent is still standing, and his backpack, he tells me, is a jumble inside.

It’s soon clear the depression and anxiety that hit McKenrick in rain-soaked Appalachia seven months ago never left him. Physically, he is not well either. His belly is bulging. His face is bloated, and he is, at 5’8”, 185 pounds, about 25 pounds over his typical weight, even though for the past three months he’s been hiking 25 miles a day on a diet of only 600 calories while suffering severe diarrhea. His swollen gut might be a form of malnutrition that causes the stomach to retain water, but the problem hasn’t been diagnosed. He says that he’s trying to force-feed himself, but when we repair to a cafe for breakfast, he scarcely touches his eggs and hash browns. His reluctance goes largely unnoticed, though, because McKenrick is perky now and holding court as locals gather around our table, curious about his quest.

“Do you carry a pistol with you?” one asks.

“I don’t, actually,” McKenrick says. He is genial and sympathetic—and starving for connection. Since he spent two weeks hiking in California with a friend in summer 2019, he’s walked more than 8,000 consecutive miles all by himself. He’s so lonely that sometimes in recent weeks he’s just sat trailside, meditating on a two-sided, plastic laminated photo collage he carries until tears stream down his face. The collage is filled with pictures of all his closest friends.

“It’s pure joy,” he says. “Pure joy.”

Map of the United States showing the planned American Perimeter Trail

Here in North Dakota, McKenrick needs to make connections, for he’s in a swing state, hiker-wise. North Dakota doesn’t have any actual trail towns, but it does have a rugged outdoor spirit. North Dakotans snowmobile. They fish. They cross-country ski. There’s a chance there will be good vibes here for a fellow building local support for a very long trail. And there’s also an equal chance that he could be eyed suspiciously and hassled by cops. Mindful of karma, he’s extra gracious with the waitress.

“Do you guys need anything else?” she asks.

“No, everything’s great. Thanks, Danielle,” he says. Then we pay up and leave.

We’re hiking a portion of the North Country Trail, which stretches 4,700 miles from Vermont to central North Dakota. Our route is ramrod straight—due west over a gravel road on a flat, dusty, nearly treeless land latticed with hundreds of almost identical, perfectly straight east-west and north-south roads laid down soon after nineteenth-century railroad companies settled this region. Traffic is sparse, and during our first afternoon together McKenrick talks with only one local, a middle-aged man who powers down the window of his black SUV to ask, “Are you walking all the way to Fort Ransom?”

“I am,” McKenrick says, summing up his 25-mile day.

The man laughs, either dismissively or in appreciative amazement (McKenrick can’t tell which), then he closes his window and drives on, the dust pluming behind him.

I learn about this stranger after the fact, for I’m cheating on this trip. I’ve brought a bicycle to bridge the gap between McKenrick’s fitness and my own. I ride for an hour or so, putting miles between us. Then I wait, basking in the warm sun by the roadside. The dry grass is pleasantly scratchy beneath me, and I watch as endless fields of sunflowers and browning stalks of corn bend in the strong North Dakota wind. When I ride back to meet McKenrick, I’m struck by how somber he is, regarding the landscape. “There’s something bittersweet about it,” he says. “There’s a sadness in the ground. It feels like there are sad stories here that have never been told. It feels like people went missing and never got found.”

McKenrick isn’t the first person to feel prairie lonesome in the Dakotas, and he says his remark points to the suffering Native Americans endured here at the hands of white settlers. Still, we both recognize that he’s talking about his own sadness as well as our locale. “I was really put in deep isolation with the pandemic,” he says. “I can only take so much solitude.”

The despair keeps seeping in. As we walk along, McKenrick tells me how, on this long hike, he’s missed the funerals of four friends. “My mind just races,” he says, “and I worry about things over which I have no control.”

Hiker Rue McKenrick sitting in a diner
Michael Hanson

McKenrick suffered his first episode of depression 13 years ago, after hiking the Continental Divide Trail with his girlfriend of a decade. Within miles of starting their long walk together, McKenrick’s partner announced, to his astonishment, that she wanted to get married and have kids. McKenrick, in turn, slipped a 5-pound rock into his pack. Secretly, he carried this rock south for 3,000 miles to Mexico. Then, at the trail’s southern terminus, he descended to one knee and presented the stone as if it were a diamond.

McKenrick’s beloved responded by confessing that she’d had an affair with his good friend, pre-hike.

Reeling, McKenrick moved from his home in Pennsylvania to Bend, Oregon to start over. He joined a sangha, or meditation community, and there met the unusual character who would become his guru. Steve Greening, now 72, is a retired alpine ski instructor and lifelong student of Buddhism. He is a long-distance runner and cross-country ski racer who shapes his hair into a mohawk, maintains a large vegetable garden, and has a side gig butchering hunters’ venison and elk in his garage. The men began skiing into the backcountry together and meeting each Thursday night for a 3-hour dinner during which, McKenrick says, “Steve would explain the constructs of consciousness.”

With Greening’s guidance, McKenrick attained a happy and simple stability in Bend. He divested himself of his car in 2010. He commuted by bike, even in snowstorms, to his job as a maintenance chief at a golf course, and he lived with friends. He went mountain biking and ventured into the Cascades to bag peaks. His depression waned. For many years, it was nothing but a memory, and when it emerged again in 2018, it was, he believes, a circumstance of romantic and career unhappiness.

By now, McKenrick knew how to tackle depression. “It’s not something you can self-correct,” he says. “You get your family and friends involved. You bring in the professionals. There’s no shame in saying, ‘I have an issue. I need help.’” In talking with his core support community, McKenrick came to see his situation clearly. “I wasn’t having the experience I wanted to have,” he says, “and the experience I wanted was backpacking.”

But it was more than a mere hike he envisioned. He wanted to “contribute to society,” he says, explaining, “At the end of the CDT I just felt empty. I felt like what I was doing was so unnecessary for the world.” He decided it was his calling to establish a new American trail and at first he didn’t realize how vast a project it would be.

“The logistics of creating a national trail are incredibly complex,” says Eric Seaborg, who helped scout the 6,800 mile American Discovery Trail in 1989 and now serves as the president of the ADT Society. “Just to get trail marker signs put up, you have to liaison with so many jurisdictions.” And growing a constituency for your trail? “It’s easier to get people to join their local hiking club and maintain local trails than it is to attract support for a cross continental trail that extends outside their domain. We now have 5,000 members nationwide. Thirty years on, we’re still building.”

By the summer of 2019, McKenrick was already starting to grow a support network and social media following for the APT. After a year of physical and mental training, he felt so free from his melancholy, and so eager to go forth, that he set out from Bend on his cross-continental hike just a day after having major dental surgery. It’s time, he told himself, reading his internal compass. I’m ready.

His mouth was still bleeding, he had less than $1,000 in his bank account, and he had no formal ground support. He planned to make up his route as he went, scouting which paths might work to connect the trail of his ambition and finding camping spots along the way.

“Rue is going down the hero’s path,” Greening thought as he saw off his protégé. “Things, good and bad, will come up.”

In almost every state McKenrick hiked through there were troubles. South of Las Vegas, as he stood by the highway extending his thumb, a police cruiser went by with its loudspeaker on: “Hitchhiking is not allowed in Nevada.” Hours later, when the same officer was on foot, he bellowed at McKenrick again. “Get your hands out of your pockets!” he shouted, worried that this interloper might be packing a gun. He searched through McKenrick’s gear for weapons that weren’t there.

In Mississippi, near a trailer park, an officer pulled up to him and said, “Get in this car now, or someone will shoot you.” The warning seemed outlandish to McKenrick—he perceived no threat—but under duress he climbed in.

Nine days after George Floyd was choked to death in the streets of Minneapolis, McKenrick was hiking the Allegheny Trail through someone’s backyard in West Virginia, and a man who lived there charged at him with a stick, yelling, “What’s your deal, man?”

“He was a big man, above six feet and above 200 pounds,” McKenrick would write on Instagram. “He wasn’t wearing a shirt.” McKenrick told him he was a hiker and the tension dissipated. But before the man went back inside, he told McKenrick, “There is some crazy shit going on right now. The whole world is going through some crazy shit. You better be careful.”

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve had eyeballs on me,” McKenrick tells me as we move through North Dakota. “Isolation becomes more intense when it’s hostile.”

McKenrick embarked on this hike with dreams of “discovering America and its people”—a goal that has inspired countless long-distance trips across the landscape—as he established a trail that carried a spiritual dimension, being, in his words, a “circular and infinite loop without a beginning or an end.” When we reach Fort Ransom, though, we’re the outsiders wearing masks when everyone else at Thor’s, the local dining hot spot, goes barefaced. We end up eating our dollar burgers outside on the cold, desolate patio, watching the dry leaves scuttle over the concrete slab under our picnic table.

But, of course, there are moments of bliss on any long hike. “Death Valley was just silent and wide open,” McKenrick says. “In the Southern Appalachians, I’d come into a drainage and there’d be ten cascades coming from every direction. In the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, there were beautiful cliffs and forests dropping down toward Lake Superior, and the water was pristine and calm.”

As they retreat from civilization, some adventurers are able to forget about people and find union with the nature around them. Sarah Marquis, National Geographic’s Explorer of the Year in 2014, hiked 10,000 miles from Siberia to the Gobi Desert between 2010 and 2013 and, she says, found herself progressing toward a state of rapture. “You lose your identity on an expedition like that,” she says. “You become part of nature. You become the wind. You become the sand.”

But exploration can be deeply alienating as well. Admiral Richard Byrd made this clear, certainly, in 1938, when he published Alone, a memoir of a solitary winter he spent gathering weather data in Antarctica. Byrd went south hoping “to taste peace and quiet long enough to know how good they really are.” He ended up suffering both physical and mental illness, thanks in part to a defective stove pipe that gave him carbon monoxide poisoning. As he lay in his sleeping bag, playing solitaire and barfing up seal meat, he came to realize that “the dark side of man’s mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions.”

For any adventurer on a hero’s journey, the principal challenge is to search for Marquis’s joyful absorption while trying to steer clear of Byrd’s obsessive darkness. It’s an endless process, and on a backpacking trip it unfolds step by step. “Walking is a mantra,” says Greening, McKenrick’s guru, when I reach him one night as he’s butchering a deer in his garage in Bend. “It’s meditation, and it’s not easy. The mind has its expressions. Stuff comes up, and we get contracted around certain questions. Maybe it’s ‘What is my self-worth?’ or ‘Are people going to believe me?’”

When I meet up with McKenrick halfway through our second day together, he’s stuck on an idea. Awkwardly for me, he’s obsessing on the prospect that I’ll be killed out here on my bike—crushed by a truck, say. “I was just thinking, ‘Something’s happened to Bill. He’s dead,’” he says. I search for a tinge of irony in his voice, but it’s not there. “Don’t die, Bill!” he says. “Don’t die!”

McKenrick feels responsible for having brought me out here to the prairie, but there’s something deeper than that. Unlike Sarah Marquis, he can’t will the human world to fall away. As he hikes along, he’s constantly on Instagram, trying to draw his 2,000 followers toward him by suggesting that they can afford him shelter in life’s storm. Referring to them as the “APT Family,” he says that their “essential qualities are kindness, compassion, generosity, and community. Each step I take is a prayer to the universe for ever increasing unity.” Each post may only get 15 or 20 likes, but to McKenrick, that support is dear. “I hike,” he writes, “for the internal continental connections of cultures and communities that are the APT.”

When a person’s as idealistic as McKenrick, and as hopeful, they’re inevitably hit with rude awakenings. In June, when McKenrick left his pack unguarded outside a Kalkaska, Michigan convenience store 8,000 miles into his trip, it was stolen. And suddenly, there he was, far from home, without food, without clothes, and without a tent in the middle of a global pandemic.

On Instagram, he grappled with the theft, trying to wring a few rays of sunlight out of a dark turn. Immediately, his posts carried what I’ve come to regard as McKenrick’s default Insta tone, awestruck gratitude. “I have been hiking on with the help of many very special individuals,” he wrote beside a photo of towering conifers shot from below as they soared into the heavens. “My heart is full and so is my tummy. Michigan!”

“Thank you everyone for providing shelter after my gear was stolen,” he said in another post beside a photo of an elegant tepee. “So many Trail Angels in Michigan, including the ones who put me up for the night here.”

Did all this hopeful rhetoric work in some cosmic way to shape McKenrick’s fate? Perhaps. In September, one of his Instagram followers, Jason North, happened to take his dog for a walk while passing through Kalkaska. In a scrubby patch of trees near the convenience store, the dog tugged at the leash, fixed on a scent. What he found, eventually, was a pile of stuff that the thieves had rejected. (McKenrick’s sleeping bag was in there, and also the photo montage.) North mailed everything to McKenrick, who was overjoyed. “There was a synchronicity to the whole thing,” he tells me. “What were the odds that someone reading my Instagram would even stop in Kalkaska? That they would take a walk in the woods and then reach out to me?”

By now, I’m rolling alongside McKenrick on the endless North Dakota road, pedaling lightly, clutching my brakes, so that we move in tandem at 3 miles an hour over the gravel. Both of us are thirsty. Eventually, I stop to knock on a door to ask for water. When the resident emerges, though, he’s impatient. “Our well just went dry,” he says, denying me. “If we had any water, I’d be drinking it right now.”

I haven’t brought McKenrick’s buoyant spirituality to this moment. I’m a journalist, a wizened and godless cynic, and my read on this water-denying macho man is unambiguous. He’s an asshole. He’s a liar. I regard him as signal proof of the innate hostility not only of North Dakotans but of the entire Covid-ridden world. But McKenrick reads my failed errand hopefully, as a koan. “That guy gave you a gift,” he says, laughing. “He probably thought you were bored out here. And now you have something to think about.”

How far can willed optimism carry a person? Can it really sustain you forever when you already have an underlying history of depression? What about when the world is breaking into pieces around you?

As McKenrick and I move west together, I register how deeply he’s internalizing stress. His trauma doesn’t merely shadow what he says. It’s evident, even, in the way he regards food. In my entire week with him, he shows no interest in eating. He takes a few bites when I throw food in front of him—a little sushi, a handful of peanuts—but I never once see him crack out his camp stove, and his idea of dinner—a half slice of leftover pizza, the cheese congealed—is pathetic.

Early in our travels, McKenrick and I discussed a medical writer we both appreciate, Dr. John Sarno, the author of Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Sarno’s principal idea is that, outside of severe health threats (cancer, say, or broken bones), our physical suffering is largely psychogenic and rooted in a “repressed anger” that we’d rather not think about.  “There’s nothing like a little physical pain to keep your mind off your emotional problems,” Sarno has written. I find myself wondering whether McKenrick’s still-undiagnosed lack of appetite stems from a rage so buried it manifests as depression. In bypassing food, has he simply found his own distraction, his own way to avoid the huge glob of emotional tar that his marathon 2020 hike has thrown at him?

I can’t bring myself to ask. Just raising such a question seems too accusational, too cruel, for I know how fragile a place McKenrick is in. I’ve been there myself. Nearly all of us at one point or another are beset by some issue that we’re endeavoring to figure out and work through. We live in a complicated world that throws obstacles at us every day. And I happen to be catching McKenrick in a moment of peak storm, near the end of what may go down as one of the most destabilizing years in American history.

On October 20, a few weeks after McKenrick and I part, I’m not surprised when I tune into his Instagram feed and find that he’s crumpling as the long Dakota winter sets in. “It’s really blowing around out here,” he says in a video that day as he stands outside in a snow squall. “I have every intention of sheltering tonight in place with a friend,” he adds, referencing a Fargo trail angel.

For five days, I learn, McKenrick has been living in the angel’s basement, direly sick, puking his guts up. “His entire adrenal system is not where it should be,” says Leilah Grace, a physical therapist who’s coordinating McKenrick’s American Perimeter Trail project. “His stress hormones are through the roof. His body doesn’t know what to do with this chaos.”

His mind doesn’t either, and McKenrick spends his entire time at the trail angel’s angsting over whether to press pause on his continuous 15-month cross continental hike and fly home to Oregon. “There was a day in there,” he’ll tell me eventually, “that I was calling all my friends and yelling, ‘I’m not a quitter!’ But the question I kept asking myself was, ‘Will you survive the snow and the cold? Will you survive hiking home to Bend through the Rockies in winter?’ The answer I kept getting was ‘no.’”

On October 22, in another Instagram video, again taken outside in falling snow, McKenrick finally cracks as he addresses the APT faithful. “I wanted to show you my favorite item, a luxury item that I carry in my pack,” he says, his sad voice intimate and confiding, nearly a whisper, and he lifts into view the laminated photo collage. “It’s this,” he says. He’s crying now, for he has nothing left but the love of his friends.

When McKenrick lands in Bend on October 27, he immediately takes up residence in the spare bedroom at Greening’s house. His reluctance to eat disappears, as though the problem was a ghost of his own making. He gorges on leftover venison and fresh tomatillos and chanterelle mushrooms from Greening’s sprawling garden. His bloated stomach recedes. He buys a used commuter bike. Ardently, he begins working long hours to promote the American Perimeter Trail, which will soon become a nonprofit; 100 people have already donated about $12,500. When I talk to him in early November, he tells me, “I feel like I’ve risen out of the ashes. Coming here has just given me a huge emotional release. For so long, I was just holding it together, living without joy.”

On November 11, I speak to his doctor, Jillian Schroeder, with McKenrick’s permission, and she’s a little more measured. “He’s tested negative for every infectious disease,” says Schroeder, who’s a family care physician in Bend. “His GI tract has been gradually improving. I’d say that’s resolved. But he has a history of major depressive disorder and PTSD. He will need ongoing care for his mental health. It makes sense for him to stay close so that we can fine tune his meds.”

A few days later, McKenrick tells me that, with Schroeder’s help, he’s arrived at a date. On about May 1, he will begin hiking west from the very spot in Bismarck, North Dakota where he stopped in October. He hopes to climb through the snows in Glacier National Park and then cut west toward the Olympic Peninsula. Along the way, he’ll take in some of the route trod long ago by Lewis and Clark.

He knows that the trip will be challenging. “Am I worried about my depression coming back?” he says. “Absolutely. It concerns me.”

It concerns me as well, and I carry the same worry for our country as it sits in a dark morass, stricken by Covid and riven by incivility and racial contempt. We are hurting, and Rue McKenrick, our hero, is all of us. In my mind’s eye, I can see him waking early on his first morning in Bismarck and starting out toward the Badlands, his headlamp illuminating a path through the darkness.

Can he make it? I decide that this is a question for a guru, and when I reach Greening he’s now carving up a deeply experienced elk, its cartilage hardened and tough. Earlier in the day, Greening gave McKenrick the liver of this very elk, and McKenrick sautéed it with garlic, then paired it with a salad of spinach, lambs quarter, and parsnips.

“From here,” Greening says, “Rue’s journey will go perfectly.”

“Perfectly?” I say, incredulous.

“Yes, perfectly,” Greening says. “Because everything is perfect, even the bad stuff.”

“Because when bad stuff happens,” he continues, “the universe is opening up so that we can see a whole new dimension and open our hearts to it. When bad things happen, it’s just the Divine speaking to us. It’s just The Divine saying, ‘Do I have your attention?’”

Bill Donahue is a regular contributor to Backpacker. His last story was about the final stand of the Grizzly Glacier in California’s Trinity Alps.