When a Project Takes on a Life of its Own - Mind, Body, & Soul Part 1

Mind, Body, & Soul: the Nature of Well-being is a documentary project that explores how spending time in nature affects our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Alex Maier and Amy Robin embark on the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail to seek healing from past traumas and personal growth. What they found was not what they imagined.

When a project takes on a life of its own, you know you are on the right path. We had an ambitious goal to begin with. Our project, to film our thru-hike on the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail and interview people across the country about the effects of nature on well-being as humans. It was already going to be the biggest documentary project we have worked on. Now, over two years into it and another to go at least, it has taken over our lives. In hindsight, that’s exactly what was supposed to happen.

Amy Robin with her dog Minnow, and Alex Maier with his dog Echo.

The Team Forms

We’ll start at the beginning. Alex moved to Montana in 2019, soon after that, he started dating a girl, Amy Robin. Their love for cameras and the outdoors, especially the mountains, united them. They both believed that spending time in nature was crucial for their own well-being. After Alex told Amy about his thru-hikes that he had done, what they had done for his mental health and overall well-being, she was very interested. Amy had lived a rough life and by the time she was in her mid-twenties, she had experienced more hardship than many people experience in a lifetime. A weaker person may have not survived what she had been through, at the very least be as successful. She carried a lot of the trauma from those years around with her and she believed that a long period of time in nature was just what she needed to process and release a lot of that trauma. She asked Alex if he wanted to do a thru-hike with her and make a movie about mental health. To her surprise, Alex said yes. Alex knew it would be challenging, but being the optimist that he is, he chose to focus on the possibilities rather than the consequences of taking on such a huge task.
Right around this time Amy introduced Alex to sweat lodge ceremonies. These are very similar to the traditional sweat lodges that the Native Americans used thousands of years ago. They represent the womb of the earth, and a person is symbolically reborn when they come out of the lodge. The ceremony consists of four rounds of singing and drumming in pitch-black darkness. It’s very hot in there and you are drenched in sweat in a matter of minutes. Prayers are said by all participants in-between rounds and the experience is a very powerful one to say the least. Amy is more in tune with the spiritual world than Alex, but he has always been curious and open-minded about things of that nature. It’s no coincidence that this sweat lodge came into Alex’s life at this time. The man and woman who run the lodge have since become their spiritual advisors and they have served an extremely important role in helping them interpret what happened over the next year.
Naturally, this spiritual perspective worked its way into the project. Eventually, it became, “Mind, Body, and Soul: The Nature of Well-being.” They would use theirselves as guinea pigs by spending six months in nature on the Continental Divide Trail to explore how that affected their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.

The Continental Divide Trail is considered the toughest of the "Triple Crown" Trails in America.

One Month Before the Hike, 
Alex had never worked with a partner before on personal documentaries. He was used to hiking alone and working on his documentaries alone. He didn’t know how to work with a partner. He didn’t know how to include Amy and she felt left out, she felt that Alex was taking over their project. Taking the credit for her idea. That added to the already high level of stress involved with putting life on hold. That stress put Amy into a hyper sensitive state and caused a lot of friction between them.
A thru-hike is not a vacation and involves a lot of sacrifices. Money was already tight and Amy was quitting a good-paying job, with no guarantee that there would be work when they came back. Alex was self-employed and not taking as much of a financial risk. Time flew by as they prepared, moving out of their homes, packing up all their belongings, putting it in storage, finding someone to watch Amy’s cats and plants, saying goodbye to their friends, mapping out the route, getting food in order, getting gear, the list goes on. Soon enough though, they were at the border of Mexico in New Mexico watching the truck that drove them out there, drive away. It was just them and their two dogs. The chaos and complications of society were behind them and they could finally just focus on walking.

Starting at the Crazy Cook Monument, the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail.

Before Alex and Amy started the hike they both knew that there would be one big point of contention between them. Alex would be more focused on the miles, while Amy would be more focused on her healing. Their priorities were different. Amy wasn’t hiking the CDT to walk from Mexico to Canada, she was doing it to be in nature and heal from a life of trauma. Alex’s priorities weren’t as clear or personal. He wanted to make sure they stayed together, he wanted to make a good movie, and he wanted to make it to Canada. Amy wanted to finish the trail too, it just wasn’t a priority.
With this being Alex’s third thru-hike and Amy’s first, he was excited to introduce her to this world that has had such a profound effect on his own life. They started in the late afternoon that first day and hiked just a few miles before setting up camp. It was such a relief to finally leave the stress behind and just be alone in nature. Life would be simple now, or so they thought.

Remote Country.

The Hike, 
Almost immediately, that thing that they knew would be a problem, became a problem. The first section on the CDT is not a soft introduction. The desert is harsh, there’s almost no shade, and water carries are long. Amy developed pretty bad foot pain and couldn’t move as fast as they needed to. Alex really tried to have patience, but they only had about seven days of food and it was becoming clear that it would take longer than that to reach their first re-supply point in Lordsburg, NM. Alex’s attempts to speed up their pace only made things worse, then he miscalculated the miles and found out that Lordsburg was actually three days away instead of two. That was a breaking point and Amy was mentally crushed. They were contemplating hitch-hiking into town then and there, then a series of small miracles took place.

A Harsh way to Start.

Another hiker walked up to them and sat down. They were not in the mood to chit chat, but he was very friendly, so they did. It came up that they were running out of food for both them and their dogs and were not going to make it to town in time. It turned out that he had a friend who had too much food and was looking to get rid of it. He would be showing up any minute. That solved their food problem. They sat there and talked with those guys for almost two hours. When they got up to keep hiking, they were still too low on dog food. They crossed the road to find the trail on the other side. At the same time, a van pulled up and they saw a familiar face. His trail name was Cheshire Cat and they had met him a day before on the trail. A thru-hiker himself, he was just driving along the CDT this year to hike bits of the trail and provide trail magic for other hikers. The day before, he showed up at just the right time to give Amy some helpful advice to deal with her foot pain. This time he showed up again right when they needed him. He gave them some dog food and fruit, but more importantly, he gave Amy exactly the words she needed to keep going. He put her foot pain into a spiritual perspective that resonated with her perfectly. There was nothing physically wrong with her feet, it was just tight muscles, but it caused excruciating pain and no amount of stretching seemed to fix the problem. Cheshire Cat said this was because her body was resisting the hike, it didn’t want to confront this level of change because it had become fixed in its old ways. The whole point of doing this hike was for Amy to grow out of her old ways, so it’s perfectly normal for there to be some growing pains. If she could keep going at her own pace, slowly her body would accept the change and she would flourish. He didn’t know anything about Amy’s backstory, but he nailed her reasoning for being out there.
These synchronistic events happen all the time in life, but we as humans seem to only notice them when we are taken out of our comfort zone, when we are on big adventures, or when we are putting ourselves out there and being vulnerable. Cheshire Cat was their first major synchronistic experience on the hike and they saw him four times in that first section. Each encounter was strangely coincidental and each time he provided something that Alex and Amy needed.

The desert is harsh but beautiful.

They made it within seven miles of Lordsburg when they ran into Cheshire Cat again. Amy was in a lot of pain and he offered to drive them into town from there. Skipping trail miles is frowned upon in the thru-hiking community. Alex had done it on his other hikes, but with this trail being more established, he felt a stronger duty to hike every mile of trail. It was clear that accepting the ride was the right thing to do though, so he begrudgingly skipped those miles. It felt great to get into town and get a hotel room. To get a shower, to have a real meal. They had a lot to process and they needed to rest before the next section.

Blisters weren't the worst part. The internal musculoskeletal pain was worse.

The Thru-Hiking Cycle, 
They spent the next five months going through variations of this same cycle they experienced in that first section. They’d leave town to embark on a 4 - 7 day hike with the goal of covering anywhere between 50 to 130 miles. In New Mexico, they dealt with long water carries, injured  feet (dog and human), and endless road walking. Alex and Amy had to carry their dog’s water, the dogs could only carry their food in their backpacks. There were times when they had 15 liters of water in their backs between the two of them. Amy’s dog, Minnow, rubbed some of her pads raw and they spent a lot of time and energy doing their best to keep her comfortable while they hiked. Road walking can be nice because it’s fast, but it’s boring and hard on the feet. At times it felt like 50% of New Mexico was road walking.

Emptyness

Weather Windows
The San Juan mountain range in Colorado was the next challenge. The weather windows on the CDT are extremely tricky to time because of the order of terrain. You want to start in New Mexico early to avoid the desert heat, but you don’t want to get to the San Juans too early because there will be too much snow. Once through the San Juans, you have to go as fast as you can to get through Glacier National Park before the snow flies. Which can be anywhere from mid-September to November.
They hung around in Chama, NM for almost a week to give the San Juans snow some extra time to melt. By the time they got up there, it was manageable. There were a few sketchy snow-covered slopes and a lot of cold rain, but they did pretty well, considering some of the horror stories they heard from other hikers. Colorado is probably the toughest state on the CDT because of the elevation change and the weather. They spent five days at a time above 12,000 feet. They dealt with thunderstorms and lightning at that elevation all while being completely exposed. They hiked on dangerous knife-edge ridges and were constantly climbing up or down a mountain.

Snow in the San Juans.

They overcame all the physical challenges that the trail threw at them. Those things were hard, but they weren’t the issue. The mental challenges were much harder. Alex was having a hard time accepting that this wasn’t his hike. He wanted to do things his way because he didn’t know any other way to do it. He was the experienced thru-hiker and he wasn’t used to consulting someone else about decisions. He knew that they weren’t out there to do a traditional thru-hike, at the same time, they were still trying to hike from Mexico to Canada if they could. As long as they were going to try to complete the trail, they had to deal with the inescapable reality that they’d have to average about 20 miles a day. That wasn’t happening, but Alex kept telling himself that they’d get there eventually. “We just have to get through this tough area, then we’ll speed up.” “We just have to give Amy time to heal her feet, then we can speed up.” In hindsight, it was clear that he had lost sight of the real goal of this journey. At the moment though, he could rationalize it because they always agreed that they wanted to try to make it to Canada if they could.

Endless mountains and lakes in Colorado.

There were times when Amy was showing real progress. Her pain had decreased and she was hiking lighter. She felt lighter when Alex looked at her. The process of shedding all that trauma that had been weighing her down was beginning to happen. This seemed to happen during the times when things were going well on the trail. They were reaching the goals that they set for themselves and things were falling into place. As soon as they weren’t meeting their expectations, that pressure and that weight came back. The doubt about finishing the trail was crushing and it made them forget why they were out there.
They fought a lot during those times and Amy was beginning to align with Alex’s priorities. She began to gauge her level of success based on miles, too. By the time they reached the Wyoming border, they were defeated mentally. Their pace had put them way behind the rest of the northbound hikers and they were feeling a bit like failures. One trait that Alex and Amy both have in abundance of is stubbornness and they weren’t about to give up until they had to. In hindsight, that trait may have been the reason that they found themselves in that situation to begin with. Soon it became clear that they were too far behind to finish the trail before winter hit Glacier. Amy had bad knees before they started the hike and Colorado had taken a toll on them. Her feet had healed a while ago, but now her knees were bothering her every day. That’s probably when their motivation to keep going faded.

Wyoming and Colorado border.

They began coming up with all kinds of elaborate schemes to make the hike easier for them. They abandoned the idea of being unsupported and brought their cars into the mix. That way one of them could hike while the other rested and drove. Or they could park a car where one would stop for the day and leap frog up. They’d also be able to reduce the food weight they carried and get into town every day if they needed to. Those amenities were amazing. After living out of a backpack for four months, having a car was like introducing a caveman to a grocery store. It no longer felt like a thru-hike, though. Ironically, once they had accepted that they wouldn’t make it to Canada, they were able to focus on the real reasons why they were out there in the first place. They placed fewer expectations on themselves and the pressure lifted a little bit.

Back into the desert.

One day Amy was hiking by herself in the Wyoming desert. She was having a really hard time. She felt like a failure for many different reasons. Finally, it hit her that she needs to stop judging herself by other people’s standards. She needed to focus on herself and do this hike for no one else other than herself. Immediately after that, she looked up and to her surprise there was a bear no more than 30 yards in front of her. It was not threatening, they were just surprised to see each other. As she moved to capture it with her camera, it took off. That was the only time either one of them saw a bear on the entire trail, and Amy saw it in the desert no less. According to the Native Americans, animals represent different things when they show up in our lives. The bear represents the opening of gates that have been closed.

An unlikely place to see a bear.

They kept up the leap-frogging technique with the car until they reached Yellowstone National Park. Amy’s knees had been getting worse, and by the time they reached Yellowstone, she could barely walk. It was clear that the hike was over. They lived just an hour north of Yellowstone in Montana, so it felt fitting to end so close to home. The night that they decided to end the hike, they were car camping just outside of town in West Yellowstone. The dogs acted like something was outside, but they didn’t pay much attention to it. A couple of minutes later they heard a wolf howling, it was close. Then another one chimed in, then another. It sounded like they had the car surrounded. They just laid there in disbelief. Just like the bear, they didn’t feel threatened, but they did feel like they were being delivered a message. For them to show up as soon as they decided to end the hike felt significant. When a wolf shows up it means, characteristics that no longer serve you are being culled from your consciousness. Make cooperation a priority over competition. Valuable insights are coming your way so pay attention.

Mysteries at night.

After the Hike, 
Winter after the CDT was rough as they dealt with the aftermath of that hike. The adventure continued with a month-long road trip to interview people for the documentary. They were seeing amazing places and met great people, but the whole time they just wanted to be home and decompress. When they did get home they found out that they couldn’t afford to live in the same town and had to move an hour away. After that Amy realized that she wouldn’t be able to find a job in the area that would pay the bills, so they decided to go into business together. They had just put everything they had into the hike, and now they were living off of savings and starting a brand new business, which was costing a lot more time and money than it was making them.

The road trip took them along the whole west coast.

It’s funny how two people can hike 2,000 miles together and still feel like failures. They had failed by their own standards. They were both very confused and disappointed. They thought they would do that hike and find everything they were looking for. It would answer their questions and solve their problems. In reality, all it did was reveal the things that they needed to work on. They never really got to that point of fixing things. For Alex, that happened over the winter. He slowly accepted that he was being selfish on the trail and he accidentally took Amy’s hike away from her. In his attempt to give her the same experience he had on his first hike, he forgot the most important lesson he’s learned from hiking. No one can give you that experience, you have to go and find it yourself. He made it about the miles and forgot why they were doing the hike in the first place. Amy realized that she let Alex do that. There were plenty of times when she could have taken the hike back for herself, but that would have meant leaving Alex behind. She wanted to be together so badly that she lost herself out there. She wanted to do the project together. She was scared to be on her own. She always believed that things would change and they would stop focusing on the miles so much. They both felt a lot of shame in confronting those realizations. Slowly though, they did confront them and they learned from them. Nine months later they are still learning from them.

Back in Montana for the winter, there was a lot to process.

At the Beginning and the Middle, 
That summer they filmed the beginning and the middle of the Mind, Body, and Soul documentary, but they never found an ending. They got off the trail with a lot of loose ends still untied. In fact, Alex thinks that’s all the trail did, was create a whole bunch of loose ends so that they could see exactly which things needed to be tied up. They have learned what they needed to learn from the experience last summer, now it’s time that they put that new knowledge into action and tie up those loose ends. What that means for them is that Amy will be returning to the trail by herself so that she can do the work that was supposed to happen last summer. With 1,000 miles of trail left to go, Amy has no intention of finishing unless that’s what her body and the universe wants to do. She will be out there for the sole purpose of healing. She will listen to the messages she receives from nature and her own soul, then walk-in harmony with those things. They have decided that it’s best that Alex isn’t to get in the way this time. This is deeply personal work that Amy needs to do and it’s probably best to be alone anyway. Alex will be applying what he learned by supporting Amy from a distance and meeting her on the trail occasionally. This way it is clearly not his hike and he can fulfill his role as a partner instead of the solo hiker that he’s used to being. They weren’t ready to take this approach a year ago. It was necessary that they went through all that hardship to show them where they were at, to show the world what is going on. Now they are ready to do things the right way.

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