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Building an Equitable Existence to Thrive: I Can. I Must. I Will.

Updated: Jan 30

written by Crystal Gail Welcome

As an advocate for a better planet led by love and compassion, we can equip ourselves with a powerful tool of understanding through conversation. I hope sharing my experiences will educate those with little to no idea of the challenges of being a hiker living with a disability. In writing, I also hope to reduce the stigma surrounding individuals living with disabilities.

I am an environmental and social justice advocate, a writer, a hiker, and a person living with a disability. Utilizing my intersecting identities: Black, disabled, lesbian, and backpacker, I’m on a mission to get historically excluded folks outdoors in Nature.

One might classify me as a semi-professional backpacker, and my accomplishments are well documented. However, as an individual with invisible illnesses, some may not know the roads I’ve traveled to get here.

I am living with bipolar – a disorder associated with severe mood swings ranging from manic highs to depressive lows. I also live with Intracranial Hypertension (IH) – a rare brain disease causing my body to think and act like I have a brain tumor – yet, I don’t. For the latter, I have an implanted neurological device to control the negative side effects that stem from IH.

Backpacker with desert landscape in the background.
A selfie of Crystal in her backpacking gear at the left corner of the image with desert flora, including yellow flowers and prickly pear cactus, with distant mountains behind her.

Over the past decade and a half, only my closest friends and family truly understand my struggles. IH made me sick all the time. Days were spent trying not to fall while struggling to stand. For years, I wished the room would stop spinning long enough to make a meal – and once complete, I hoped I kept the meal down. I suffered from debilitating migraines and lost complete vision in one eye. I endured multiple invasive surgeries, many of which were brain surgeries, to help alleviate and control the symptoms of IH.

I lived with the symptoms of IH for the greater part of my adulthood. During that period, I had no interest or desire to do anything. I was depressed, heavily medicated, and experienced significant physical changes. I slept all the time because everything I did hurt. I worried constantly and was filled with anxiety. My outlook was pessimistic and bleak.

I was tired of the pain and lost the desire to fight. I finally moved back with my parents during one of my darkest moments. I was blessed to have the support of my family. Especially my Dad, who every morning made me repeat the mantra: “I can. I must. I will.”

Then, he would drive me a little over a mile up the road to the gate entrance of our subdivision, leaving me to walk back home. I was barely able to walk a block without rest. Had someone told me then that someday I would enjoy walking miles on end, I would have laughed. But I found something to keep me coming back.

At the halfway point between the gate and home was a little park I’d use as a resting place. I didn’t realize it then, but being outside in that park was healing. In little time, I began carrying a backpack on the walks. Inside were writing aids and usually a book to read. I started looking forward to those daily walks, especially the time I spent in the park.

I finally accepted that I would be in pain no matter what I did and recognized that I wanted to live a full life. Walking and being outdoors brought a sense of joy. I even craved spending time outdoors and walking. Which, in short, led me to run and, ultimately, my decision to become a backpacker.

Hiker leans again stone trail marker with gravel trail and desert landscape in background.
Crystal, wearing a button down with a green and white plaid pattern and grey pants, is leaning up against a stone placard for the Arizona Trail with a gravel trail, desert flora and red, rocky hills in the background.

Now, most days, I’m filled with unbelievable joy to be alive. That doesn’t mean I’m cured or that I’ll feel as fabulous tomorrow. I still have IH, and I’m still living with a mental health condition. Many things could change tomorrow, but Nature has taught me to embrace today. Hiking and spending time outdoors have positively impacted me. I think about how much better all our lives would be if we all took our cues from Nature to accept everyone and love unconditionally.

Spending time outdoors can be wonderful in many ways. The solace, the stillness, the trees, and the fresh air are a few things I enjoy about being outdoors. I think we all want positive experiences —and to get through adversity— in solidarity with like-minded folks. I find these connections outdoors.

I believe in creating inclusive, empowering outdoor experiences for all. I’m aware of the importance of visibility – growing up, I didn’t think the outdoors was for people like me. I was never exposed to Nature-based activities and never saw myself reflected in the outdoors. So, I set out on a campaign, Footprints for Change, to hike the Great Western Loop (GWL).

The GWL is a 6,875-mile-long footpath that links together the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and Arizona Trail — and a trail-less segment through the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.

I began the three-part journey in 2021 on the PCT, hiking a little over 1,100 miles. I became the first person with a neuromodulator to climb Mt. Whitney, the largest mountain in the contiguous US. Unlike other hikers, I have to stop every ten days to recharge my neurological implant batteries. Because of this and other health and safety-related concerns, I creatively covered the 675-mile segmented trail as a car camping road trip.

Hike stands on a mountain peak holding a Mt. Whitney sign with sunset in background.
Crystal, wearing a black beanie and green puffy coat, is standing atop large pale boulders with a sky streaked with yellow and orange in the background. She is holding a metal laser cut sign that reads Mt. Whitney, 14,505 and has cut outs of trees, mountains and a bear below the words and numbers.

This season I hiked 2,384 miles, including 400 miles on the AZT, completing a calendar year thru-hike of the 800-mile scenic trail. I have plans to rejoin the loop in 2023.

One reason I decided on such a huge undertaking is to advocate for more diversity in the outdoors, representing women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), the LGBTQIA + community, and people living with disabilities.

I believe that Nature is a unifier; through her, we can build an equitable existence for all folks to thrive. When we can be our authentic selves, we feel more connected. I can work to make the outdoors a safe place for all creatures. I must actively engage others to join me. In solidarity with others, I will pave a path for folks with my various intersecting identities to have a reciprocal relationship with Nature and others. Through this relationship, we can work to heal humanity and save our dying planet. I will continue to do my part. I can. I must. I will.

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