Footprints for Change

Crystal Gail Welcome in a moment of compassion on the PCT in 2021.

My time on the PCT in 2021 shifted my perspective about my Footprints for Change mission. A beautiful aspect of Footprints for Change is that change is ever-evolving—like Nature and like myself.

Yes, I still believe we need more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) representation outdoors, and I intend to continue this aspect of my mission. And I’ve come to understand what we all desire is meaningful connection. Nature allows space for that, so while I’ll never stop being Black, disabled, or a lesbian, it’s vital that I recognize above all, I’m human.

What people hope for is to be seen and accepted for their authentic selves—all of us. I’m going into 2022 with connection as the heart of my mission. I want to connect with others, connect with Nature, and facilitate others’ connections with Nature as well. As I gear up for part two of my Great Western Loop trek, now is the right time to share more of my story and experiences.

Many people may recognize my name; I am a Black lesbian and thru-hiker with a neurological implant, and I am vocal about racial inequality in the outdoors. What isn’t widely known is that I am living with a mental health condition. We don’t like to talk about mental health issues as a society. There are stigmas surrounding mental illness, often magnified within the Black community. You might even be thinking: what does this post have to do with the PCT? The answer is simple: when we venture outdoors, we don’t stop being ourselves, and it’s important to acknowledge our differences. 

I was diagnosed with bipolar in my early twenties, but it would be a few years before I was treated with the proper medication. At first, my family didn’t understand that my condition didn’t encapsulate my personality. I suppose, if they dismissed me as crazy, how could we ever start a dialogue? The same goes for folks in the backcountry. We fear what we don’t understand—race, religion, disability, etc. If we don’t take time to listen and learn, how can we begin to understand?

I envision a world filled with compassion. One where we care about one another and work collaboratively to care for the planet. My time in Nature has taught me that we need to begin with empathy in all things—and that starts with understanding.

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I found the proper medication, therapy, and support. Things were good until they weren’t. I began experiencing symptoms that I didn’t take seriously at first. I started having visual disturbances and headaches that I couldn’t treat on my own. Yet, I didn’t seek treatment immediately. I didn’t want to be seen as “crazy.” In the media, people with mental illness are often portrayed as seeing things that don’t exist. My vision decreased significantly, yet I was fearful that perhaps nothing was wrong because I had internalized those messages and stigma.

I waited until my vision started to fade before scheduling an eye exam. I was diagnosed with a rare brain disease that same day. Sometimes, I wonder if going to the doctor sooner might have resulted in fewer surgeries because of early detection. I’ll never know. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because I can’t change how things worked out.

My hope in life is that my lived experiences might inspire or encourage someone searching for peace or hope.

As I journey to connect this year, I intend to connect folks with outdoor resources. This is reciprocal—if you see me on my journey and you have something you’d like to share, talk to me. If you aren’t able to connect in person send me a message.  If you or anyone you know is looking to connect with mental health resources in the outdoors, check out the organization Hike for Mental Health, who is a supporter of the PCTA.

Let’s work together to make Footprints for Change.

Follow Crystal’s journey on Instagram: footprintsforchange

Author: Crystal Gail Welcome

After a lengthy battle with a rare brain disease, Crystal Gail Welcome came to recognize the healing power of nature. She now uses her experience to break down barriers so more people can access the outdoors. Crystal is an experiential educator, author, storyteller, activist, backpacker, and Black outdoor leader. She chooses to speak out against racial injustice in the United States by hiking and giving voice to her experiences.