On Serendipity, Serotonin, and Circumnavigating the States

On a recent Sunday, I took a short hike and stumbled upon 2 people. And I felt elated and electrified by what passed between us. Heck, I might as well have been struck by a bolt of lightning in the middle of that forest.

Here’s a brief, spirited account of that brief, serendipitous mini-odyssey.

I only had 1 hour for my hike on that particular day. So I took a quick out-and-back on the Appalachian Trail near my house. I listened to music and let my thoughts and feelings jostle and float freely for 30 minutes as I ventured north (toward Maine). Then when I was almost ready to turn around, I saw 2 hikers approaching me in the distance. I decided to pivot back toward home a few minutes early so that I could stay in front of them as I hiked south again (toward Georgia). I waved to the 2 people, they waved back, and I turned around to head homeward.

But then my extra-extraverted self had the thought: “Wait a minute. That was antisocial. Don’t be in such a rush. Say hi.” So I stopped, waited 15 seconds for their approach, and greeted them warmly. The 3 of us exchanged pleasantries. We then proceeded to talk — in increasingly animated and exhilarated tones — for 40 minutes while we walked back toward our respective destinations. That pristine exchange refreshed and redefined my day. And it also blew my mind.

Because here’s what I learned in that exchange.

The man and woman’s names are Rue and Leilah. They are from Bend (in Oregon) and Philadelphia, respectively. They are business partners. Nonprofit small business partners, to be more precise. And the business they’re in is no ordinary one. They are deep in the process of…

…wait for it…

…mapping out a trail that roughly spans the entire perimeter of the continental United States. A trail that will pass through 25 states. And cover 14,000 miles. A trail that will be exponentially longer than every other North American trail that currently exists. Including the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,600 miles), and the Continental Divide Trail (3,000 miles).

Three trails which, incidentally, this fellow Rue himself has already comprehensively hiked. Making him a “Triple Crowner” (a term I had not previously been familiar with).

So apparently, I took an hour-long day hike and accidentally met a bona fide hiking legend. A guy whose face has graced the pages of Backpacker magazine. A guy with 10s of 1000s of miles under his belt, and under his boots.

I just… ran into him.

The serendipity of it all makes the mind reel.

Rue McKenrick is the legend in question. Leilah Grace is his fellow mastermind of the American Perimeter Trail, and thus also a legend. McKenrick is the face of the APT, while Grace is the sturdy backbone of the APT skeleton. Not to mention the 1-woman skeleton crew of the tiny nonprofit machine they run.

A machine that really feels like more of a movement. A conservation movement, since that is the passion for which McKenrick has dedicated his life and his career as a long-distance hiker.

I won’t attempt to tell the story of Rue McKenrick and the bright, blazing, burgeoning American Perimeter Trail. Both because I only know bits and pieces of that story firsthand, and because much of it has already been mapped out in an eloquent and expansive January 2021 feature in Backpacker magazine (see the link at the end of this piece).

But what I do know from my 40 minutes of talking to Rue, and to his business and hiking partner Leilah, is that they are the real deal. Just like Friday Night Lights, they have clear eyes and full hearts about their dream. Not to mention a can’t-lose (open-source, collectivist, nonprofit, fueled-only-by-the-power-of-the-human-spirit) business proposition.

A proposition that was hatched in late fall 2019, mere months before the world changed forever. At which point nearly every facet of making that idea a reality became exponentially more difficult.

But Rue McKenrick and Leilah Grace are a man and a woman not easily deterred.

I fully believe they will get this done. This certifiably crazy mission to carve out a 14,000-mile circumnavigational trail that utilizes a network of local trails. I’m confident they will ride this spectacular, noble, lumbering beast across the finish line — come hell or high water.

And in any small way I can, I want to ride that beast with them. Because I know one thing:

History will smile upon this endeavor.

But let’s go back to my Sunday day hike.

Here’s the thing about my serendipitous path-crossing with Rue and Leilah.

There’s only one reason I even got to enjoy the luxury of luxuriating in that conversation, along with many other convivial convergences I’ve savored recently. One simple word, denoting one not-so-simple chemical reality.


Last year at this time, I didn’t know it yet but I was deeply and dangerously lacking in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. As a result, I was overwhelmed with sleep-ravaging anxiety and world-flattening depression. I felt like I was falling helplessly into a black hole in slow motion. And it took nearly 2 excruciating months of trudging through that bleak hellscape before I procured the help (and the medication) I needed.

Once I got the serotonin I needed, from an SSRI called Lexapro that I started taking in July 2021, I was just 2 weeks away from clawing my way back to the surface of the ocean I was drowning in. At which point I finally breathed again for the first time in months. And at which point I rediscovered my true self, that most vital of all rediscoveries.

I’ve written about all of that extensively elsewhere. (Click here to read chapter 1 of that bruising mental health saga.) I bring it up here to illuminate how thrilling, and deeply gratifying, it is to now see the fruits of that serotonin infusion.

If I had taken the same 1-hour hike last May and had seen the same 2 people approaching in the distance, I have no doubt I would have turned around and avoided greeting them, much less engaging them in a 40-minute conversation about their grandiose, dizzying trail plans. At that time, I had no resonance with my own extroverted self or even just my basic warmth toward other human beings. I was lost in my head, disconnected from my feelings, and cut off from any desire to connect with other people.

Serotonin is what made this Sunday afternoon serendipity, and all my other grand and mundane recent serendipities, both physically and emotionally possible.

Serotonin, that most basic chemical building block of all happiness. A building block that most people’s bodies are able to create on their own. But I, increasingly for the last half decade, and a handful of people on my mom’s side of the family have found ourselves deficient in that chemical.

So we have sought help. And some of us have succeeded in finding that help.

Thus, we can live our lives.

Thus, we can forge connections.

Thus, we can learn about 14,000 mile trails.

And the bright, blazing souls that, with the help of their well-worn soles, blaze those trails.

Thank you for reading! I am grateful for your time and your interest. If you want to read the mesmerizing feature-length Rue McKenrick piece from Backpacker magazine, written by Bill Donahue, click here. If you live in central Pennsylvania (and read this in time), go listen to Rue speak about the American Perimeter Trail at the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park at 2:00 on Sunday, May 15th! Rue is deeply engaging, and I personally guarantee you’ll be glad you made the trip.

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