When Stephanie Manning decided to mark her 40th birthday by completing 40 hikes in one year, she was celebrating more than her age.
A few days earlier, Manning had begun to emerge from a deep, six-month postpartum depression. Embarking on a year of hikes, she said, helped her to overcome that and to reconnect with family members and friends in ways she had never expected.
Manning, of Leesburg, said she had not been prepared for the depression she experienced shortly after giving birth to her daughter Vivian in November 2013.
“It just hit me,” she said. “We were just about to go into the worst winter . . . in a long time, and I had a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, and I had been very involved in their day-to-day activities.”
After the holidays, when the depression hit Manning hard, she struggled to get up in the morning and to leave the house. Her family and friends were supportive, but nothing helped, she said.
Her depression lasted until the Fourth of July weekend, when her husband, Drew, persuaded her to take a day trip with the family to Harpers Ferry.
“I was feeding the baby on the rock, by the water, right by town, and the kids were playing,” she said. “It was like this moment of being outside, the sun hitting my face, being with the kids, hearing them laughing.”
She said it was like “a switch . . . went off” in her head as she realized that being outside made her feel better.
“You could almost see a veil lifting,” her husband said. “The very next day, she said, ‘Let’s try to find some waterfalls.’ ”
So the next day they went to White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park. After that trip, Manning knew how she wanted to celebrate her 40th birthday the next week. She would hit the trails again, with a goal of completing 40 hikes by her 41st birthday.
The couple went to Pearisburg, in Southwest Virginia, for Manning’s birthday weekend. They hiked Dragon’s Tooth on the Appalachian Trail. She described the 4.8-mile circuit as “very tough” because of the terrain, which required them to scramble over rocks to reach the summit. The next day they trekked four miles on the Cascade Falls Trail in Jefferson National Forest, near Pembroke.
The hikes over the next year ranged from four to 10 miles, and each was different, Manning said. Although a few were in Maryland or her native upstate New York, most were in Virginia.
Sometimes she hiked alone or with just the baby in a back carrier, but usually other family members or friends accompanied her. She found that her children loved hiking.
“Vivi literally grew up in that backpack . . . and it’s like her favorite place,” she said. “When I get it out, she just goes over to it.”
Manning said she particularly appreciated the connections she made with others while hiking.
“When you’re hiking on a trail with someone, your conversations are completely different,” she said. “People tend to be more relaxed, more reflective, more interested in the give-and-take of conversation and not the craziness of where you need to be, what you need to do.”
As Manning documented her hikes on Facebook, she was surprised to see her feed filling up with photos of her friends hiking, many of them inspired by her goal. She began fielding so many inquiries for advice about hikes, she’s considering starting a blog.
She reached her goal on her 41st birthday, when she completed a nine-mile hike to the summit of Mount Rogers in southwestern Virginia. At 5,729 feet, it’s the highest point in the state.
“It was almost like a personification of her struggle,” Drew Manning said. “I could tell what it meant to her. I could just see the determination in her eye.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.