KETCHIKAN, Alaska – In one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic has been life-changing for nearly everyone, but it’s taken one San Antonio man on a unique journey.
You could call it the ultimate road trip, but instead of driving, he decided to walk 3,800 miles from San Antonio to Alaska.
Michael Collins, 33, arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Oct. 18, exactly nine months after he started the trek.
He has tales from the trail that sound straight out of an adventure movie — encounters with rattlesnakes and bears and battles with Mother Nature — but he said it was what he learned from the many hours of quiet solitude that’s made the biggest impact.
Collins said he came up with the idea last December, feeling unsettled and frustrated by the restrictions of pandemic living. He was inspired by shows he’d watch about the Alaska frontier.
“I’ve always liked Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny and the spirit of adventure,” Collins told KSAT during a Zoom interview. “This world is big and exciting and life is hard, but like through those struggles, you can really learn some important valuable lessons that I think this country was founded on.”
He also noticed that a lot of people were suffering from depression or mental illness, exacerbated by the pandemic, digital media and the modern lifestyle.
“I was really kind of yearning for a different type of adventure,” he said.
So he set out with a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag and a not-so-detailed plan. He also had a map book at first, but he ditched that pretty quickly after it weighed him down.
Until this year, Collins had never backpacked or done much camping, but he is an athlete. He played soccer at Churchill High School, The University of the Incarnate Word, and even professionally in England and Nepal (so, yeah, he’s got an adventurous streak.)
“I knew that I needed to go northwest,” Collins said. And then he just took each day as it came.
“I think somebody said that living in the future brings anxiety. Living in the past brings depression. Living in the present is the only time you can have peace. And I learned quickly along the way that it was just one step in front of the other,” Collins said. “One of the most valuable experiences that I learned from that journey is just being very present.”
Collins said only planning 20 miles at a time opened him up to new experiences and literally took him on new paths, like when he discovered the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail that goes through five states from Mexico to Canada.
“I met a bunch of other hikers that were doing the same thing that I was doing, walking really long distance, and that was very surprising, like, ‘Oh, there’s other crazy people out here like me,’” Collins said. “But one of the things that we talked about on the trail is how it restored our faith in humanity. Like, there are really kind, generous people out there.”
Collins said there would be times when he was out of supplies that someone would pull up next to him and give him food and water, or offer him shelter from the cold. Hikers have a term for that kind of unexpected generosity — trail magic.
A stranger who lived near a highway in New Mexico called out to him to ask if he needed food. She offered him a burrito and he ended up sheltering in her home for a week during February’s winter storm. They drank coffee to stay warm and watched a decades-old TV series together to pass the time.
Of course, there were scary experiences, too. Like when he was hiking up a mountain in the snow and ran out of food. He made snowshoes out of tree branches, a tip he remembered from a survival show he’d watched.
He’d also learn that he would need to replace his shoes about every 500 miles. He started his trek wearing Natives, a shoe made out of recycled rubber, and no socks, but learned from other hikers about the benefits of more technical trail footwear.
Collins stopped several times to work in towns along the way.
He was hired on to paint at a ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for a couple of weeks. And in Bellingham, Washington, the farthest point he could walk before he’d reach the Canadian border, he earned the money he needed to take the 36-hour ferry to Ketchikan by painting a church.
The time in Bellingham helped him process the journey he’d been on.
“I had been walking for 10 hours a day for about eight-and-a-half months. And there’s a lot of emotions that flood your head,” he said.
There’s a hiking term for that, too. It’s called post-trail depression.
“There is this kind of processing wave of, like, being static and not knowing how to cope with that. So that was tough processing those emotions,” Collins said. “It’s like, OK, so I got to Bellingham and I’m going to get a ticket to get to Alaska. But then what?”
After such a long time of literally walking one step in front of the other, he had to learn to transfer that mentality of staying in the present as he integrated back into society.
“There’s really so many things I can’t control,” he said. “I didn’t let that dominate my life when I was walking for eight-and-a-half months. Why would I let it dominate my life now?”
Collins said his faith is what inspired his walking journey and it’s what keeps him focused on the bigger picture now.
“I believe that God is in sovereign control of my life. It takes away fear from things that I can’t control,” he said. “It is a totally different perspective shift, and it’s also freeing. I get a chance to just kind of let go and be like, ‘it’s in your hands.’”
“It’s such a sad waste of energy to try to control things that we just can’t. And if we, for me personally, if I use that energy towards living in the present, towards engaging with people, towards trying to love my neighbor, I think it’s a much more effective and a better use for kind of the time and the energy that we have here on Earth.”
So now what?
He’s not sure other than he knows he wants to stay in Ketchikan for a bit, be a productive member of society, help where he can and maybe impart a little wisdom.
Collins said he’s working the night shift at a homeless shelter, where he’s been able to use the lessons he’s learned to support others on their paths. He hopes to one day turn his story into a documentary, but that’s an idea that also makes him a little nervous.
“I’ve thought about this a lot is like, if the documentary and the journey becomes about me, it’ll destroy me. I know that that’s a pretty unhealthy place to be,” he said.
Instead, he wants the message to be about encouraging others to seek out adventure, faith and personal growth.
“Looking back on the trip, you know, it was really hard. It was really grueling. It took a lot of endurance. And not only that, I learned about patience and I learned about self-control... and to expand (my) mind toward things that are seemingly impossible,” Collins said.
Collins knows that few people would want to walk to Alaska, but he hopes more people will just get outside and walk — without TV or social media — to experience solitude and practice meditation and critical thinking.
“I don’t think that enough people create space for that these days. And I think you’d be amazed on what perspective can shift,” Collins said.