To some, the act of travel is more than just escaping an office cubicle and partying hard for a few weeks; it is a cleansing ritual and turning point, and a chance to heal one’s soul.
Spurred by a fateful night that culminated in a suicide attempt, 42 year-old Malene Comes decided she would walk 9000 miles across the US.
“I came within 20 minutes of death,” she says. “I struggled for a few years on all fronts: professionally and financially, hormonally, and dealing with horrific depression and anxiety, especially the fear of going outside.
“Rejection from a trusted friend sent me over the top, and I nearly died by my own hand. The idea for this walk followed that, plus a whole lot of prayer and crying.”
Malene spent two weeks researching the feasibility of her route that connects a series of her most desired landmarks throughout the country. “I wanted to experience Indigenous cultures and the Grand Canyon, and scuba dive in Florida. I have a long-standing love affair with New Mexico and wished to walk it, and also see Oklahoma. Up north, I want to get into the deep wilderness, as well as the wide-open plains.
“This is my gift to me – a route specifically designed for me,” she says. “I call it The Trail, and to me, it is sacred.”
At the time of writing, Malene had walked around 670 miles (1,078km) of her goal distance, and already experienced so much.
“Every part of the walk is different,” she says. “The Mojave Desert [spread across California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada] was special for the trial of heat and extended time out in the wilderness. I had fallen in love with a man who ultimately did not want a relationship – but our experience in the desert was of deep love, forgiveness, and healing.”
Reaching the Grand Canyon was a milestone, as it marked almost exactly one year after Malene attempted to take her own life. “One year before, I had been literally close to death by my own hand, and as personally broken as I think anyone can be,” she says. “The striking beauty of the Canyon was in juxtaposition to that experience. I was very emotional to realise how far I had come in one year.
“I connect deeply to nature, and as such, nature manages to take me deep into my psyche, and I use that to heal.”
Currently residing in Flagstaff, Arizona due to injuries, Malene is learning much about the disturbing struggles of the Diné people.
“Moving into the Navajo Nation has been a stunning experience, and meeting the people here has, perhaps, touched me most deeply so far,” she says. “One morning, I was planning to hitchhike back to my friends [due to the injury], and a Navajo Nations police officer I spoke with the day before woke me up with a hot breakfast. Leaving Flagstaff will be a bit of a gut-wrenching task.”
Aside from the pain of moving on, Malene faces two main challenges on any given day during her walk: the physical exertion of extending her mileage, and funding. “I am so in love with The Trail – it is a personal pilgrimage.
“A typical day on The Trail does not exist. There are so many variants – terrain, weather, connectivity, people I may or may not meet, how I feel, and whether I’m trying to get something other than walking done, like writing,” she says.
“On a given day, I might not speak to a single soul, or I might meet incredible people who invite me into their homes and share a part of their lives and stories. I might eat nothing but trail rations, or I might get invited in to an amazing dinner – sometimes when, clearly, the meal is not easily paid for.
“Really, there is no home to kick back and relax. There is no daily rut, and I am also never in my comfort zone,” she says.
Only on one occasion has a step out of Malene’s comfort zone been pushed into full-on fear – when a man kept insisting she climb into his car.
“He was ostensibly offering a meal, shower, and other luxuries, but made me really uncomfortable and I quickly decided to move on,” she says. “I have bear spray and a knife for any immediate danger, and, after this encounter, instituted hourly check-ins with friends. I have clear deadlines that include exact information about where I am. If I don’t meet the deadline for check-in, they call the police.
“Initially, I faced a lot of criticism [for this walk], the general wisdom being I couldn’t do it. It was too long a walk, hot in the desert – or cold in the high desert – and strenuous. I was too old, fat, and too much a woman. I would get eaten by bears, stung by rattlesnakes, and raped 20 times to Christmas. Yes, I heard all of that. It was initially hurtful, but now, I laugh at it,” she says.
Besides the vital restoration of her mental health, Malene’s goal on The Trail is to raise awareness of obesity discrimination. The obesity epidemic kills 300,000 Americans every year alone – a huge killer that’s underfunded in terms of research and medical assistance – but is not always attributed to lifestyle choices.
So far in her walk, Malene has lost 45 pounds from her 290-pound frame.
“My mission statement is to challenge the discrimination against obese people, and to empower myself and others to lose weight,” she says. “Obesity is impacted by genetics, hormones, and emotional factors – it’s not as easy as blaming obese people for their lifestyle choices.”
Malene’s story is proof that travel is not always mindless frivolity; it’s a real-life case of a worldly venture turning one’s life around. For those wishing to follow in her footsteps – perhaps literally – she has these words of advice:
“Set realistic goals. Think through what this entails – for instance, can you handle a few weeks alone in the desert? DO IT. Walk humbly, speak with love, and listen deeply. DO IT. It is not nearly as dangerous as people tell you. In fact, there are far fewer dangers than I even imagined.”