A six-month hike along the West Coast is certain to be life-changing for backpackers Maggie Konopasek and Kyle Ott.
They hope their epic adventure will have a significant positive impact on other people as well.
On April 14, the married couple from De Pere plan to embark on a 2,655-mile backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail. As they complete the thru-hike, their mission is to raise money for Bigger Than The Trail, a nonprofit founded by trail runner Tommy Byrne, also of De Pere. The organization provides treatment options and support for people who struggle with mental health issues.
The couple’s goal is to raise $10,000 for Bigger Than The Trail. (They also plan to give a portion of the proceeds to help fund the Pacific Crest Trail.) They’re calling the entire effort Hiking For Happiness. The title works on a couple levels. Hiking long distances opens doors to happiness and contentment for both of them. And they understand how getting help grappling with mental health issues can also lead to happier lives.
“Like most Americans, we are not immune to mental health struggles,” the couple wrote on their fundraising website, bttt.run/hiking-for-happiness. Konopasek was nearly killed in a 2014 car crash, and counseling helped her contend with the anxiety and panic attacks she suffered in its wake. Ott, too, has had to contend with anxiety and depression.
“The power of therapy helped considerably for both of us,” he said.
Developing a love for epic backpacking trips
Ott, a computer programmer, and Konopasek, a physician assistant in cardiology for Prevea Health, are both 32. Outdoors people all their lives, they’ve been together as a couple for about 13 years and married for four-and-a-half years. Their hiking journey started with a goal to visit all 63 of the country’s national parks. So far they’ve visited more than a third, and as they visited those, they kept hearing the same thing.
“One of the things we kept noticing when we were at various parks was that we’d be talking to rangers, and they’d say, ‘Hey, all the really cool stuff is in the backcountry,'” Konopasek said.
That got them intrigued about backpacking, the best way to experience backcountry areas. In 2019, they did an overnight backpacking trip on a segment of the Ice Age Trail in the Kettle Moraine. They hiked 13 miles to a campground, stayed overnight, and hiked back.
They got tired, hot, sunburned and mosquito-bitten. At the end of the first day, as they cooled off in a little pond, they looked at each other and shook their heads. “And we have to do it again tomorrow. But we loved it,” Konopasek said.
Soon the couple was taking longer backpacking hikes. They did sections of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, sections of the PCT in the North Cascades in Washington, and thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in the Sierras of California.
It took them 19 days to complete the John Muir Trail in 2022. The Muir trail mostly uses the PCT route. It was a tough journey, Ott said, marked by bad weather. While they were hiking the route, another hiker needed to be rescued by helicopter.
That difficulty made completing the trail feel even sweeter.
“On that last day, I looked back at where we had been. I was just so happy and so proud to be able to do what we did,” Ott said.
“I didn’t want to stop,” Konopasek said. “That’s when we started asking, ‘What if we did the whole thru-hike?'”
Making their PCT thru-hike about more than themselves
It’s not surprising that the couple knew about Bigger Than The Trail and Tommy Byrne, as there are plenty of overlapping interests at play. In 2023, Byrne was featured in Trail Runner, a publication under the Outside magazine umbrella. That story outlined how Byrne’s life has been impacted by mental health, including the death of his father by suicide when Byrne was 18.
In 2015, Byrne decided he needed help contending with his mental health issues, and within six months he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the Trail Runner story. He started trail running in 2017, and by 2018, he melded the two influential areas of his life by creating Bigger Than The Trail. He used running to destigmatize the idea of reaching out for mental health treatment and recruited other runners to do the same.
Byrne also raised money to help people pay for counseling sessions, because often financial worries are a barrier for people seeking help.
A softball team that Ott plays on raised money to donated to Bigger Than The Trail. For Ott and Konopasek, it was a no-brainer: they would use their own adventure like Byrne used trail running.
Connecting with Byrne and getting his support has made their fundraising effort simple, Ott said. It’s just another small addition to the planning work they already are doing to prepare for their trek. And the whole effort is a way for other people, who might not ordinarily take on such a hike, to join the couple’s team. For instance, Konopasek’s sister, Kayla Konopasek, a tattoo artist who lives and works in Madison, designed a whimsical logo for Hiking for Happiness.
Meanwhile, it’s getting closer to the couple’s departure date. They plan to update their website periodically with posts about their progress, along with photos. But the real excitement comes from the idea of crossing the country by foot, immersed in the western landscape.
“I personally feel I’m my best self on the trail,” Konopasek said. “You’re focused on walking. … You’re very in the moment, very present.”
To donate to the Hiking for Happiness cause
Maggie Konopasek and Kyle Ott have a Donate button on bttt.run/hiking-for-happiness that allows people to donate to Bigger Than The Trail.
Keith Uhlig is a regional features reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin based in Wausau. Contact him at 715-845-0651 or [email protected]. Follow him at @UhligK on X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram or on Facebook.