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Published: 11/9/2005

Peaks conquer valleys: Couple hike mountain trails to raise awareness of depression

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Beth and Jeff Alt hiked the 218-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra
Nevadas in July, 2003. The couple will be in Toledo Saturday. Beth and Jeff Alt hiked the 218-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas in July, 2003. The couple will be in Toledo Saturday.
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Don't just stand there. Do something.

That seems to be Jeff Alt's approach to life, in particular to those times that test the heart. "I'm a feisty guy," agreed Mr. Alt, who lives in the Cincinnati area. "I like to take action."

That's what the native Toledoan did in 1998 when he walked the Appalachian Trail - 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine - to raise money for Sunshine Children's Home in Maumee, where his brother Aaron lives. The book he wrote about that trek, A Walk for Sunshine, and the annual three-mile fund-raiser it inspired have generated more than $100,000 for Sunshine, which serves people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities and their families. This year's walk was the eighth.

Now the 38-year-old Mr. Alt has written another book, A Hike for Mike, for another beloved young man and another cause: depression awareness. "Mike" is Mike Richards, Mr. Alt's brother-in-law, who stunned family and friends by committing suicide three years ago.

Mr. Alt and his wife, Beth - Mike's sister - will be at Borders Books & Music, Westfield Franklin Park, at 2 p.m. Saturday to talk about their hike of the 218-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas in July, 2003, to spread the word that depression is treatable.

"I saw what the Sunshine walk had done for the Sunshine home and my whole family, and I thought, why not do a hike for this? Depression carries such a stigma, and people aren't aware of the symptoms," Mr. Alt said.

Ten percent of the proceeds from the book are going to the Suicide Prevention Action Network, he said. The book's fore-word, written by Jerry Reed, executive director of the nonprofit organization, states that 31,000 Americans commit suicide every year, and 650,000 attempt to take their life. "Suicide claims 87 Americans each and every day," Mr. Reed writes. "For many like Mike, depression, which affects more than 19 million Americans each year, is an underlying cause."

It was in September, 2002, that the Alts learned that Mike was dead. They got the call as they were driving home from Toledo, where they had participated in what was then the fifth annual Walk for Sunshine.

"All of us kept asking ourselves over and over, Did I miss something? When someone dies from an accident, in battle, or from cancer, loved ones often get an answer to the 'why' of it all," but a suicide raises countless questions, Mr. Alt writes.

It happened seemingly without warning, Mrs. Alt said. "He appeared to be doing great."

The hike helped her deal with her brother's death, she said. "It helped me feel like I was doing something positive to help other people with depression and other family members who experienced a loss like we did."

She had to be talked into the trek, though. Mrs. Alt, 31, is a marathon runner and day hiker, but said she likes coming back at the end of the day to a shower, a hot meal, and a warm bed.

The physical demands, including the effects of the high altitude, were difficult, but the hardest part of the 16-day trip for her was "the grime," Mrs. Alt recalled. At one point when she couldn't stand it anymore, her husband said, she jumped into a mountain lake that was "cold enough to chill beer."

That's one of the humorous stories he plans to share during his visit to Borders. Another is the shock Mr. Alt got when he realized that Beth was eating twice the amount of food that he had expected.

At the time, having been married to her for four years, he figured he knew how much she would eat - about half the amount he consumes.

"I packed accordingly, but she was spoon for spoon with me the whole time," Mr. Alt said. He started to panic; after all, they were on one of the most remote trails in the United States. They couldn't just hitch into town for more food.

Fortunately, he had packed a fishing rod.

"I was going to play around with it," Mr. Alt said. "I'm not a fisherman."

He caught five to six trout every night to supplement their meals, but still they finished the hike with just a candy bar that they split on the way back. "Breakfast that morning was a can of chicken," Mr. Alt said.

The hike taught them a lot about each other, too.

"I consider myself an expert hiker guy, but I wasn't used to hiking long distances in high altitude. I got sick and she didn't," Mr. Alt said. The lesson: "Sometimes I'm the engine and she's the caboose, and sometimes she's the engine and I'm the caboose. It's that way in the woods and in life," he reflected.

Mrs. Alt found that the trip "helped us grow closer. There were no distractions, just him and I. No TV to turn on, no football games, no phone calls to interrupt dinner."

The two speech pathologists will hit the trail again next summer, but it won't be a wilderness experience. They're planning a trek in Ireland with their year-old-daughter, Madison.

Jeff and Beth Alt will be at Borders Books & Music, Westfield Franklin Park, at 2 p.m. Saturday for a discussion and signing of Mr. Alt's book, "A Hike for Mike." Information: 419-474-3704.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.



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