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Family saved him. Nature restored him.

Cambridge through-hiker Jesse Cody on tackling his biggest obstacle: depression

Before, during, and after photos of Jesse Cody on his six-month through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2015.Jesse Cody

Seven years ago, Jesse Cody lost his will to live.

Growing up in Cambridge, he was a popular student and a star runner: a nine-time Globe All-Scholastic at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and the fastest high school miler in the United States by his senior year in 1992.

But after high school, he quickly lost direction.

In the first six months of his freshman year, he flunked out of Providence College and lost his athletic scholarship. He returned to Cambridge a fallen star, feeling like he failed his family, friends, and city.

“What’re you doing home?” everyone asked, and over the next 20 years, he would wonder the same.

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He doubled down on partying, gained 50 pounds, and found himself in a vicious cycle of jobs that provoked all his demons: self-doubt, drinking, and mistreating women.

“I thought the best place for me was 6 feet under. I saw no reason to live,” said Cody, now 47, in a video he posted on social media.

"This was after I completed my thru-hike" at Maine, Mount Katahdin, Appalachian Trail (AT) on Sept. 15, 2015.Jesse Cody

He tried to find purpose. In his early 20s, he became a massage therapist and coached cross-country, indoor, and outdoor track with his brother, Scott, a wellness teacher at Rindge. But the restaurant industry, his “most toxic relationship,” tempted him with job opportunities in New York City and around Boston.

“I hated the job because of who I was and how I let it feed into my demons,” said Cody in a phone interview earlier this month from his home in Santa Fe.

By the time he reached his 40th birthday, he assumed it would be his last, although it wasn’t for a lack of love and support, said Cody, who described growing up in a stable, warm home in North Cambridge.

“Luckily I have a good family. There are moments when you think that you’re close to doing it, but then images flash in your head of seeing your parents or your brother or your nephew or your niece, and it keeps you from pulling the ‘trigger,’ ” Cody said.

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Soon after his 40th birthday, Cody reread “A Walk in the Woods,” a humorous memoir by Bill Bryson. The book, which Cody had first read in his early 20s, chronicles Bryson’s unsuccessful attempt in his 40s to complete the Appalachian Trail.

Cody, who had hiked just three times in his life and never camped, decided he was going to walk the trail — all 2,190 miles — in one go, a through-hike.

Jesse Cody at the Government Camp, Oregon, PCT on August 2021.Jesse Cody

“At that point, I wasn’t ready to tell everybody I was suicidal,” he said. “I told just enough: I felt lost and wanted to have some self-discovery. … Everyone thought I was crazy. My friends said, ‘You’ll be back in a week.’ ”

Just a few months later, Cody was on the trail in Georgia. The initial night in mid-March was the first time he had ever slept in a tent. But he kept going another six months, through rain, hail, rattlesnakes, bobcats, black bears, 13 states, and 515,000 vertical feet — from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Cody, who is 5 foot 6, was 181 pounds when he started. By the end, his weight was down to 128. Every day was a struggle at first, but he felt alive.

His steady pace and relentless drive eventually earned him the trail moniker The Boston Mule.

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“Boston loves to be the first guy up in the morning and the first one out of the gate on the trail,” said fellow through-hiker and friend, Dave Ure, 51, of San Diego.

Halfway through the trail, Cody decided he wanted to be one of approximately 500 people to ever complete the Triple Crown: through-hikes of the nation’s three longest trails: the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles), and Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles).

Three trails. Twenty-two states. Eight thousand miles. A million vertical feet.

“I told myself with hiking that this was going to be therapy to me. This is going to be my chapel. This is where I go to church. And no matter how hard it is, you’re staying there, Jesse, this is the only way you’re going to find a will to live,” he said.

Jesse Cody hiked in snow for roughly four weeks in June and July. Jesse Cody

Cody now uses his platform Hike the Good Hike to destigmatize mental health issues and spread a message of self-care.

In 2017, he completed more than half of the Pacific Crest, before wildfires forced him off trail. Cody came home to Cambridge. In the past, this experience would have felt like a failure. But this time he felt he had found his purpose.

Over the next two years, he hiked the 500-mile Colorado Trail and moved to Santa Fe.

Then the pandemic hit, and Cody lost a 17-year-old family friend to suicide. His mission gained a new sense of purpose. He started sharing more about his struggles, posting a raw video in August 2020 about his past suicidal thoughts and how he had found a passion for living through nature.

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The response was immediate.

“I was terrified posting that,” Cody said. “But I’m glad I did. It gave me the confidence that people would listen and people would respond.”

Approximately 41 percent of surveyed adults in the United States reported struggling with anxiety, depression, and/or substance use in the first three months of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the local level, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts were up in 2021 among middle- and high-school-aged students in Cambridge, according to a recent Cambridge Public Schools survey.

Almost half of the Rindge students who responded said they felt “tense, nervous, or worried every day for two or more weeks in a row” compared to 34 percent in 2018. Of the 15 percent who said they considered suicide, 11 percent (versus 3 percent in 2018) reported attempting it.

Jamie McCarthy, K-12 curriculum coordinator for health, physical education, and wellness in the Cambridge Public Schools, said the district takes the anonymous survey very seriously and has been “constantly developing responses to the data.”

A subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee has planned a meeting Tuesday to discuss the report and next steps.

Cody said the survey speaks to a larger issue, beyond the pandemic, which is why he re-centered his mission to focus more on youth.

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Over the summer, Cody partnered with the Youth Mental Health Project, a Connecticut-based organization, to raise funds for the project and build awareness around Hike the Good Hike’s mission. He decided to do this by finishing the Pacific Crest Trail.

In July, he completed the last 1,300 miles. It took him 62 days and he raised more than $25,000 for the Youth Mental Health Project.

The project and those it serves watched closely as Cody chronicled his journey on social media.

“It has definitely inspired some of our parents and young people to get out there, which is exactly what he and we wanted to achieve with the partnership: helping people understand and learn about the benefits of stepping away from the stresses of daily life and getting back outside into nature,” said Valerie Barton, the project’s executive director.

Hike the Good Hike is on its way to becoming a nonprofit next month, and Cody hopes that other endurance athletes will join the cause, raising funds to help those who can’t afford therapy.

Next year, Cody plans to launch a podcast and take on the 750-mile Grand Enchantment Trail in New Mexico and Arizona. Then he will gear up to finish his Triple Crown attempt in 2023. .

At the age of 47, Cody says he feels stronger than ever, as he encourages others to take that first step toward recovery.

“We live in a world that has its fair share of judgment; we all know that,” said Cody. “But when you’re opening up and telling your story, you certainly realize there are a lot more people out there who are not judging and truly need to hear it.”

Amy Saltzman can be reached at amy.e.saltzman@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amy_Saltzman.

Follow Cody’s journey on Instagram @hikethegoodhike and on his website at hikethegoodhike.com. To learn more about the Youth Mental Health Project, visit ymhproject.org or email ymhproject.org.