The Good Dirt: Digging through Depression, A Trail Builders Story of Finding Peace in the Woods
In August, we asked our trail builders, “Why do you build trails?” Some had answers right away. Others pondered the question while digging in the woods. For Brian Tustison, it came to him a few months later when he was joking around with David Fleischhauer, Evergreen’s trail program manager.
“I caught myself joking with David, 'I'll make that happen once I am not depressed.’ It got me thinking about how mountain biking has helped pull me out of those dark times.”
When Brian sat down with us to talk about his ‘Why I Trail Build’ story, we found another message that Brian thought was important for the community: it is okay not to be okay. The more we talked about mental health and how mountain biking and trail building can positively impact mood, the more he realized how important it is to share his story.
Matt Blossom, a trail builder in our West Sound Chapter, is also a big advocate for destigmatizing mental health. Brian and he are close buds on the trail, and after discussing the project, Matt felt moved to share his story as well.
Brian and Matt openly discuss their journeys in hopes of shedding light on the benefits mountain biking and trail building have brought to them. This is in no way saying mountain biking can fix depression. This story is about how bringing exercise, the outdoors, and community into one's life, are keystone pieces known for generating happiness, and how this has positively impacted Evergreen trail builders.
Brian Tustison's Story
“We all struggle with something. It’s okay to bring that to the trail, and talk about it with the community. Especially in this post-pandemic world.” - Brian Tustison
Brian first started trail building in high school. He lived in a fairly isolated pocket, far enough away from town that he could not access his peers before he could drive. To pass the time, he started digging jumps. It was something he looked forward to after school, digging in the woods was a place of reprieve after feeling like getting tossed around by the world. This is when he noticed the massive emotional lows.
“Noticing depression in my teen years, I would face comments like ‘Oh, it's just mood swings; you’ll grow out of it.’ Thinking and assuming I would move through the moods, I would go dig, perfect a berm or ride with friends. I soon learned that it would follow me into adulthood.
Leaving your comfort zone is hard. I moved to Japan in my early twenties to work in the auto industry after college. I experienced culture shock and homesickness; I think it was the transition from an American suburb into a denser area with less space. The work environment was different, my Japanese wasn’t great, and the little things you don’t know about living in a different country started to add up. I felt like I was constantly embarrassing myself; even on the elevator, I didn’t know how to greet people. It was actually quite comical. Common comfort foods were not available, you don't know how much you miss your favorite pizza place until it’s not there.
Fortunately, my company had a bike. It became my pressure release. Exploring on this bike, which had its tires underinflated and three speed internally geared hub, I started to find joy in goofing around. Curb jumps got me strange looks from locals because I rode this commuter like a BMX bike.
I packed up my BMX bike when I returned home for a visit. This time back in Japan, I moved to a fishing village where there were these cool seawalls. I would go after work and do as many skatepark moves as possible. The fisherman would look at me and watch. We never said much to each other, but they would get a kick out of it. I always returned home in a much better mood.
It is a piece of home for me, riding bikes. I have always had that love for being on a bicycle, and it was really grounding to get out and experience the flow of movement. It's a really familiar motion, and it allows me to focus on something that is fun, forget about stress.”
Brian says his time on a BMX bike translates into mountain biking.
After returning from Japan, he found himself in an aimless place, starting to feel the lows again. He went to check out an old spot where he dug as a teenager and instantly picked up digging again.
“It took me to this comfortable place where I can be creative and hang out with people. It can be social or really private and therapeutic. A place to process your thoughts and do something creative while you are thinking. That’s now become a job for me.
Digging is satisfying and uplifting. When I have a good day in the woods with a good group of people, it gets me out moving and resets all the chemicals in my body. You’re sculpting the earth right there in front of you. It brings me to this primal level, and in my heart, I know I am doing something that I can share with other people. A group of riders, hooting, hollering, and making very candid sounds, and [when] they get to the bottom and hear them say, “Did you hit that? Did you crash on that?” There isn't a builder out there that doesn't get joy from hearing that endeavor.”
Brian reflects on how trail building is his connection to the community, a way to give back. That sense of purpose is something he holds on to when he feels the lows of depression.
“I am sitting here at Swan Creek right now, and being so close to the city; I see a lot of families out here. Swan Creek did not exist when I was 14-17 years old, we didn’t have a place that was safe just to ride bikes with my buddies. I had to build that for myself. The backyard trails were small and limited, and we expanded into where we were not welcome. I saw a lot of what we built get bulldozed. To create a place that isn't going anywhere where kids can progress and hit jumps… where me, Evergreen, and a lot of people have put energy into, it has improved my mental state. Some days, I will just come and watch the joy I have helped create in this world.”
Matt Blossom's Story
“It’s seen as unmasculine to talk about it. But that’s not true. Depression can affect anyone, regardless of gender.” - Matt Blossom
Matt advocates normalizing talking about depression for the people who live with it, especially in the mountain bike community.
“Being out in the wilderness and riding bikes just helps an incredible amount with seasonal depression. Physical activity is just a huge help in that aspect.
My story of living with depression started when my family’s company was being sold and I was part of the deal. My new boss and I’s professional relationship felt like oil and water. I could see the end of my career there and felt like there was nothing I could do; I didn’t know anything else. I could feel the depression creeping in.
A co-worker of mine bought a mountain bike, he knew I had one, but I stopped riding because, sometimes, with depression, you stop doing the things you love. I was stuck in the rut of going to work, coming home, being a Dad, going back to work, coming home, and being a Dad.
Being in a toxic job, a loving relationship with my wife, and showing up as a Dad 24/7, I realized I needed to create a space for myself. Something that was just for me and a place where my mind could rest. I started mountain biking again, and I could feel joy. I hadn’t felt that in a long time.
I was still struggling with my job. It was nothing to be proud of or feel fulfilled and that contributed a ton to the lows. I needed a reward in my life. I needed to be doing good, not just for me but for people.
I knew biking well, I grew up biking, specifically BMX. I can't swim or run, but I can bike. I started to get involved in the West Sound chapter which led to me becoming the Vice President. Working with Evergreen’s West Sound chapter was the highlight of my day most days.
Then at work, there was a bad incident where I almost lost my life. I went home that day thinking, ‘I have a family. I can not go back to a place where my life is at stake.’ My boss told me I had to return to the job site, that almost killed me. That’s when I put my foot down and quit. My life wasn’t something I was willing to lose.
Meanwhile, at Port Gamble, the first phase of trail building was about to start. Evergreen was hiring, and it was scary to even consider because it cut my salary significantly.
I took the leap for Evergreen, and couldn’t be happier. I have found so much joy. Doing anything from building the trails, maintenance on trails, meeting new and old mountain biking friends, to giving kids pointers. It fills my soul. I eventually got my PMBIA instructor certification, I find so much joy teaching and hearing hooting and hollering in the woods. I think that is so awesome. WE did that.
The Evergreen team has been so inclusive and welcoming. I have found my home, my crew. They are my family, literally and figuratively.”
Evergreen’s work is more than creating, maintaining, and protecting sustainable mountain biking opportunities in Washington It’s also about creating opportunities for folks like Brian and Matt to find a way and a place to find joy or heal.
If you or someone you know is managing mental health or depression there are resources you can access through your doctor, therapist, or Washington’s mental health crisis hotline.