Walking back to happiness
Derek Cullen’s spiral of self-destruction led to an unconventional but satisfying life path
Derek Cullen has found that sharing his experiences through videos became an empowering thing to do as people got behind him. Photograph: Brian Reilly Troy
“Head good, body good, mind good, feet good: all good.” This is the mantra Irish adventurer Derek Cullen shares with others through his daily videos, and it is what he also tells himself every day before he sets out on the track of one of his long-distance hikes.
We meet in Rathfarnham in Dublin, not far from his childhood home in Firhouse as he rests after recently completing a 3,000km walk around the coast of Ireland. “I had come back to the place where I wasn’t happy and reconnected with all of that. Walking around Ireland, listening to music and looking at the breathtaking landscape around me was a great experience,” says Cullen.
The Dubliner (37) has come a long way, both geographically – he cycled from Cape Town to Cairo and hiked the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland and the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in the last few years – and metaphorically since years of excessive drinking and sudden onset panic attacks led to the decision to turn his life around.
But, you’ve got to go back a few years earlier to really understand how his spiral of self-destruction – which ended in him walking out of his job one Monday morning – began and led to his now unconventional life path.
“My mother died when I was 24 and two years later, my father died of cancer. I had moved back into the family home after my mother died and I was working in the bank, studying for stockbroking and marketing diplomas at night and looking after my dad. I was very resentful about life and having to constantly deal with bad stuff. There wasn’t time to grieve the loss of my mother,” he says.
While he confided in his two older brothers about the difficulty of living back home and looking after his father when he became ill, he started to become self-destructive. “I became very negative. I was drinking every night. I didn’t care about my career. I lost interest in football – which I was obsessed with when I was younger – and music, and I split up with my girlfriend of 2½ years.”
By the time I hit rock bottom – a dark, lonely and bleak place – I was mentally and physically beaten
After his father died in 2008, Cullen decided to leave his job in the bank – the financial crash had made it a stressful workplace – and go backpacking through Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. “I had always wanted to travel and it was a really happy time. But when I came home from travelling and was working in a travel company in Dublin, things really got out of hand with my drinking.” He realises now that the loss of both parents in quick succession had impacted on him hugely.
“But back then, I blamed life, everyone and everything around me. By the time I hit rock bottom – a dark, lonely and bleak place – I was mentally and physically beaten. This was the first time that I had a kind word for myself and knew that I had to find something constructive to do with my life,” he explains.
And, so he decided to go travelling again but this time, travelling by bicycle – carrying everything with him as he went – and camping at night. “I wanted to push myself to my limits so I decided to cycle from Capetown to Cairo. The first few weeks were terrifying. I cried a lot. I was lonely and depressed and, every day, I thought about coming home.”
Cullen says that things got even scarier as he camped in places where wild animals roamed free at night. “I was supposed to be fixing my problems but I was creating bigger problems. Within the first two months of my trip, I had faced so much anxiety and fear that I realised what I was afraid of didn’t exist. This was the first time that I started broadcasting what I was doing.”
He says now that sharing his experiences through videos became an empowering thing to do as people got behind him. “I was afraid of being attacked as I went into African villages but I realised people were more afraid of this white man with a long red beard. I became very intuitive about fear in others and myself. Ultimately, I got bored with being afraid and found that often people brought me into their homes and protected me.”
Following this mammoth trip up through Africa, Cullen cycled back to Ireland through France, England and Wales before being met by his brothers, an uncle and cousin on the last stage of his cycle across the Wicklow Mountains to his family home in Firhouse. “They were all worried that I couldn’t do what I did, but that journey across the mountains showed them and me how much I’d grow physically and mentally.”
He tried to go back to the “real world” while working for a travel company in Canada, but he that life was not for him any more. So he decided he wanted to become an adventurer and fund his travels through sponsorship. He also gave up alcohol.
“I am inspired by adventurers like Alastair Humphries. He’s a normal guy who does extraordinary things. He doesn’t try to be tough and look hard, so he makes you feel you can do anything. He has a wife and two children now so he has to figure out how to continue to live adventurously.”
Cullen struggled to find sponsors at the start and self-funded his international hikes on the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland and the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada by doing freelance writing.
However he did manage to get three sponsors (including Hiiker, the navigation app for Irish trails) for his 2019 walk around Ireland and hopes to do likewise for his planned walk 1,000km up through the centre of Ireland from Castletownbere to the Giant’s Causeway next year.
He draws strength from the 12,000 followers on Facebook who share comments and experiences with him when he posts his daily videos during hikes. “I think people follow me because I don’t try to be tough or strong. I talk about anxiety and depression or things from the past and people respond to me for being open. Most people have busy lives and they are looking for an outlet. I encourage them to forget about 9am-5pm and get out the door between 5pm-9pm.”
Outdoor clothing brand
In November, Cullen created a Facebook group, Walk Every Day in November. “It’s not a competition. You can walk to the shops, walk in a park or just walk in your lunchtime. Walking helps people get into a healthier state of mind. Each person makes a video with a caption on what they were thinking about when they were walking.” He is also launching an outdoor clothing brand (outdare.ie) and hopes to write a book, over the winter months, about his experiences.
“I have totally different values now compared to when I had no meaningful purpose in life. I’m focused. I don’t have a lot of money but I have a lot of time. I still have worries but I don’t doubt what I can do. It’s only walking. Everything is so different every day when you’re walking and that sense of freedom is so rare.”