Kent native Michelle Renee needed to clear her head, so she decided to take a long walk — a really long walk.
It took Renee 86 days to hike nearly 1,000 miles, interspersed with Bikram yoga sessions at about 40 studios in around 30 towns along her route.
Renee's journey – starting April 11 in San Diego, CA, and ending July 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia – paid off.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. The best gift I’ve ever given myself,” said Renee, 34, the daughter of Kent residents Melanie and Ron Castor and the late Joseph Gano.
“I have clarity now that I didn’t have before I left for this trip," she said. "I feel like I can go anywhere by myself and be OK. Actually, be more than OK: I can be happy. I’m much more connected to myself and feel more authentic than ever before.”
After graduating from in 1995, Renee (she has adopted her middle name as her last name) attended college in St. Louis for a year. She married a fellow Ohioan, lived in California for 18 months, then moved to Las Vegas in 2000.
It was in Las Vegas that Renee discovered Bikram yoga. She describes it as an invigorating style of yoga. It consists of 26 Hatha yoga postures and two breathing exercises, all done during a 90-minute session in a room heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity.
“It’s always exactly the same postures done in the same order. Only the teachers change,” Renee said. “It never gets boring because it always challenges you.”
From the first class she took in August 2006, Renee knew Bikram yoga was her life’s calling. The following spring she attended a nine-week intensive teacher training program in Oahu, Hawaii. Since then, Renee has been teaching yoga in Las Vegas as well as some classes in Prague and Frankfurt.
Life was good – until a series of events crashed in on Renee. Her marriage ended. A rebound relationship failed. She lost a friend to suicide.
“I never felt so low as I did last summer. I had lost my mojo,” she said. “I felt bitterness and resentment and was just grumpy. I realized I was fearful of being alone.”
While on a four-mile hike last summer, Renee decided to turn her life around with a challenging backpacking trip that would allow her to teach and practice at Bikram yoga studios from San Diego to Vancouver.
“Combining two of my favorite things, yoga and hiking, on an extreme level will be a soul-searching mission for me. I hope to learn a lot about myself, the world and to truly see what I am capable of doing,” Renee wrote on her website, The Hiking Yogi.
She used the website and her Facebook page to share the idea of her journey, gathering emotional and financial support along the way. She raised about $3,000 from both friends and strangers.
Renee’s top supporter was her mother, Kentite Melanie Castor. “I’m sure she had some concerns, but she was my biggest fan, my biggest supporter," Renee said. "This has brought us even closer together. She never once tried to talk me out of it. She encouraged me to do what I wanted with my life.”
Castor said she had reservations about her daughter’s trip, but she wasn't fearful.
“I survived her brother being in Afghanistan and Iraq, so hiking across the country, although it had dangers, I knew she had more of a safety net around her ... I would never discourage her hopes and dreams. I had to trust her instincts,” Castor said.
Before hitting the road April 11, Renee gave up her Las Vegas apartment and sold all her possessions — except for those needed on the trip. Her must-haves included two pairs of shoes, yoga clothes, toiletries, a small tent, sleeping bag, pillow, some food, a campstove, GPS unit, cellphone, flashlight and an MP3 player.
“One of the most amazing gifts I received on this journey was faith," Renee said. "I’d wake up every morning not knowing where I was going, how to get there, who I’d meet along the way or where I would stay that night. It was like I had angels guiding me on this journey of healing. I overcame my fears of uncertainty.”
Renee estimates she walked about 1,000 miles, representing about 75 percent of her journey's total distance. She did accept some rides, including two cab rides, and took a train once on the advice of a highway patrol trooper.
“I’d accept rides because it felt right in the moment, but I turned down more rides than I accepted,” she said.
Less than a dozen of her 86 nights were spent in a motel. If she wasn’t camping, Renee was spending the night in the homes of fellow yoga enthusiasts she met at studios along the way.
“Almost everybody I stayed with I knew for less than two hours ... And for 90 percent of the trip there weren’t sidewalks so I was walking along roads,” Renee said. “Never once was I in any danger or felt threatened. Everybody was super friendly and helpful. The trip totally restored my faith in humanity.”
Renee intends to write a book about her journey, and she dreams of one day owning a Bikram yoga studio. But she doesn’t know where that studio will be, as her current lifestyle revolves around living in the moment.
Renee returned to the United States on Saturday and is spending this week with friends in Seattle.
“I consider myself homeless right now, but it’s chosen," she said. "I like being a gypsy. By (today) I’ll have the answer of where I’m going. I could get on a train to San Francisco or Vancouver, or get on a plane and go to Thailand. I’ve always had a fascination with Thailand.”