Today the snow was packed underfoot and when we set out the sky was cloudy, but by the time we began to huff and puff our way up the hill, the sun was out. The air had that moist winter hint of spring scent and the clouds alternated between freaky inversion and fluffy, and the snow gently cloaked the Flatirons. I was hiking with my older daughter and her boyfriend.
I must have hiked over a hundred times in the woods of Chautauqua and every time I return I remember my initial infatuation on my first summer visit when I explored the woods in July. Some places grab a hold of our hand and move into our heart with a fist of intensity, and this is one of them for me. I’ve watched sunrise here, walked at sunset, in the heat of a summer afternoon and in the misty rain in October and every time I notice something I hadn’t before.
Trails feed my soul.
When I lived back east, I would feel it like a rumble in my belly, an aching kind of tug at my heart and I knew it was time. Time to head for the mountains to soothe my soul, to think and maybe to heal. Time to seek out isolation in the White Mountains and find the space I needed to re-energize my batteries in the silence of the woods.
I began hiking solo, at first just on trails I had already explored and eventually, as my confidence grew, those that I had not. I am not the first woman who headed to the outdoors to put herself back together. I am not the first woman who discovered what she was made of or remembered who she was by finding her way in the woods. My first solo hike was Osceola in New Hampshire, a mountain I had done many times with friends. Friends anxiously pleaded with me to call them the minute I returned, and my stomach began to cramp the minute I left the car and committed my feet to the trail. But when I arrived on the summit, I felt the physical shift of my personal fear shrinking. This affected every aspect of my life and was cumulative over time growing with each new solo hiking experience. Without those experiences, I doubt I would have had the courage to turn my car west at 51 and drive 2000 miles to start my life all over again.
There is a proliferation of studies that link the outdoor world to emotional health, but I don’t need statistics to convince me and doubt you do either. Anecdotal evidence may fall short of scientific fact, but it proliferates.
Erika Napoletano talks about how she was returned to herself in a recent essay after losing someone she loves, then there are the experiences of Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, Annie Dillard, Susan Hubbell, and this list goes on and on and doesn’t include the countless unpublished stories of many of the women I know today.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors like me, I know you have sat on a rock somewhere and perhaps let sobs overtake you as the mountains, like a protective big brother, watched over you or maybe you encountered another hiker sitting in solitude next to a lake lost in thought. Something happens to us when we step outside and while the rosy cheeks and scent of fresh air that lingers on our clothing in fall is lovely, it’s what happens inside our hearts and minds that is nothing short of miraculous.
Like a good friend that holds your hand when no one else is around, the earth keeps a watch on you and the favor needs to be returned. We need to pay it forward. We need to stop making decisions for the short term and consider the magnitude of the long term. We have a responsibility here, folks.
Because when our breath joins the wind and the imprint of our boot sifts and blends with the earth and the oil of the skin on our fingertip is absorbed into pine bark, we cease to be finite, but instead swim with the natural world in all eternity.
When I sit next to Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park early in the morning, watching ripples slide across the water and see the stellar jay stalk my snack or hear the wind smack into the mountain walls, what I usually think about is the circle and cycle of existence. How we move through a continuum of emotion and what is here today may not be tomorrow and how whether we laugh or cry, the earth beneath our feet witnesses our existence. Nature nourishes and holds us when we step outside of manmade walls, and why this happens, I do not know.
We stopped about half way through our hike at Chautauqua and spent some time quietly staring into Skunk Canyon. Words were not necessary. They rarely are in the outdoors.