I like telling stories, and this is a story I’d like to share, if only to exfoliate my mind for a bit.
Once upon a time, my life flew by from minute to minute in a blur—a shaky hologram of recollections always moving forward yet leaving me feeling so very behind. I’d wake damn-near miserable after a night out. I’d waste entire days, sitting around comatose, curled into the fetal position, awaiting a delivery of Chinese food. Seconds, minutes, hours coiled into a mess of exploited time.
I found something I’d written many years before; a journal entry where I’d told myself that the most precious commodity in life is and always will be time. You will never have enough, young me told older, wiser me, and if you count the seconds, they will soon rush by in waves. Younger me had just spent time gallivanting through eastern Asia and was begging me to stay wild and free forever. Younger me had not yet seen our student loan bills.
Though living in a fantasy world, that girl made some valid points. She knew the value of slowing down, observing, being. Somewhere along the way I lost that very trait that had made me such a strong storyteller—I’d failed to observe. I was too wrapped up in observing what lived on the 4-inch screen of my phone, that I’d forgotten what it felt like to leisure and listen. One of my favorite jobs was working on a golf course. It was a lot of driving the carts and waiting at the edge the woods for long periods of time while golfers puttered about on the courses. While most of my friends worked corporate jobs making real money, I’d just sit and watch a blue jay hop from tree to tree, an otter’s sleek movements, the way ants walked in rigid lines like tiny tin soldiers, all for a menial stack of dollar bills.
A long, sometimes arduous walk. That’s really all hiking is. My thoughts differ greatly from hike to hike, diverging as far as the paths I take. Feelings range from “oh fuck this” to “holy shit this is glorious,” but never once, “well, this is pointless.” Something about being immersed in nature seems like the whole point. Gravitating toward less popular hikes, opting out of the glory of a bucket-list photo in favor of clear trails and quiet thoughts, is a liberating almost natural endeavor. Trust me, the term “ecotherapy” has been used by people far brighter and more studied than myself. The science behind the feeling is there. And the feeling is unequivocally Zen.
There is an aspect of physical achievement. Living at altitude after growing up at sea level, I’d grown accustomed to whipping out my super-cute red inhaler every fifteen feet. I never left home without it. Now, I can dash to the top of a mountain and embrace the deep breaths and the ache, without the I’m-going-to die-here chest tightening. You arrive at the top, dripping in sweat, soaked to the core, cold or hot, huffing and swearing the name of Mother Nature. And at that moment, life takes you back. It relieves you of your selfishness and reminds you that you are a mere mortal, a sweat-soaked human with pit stains and a backache, and you belong to the world, not the other way around. You feel small, insignificant, fragile and suddenly, you see yourself.
Forest overnights sharpen your problem-solving skills. Something always goes wrong. You forget extra socks, the weather doesn’t cooperate, your woodland neighbors are a little too curious about the contents of your cooler. Sleeping in the woods heightened my ability to MacGyver almost anything with a little ingenuity and a lot of grey areas, simply by resetting my capacity to pay attention. It’s simple out there: no one is going to fix anything for you. You learn to be a contractor, cook, maid, engineer. You tap into gratitude. During a cold rain, you’re drenched in gratitude for shelter. After cleaning a scrape in ice-cold alpine lake water, you’re thankful for hot showers. If you’ve ever forced your body awake at 12,000 feet to catch the sun glide across the mountain tops, your fingernails pounding with the ache of cold as you press the shutter button on your camera, you know the saying “pain is beauty.”
Burning muscles, aching joints, itching, sweating, moving. Most of the time, it’s uncomfortable. You’re racing thunderstorms or being pelted with cold wind. You wake up to rain, snow, hail. Things rustle at dusk and lightning paints the night. Somewhere along the way, your face begins to look like your favorite mountain jaunts, the corners of your mouth curl upwards to the sky, your cheekbones stain pink like a desert sunrise, your eyes scintillate in the morning light. The creases in your face fill with dirt and grime, but it’s okay, because you’ve witnessed heaven. You’ve been to the gossamer place between this world and the next. You’ve tasted morning dew among a wraithlike fog in the hour before the sun can enter the world. You’ve scraped, itched and clawed your way to peace.
These long walks may crumble my bones into powder, stretch my ligaments into a mess of springy cord and carve lines in my face and body as long and as deep as my favorite river gorges, but I’ll look back on those nights spent packing it in early, and those days spent waking up at dawn to catch the prism of a million shades of purple across the valley, and I’ll smile. I’ll still chat with the moon and my pale skin will curse the sun. I’ll always walk a little too far off the trail and opt to “find a better way down” on a scramble. Waterfalls will forever be a place to snack and alpine lakes will be my second home. I’ll probably still refuse to wear the “right gear” or bring the “tactical tools” to make it all easier. It will be hard. It will be ugly. Sometimes I will hate it. But one day I’ll find my journal from these days, covered in dirt and yellowing at the pages and I’ll think, we did it right, you and me, didn’t we?