I know it is time to head into the woods when I wake up thinking about being surrounded by nature and those thoughts stay with me through my work day. Yesterday was one of those days. So when my workday ended, I did just that. I headed outdoors for a hike in the woods with my water, walking stick, camera, and a notebook as I always do.
When I go into the woods, I go to clear my mind, talk to God (or myself, the animals, and the spirit world all around me), and to be surprised by what wildlife I see. I also go to move my body which I know is my personal calming and healing medicine. Yesterday, I was blessed with a cloudless deep blue sky, high near 80 degrees, and a gentle breeze – the perfect day to take a long walk.
After the first mile, I knew I’d made the right decision. My senses were alert with the aliveness of the woods. I was in awe at how much green there was, even though it had only been two days since my last hike. The view through the woods is now filled in with the fullness of leaves on the trees and undergrowth. My sense of smell sharpened as everywhere along the edges of openings, berry bushes are in full bloom so every few steps their sweet fragrance promises a great berry harvest in August. Mingling with the fragrant blossoms, the smell of the earth reminded me with each step how much I am part of this natural and wild world. Listening to the birds overhead and chipmunks scurrying along as the dominant sounds along with my own breath and footfall as I walked uphill. A special treat was noticing a Luna Moth gracefully flying overhead — a rare and breathtaking sight!
The first mile is always the most challenging. My legs, breath, and body work hard before gradually settling into a rhythm. More importantly my mental chatter begins to slow down from my workday self-talk of to do lists, questions, worries, and concerns. Each step feels as though I am unraveling those thoughts and setting them along the path. With delight I begin to notice what is around me such as the huge mushrooms growing on a nearby tree trunk, a hawk flying from branch to branch just above me, or a turkey stepping through the woods. Wonder fills me.
I like to spend the first mile or two finding my rhythm as my legs warm into the movement and my senses open to beauty. Though sometimes painful on a steep uphill, I savor the transition from an active mind to an active physical experience. When I reach the top of the first long hill I already feel lighter, freer, and calmer. For a short while I slow my pace, allowing my cells to open even more to the magnificence of what surrounds me.
I continue one step in front of the other until I reach the point where I feel it is time to turn back toward home or (if it’s a day off) keep going to walk a while on the Appalachian Trail on the long loop that also takes me home. Once home, I relish my quiet mind and my body buzzing from the longer-than-usual hike. I am now ready to do what’s next — feed my animals, water my garden, and make dinner.
Hiking in the woods is my regular and drug free anti-depressant. A mountain of research supports my choice — people who exercise more and spend time outdoors experience less anxiety and depression. Both the physical movement and the Vitamin D our body produces from exposure to sunlight are prescriptions for greater happiness and calm. Of course, there are also the physical benefits of improved fitness, a stronger immune system, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and weight loss. When we exercise regularly, we often make healthier food choices to support feeling good.
For me, the calm, the mental clarity, the meditation in motion walk, feeling aligned with the natural world, and gratitude for being a part of it all are enough to keep me putting on my hiking shoes as often as possible.