I’ve been a bicyclist, but for the last several months I have been a walker/hiker. The bicycle and I had a rough patch in our relationship last year. Pushing myself too hard and one close encounter with a Ford truck has me pretty skittish to get back in the saddle. I will get back to it. In the meantime I’ve been trudging about the forest happily.
Bicycling for me is an endurance challenge… I don’t ride fast and I don’t ride far, but I do like to ride farther than the everyday bicyclist. 20-40 miles is a nice ride. The problem is, for a ride of that length, I have to ride with cars and trucks on the roadways. As one rides on the roads, it becomes apparent quickly that many motorists either don’t care about or don’t like bicyclists. It makes for some frightening moments. Those moments were happening too often when I did finally quit riding, approximately nine months ago.
It then became evident that I would need to find something else to do to keep active and moving. Inactivity is bad. It actually hurts more than long bike rides in the cold. I was feeling the pain of sitting so I got some boots and started hiking.
When I began, I was treating hiking as a contest. I had to go faster and farther and prove something to someone. After a couple of months of that… I realized that the only one who cared about how fast and far I was going was me. It also seemed like I was hiking in beautiful places and missing it. So I chose to slow down.
I have done three hikes in the last two weeks. Those three hikes represent, to me, an affirmation of what I thought might be true. Hiking is best when it is savored. Hiking has healing effects when it isn’t a competition. Hiking can be therapeutic. As I consider my thinking and learning there are three things that are clear now about me and hiking.
First of all… I am stronger than I thought I was. I have never been very good at gauging my performance on a bicycle. I would pedal to keep up or pedal to catch up or pedal to get home as fast as possible. In the end, I would just be depleted. Not that I ran out of fuel, but emotionally I would be spent. I could never find a rhythm or sweet spot where I could just go all day. With hiking… that rhythm is easy to find. I went on a 7.5ish mile hike on Saturday. I went with the idea that I would walk with purpose, but I wouldn’t wear myself out. I wanted to get to the end and still feel like I could keep going. As I got going and my heart rate came up… I could feel my breathing syncing with my footfalls. I felt like I was leaning into the walk. and before I knew it I had walked 4 miles.
At that point I was joined by friends who are runners and in my estimation, more fit than I am. I was a little worried when they came running down the trail and told me they would walk with me. What had been a comfortable pace for me, I imagined would not be for them. 2 miles later, I was still feeling great. By the time we reached the end of my walk, I still felt like I could do the entire walk again. It was interesting to me that while we were still going faster than most of the other hikers on the trail, I was able to keep up, hold a conversation, and speed up when it was necessary to pass others. At the end of the walk, I was amazed to see that I had walked the loop 45 minutes faster than the first time I walked it and I wasn’t nearly as tired.
In addition to feeling stronger I have learned to appreciate the quiet solitude of the forest. The quiet of the forest is different from the quiet of a room. It is a bigger quiet. It is a quiet that has underpinnings of life and noise, but it’s not noisy. Much of the noise in the forest is that same noise I try to create at home in order to get to sleep. Running water, wind in the leaves, and birds singing are all powerfully quiet and soothing. Often, in my office after children leave, I sit in the “quiet” and try to get things done. The quiet of the office can be stifling, like a wet wool blanket over my head. It’s too quiet, too heavy, smothering… lonely.
Which brings me to the last bit I have learned. The forest is lovely for solitary walking and thinking, but is equally lovely when shared. Sharing a hike is different from other social activities. When I share a meal with someone there is usually continual conversation and interaction. Hiking with others doesn’t mean that you spend the whole time talking. I think the experience of it and taking it all in is the key to sharing a hike. I have been inviting people to hike now for three months. My family always goes and it’s great having them along, but I also like hiking with friends.
We had the privilege of sharing a miserable, rainy hike with another
family and although we were all drenched and chilly by the end, no one was complaining. I learned a lot about hiking that day and how to prepare better for things like unexpected downpours. On another occasion we got to spend the day with a colleague and his son. We walked, hiked, rode a tram and took mass transit. It was an adventure. I’ve learned a lot about my family and my friends. Those lessons are the ones that stick. They build relationships.
Hiking and therapy have come to be similar in my mind. Both are about self-discovery and building up strength of mind and spirit. My time in the woods is restorative after suffering the daily grind of work and politics. I go to the woods… to laugh… to learn… to live.
Who wants to come along?