On Sunday, my husband and I went on a long hike. We drove out to the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in the East Bay. The weather was gorgeous: warm without being hot, sunny, bright. It was one of those days you long for whenever the weather is awful, the kind of day that you daydream about in the dead of winter. In other words, it was a perfect day.
For our hike, we chose an 8.5 mile loop that delved into the lush, green valley, sloped by the remains of former coal mines, curved through open fields and through a grove of pines and eucalyptus trees, and then back over the ridges of the hills. In retrospect, 8.5 miles seems a bit ambitious, even if we were well-stocked with hearty snacks and copious amounts of fresh water. By the end, I was exhausted.
Even on the trail, however, I knew that there was something special about long hikes, something symbolic of the journey that we all take through our long lives (if we are lucky enough, that is, to have long ones). Going on long hikes is good for the development of the soul; it is like going to church without organized religion. On this particular hike, I realized that going out for a long, long hike is like going to nature’s school. There are lessons to be learned.
1. Don’t be afraid to go “off the path.”
Maps are essential to any good, safe hike. But sometimes, the plan itself takes over and we forget to explore. This is a particular problem for me. I am a control freak; I feel like I have to be in charge of our route because I think I have a superior directional ability (which is only partially and sometimes true). I get so wound up about being on the “right” trail that I lose sight of the scenery on the trail I am on. In other words, I am so consumed by being on the path I originally chose that I’m afraid to diverge from it at all. I’m scared that I’ll lose my way, that I’ll get lost, that I won’t make it to my destination. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to change course, that as long as you are on a path you aren’t really “lost”, and that things will work out
2. Look around you; enjoy the view.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hike, I spend a lot of time looking at my feet and the ground ahead of me. I’m terrified of slipping or of stepping on a snake. In the minutiae of walking through uncertain terrain, I forget to stop and look up. It’s easy to get lost in the details and forget about the big picture. Stop to enjoy the view.
Challenge: DON’T rush to take a picture. Just look at the view. Try to remember it without a photo, the “old-fashioned” method of capturing a scene.
3. Don’t obsess about how far away your goal is.
At about 6 miles into any hike, I start to freak out. (Ask my husband if you don’t believe me.) By the 6 mile mark, I’m tired. My legs ache, my feet are starting to develop blisters, and I’m pretty sure we’re on the wrong trail (see point one in this list). I start to wonder if I’ll make it. I whine – a lot. It’s hot. It’s all uphill. Can’t we take a break? Where the hell are we? What was I thinking?
At this point, I take a much-deserved break, sit down, and eat something. I try to focus on how far I have already hiked. I remind myself that I can do much more than I think I can. I have reserves. My husband usually reminds me that I have never quit anything in my life, that I am a strong woman, and that I’ll make it just fine. Then we laugh and start hiking again.
4. Don’t let fear keep you from doing and seeing interesting things.
At Black Diamond, you can go into an old prospecting tunnel. It’s a tunnel that is 400-feet into the side of a very large hill. It’s about 5 1/2 feet high and 5 feet wide. It’s deep. And black. And, well, cavernous. In other words, it’s scary.
I went in first and got about 30 feet before I started to freak out. I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know what was coming up. It was cool and clammy and damp – like a grave.
I went back out while my husband kept going. Outside, I rethought my decision. Was I really going to let fear of darkness keep me from experiencing something new? Really? Was I?
Then I realized that I still had my sunglasses on, which leads me to . . .
5. Do not make something darker than it has to be.
I took off my glasses and the tunnel seemed less scary. Duh. I had been making it worse than it was. I went all 200-feet into the tunnel that it is possible to descend. I did it. And I lived to tell the story. And it wasn’t that bad. Go figure.
6. Push yourself, but not too much.
Long hikes require endurance and the ability to push past your normal limits. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be a crazy masochist about it. Hikes should be planned according to your ability – neither too easy nor too hard. If it’s too easy, we don’t get stronger. If it’s too hard, we either hurt ourselves or give up on our goals. The middle ground is not easy to find or sustain, but it’s the surest way to enjoy yourself AND to get somewhere interesting.
7. Reward yourself for successes that happen along the way.
Hey, it’s not all about finishing. If you began every long hike thinking about its end, you’d never even start down the trail. That’s why trails are mapped out by segments. Go .31 miles and turn left. Check. Climb uphill for .91 miles. That’s doable. At the top of said climb, have some chocolate and an orange for a reward. It makes the climb easier and the reward sweeter.
8. Trust yourself.
When we came up to a poorly marked intersection on the trail, we had to choose which way to go. We checked the trail marker. Nothing. We looked at the map. Not much help there, either. We had to guess, based on our assumptions about the map and where we were, which way to go. We had a hunch that left was correct. We trusted ourselves, knowing that we could always track back, if we needed to correct our course. In the end, we chose correctly. If we had over-thought it, as I am prone to do, we would have gone the wrong direction. Sometimes our instincts are better than logic, especially when we don’t have all the information that we need to make a choice. Trust yourself.
Lately, I’ve been so focused on the uncertainty of my future (will I get a job? will I publish a book? will I ever have enough money to go around?) that I’ve been missing out on the present tense. I’ve been so goal-oriented that I almost lost sight of why I chose some of those goals for myself in the first place. I have been so consumed with worry about being on the “right path” that I forgot to enjoy the journey.
In his writings on nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that in nature all things are fluid, in constant motion, and that only in understanding this could man begin to see the whole of existence. For Emerson, nature is the antidote to modern life because it reminds us that there is something greater than ourselves. It is a check on our hubris, on our worldly anxieties, and balances out our souls.
I’m not exactly a transcendentalist, and I don’t know if I think that nature is the highest approximation of god, but I do know that a good, long hike is sometimes necessary for me to recalibrate my mind/soul. It helps to remind me to get out of my own way. From this perspective, life’s trials and nature’s trails are alike after all; all the same rules apply.