The storms of life. The agony of defeat. Rejection. Heartbreak. Death.
We’ve all experienced these things, the banes of our collective existence. Luckily, we have a place to go and collect ourselves and return to wholeness as human beings. It’s called the natural world. Hiking therapy is real and it works.
I know that most people on the planet don’t have it as good as I do. As a woman living in the 21st century in the United States, I count myself as one of the luckiest people to currently be alive. It could be worse; the media tells me about it every day. I could be starving in India, a second-class citizen in the Middle East, or fighting for my life in Africa. I know I have it good. But sometimes, sorrow comes into your life and the dark cloud is overwhelming. Nothing seems to assuage the grief, guilt, or regret.
The only good I can find in the world at these moments comes from returning to a place outdoors–it doesn’t matter where, exactly. I just find a trail and start walking. I’m buoyed by the beauty of the scenes surrounding me, and taken away from the heartbreak for awhile. That job that fell through? Oh well. Look at the beautiful trees…you wouldn’t be looking at them if you were at work. That guy that broke your heart? Well, he lost out because he’s not there enjoying this incredible, beautiful fall day outside with you. The loved one that died…this one is harder.
Death is tricky. It shakes up life badly. There is no immediate cure for it because of the finality it imposes and empathy it can draw if it is affecting a close friend or your family. Death will drain you no matter how it comes calling. That is when nature can, for a moment anyway, fill in the gap and explain without using words that life goes on. There is something about seeing great views, breathing good air, and contemplating the blueness of a mountain sky that will calm you down and get you grounded away from sorrow for a while. It is medicine for the soul that no pharmaceutical treatment could possibly replicate.
I own my share of emotional scars. We all do. In its therapeutic capacity, wilderness matters more to me now than it ever did before. As you go through life and start collecting those wounds, the more you feel like you can handle what is happening. One of my coping mechanisms for grief-related stress is being outside. It’s strange that people have a tendency to recall extremely painful experiences more readily than a calming or pleasant memory. This must be part of how our brains work, how we’ve evolved to deal with being alive and how we survive. If that is so, then certainly being outdoors is our natural way of being, and in order to heal more fully and to temper a painful experience, the outdoors will help heal that more quickly. I don’t know, it’s just a theory I have.
When John Muir’s wife passed away, Theodore Roosevelt sent him a note of condolence. The few lines he wrote contained great wisdom and empathy, as Roosevelt himself spent years out West reinventing himself as an outdoors man and rancher after his mother and first wife passed away on the same day. It read:
My Dear Mr. Muir:
I do not like to intrude upon your grief, but I wish you to know how deeply I sympathize with you. There is nothing that I can say that will be of any comfort. Get out among the mountains and the trees, friend, as soon as you can. They will do more for you than either man or woman could.
Perhaps I didn’t have to write so much to communicate the same things that TR did in his perfect letter. But, without knowing first-hand about the powerful healing that nature can provide, I wouldn’t have written this at all. As a nation, we are lucky to have such great beauty and natural resources available to us. We are truly blessed in that regard–and every time we venture out to be in the wild, we receive a blessing in return.
In all of my life, the one thing that always made me feel better, no matter the heartbreak, was going on a hike. And that’s the first–the best–reason why I hike.