A few weeks ago, I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail. You can read about my experience here. Because it was unfamiliar territory, and because there are legit BEARS in the mountains, I went hiking without having my headphones in. I needed to be able to detect threats if needed or be more in tune with my surroundings in case a worst-case-scenario happened.
I’m usually the person that doesn’t go anywhere without headphones. The grocery, walking down the street, even at work if I’m working alone, I’ll have my headphones in. It’s my safe space and my bubble that will usually deter people from trying to disrupt me. So to hike for three hours in the middle of nowhere without headphones was definitely outside my comfort zone.
I won’t rehash my entire experience again, but it ended up being a beautiful experience where I was able to clear my head. Without the constant noise to distract me, I was able to dig deep into some issues that I’ve been having and find answers. And I also was able to think of new things I wanted to investigate or do. It was a great place to find some clarity.
I knew I wanted to try it in the city, where the images aren’t so picturesque and the sounds aren’t so serene.
When I came back to the real world, I knew I wanted to try it in the city, where the images aren’t so picturesque and the sounds aren’t so serene. I wanted to see if I could find that same happiness when the elements weren’t in my favor. And while it wasn’t the same experience, the few times I’ve run without headphones since have been beneficial, in most of the same ways.
Make no mistake, headphones are still necessary for me most days. I’m getting back into running shape, which means the majority of my miles are arduous and painful. And the podcasts or music that I like to listen to are a big help toward getting me to the end of my miles for the day. But every once in a while, it’s nice to unplug and listen to the silence (or cars) around you.
Over the course of the past month or so, I’ve been feeling the itch.
We as human beings have an indisputable connection to nature and the earth around us. It’s why our emotions and bodies are bound to the things that happen around us. Our knees may ache when rain is coming, or mercury retrograde (which is on deck until August 19th) may affect our mood. I used to think this all sounded like hippie bullshit until I started listening to my body and mind. But that’s a post for another day.
The itch I get now is to be in nature, amongst the trees and dirt, and as high in the air as I can get. And to solve that itch this time around, I decided to head south to the Appalachian Trail.
Now, I use the outdoors as a mental refresh and some time to think and work through some problems that I may be having. It is 100% my happy place, and I needed some happy.
So, I made my way down to Georgia and, the morning of my hike got up early and started to drive. Now, for some context. I started planning this trip roughly three weeks ago. And even with such a short lead time, I still managed to pick the weekend with thunderstorms predicted in the forecast every day I was there. I’ve hiked (and ran) in rain before, so it doesn’t bother me, but thunderstorms and wind would be different.
As I’m heading up the path toward the parking lot, a couple things started to happen. First, the sun came out and I stopped worrying about the weather. And as the sun started to poke its way through the clouds and trees, I heard a line from Conor Oberst’s song, Artifact #1.
“Life can’t compete with memories that never have to change.”
I knew I was where I was meant to be.
That isn’t to say that we should live in memories, in fact, it’s the opposite. We should be living every day to create those memories, that we can then reflect on when things aren’t going as great. At least, that’s how I interpreted it for myself.
As I made my way to the parking lot, I could feel my restless, monkey mind starting to settle. I meditate every day, and that didn’t hold a candle to how at ease I was during this drive, even with the bumps in the soft dirt below my car. I pulled into the parking lot and got out to breath the fresh air. A dense fog hung over the area and I started up the path. It’s now that I should mention that there were two paths, each heading in different directions. I couldn’t make heads or tails of which way was which, so I headed for the summit of the mountain.
As I headed up the path, this wave of emotion washed over me. Not in a way that manifests itself physically, but in my mind. I was walking the same path that Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek walked, the two fastest known times for completing the trail supported by a crew. While I am more familiar with Jurek and Meltzer, Joe McConaughy and Heather Anderson have the fastest unsupported times, going northbound and southbound respectively. In my life, I had never experienced that level of feeling intimidated by my surroundings.
The summit was a welcome sight. It was beautiful and the sun (which made an off-again, on-again appearance through the day) has come back out and the view was stunning. After a quick picture that ended up being blurry (womp), I kept down the trail.
Now, I’m not a religious person. I grew up Catholic but never got absorbed into the church. And in my early twenties, I would argue that I was somewhere between agnostic and atheist. But in the past few years, I’ve opened my mind up much more and I’m definitely spiritual, though I would be hard-pressed to explain my feelings on it. And I can tell you that hiking on the AT was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve ever had in my life. The sun shone through the trees, lighting them the way light frames a deity. And as far as I’m concerned, no one can tell me that trees aren’t god-like. It’s unexplainable because it was a new experience for me, but I was surer than ever, in those hours, that we are all one. We are all connected in emotional and physical ways that many of us aren’t tapped into. And this was my first taste of that ethereal space.
I ended up doing ten miles, five out, and five back. The sun paving my way, there were two very distinct things that I noticed. One was the pristine nature of the, well, nature. Once I was a couple miles in, I saw no tracks except my own. Rain had been in the area before I got there, so it wasn’t a surprise. But given the feelings already in my mind about the excursion, I felt like this was once more a sign.
A sign that this space was mine for the moment. That I was allowed that selfish moment of making those few hours all about me. Self-care is a nicer way of saying that you are going to be more selfish. And I was very selfish.
The other thing that stood out to me was a particular stretch of the trail. The path was flat, dark with loose dirt when I heard something. Or rather, didn’t hear anything. I realized that there was no sound outside of my footsteps. I stopped and took it in. The complete and utter silence of being away from everything. And it was the first time I had ever given credence to the idea that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, maybe it doesn’t make a sound.
I love nature, and the clarity it brings to my life. Everything makes sense there. We should all be striving for something that clarifies things for us, and doing it outdoors, close to nature, is a good place to start.