Winter Walking

Posted on Posted in EXPLORE

It is that time of year again –the time where I am checking my weather app constantly to see if there is sun in the forecast. When Groundhog day slips up on you surreptitiously, and you think, “could it really be an early spring?” But literally nothing about the weather implies that this is true. 

In my childhood (and admittedly, even up into my early adulthood) I was under the false impression that winter was December. And I loved December (for all the holiday festivity.) But as it turns out, I have come to realize that December is just the beginning  of winter… and after the fun and festivity…there are TWO MORE MONTHS of these dreary, cold, dark, days… with no festivities to break them up. (Side note: Why don’t we put the holidays in February, as a celebration of winter survival? That would make so much more sense.)

At any rate, this drab mood is being exasperated by my recent visit to Seattle. While the Midwest and eastern portion of America was being hit by unseasonably cold weather, the far side of the PNW was getting the opposite. Tuesday, when I left Seattle it was 50 degrees, and sunny, and I was peeling of my coat and basking like a little lizard.  

Hike 14 — Pipeline Trail, by Leavenworth

Now I’m back on the east side of WA, and the weather is not nearly so unseasonably warm. Inversely it’s a cold and grey and dreary as one might hypothesize a PNW winter should look. Expectations are met, but I’m ready to head back to the coast. As I talked about in my last post, I decided this year that I would do a 52 Hike Challenge– which basically means I’ve committed to hiking 52 hikes in 52 weeks. I started the first hike in July of 2018, and so I’m just a little bit over half-way through. 

And there is no doubt about it. This is the doldrum section of this project.  This is the section where I am going to have to bully through because I am scheduled to take a hike today, and it’s rainy and cold, and grey. Nothing about this day says, “let’s get outside and enjoy the day.” In fact, it hardily suggest that I should stay in my PJs, and fuzzy socks, and slip into bed again–maybe spending the day drinking hot tea and reading about adventures (rather than taking them.)

I’ve always enjoyed having a project though, and in many ways committing to doing this was about just that — having a project. But I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that so many people have sought out natural settings when they’re drifting through a season of transition. And there certainly are a lot of transitions going on in my life– both in the internal world, but also in my external world as well.

Hike 15
Hike 15 – Tiger Creek Trail, Umatilla National Forest

It is funny, but I think it’s only been in the last few weeks that I have really been thinking about my why for doing this project. Or at least articulating why it is that I’m doing this. And given the weather, I will probably need to keep meditating on my why because otherwise I may actually succumb to the siren call of my bed and books.

I was recently listening to a podcast with Tim Ferris, when he said this thing that I really liked. As he was talking about trauma, and people who experience a traumatic event, he said “It’s very hard to talk their way out of something that they didn’t talk their way into.”  Trauma is kinda a loaded word — and I rather don’t want to use it in connection to anything I’ve experienced. Yet, many of us walk accidentally into small trauma’s all the time. Things that we didn’t talk ourselves into –the loss of a pet, the loss of a loved one, the betrayal of a relationship — and it’s hard to talk our way out of something that we didn’t talk our way into. There are a lot of things we both talk ourselves into, and can thus talk ourselves out of. But there are also many of our emotions that seem to seep in the backdoor, uninvited. And as we didn’t invite them, trying to process and organize something we didn’t invite can be overwhelming.

Or at least, it’s hard to talk and analyze our way out of those things.

Hike 16 — Bennington Lake

Which is not to downplay talk therapy, or the benefit of talking our way through things. I am, after all, a writer– and so the first place I have always went was writing.

Previously, I have often found even poetry was a great healer (which is about as subtle of an articulation as you can get.)

Hike 17 — Whitman Mission

But the last few years I have struggled to write poetry, and grappled about writing anything relating to the now. I’ve written a lot about things I sorted long ago. But in the past, I’ve always been able to journal and write about my now, and the last few years I’ve struggled to do even that. I’ve needed to lean into to different means to process my emotions.

I have made music. And that helps a great deal– because where words fail, emotions can often translate into music. That’s been a wonderful help.

Hike 18 — Mirror Lake, Mount Hood National Forest

But even more than that, I have walked — no ran — into the earth. Again and again. And that is where the 52 challenge has become so important.

So, given the weather presently, I thought I would take a moment to write down my reasons for why I’m doing this challenge. Because, seriously, if I don’t have a why– I’m going to crawl back into bed and spend the rest of the day reading.

Hike 19 – Bennington Lake

1. To Explore the Beauty of the Earth

The kind of low-hanging fruit of reasons, is that one of the reasons I wanted to live in the PNW was to explore a long list of beautiful places.

Growing-up in the Midwest, there were always beautiful places (because the earth just is pretty) but despite that beauty… I had never encountered the pure, wild, majesty, of the mountains. And when I finally did, I fell in love pretty much at first sight. I can remember the first time I saw real, grown-up, mountains, I was only five. We were driving to Colorado for a family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I was instantly smitten.

Hike 20 – Candy Mountain

Before moving to WA, I actually planned to move to Colorado when I grew-up. I even filled out tons of applications for various library jobs in multiple library districts (because at the time, I was working in a library so this was the most logical next step.)

The the truth is, in the most stereotypically American way ever, the wild of the west was always calling to me. This isn’t to say I don’t love the Midwest in it’s own way (which vastly means, I love a lot of people who live there) but getting into the wilderness is like coming home.

Sadly, that said, just because I live here doesn’t mean I’ll take advantage of being here. In fact, the first few years I lived in WA I was a little bit intimidated to go out and solo hike. I was intimidated by finding trails, by driving to obscure locations, and by walking alone.

Hike 21 – Whitman Mission

I actually found that I lived here for several years, and still struggled to make this a priority. I would manage to get to Mount Rainier once a year — but I wasn’t getting out as often as I wanted to. Two summers ago in 2017, realizing this (and also realizing a need to be outside more in general) I did the Summer of the State Parks. I figured this would be a good way to ease into frequent hikes, to random places.

And honestly, it seemed to work. After spending that summer hiking alone, on unknown trails, I gained a lot more confidence. And the nice thing about State Parks is that while they were unknown to me –they were also usually pretty easy to get to, and pretty populated. It was a nice stepping-stone of adventure taking.

So on the most basic level, the 52 Hike challenge is about taking advantage of where I live, and seeing all the beauty I dreamed about seeing.

Hike 22 — Walla Walla “city” hike (because, sometimes it’s too cold to travel far)

2. Rooting into My Confidence

Like I said, I haven’t always been really brave about going off and hiking alone. As a kid, my parents lived out of town and so they had a decent lot of woods that I could roam around in. I did this freely, and bravely — but wondering off by yourself into your parents woods is not the same as driving up into the wilderness, on winding mountain roads, with no shoulder, no passing, and no guardrail — to a destination that you hope is actually going to exist where it says it exist.

I have written a little bit about this in previous post here (when we hike alone) and also in my last post, but hiking solo has become a really wonderful way for me to build trust with myself. I have always had a personality that has a tendency to do some hand holding which is really annoying– because when you grow-up? You don’t have anyone’s hand to hold.

Hike 23 — Bennington Lake

I may be wrong about this, but I think women, in particular, can really struggle here because culturally we still (even in the twenty-first century) encourage some very patriarchal (and paternalistic) ideas in how we culturally program girls. It’s subtle, but can also be nefarious. Yes, you may grow-up and get your own career –but if your husband has to move for his job? Chances are, you’re moving too, so you should keep yourself flexible and not too attached to a plan.  You may like one pot meals, but what if your lover likes a three course Bonanza? Guess what– you’re going to accommodate that too.

And obviously some of these are really small potatoes (cause, shouldn’t we all learn to accommodate more from time to time?) And certainly plenty of men out there end up doing sufficient amounts of accommodation. However, the difference is for women, this tendency is not just encouraged… but in fact pushing back against it is opposed. That means for many of us, this constant internal tendency to accommodate, can lend itself to a tendency to not trust our instincts, or to not trust our own voice. And in general it can lean towards a lot of hand-holding behavior. And because we assume women will spend most of our lives in connection to some variety of romantic relationship, I think many women invest into the habit of accommodating and asking permission, because we want to be seen as feminine and marriageable. So we ask to speak, to take up space, to move ahead. Or… we don’t ask. We just wait around for someone to volunteer permission to us and advocate on our behalf.

Hike 24 — Capen Park, Way Down in Missouri

And don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being an accommodating person–but the hand-holding reticence that sometimes comes with that, can be damaging (particularly in the professional world.) Not to mention it can vastly undersell the natural gifts and abilities of many wonderful women.

I would also note again, that even if this was not the culturally assumed tradition, my base personality is such that I might still struggle here. I think in modern times, women who do not have that as a basic personality trait have in fact found it possible to become more assertive and confident in their own choices. I say more, but I also believe even if they do–there is still frequently a tendency for them to get push back for this (while men get applauded for similar behavior.) But given my sweet personality combined with the cultural expectation? It has been difficult for me to find and trust my own choices, and I have often found myself sitting around waiting for someone to give me a direction, or waiting to ask permission from some unknown entity. Not because I didn’t have my own dreams or ideas, but because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed, or I thought that if I did pursue them… I would just have to surrender them in order to accommodate someone else eventually… so why bother?

Graduate school helped with this a lot. And I must say, there is obviously a balance to be found between leaning on others, and rooting into our own independence. But as my tendency was so far in one direction — I was definitely in need of recalibrating that system. And beyond graduate school, the single most important thing I have done to help that, is hiking the last two years. It’s cultivated my ability to make a plan–execute a plan –and boldly explore in the direction where my curiosity is leading. And also it’s taught me to trust my fear. There are times when one should stop, and turn around– and this project has helped me root into my confidence –whether that means going forward, or if it means turning back.

Hike 25 — Bennington Lake

3. To make physical the emotional

I think using movement as a form of therapy is a more instinctive practice for some people — but it was not for me. Using music to process emotions was about as physical as I usually got. Although, I have always enjoyed taking a walk. And it shouldn’t be surprising that this is a great way to help with emotions –we all know that movement can have really positive therapeutic effects on our body (due to endorphins and whatnot.) Furthermore, in recent years there is even legit research being done into something called Shinrin-Yoku — or in English– Forest Bathing. The kinda basic concept here is that you use immersion into nature as a means of providing stress-reduction. And it is showing positive results. That’s just one more reason to hit the trails.

But I think to add to that, I really like what I referenced earlier about Tim Ferris saying that it’s hard to talk our way out of something we didn’t talk our way into. Many times I think we store memories and experiences not only in our minds, but we also store them in our bodies. And if that sounds a little woo-woo to you, I would add here, I’m not the only person thinking along those lines. As Katrina Anderson notes here,

“So many of us are walking around with an activated body with no cognition to make sense of it. Traditional methods of such as talk therapy and pharmaceutical intervention often fall short in fully treating trauma. The lack of mind-body connection in conventional treatment is why many traditional talk therapies often fail … Although stabilizing symptoms and creating meaning while gaining insight can be crucial and healing, they are often not enough on their own. “

Hike 26 — Yep, there was always going to be a lot of Bennington Lake

While that particular article is focused on the possible benefits of running to process trauma, I think it’s an interesting idea that can be expanded upon to other physical therapies (such as hiking.) Again, I hesitate to use the word trauma because what I’m carrying around in my heart is not on par with say, what a veteran might be carrying around after war, or what a victim of sexual assault is carrying around. But I think grief is often a type of trauma, and sometimes those small disappointments, and small griefs, build up in our bodies over the years resulting in a large block.

And hiking is becoming this very intentional way for me to process the emotional in a physical way. I follow Melissa Hartwig Urban (co-creator of the Whole30) on Instagram, and she has spoke to some degree about how she used the physical process of getting into the gym as a way to cope with recovery from drug addiction, and then later as recovery after her divorce. While I’m a big believer that when it comes to processing emotion, we should probably hit it at all angles (talk therapy, nutritional therapy, etc.), I do think that getting out and hiking is a really wonderful way I have found to support my emotional health.

I would also add, that I am intentional about what I’m doing. I’m not sure if it would have the same benefit if I wasn’t making a point of using it the way I am. In order to accomplish this, I have set an intention in hiking, to process things that are on my heart. I hit the trail with intention, and I think in doing so, it has become a really powerful (and affordable) therapeutic support. When you can’t talk your way out, maybe you can hike your way through.

Hike 27 — South Fork Walla Walla

4. To Listen

There is no doubt about this one — hiking for me is a spiritual discipline. I can move, while talking to myself (yes, I do) and walking by myself, and no one is there to think that I’m crazy (except the bears… and they don’t care. Trust me… I met one last summer, and I’m 100% sure by the the way it bolted for the woods, that the only thing it cared about was getting the heck away from the terrifying human on the trail. Yes, I scared a bear…. what does that say about me?)

But one of the unforeseen benefits of solo hiking in the wilderness areas, is how alert and sensitive I become to everything. Granted, there are a lot of hikes where I have been on more populated trails, and run into people quite a bit. But several of the trails I’ve hiked in the last year are decently remote, and it’s not uncommon for me to be alone for 1 to 2 hours without seeing another person.

As a result, I find myself being hypersensitive to the tiniest things. For instance, the day I saw the bear, I actually remember this distinct feeling of not being alone, prior to having any literal sensory information that proved I was not alone. As I thought about this, I think what probably happened, is that my subconscious mind was actually picking up clues that my conscious mind would normally ignore.

Hike 28 — Waterfront Trail, Bainbridge Island

I think we constantly are bombarded with so much information and static in the world we live in, that we get really good at being tone-deaf, so to speak, to the subtle whispers around us. From a spiritual perspective, this is incredibly isolating. There are few stories of spiritual awakening that begin with, “And I went to the most crowded room in the city… where I suddenly became immensely aware of the voice of God…”

Not that we don’t find wonderful comfort and uplifting moments in community. Community is crucial. And I’m an introvert…so it pains me to say that.

But perhaps now, more than ever before, I am finding that getting away from the social media, the TV, the chatter, the hum of civilization, is not just nice… its necessary. Getting into the wild allows me a place to hear my own heart, it allows me to pray/cry and rant out-loud without input or critique… and most of all, it allows me to listen for the Spirit Voice that is so frequently crowded out from my daily routine.

Hike 29 — Discovery Park, Seattle

And that last one is as woo-woo as I’ll get… for now anyway.

But that’s my why for doing this challenge.I may have more why’s that become apparent, before this project is over, but for now that is it. And on all accounts, I would say that the 52 Hike Challenge is exceeding expectations.

On that note, for the Curious, the following is my updated hike list, to date. Yes, there is a lot of Bennington Lake. This was always going to be the case — because it is the easiest local hike option, but there’s still beauty in the familiar and ordinary, and I’m not complaining at all. I underlined my favorites (which not surprisingly, were thus far during the warmer months… oy, where’s that groundhog early spring when you need ’em?)

  • Hike 1 – Kendall-Skyline Road
  • Hike 2 – Red Top Lookout
  • Hike 3 – Fremont Lookout
  • Hike 4 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 5 – Maxwell Lake
  • Hike 6 – Whitman Mission
  • Hike 7 – Tamanawas Falls
  • Hike 8 – Jubilee Lake
  • Hike 9 – Lake Ingalls
  • Hike 10 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 11 – South Fork Walla Walla
  • Hike 12 – Gold Creek Pond
  • Hike 13 – Snow Lake
  • Hike 14 – Pipeline Trail
  • Hike 15 – Tiger Creek Trail
  • Hike 16 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 17 – Whitman Mission
  • Hike 18 – Mirror Lake
  • Hike 19 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 20 – Candy Mountain
  • Hike 21 – Whitman Mission
  • Hike 22 – “Urban” Walla Walla
  • Hike 23 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 24 – Capen Park
  • Hike 25 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 26 – Bennington Lake
  • Hike 27 – South Fork
  • Hike 28 – Bainbridge Island
  • Hike 29 – Discovery Park
Happy heart, on the trail

And on that note, it is off to conquer hike #30. Wish me luck lovelies– the call of the books and the bed is strong. We will hope the call of the trail is stronger.

Cheerio,

~Elle