[Bella’s intro: Single-at-Heart readers, I’m happy to let you know that one of our favorite guest bloggers, Tricia Parker, is back. Most recently, she wisely noted that “You are enough.” This time, she is back to tell us about her impressive challenge to herself – to take 52 awe-inspiring hikes in 52 weeks, all on her own. As a fellow lover of nature and the great outdoors, I totally agree with Tricia about the psychological and physical benefits, and just plain joy, of hiking, or just wandering, a spectacularly beautiful stretch of nature. In fact, if you ever have holiday time to yourself, doing something like this may be a very special way to take advantage of it.]
Finding Awe in Solo Hiking
by Tricia M. Parker
Having lived in the Pacific Northwest almost my entire life, I’ve been keenly aware of the abundance in natural beauty of where I call home. A lover of nature, I’ve frequented the rivers, valleys, mountains, ocean shores and deserts of the PNW, and through all kinds of adventurous activities from fishing, hiking, snow-shoeing and skiing, to road trips and simple Sunday drives. But this past year I made the decision to take on a personal challenge: 52 hikes in 52 weeks. I had been reading about the concept of awe and its benefit on the health and wellness of the human body and mind, and so I wanted to experience what the research was telling me about the importance of regular doses of awe in nature. I chose hiking as the way to access it.
What I had been learning through some fascinating research was that being in the presence of something vast, something huge, and something beyond human understanding helps reduce the ill effects of chronic stress and anxiety. In addition, experiences of awe can help people become less self-focused, less narrow-minded, more humble and more cognizant of the significance of problems made by humans, yet how much of a power punch they have on health and wellness. There are even positive effects on the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for controlling breathing, heart rate and digestive processes – the fight, flight or freeze responses to perceived danger. Regular doses of awe can reduce stress reactions.
Awe in nature can be found in any extraordinary experience from watching the clouds move across a blue sky, gazing at the stars or the colors of a rainbow or standing next to a giant Sequoia. That surge of contentment and gratitude and positivity during those observations can’t be matched or measured. If we know that the temporary awesome feelings we experience in nature are going to fade as regular life takes over, why do we limit our time in nature? This thought alone helped me to focus on how I was spending my time and the trappings that were keeping me too busy and inside. It ultimately drove the idea of a weekly hike.
I questioned that if I made nature a part of my self-care routine, if I intentionally immersed myself into nature at regular intervals and for lengthy amounts of time, would I see lasting results in my own mental health and wellness? Would it change me? The only parameters I placed on my challenge was that the hikes would have to be solo journeys (as opposed to social endeavors), they would be day hikes, they would happen on developed and maintained trails, and they would be between 5 and 10 miles in length round trip.
Beginning on New Year’s Day 2018, and with each weekly hike thereafter, the effects on my physical body were most immediate. I became stronger, leaner and more in tune with the importance of hiking correctly, of using poles and having proper clothing and gear to protect from the elements. Less noticeable at first, yet more apparent in time and through distance covered, I began to sense a shift in mindset. I began to notice the clarity of my thoughts out on the trail. It also seemed that the higher the elevation, and the further from ‘life’ I traveled, the more emotionally detached I became from the nuances of daily life or work issues or relationship problems.
During the year I also kept revisiting the research. The concept of forest bathing fascinated me; the essential oils pine trees emit during certain times of the year that are considered nature’s Prozac. And so I began to hike solely through old growth forest terrain from early summer through late fall, deeply inhaling the heavy sweet piney smell and phytoncides. On one of these hikes I found a trail lined with wild rose and partook in an intoxicating aromatherapy session. It was during these forest hikes that I learned to work on my stride and incorporate grounded meditative practices through controlled breath work and much like what was practiced during my studio yoga classes. On the shores of alpine lakes and creek banks I tapped into mindfulness meditation by focusing on and accessing present experiences through each of my 5 senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. When I’d return home and get back into the weekly routine, I was able to relive these experiences through quiet contemplation while listening to recorded birdsong or rainfall or evening crickets.
Some of what I’ve experienced and learned by putting this awe theory into practice is difficult to put into words. I now realize more than ever the importance of small, careful and forward steps in climbing mountain trails, traversing carefully over rocky landscapes, and remaining aware of the surroundings at all times. Mental health care translation: I’ve become more careful and thoughtful of how I spend my time and with whom. I’ve been more purposeful and confident with career choices. And I’ve embraced the realization that this one life is delicate and fleeting. There have been many moments on the trails that scared me and humbled me into submission of something greater. I remember walking through an old growth forest of Douglas fir pine during a pouring rain and thunderstorm. As magnificent as it was, all I kept hearing from the swaying hundred-year old-trees was a reminder of how long they’d been there before me and how long they’d be there after I’d gone. ‘Get a grip on this thing you call life’, I heard them singing. ‘Point taken’, I felt to my bones.
Everything I had read about awe was confirmed in my independent study of 52 hikes in 52 weeks. The big take-a-ways? Awe is absolutely life changing in any dose. It doesn’t have to wait to be accessed on a yearly vacation or when life slows down enough to be able to steal a Sunday drive. And human beings have so much more power over their physical and mental health and wellness than they have been led to believe.
And finally, a disclaimer of sorts is in order. There are calculated risks in everything we do in life whether we get in a car to drive the interstate, cross a street, stroll through a park, board an airplane, eat unhealthy foods, ride a chair lift on a ski slope, or solo hike. Prior to the start of my adventure, and fine tuning throughout, I worked at preparing for my own safety to best of my ability: the essentials of back packing, knowing and honoring my physical limits at all times, basic first aid, proper gear, basic survival skills, and self protection from predatory animals and unwell humans.
Tricia M. Parker is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Washington state, and who specializes in brain-based health and wellness. She is nearing the completion of her 52 hikes in 52 weeks personal challenge with a very full and glad heart. Although 6 of those hikes were completed with a buddy, she’s still on target to finish her 2018 solo hike challenge.