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On the first day of school most students are mentally reviewing their class schedules as they walk about campus, organizing their days into virtual spreadsheets. Normally I’m among those silently sifting through their classes, but this semester I had a different schedule running through my head:
Morning: Extra-strength Claritin, antibiotic, corticosteroid cream
Evening: Extra-strength Claritin, antibiotic, corticosteroid cream, Benadryl
Repeat Daily for 5-10 days
This was my routine for the first week of school: popping pills and smearing medicinal creams onto a multitude of unforgiving tick bites. This was just one of the trials and and tribulations I have faced in the woods; I’ve spent days on end hiking in the rain, weeks on end dealing with intense heat, blisters, poison ivy and ill-fitting boots. I once spent an hour riding out a thunderstorm in a porta-potty.
This might make hiking sound like a form of masochism, but despite the periodic misery, I keep going back to the woods: I’ve gone on backpacking trips in New Zealand and South Korea; I have hiked 600 miles in the Western Australian wilderness and 1600 miles of the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. And my options right here in Arkansas are endless: I have explored every nook and cranny of Devil’s Den and the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, including the 36-mile Buffalo River Trail; I spent two weeks on the Ouachita Trail this May. Even though the results of these trips have sometimes been uncomfortable, for me the gains far outweigh the losses. And while rashes, bug bites, and muscle soreness fade over time, the view from the mountaintop, the birdsong breaking the silence of a cold, misty morning, the warmth of volcanic rock beneath your hands…these things stick.
Hiking is both an escape from and a journey into your own mind. As you walk, your steps become rhythmic, your ears take in the sounds of the earth. There’s nothing but the crunch of leaves underfoot, the healthy thud of your boots hitting the ground, the occasional snap of a twig or rustle of the bushes. It’s quiet, and your thoughts, rather than rebounding against the inside of your skull, drift outward through the trees. In this way nature calms the mind and teaches you to value silence.
We experience so much noise in our day-to-day lives, and the constant pull of news, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, assignments, exams and even conversation is often overwhelming. Seldom do we just think – seldom do we have the time. Hiking engages your body while sparing your brain, allowing you to mute the distractions and limit the input, which can really make a difference in the way we handle stress.
The idea of minimalism – ultralight backpacking – is justifiably popular with hikers: the lighter your burden, the happier you will feel at the end of each day. This holds true off-trail, as well – processing information can be a challenge when you’re surrounded by so much noise, but hiking can teach you to find the natural quietness within and incorporate it into your daily routine.
After spending time away from civilization, you develop an appreciation not only for silence, but for the things we take for granted in everyday life: running water, refrigeration, quick travel, entertainment…as well as an understanding that all of it is luxury, rather than necessity. You glean a better idea of what is superfluous in our lives – which distractions enrich us and which dull us. This, for me, is at the root of wellness: being aware of how we fit into the greater narrative; adopting roles we can understand and appreciate; grasping what enriches, and discarding what dulls.
There’s a saying in the long-distance hiking world: hike your own hike. I’ve met people who have hiked in dresses, people who have hiked barefoot, people who have brought their guitars, cast-iron skillets, MacBooks and pet cats out on hikes. Some people finish the Appalachian Trail in three months, some in seven. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you wear or what you bring along, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you – as long as your burden is light and what you carry is enriching; as long as you bring the silence back with you when you’re done.