Farewell, Front Range

View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons
View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons

After many years of planning, saving and sacrificing, my husband Dave and I are finally making a big move to Ridgway, Colorado after Memorial Day weekend. We are looking forward to growing a large garden, tending chickens and meeting new friends and neighbors in our new, small community.

I’m also looking forward to starting a new chapter of contemplative hiking on many mind-blowing beautiful trails in the San Juan mountains near Ouray, Telluride and Ridgway.

There was one trail near Boulder that I hadn’t hiked but had wanted to for many years – The Royal Arch trail at Chautauqua. I attempted to scale the trail in February but it was simply too icy and treacherous for my liking, despite wearing ice spikes and having poles. This is a trail that’s much better attempted when conditions are dry.

The Royal Arch trail has a reputation of being a butt-kicker and for good reason – it boasts 1,200 feet of elevation gain in just under a couple of miles. It goes up—straight up—for most of the way, and often you’re stair-stepping on big rocks and having to pull yourself up to keep from stumbling backwards. This is “no country for old men”, or old anyone with a heart condition. Fortunately I’m in good shape and not too old yet, so I made it up in good time with lots of breaks to catch my breath. I would say that you should expect to reach your max heart rate for at least 60 consecutive minutes, which is not something you want to be doing every day.

The view at the top makes it worthwhile. On the north side, you see the flatirons, and to the east is the vast expanse of flatland that stretches all the way out to Erie, Firestone, Broomfield. Above you is a giant arch that rivals anything you see at Arches in Moab, but without the sandstone or the searing heat of the desert.

View of NCAR from the Royal Arch
View of NCAR from the Royal Arch

I was feeling unusually sentimental on this particular hike. I remembered all the trails I had worn out in the last fifteen years and ones that I’ll likely never step foot on again. Life is a series of endings and beginnings, some profound and some almost unnoticed.

Recently my mother died (one of those profound endings) and I remembered the time we took her “hiking” up the hill from the Chautauqua Ranger station. It made me wistful, because she had a hard time up that hill, but she was always willing to try new things and trusted me to show her the way, even though later it turned out it was beyond what was comfortable for her, physically. She loved being out in nature, appreciated beauty. The longest hike we took with her was around Monarch Lake near Grand Lake – almost 5 miles of mostly flat terrain. She really liked that.

Maybe we tend to forget these precious memories after dealing with the traumatic memories of a loved one’s last few days, but they appear later in quiet moments. Our minds get quiet and relaxed and we see all the tiny but wonderful moments we’ve forgotten.

And so it might be with my life here on the Front Range. Right now I’m very preoccupied with our move and what’s to come. In time, however, as I walk along some trail high up in the mountains of southwest Colorado, I might remember a certain colorful hike in May, an exceptionally delicious meal at some restaurant in Boulder, a romantic walk at dusk somewhere downtown Denver. I’ll remember the good times when my daughter Skye was still a little kid and when we worked hard on our backyard garden and when we built snow forts after a crazy blizzard. These memories will poke their heads out when I’m feeling sentimental or lonely or reflective.

So farewell, Front Range. It’s been a deeply satisfying relationship of 22 years. I’ve written books about you and I’ve been elevated by your beauty. I’ve also been bored with you and frustrated at how crammed and developed you’ve become. Even though I’ve fallen in love with a new place, you’ll always be my first love. The Front Range is where I found my gifts and discovered the person I was always meant to be.

Gratitude and Presence In Times of Sadness

dreamstime_s_67074644My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.

My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.

“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”

My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.

Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.

We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.

This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.

When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.

Scott Jurek and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Controversy

Recently, ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Appalachian Trail thru hike in record time – 45 days. This spawned a controversy at the terminus, Baxter State Park, where Jurek was fined for various rules violations. He opened a bottle of champagne at the summit to celebrate his feat. He had more than 12 people “with him” at the summit.

If you read the letter that Baxter State Park Authority wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, you could empathize with what the BSP rangers have to deal with on a daily basis during AT hiker season. Perhaps Jurek would have planned his accent a bit differently had he known the fatigue these rangers face every day from rude AT hikers.

The bigger controversy is, do we all have the right to enjoy parks and wilderness, or do we need to follow certain “rules” in order to keep those lands pristine for generations to come?

It’s a good question. This perhaps isn’t a problem of environmental values, but maybe a problem of overpopulation and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation and sports. With media vehicles like Outside Magazine glorifying the human achievement in nature, and documentaries that follow the accomplishments of extreme hikers, bikers and mountain climbers (180 Degrees South, Touching the Void, Ride the Divide, to name a few), more people than ever are seeking personal fulfillment through nature.

What is my personal opinion about all this? I’m not sure. I think that different people view “spirituality” and “peak experiences” in nature in different ways. Some people, like myself, enjoy quiet contemplation in nature, with no particular goal in mind other than deep observation and enjoyment. Others get that same sense of bliss from running 50 miles on a trail per day, climbing to the highest peak in their state, or riding giant waves on the ocean.

Certain deep ecologists would say that wilderness should be kept free of all human contact. I always found that sentiment extreme. We belong in nature because we ARE nature. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from nature. However, when there are 8 billion of us on the planet, we will eventually nudge nature out. Animals don’t do well living elbow to elbow with humans.

Derrick Jensen says that civilization isn’t good for the planet, because “forests precede it and deserts dog its heels”. We may be part of nature, and we may enjoy it and have a right to be in it, but we’re not really good for the planet, because not all of us leave the trail better than how we found it.

One Simple Reason to Meditate

The other day I was at a friend’s house for a little gathering and the subject of meditation came up. The women at this gathering discussed the many ways meditation had helped them, or what they thought were benefits of meditation based on what they’ve experienced from friends and family.

We all seemed to agree that meditation was a good habit, and that it was important to not get caught up in the idea that it has to be done correctly or for a certain amount of time. Any time you can just sit quietly, take a break, breathe and observe your thoughts, even if it’s for five minutes, was a good thing.

There is a common misconception that meditation is about suppressing thought. Meditation is not about “not thinking” but rather allowing the thoughts, observing them, and then going back to the breath. In this way, meditation is a way for us to let go of our attachment to the meaning we assign to our thoughts.

Detaching ourselves from the emotional triggers our thoughts create is one simple and very important benefit to meditation.

I’ll offer an example from my own experience with meditation. Many years ago I was taking an online meditation class at Naropa for my graduate degree. We were required to sit at least 20 minutes per day and journal about it afterward. I hadn’t done any serious daily meditation before. I’d meditated only a handful of times before and with a group. Never alone and never consistently.

I was ready to see what it’d be like to have a consistent practice. I prepared my space. I put down a couple of couch pillows on the floor. I set up a timer on my phone so I wouldn’t constantly be watching the clock.  I got into a comfortable position and touched the “start” button.

The first few times I meditated I kept glancing at the timer, thinking that surely at least 20 minutes had passed, when in fact it had only been five or ten.  It was excruciating to sit still doing…nothing. My thoughts started lining up.

My back feels stiff. What if I start fidgeting. Will that be wrong?

Back to the breath…

There’s a lot of dust under the entertainment unit. Ugh. I have to dust that later.

I can’t forget to make that appointment today.

Back to the breath…

Will I have time to get that project done and do this meditation, too?

I wonder what I’ll make for dinner? Not now, back to the breath.

…and so on.

At first, I was totally “buying into” these thoughts. I would start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, disgusted even. I was a terrible house keeper. I had too much work to do. I wasn’t totally happy with my work because if I were, I wouldn’t feel so stressed all the time. Why was I so forgetful lately?

The meditation felt excruciating because I wanted to keep DOING instead of just “sitting there” obsessing over something.

After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that the same exact thoughts would come up, day in and day out. The noticing of the dirt and dust in the room as I sat with my eyes open with a soft gaze. The discomfort of my position because my core was weak. The sense of overwhelm about all the things on my to-do list that day.

That’s when things began to shift, ever so slightly. Instead of feeling anxious over the many things I believed I had to do that were pilling up and creating ever-increasing urgency, I began to look at the thoughts themselves with a little bit of irritation. Why was I so obsessive? Why was it so hard to relax for 20 minutes and let things go? The world (and my to-do list) wasn’t going anywhere for 20 minutes. Why was my brain making it so difficult for me to just sit?

I was really judging myself!

After another couple of weeks, I began to look at my irritation in a different way. I saw that I was resisting, but what I was resisting was the letting go. I wasn’t resisting taking 20 minutes away from my schedule to just sit, I was resisting the idea that I stopped buying into the idea that the thoughts themselves were all that important.

Was it really that important that the room had pockets of hidden dust that I hadn’t cleaned?

Was it really that important that I get everything done on my to-do list a week ahead of schedule?

Was it really that important that I be absolutely 100% comfortable at all times?

What I was witnessing was the ego having its little power struggle. As Eckhart Tolle would say, our ego wants us to believe that it is much more important than it really is. It wants to be in control. It doesn’t want to be released or gently set aside. Letting go of our sense of importance is really one of the most difficult things we can do, but it can be the most liberating.

And that is the one simple reason to meditate, in my opinion: To observe those repetitive thoughts and be able to unplug from them, and to be able to unplug from our ego’s sense of importance. This allows us to have more inner peace, because we are not always in some sort of competition with the world, our schedule or our ego’s idea of happiness and success

After several months of daily meditation, I was able to look at a thought that came up—about the dust or the to-do list—and chuckle. “Oh, right. You again.”

 

I Promise You Won’t Suffer Reading This Wonderful Book

 

I met Gail Storey online back in 2010 when I started blogging on this website. She found it somehow, and once in a while would comment on my blogs. She, too, was a contemplative hiker of sorts, she’d  say, and then told me a little bit about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’d even written a book about the experience. It took me a couple of years, but I finally got around to reading it a couple of months ago.

I don’t know what took me so long. It’s certainly the genre I enjoy reading. I love adventure non-fiction that takes places on trails and mountains. Some of my favorite authors of that genre are Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), Joe Simpson (Touching the Void, The Beckoning Silence) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I love reading stories where the writer overcomes a fear or obstacle and is transformed. In that sense, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with I Promise Not to Suffer.

Gail begins her story with a clue of where the trajectory of her transformation may land. “I never much cared for nature,” she writes, “or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.” Unlike Krakauer and Simpson, Gail is not a professional athlete or a seasoned mountaineer or hiker. She’s a professional writer. Her account of her hike on the PCT is from the perspective of a normal person doing something extraordinary. Like Bill Bryson in the first chapter of “A Walk in the Woods”, she too, has normal trepidation about what the experience may entail.

So why does Gail hike the PCT? Because her husband Porter, a rather outdoorsy and adventure-loving sort, decides to resign from his job and do the 2,700 hike. She goes with him because, well, she can’t stand the thought of sitting at home worrying about him for six months.

Gail and Porter’s trek on the PCT is not surprisingly without complications. Gail’s mother is dying of cancer and Gail calls her at often from their stops in town. Porter is trying to figure out what he’s going to do in his career after he’s finished with his hike (and before the hike, while he was still working, all he thought about was doing the hike!). There are the usual hardships of the trail – long miles, sore muscles, discomfort, fatigue, unbearable heat followed by unbearable cold. Gail’s telling of the story is full of heart and vulnerability, but isn’t so splayed out as to make the reader feel voyeuristic (think Eat, Pray, Love). She tells us about how she worries she’s holding Porter back from hiking faster, and how she’s often complaining about the horrible wind and the deep snow and of her ability to handle things when they get way harder. She’s not exaggerating, either. In one memorable scene, Gail almost gets blown off a cliff in the middle of the night while huddled in her sleeping bag.

Gail is petite and lightweight, but not fragile. She decides she’s going to continue the trek with Porter despite the fatigue and weather challenges. He wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she went home and let him finish on his own. He worries about her and doesn’t want her to get hurt or worse. He is torn, and implores her to consider stopping. She refuses, and implores him that she wants to continue, that as difficult as it is, she can’t imagine leaving.The trail and Nature herself has done a number on her. She becomes addicted to the trail, to the beauty, to the wilderness, to the rawness of it all. She wants to carry on, and besides, she promises not to suffer from now on.

I was riveted by some of the challenges Gail and Porter faced in the Sierra Nevada mountains in late spring. The story is a page turner, because even though you know they survive the journey (well at least you’re sure Gail does), you’re not sure if they finish or how they’ll navigate certain obstacles that Gail warns the reader about. Will Gail finish the entire hike? Will Porter? What about some of the people they meet on the trail along the way?

What I liked most about I Promise Not to Suffer was that Gail didn’t take herself too seriously, and certain passages made me laugh out loud. She describes the dread she feels about having to do certain sections of the trail, and you can’t help but wonder how you’d feel if you were facing the same thing. She isn’t smug, or flippant, or boastful. She isn’t whiny, either. When you read this story you tell yourself that you wish you could do the PCT and feel the things Gail felt, but at the same time you think, hell no, I couldn’t put myself through all that crazy shit.

I Promise Not to Suffer is the kind of story that makes you wistful when it’s over. You don’t want it to end. You want Gail to take you on another adventure, and another.  It’s a great read when you’re feeling stir-crazy on a cold winter night and all those glorious summer hikes are still many, many months away.

 

The Upside of Dangerous Hikes

Queen Elizabeth Range
The Queen Elizabeth Range, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

It’s a day of rain and drizzle, and we’re hiking in Jasper National Park on a trail that flanks the Queen Elizabeth Range. It’s July, so it’s tourist season, but it’s also mid-week on a cold day on a trail that isn’t very popular. In other words, there aren’t too many other hikers on the trail. A fact that is causing me a bit of anxiety.

On the drive up to the trailhead my husband and I encountered two black bears and their cubs foraging close to the road. We stopped, rolled down the window and took photos from the safety of the car. I was thrilled and amused at seeing so many bears in the last several days, mostly from the car and mostly black bears. But now, as we make our way through the mud and mist on a narrow trail that cuts through the dense forest, I’m not amused by the thought of seeing yet another bear. Particularly a grizzly, a species with a healthy population in this part of Alberta, Canada.

The trail curves to the left, then to the right. The trees that surround and tower over us seem dark and foreboding. The birds have fallen silent for the most part. All we hear is the steady drip of the rain and our footfalls. I’m remembering (and regretting reading) a passage in a book I picked up at a gift shop near Maligne Lake in Jasper. It was about a grizzly bear attack near Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A couple was hiking and enjoying the scenery one minute, and the next minute they rounded the bend and everything changed. The husband was killed and the author was left disabled when a large brown bear charged them. Just like that, you stumble upon a predator and your entire life changes.

I’m normally not afraid of bears when I hike in my home state of Colorado. I’ve encountered many black bears there, and only once while hiking. They seem skiddish, elusive and shy. I respect them, but I don’t worry too much about them. Incidents of bear attacks on hikers are unheard of in Colorado.

Here in Jasper, it was different. There were warning signs posted at certain trailheads about hiking in groups of a minimum of four people for safety because of the high chance of grizzly bear encounters. The visitor center in Banff National Park further south had posted trail closures due to high grizzly activity in the area. We bought a large bottle of bear spray and were advised to carry it at all times. These people weren’t messing around. This wasn’t Colorado. This was a place where you had to stay focused and alert when hiking. No joke.

So here we were, the two of us, descending deeper and deeper into the woods. Our senses were sharpened and sensitive. We heard every snap, every rustle around us. When we stopped to fish in the lake the trail encircled, we would occasionally look over our shoulder to make sure nothing was stealthily moving upon us. Whenever I got a whiff of something musky, I felt a rush of adrenaline burst in my chest. Was that a bear nearby or a moose?

We didn’t feel that we had the luxury of silent contemplation while hiking on this trail. We were constantly talking or singing, trying to make as much noise as possible so we wouldn’t startle any unsuspecting predators. When we tired of talking, we’d smack our hiking poles together to make eerie, metallic “clack, clack, clack” sounds to cut the silence. We doubted any of this was going to really scare away a grizzly.

In our everyday lives, we normally don’t need to be in such a state of heightened awareness. Our natural instinct for preservation and attunement to the natural world is deadened because we are surrounded by conveniences and comfort. Instead, we walk around in a mental fog, distracted by our cellphones, pondering our to-do lists, constantly tweaking our environment for comfort and pleasure.

Despite the nervousness and tension I felt while hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, I look back fondly on that hike and others we’ve taken in similar places known for large, dangerous predators and dangerous conditions: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Teton National Park.  My heightened sense of awareness in these places brought me fully into the present moment like nothing else in my everyday life. The fear burned my memories in high definition with surround sound. It’s one of those experiences you dread at the time, but can’t stop talking about later.

When you’re in a place where can die at any moment, whether it’s because of lightning, slippery trails over steep drop-offs or the possibility of dangerous animals and predators, something ancient and primitive gets activated. It’s a part of us that lies dormant as we commute to work, buy dinner from the grocery store and sit on the couch at night. It is hibernating in the dark corners of our being, until the moment we go outside and step into a vast unknown. It suddenly wakes up, eyes clear and ears pricked, and suddenly we remember something that’s taken us centuries to forget: how to survive in the wild.

 

 

Mind-Boggling Nature!

The Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada

Sometimes the things that fascinate us most in nature aren’t the things we can see, but the things we can’t.

This summer my husband and I visited Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. We were inspired to visit these parks a few years ago when we were in Glacier National Park, Montana. A woman who lived and worked there told us that if we thought Glacier was awesome, we should go to Jasper National Park up in Canada, which was like “Glacier on steroids.”

Well, we thought Glacier was the most spectacular mountain scenery we’d ever seen, so the idea that another five hundred miles north was something even more intensely beautiful thrilled us.

In anticipation of our trip, we bought travel and hiking guides off Amazon for Banff and Jasper. We Googled images of the two parks. We made a checklist: canoe Lake Louise, go inside the castle-like Banff Hot Springs Hotel, maybe take a boat around Spirit Island on Maligne Lake. These were the iconic destinations, and we couldn’t wait to see them all in person.

But there were things we didn’t expect to see or experience, and I’m glad, because while I like to plan things out when I travel, I also like to feel surprised.

The drive from the town of Banff to the town of Jasper is nearly 300 km long along the Icefield Parkway. Along the way, according to a map we picked up at the Banff visitor center, there are many places to pull out, go for a hike, check out a lake or just take photos. One of those places was the Columbia Icefield. On the full-color map, the Icefield was pictured as a large snowy area with a knobby-tired bus parked in the middle. I didn’t think much of this. I thought the Icefield was just going to be a high-altitude valley with a permanent snowfield or something. I so underestimated it.

Several hours into our spectacular drive, with “crazy ass” mountains around ever corner, we approached the Icefield. When I realized what I was looking at, I sat up straight in my carseat and my jaw dropped. Ahead of us was the largest glacier I had ever seen up close and personal – The Athabasca Glacier.

Along the Icefield Parkway between Banff and Jasper.
Tourists hiking up the trail toward the lip of the Athabasca Glacier.

There was a visitor center and a parking lot from which one could walk right up to the edge of the glacier. The moraine on either side of the ice was rocky and bare. The ice draped over the saddle of two towering mountains, some of the tallest in the Canadian Rockies, beyond which was the Apex, the point where the Continental Divide ended. The sheer amount of ice, the relative rockiness and lack of trees and vegetation made me feel as if we had been magically transported to Antarctica.

There were signs posted along the road leading up to the lip of the glacier to indicate how far the glacier had receded in the last century, which was about a quarter of a mile or more.  It seemed like a lot of loss, but then I studied our road map closer, really looked at it, and my mind boggled.

"Columbia icefield view" by Original uploader was Rufus Hawthorne at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

The glacier we were seeing was just a small appendage of the much more massive Columbia Icefield. The icefield was an area of about 325 square kilometers with a depth averaging 100-300 meters (1000 feet), and that icefield was what we couldn’t see. It is the largest ice mass in North America south of the Arctic Circle. If we were to climb one of the mountains at the Apex and look directly west, we would see an ocean of snow and ice that reached out to a wilderness of semi-permanent winter. A real-life relic of the last ice age!

The Columbia Icefield formed three rivers and fed three oceans: the Pacific (the Columbia River), the Atlantic (North Saskatchewan) and the Arctic. The river that flowed from this glacier was the Athabasca River and it flowed all the way across Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. This was the first time in my life I was standing at the origin of a river that flowed to the Arctic Ocean.


As we departed and made our way north to Jasper, we saw many more glaciers that flowed off the Icefield. We saw snow cornices atop mountains that must have been 100 feet thick. We viewed distance crevasses that were large enough to swallow a house. It was one of the most spectacular drives I had ever experienced. And it was deep wilderness, with no houses or structures besides those servicing the Parkway, no roads, nothing but mountains and forest and glaciers as far as you could see.

I could not stop wondering about the Icefield. I imagined climbing one of the mountains at its edge or getting into a helicopter and seeing the massive icefield, imagining how much time it represents, how long that ice has been there. It was there when cavemen were painting horses and bison in the caves of France. It was there when the Egyptians were building pyramids. It was growing slightly a half century before the American Revolution and receeding when Kennedy was shot. There is frozen water buried under hundreds of feet of more frozen water that hasn’t seen sunlight or been exposed to air in over 125,000 years, perhaps.  This state of wonder made me feel pleasantly insignificant in terms of the vastness of time and the sheer size and force of the glacier and icefield. There are things on this earth that we know so little about as individuals, but that have endured for hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of years.

I didn’t know anything about the Columbia Icefield until about an hour after I was standing at its toe, reading about it in a tourist information brochure.

I’m so glad to be reminded that I can still be humbled by nature, in the little I know and the whole lot I don’t know, or can’t see, or have yet to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Steps for Having a More Spiritual Experience in Nature

Remember the last time you had a really spiritual experience in nature? Perhaps you were hiking to the top of a mountain or kayaking along the glass-like surface of a lake, just barely after sunrise, and an expansive feeling came over you. Suddenly, you felt connected to something much bigger and older than yourself, perhaps even the essence of life itself. A calm peace came over you and you knew that everything was as it should be.

You often wish you can get back that feeling and linger for a little while longer.

Spending time in nature can be an emotionally and spiritually healing experience. It can allow you to rejuvenate and re-align yourself to what really matters in life. But it’s not always possible to have a spiritual experience if the conditions aren’t right. In fact, it can feel a bit frustrating when you’ve trekked to the end of the trail in a beautiful and remote location and all you can think about is the kink in your shoulder or all the emails that are going to be waiting for you upon your return home.

If you want your time in the wild to be a more spiritually rewarding experience, there are three things you must do in order to create the conditions to make it possible.

1. Set an Intention.

Intentions are powerful forces for the psyche. Setting an intention is like putting out a message into the Universe announcing your arrival at a certain point in time and space, instead of following the whims of randomness.

Setting an intention before you go out into wilderness can enable you to connect deeper to your soul, notice signs from nature, and expand your awareness. Some examples of intentions are, “I intend to relax fully and not dwell on my usual issues during the next hour.” or “I intend to open up to any messages, omens and signs from nature to answer a question that’s been on my mind for a while.”

Saying your intention out loud makes it all the more powerful.

2. Be Silent.

It’s difficult to enter into a state of peace and receptivity to a spiritual experience when you and your trekking buddy are busy debating about current events or complaining about work.

Whether you’re hiking alone or with someone, agree to do most of your hike or adventure in relative silence. Silence allows you to be mindful and present in a way that can’t happen when you’re chattering away.

It may feel awkward at first if you’re with someone, but the more you do it, the easier it will be. You’ll find that spending time in nature becomes mentally and spiritually refreshing as well as physically rewarding.

3. Be Present.

You’ve set an intention and you’re spending time enjoying your adventure in silence, but there’s just one small problem. You can’t seem to shut off your “monkey mind”. You’re worried, fretting, and your mind is going around in circles.

How can you be more present to what’s around you in order to open up to a more uplifting experience?

One powerful technique to becoming fully present in the moment is to focus your attention on two sensory inputs at the same time. Notice what you’re hearing at the same time that you focus on a tree or cloud in front of you. Or breathe deeply and notice how it smells at the same time as you’re touching something and discovering its texture. Keep your concentration on these two sensory inputs for as long as possible. You’ll find that you instantly get very present and all other thoughts stop. You can practice this over and over until you find your mind settling down and becoming more in tune with your surroundings.

Another way to get more grounded in the moment, especially if you’re debating something or worrying about something, is to tell yourself that you’ll set aside 15 minutes after your outdoor adventure to think about this topic. Allow yourself to relax into the idea that you’re okay right now and that you deserve a rest away from stressful thoughts.

I’ve heard so many people tell me they had moments of intense clarity and joy because of contemplative time they spent in nature. It’s hard to have these kinds of insights in our normally busy, distracted lives. We could go years working jobs we tolerate, staying in relationships that are destroying our soul, and we don’t even know how bad it is until we have a spiritual experience in the wild and it all hits us: We’ve been asleep in our life and have missed out on so much that’s possible, beautiful and liberating.

Don’t Ruin What You Love By Turning It Into a Job, Part 2

Why do we so often want to turn something we love into a job? We are not content to just love what we love and do more of it, we want to monetize it somehow, and that’s where we run into a problem.

I’m not saying that dreams can’t somehow be monetized, or that you can’t turn your life’s purpose into a career that supports you financially. Obviously many, many people have done just that. All I’m saying is that be careful not to limit your dreams to only include those that have something to do with charging people for your goods or services.

In Napoleon Hill’s classic book, “Think Rich, Grow Rich” he talks about the importance of having a “burning desire” as the first step toward manifesting whatever it is you want. During the time the book was written, the United States had just come out of the Great Depression, so it’s not surprising that the focus of the “burning desire” in his book had a lot to do with money. He says that above all else, you must have a singular focus about what it is you want and belief that you can achieve it. He says that you need not have education, status, money, looks, friends – in fact, he says that none of those things are prerequisites to obtaining riches beyond your wildest imagination.

When I read that, I realized that I’ve been going about the whole business of creating a life purpose backwards.  I had been trying to figure out how to keep doing more of what I love by turning it into a job, but it wasn’t necessarily something I had a burning desire to do (turn hiking into a job). I already had a burning desire. That desire occupied my thoughts often. When I imagined it, I felt a sense of freedom and aliveness that was a beacon to my life today. This dream was the future life my husband and I are planning to have on our 6 acres of land in Ridgway, Colorado. We would be living much closer to the land, growing most of our own vegetables, raising chickens, going hiking and fishing more often in the proximity of Colorado’s most beautiful mountains. We would live in a small community, make great friends, enjoy interesting adventures in new places we would explore.

The only reason I didn’t consider this as my purpose was because I thought I would have to support the dream rather than the other way around. But that doesn’t have to be true. We are planning on selling our wares at the local famer’s markets in Ridgway and Telluride. I am still going to be doing what I do now, since I’ve been working from home for the last 18 years and can work anywhere. The point is, anything can happen, but trying to have it all planned out ahead of time is a dream killer. Who knows what opportunities will unfold in the new life we’re creating? So often life takes us down some interesting trails, ones we never planned on taking. I can’t possibly know every single thing that will happen in the next ten years, nor do I want to. I just have to trust that as long as I have the vision, the details will work themselves out. I’ve got to stop distracting myself with worries about finding the perfect outdoor, active, closer-to-nature way of living. I will already have it!

Consider what it is that occupies your thoughts. What is your burning desire? Do you love to run? Travel? Create art? What draws you, what whispers into your ear and calls you closer? Whenever I go hiking, I find myself longing desperately to stay in the mountains and woods, to experience the sights and smells and sounds of nature on a daily basis. My body and soul beg me to pay attention to this. It is a burning desire to experience these feelings of authenticity and freedom more often.

But it doesn’t have to be a job. We only revert to this way of thinking because our occupation takes up so much of our time. All I’m saying is that our burning desire can lead us to a life that’s worth living, regardless if it’s a job or just the way we live.

 

Don’t Ruin What You Love by Turning It Into a Job

I work as a freelance copywriter and many of my clients are in the self-help industry. One of the biggest reasons people turn to self-help, especially in mid-life, is to figure out their life’s purpose. I’ve written marketing for quite a few gurus and spiritual teachers who claim to know the “secret” to discovering one’s life’s purpose.

Just like in the diet industry, where there’s no such thing as being too thin, in the self-help industry, there’s no such thing as being too fulfilled. If you’re not wildly successful, crazy abundant (rich), deliriously joyful about Monday mornings or don’t have a three-page long list of accomplishments in your chosen field, there’s something wrong with you. We are told that we should do what we love 40 hours a week, and if we’re enlightened enough, we will find a way to be millionaires doing it. We are told that we can turn hobbies into fully realize businesses with employees and 401Ks, but only if we overcome FEAR and awaken to and embrace our life’s calling.

Well, I don’t know about that. There’s a danger in turning what you love most in life into a job. Hear me out.

While I wholeheartedly agree that the world would be better off if everyone could wake up each morning and go to work doing the work they are not only good at doing, but that inspires them and fulfills them spiritually, financially and emotionally, I also think that sometimes our desire to turn our hobbies or interests into a money making venture can backfire.

About ten years ago I was flying home from a trip to visit family when it hit me. I didn’t want to do my job anymore. At that point, I had been a freelance graphic designer for about ten years and had been fairly successful. I made more money than I thought possible at that career, and I had a solid base of steady clients. But it was starting to bore me. I get bored easily.

I knew that change doesn’t just happen because you decide your life sucks. You have to take ACTION. So I went back to school and got my Master’s in ecopsychology. I chose that field because when I learned it was about the healing aspect of nature on the psyche, I was astounded that there was a field of study that put into words what I had felt for years.

One thing led to another and I ended up writing my book, “Contemplative Hiking” shortly after I graduated. At that time, I thought my life’s purpose was to show people a different way of being in nature. I wanted to share my transformative experience of contemplative hiking with anyone who was open to it. I still do. But writing the book wasn’t enough. The next step was to actually start taking groups on contemplative hikes, so I organized a MeetUp around the concept.

For three years, I led more than 70 hikes around the Front Range. The more time I spent outside, the more I wanted to be outside. I didn’t like the idea of sitting at my desk, day in and day out, writing and designing for the rest of my life. I wanted to be in the woods, teaching people how to be mindful and experience a spiritual awakening among the trees. The idea of turning what I loved into a business began to take shape. What if I offered retreats and workshops around the idea of contemplative hiking? Could I possibly turn what I love most into a way to support myself, so I could do it full time?

I did end up facilitating several workshops and retreats, but it didn’t meet my expectations as far as income. What I realized was that I could easily make decent money sitting at my desk and doing what my clients said I was good at—writing and design—but I couldn’t seem to figure out a way to make decent money doing what I loved.

Around the same time I had that realization, something else started to happen. When I took groups on the free MeetUp hikes—which I had hoped were a great way to promote my retreat business—I noticed that I wasn’t as relaxed as I would be if I were alone or with my husband or friends. I felt responsible for the people on the hike, most of whom I knew nothing about. I didn’t know about their health or their background or what they were hoping to get out of the hike. It was just a MeetUp, after all, not a structured retreat where participants fill out forms and sign waivers. I worried whether they were enjoying themselves, or if the hike was too strenuous and someone would fall ill or pass out. I worried about being late, getting injured, getting lost… Worry began to crowd out my good feelings of peace and belonging. I was ruining what I loved most (hiking) by trying to turn it into a marketing vehicle. Now, instead of looking forward to my scheduled weekend hikes, I dreaded them.

This past summer it dawned on me that I was making a huge mistake. I was ruining my experience of hiking because I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I wanted to bring money into the equation, and I had expectations of how much money that was supposed to be. I wasn’t doing it anymore because it was fun, spiritual, or because I enjoyed sharing my experience. I was doing it to get something else out of it, and that was the mistake.

I knew that I had to take a sabbatical from taking groups on hikes or leading retreats. That didn’t mean I still couldn’t go hiking. In fact, I reveled in the fact that I could hike just about anywhere because I had a good career that allowed me plenty of free time and vacation since I was self-employed. And without scheduled MeetUps, I could be more spontaneous with where I went or with whom, and for how long.

I still believe in following my bliss. I’m just a little more careful about what I drag along for the journey. I don’t have to take along a business plan, or a marketing budget, or a good mailing “list”, or a rockstar ability to network. I can just follow my bliss and see where it leads me. My bliss has led me to a degree in ecopsychology, lots of interesting friends, and a book I’m proud of. While my bliss continues to be contemplative hiking, I’m enjoying a walk along a side trail into the latest research in physical fitness and nutrition. I’m listening to podcasts, reading books, and considering—oh yes!—a way to turn this latest hobby-slash-obsession into yet another part-time job.