When our apple and plum tree began to bud out in mid-March, I knew we were having an unusually early spring along the Front Range. I’ve lived here since 1994 and haven’t seen trees leafed out earlier than mid-April, and certainly not late March. We did have a snowy October through December, but January through March were unseasonably warm and dry, often with overnight temperatures well above average.
This isn’t just a local phenomenon. The cherry blossoms came and went in Washington D.C. at least several weeks earlier than normal, and I even read a story about the sun rising a full two days early in Greenland, close to the Arctic Circle. Now, that has nothing to do with an early spring as much as scientists surmise it has to do with climate change and the polar ice cap melting enough to lower the horizon line so that the sun appeared to rise earlier than usual. Freaky!
Yesterday, on May 1, I experienced the greenest, most wildflower-filled hike I’ve experienced on this early date along the Front Range. I hope this doesn’t mean a brown July, or a horrific drought in August. I am staying open to what happens, or doesn’t happen. One never knows what nature has in store.
Five years ago I attended a panel discussion at the University of Colorado where top scientists spoke of the accelerating nature of climate change. They predicted that if nothing is done, within five years (umm…now) negative feedback loops will make it impossible to remedy the damaging effects of global warming. Well, not much has been done in the last five years and it doesn’t appear that large-scale remedies are anywhere on the (sinking) horizon. Nothing to do, except to contemplate an early spring.
The snowstorm that descending on the Front Range February 2nd and 3rd was a record breaker—the most snow in the month of February since records had been kept in the area. It was certainly a lot of moisture. Boulder got close to 18 inches of heavy, wet snow.
A day after the snow stopped falling, we went on a snow hike on the NCAR Mesa to South Mesa trail, all the way to the Enchanted Mesa Trail (3 miles roundtrip). We decided against wearing snowshoes and just opted for some YakTrax and poles. The trail was packed enough to provide decent support. It always amazes me how quickly the trails get traveled after a snowfall on the Front Range. The locals must not only get out there right after the snow stops falling, I bet they must hike while it’s snowing, or how else can they find the trail if nearly 2 feet of snow covers it? I bet that would be quite the hike in a blizzard. I’ll have to try that next time.
The path through the snowy woods felt magical and enveloping. The snow dribbled off steep areas like in miniature avalanches. A creek flowed under a soft, billowy dome of white. Chickadees called out to each other and celebrated the sun. And humans made tracks for other humans to follow, so that we could all play in winter’s gift.
There are times when all of us, at some point, experience a mild bout of “the blues.” Either it’s circumstantial —there is something worrisome going on in our life— or it’s just the normal ebb and flow of mood. If you’re a woman, it can be hormonal or it can be the result of poor sleep or nutrition. Even mild depression can be downright painful. You feel the ache of listlessness and hopelessness, even when you know logically your life is generally good and comfortable. That’s when it’s especially bad, perhaps because you can’t even find a good reason why you’re feeling down. If there was something you could fix, you’d fix it. Instead, you’re just not happy and you’re not sure why.
I have observed throughout my life that certain activities make me feel better and even cure me of the occasional blues. One of the activities that seem to be most reliable in making me feel better instantly is exercising outside in a nature place, preferably alone. The mental health benefits of this are not just anecdotal, there are studies that point to the idea that exercising in an outdoor, natural setting is far more effective in improving mood than exercising indoors.
The reason I recommend exercising alone in nature to cure blues is that it’s contemplative, meaning that it allows your mind to wander to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking—in the moment, as it relates to your environment. You need not worry about what another person is experiencing, how fast they’re walking, or what they think of what you’re telling them. Solitary, contemplative time in nature, allows you to be as present in the moment as you possibly can be, and affords you the space to work through problems and emotions. I have had many instances of creative insight and even a surge of ideas and motivation during solitary hikes, but not so much when I’ve been with others. Maybe the conversation always gets in the way, or maybe my mind is better at surging creativity when I’m giving it the space to do so.
Studies have also concluded that vigorous exercise in bright light (such as sunlight) increases mental well-being by increasing seratonin levels in the brain. These chemicals give us a “feel good” boost, and as an exercise enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing like a good workout to put you in a great mood all day. Combining vigorous exercise with time outdoors in nature is the ultimate natural remedy for a mild cause of the blues.
This is a particularly important point for seasonal depression, or the “winter blues.” When it’s cold and blustery outside, the last thing we want to do is go out there to exercise, but this is precisely when it’s most beneficial, especially on sunny days. Where I live near Denver, Colorado, I am no more than a 30 minute drive from beautiful hiking trails that meander through pine forests and rock formations. Even in winter, after a snowfall, so many people hike that the trails are snow-packed and completely walkable.
In modern culture we spend so much of our time indoors, in front of one screen or another (a computer, a television, a smartphone), and this is doing nothing for our emotional, physical or spiritual health. We need to connect – to our bodies, our spirit, other beings, nature—in order to experience the totality of who we are and our place on earth. Nature has already provided us with the means to being and feeling healthy and happy, we just need to rediscover those gifts.
Are there places near where you live or work that you can exercise in a natural setting? If so, set aside at least three days this week to doing so: to greet the day with a sunrise jog, to contemplate the day with a walk at sunset, and to cap the workweek with a long and physically invigorating amble among the trees, birds and open sky.
We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? We look forward to getting outside all week, because work has been stressful or because we need some peace and quiet, or because we long to smell the freshness of the forest. But when we’re there on the trail, we are miserable because we can’t shut off negative thoughts. We worry about things back home. We berate ourselves for not being more in shape. We are anxious because we imagine a bear or a cougar is just around the corner, or we’re anxious about being alone in the wild. (For tips on dealing with those fears, read my article here).
How can you stop the negative thoughts while hiking, so you can actually enjoy being out in nature more?
I have a few tips that will help you get into the present moment and allow you to relax into what you’re doing. It may take lots of practice and using these tips over and over to begin to be more at ease and in tune with your surroundings, but like with all things that are worth doing, patience and perseverance is key.
Tip #1: Return to your favorite sense
One of the reasons I love going on hikes is for the silence and the sounds of nature. I love listening to the birds, the rustle of the wind through the trees, and the absence of traffic noise, machine noise (except for the occasional airplane), and media noise.
I tend to notice the sounds and the silence the most when I’m hiking – even more than how it smells, how it feels or what it looks like.
What’s your favorite sense on the trail? What do you find yourself noticing more when you’re hiking? Do you remark on the view? Inhale with pleasure the muskiness of the forest floor or the freshness of the wind? Appreciate the peacefulness?
Whenever you catch yourself lost in negative thoughts, return to your favorite sense. Listen to what’s happening around you. See something you haven’t noticed. Really sniff the air. Touch the bark of a tree. This is an easy way to return to the present moment.
Tip #2: Ask yourself, “Am I OK now?
A lot of the anxiety or negativity we feel has to do with something that occurred in the past or something we think will occur in the future.
The problem is, the present moment is all there is. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet. We could spend our entire lives worrying about something that hasn’t yet happened, and in the end realize that our lives were generally quite pleasant or at the least, comfortable. We could pray, hope, dream about a time in the future when we’ll be the person we really want to be, but unless we are making strides today, we will never get there. All we have is the now. If we aren’t living our life the way we want now, we will not be living it the way we want in the future, which is a concept and not reality. All we have is the now.
Whatever it is that’s plaguing your thoughts, ask yourself, “Am I OK now?”
You’re breathing, you’re well enough to hike, you feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. Whatever you’re worried about hasn’t changed this fact about this moment. Chances are, outside of some thought about the past or future, you’ll realize you are perfectly OK now, and if you aren’t, you can make the choice to handle whatever physical discomfort is bogging you down.
Even that discomfort can be made worse (or better) by the story you tell yourself about it.
Tip #3: If you’re with someone, agree to stop talking
When we’re hiking with a friend, it’s often difficult to be fully present to what is. I often hike with friends and family, and these are not always silent hikes. We discuss our goals, gossip, talk about problems, politics, or just rehash the past. At the end of such a hike I realize that I can’t even recall parts of the trail, what it looked like, or how it felt to be there. All I remember was my opinion about the topic about which we were conversing.
These conversations can leave me feeling more pent up and stressed than I was BEFORE the hike, which isn’t good.
If you go hiking with someone, agree to stop talking at least halfway into it. That way, you can practice tip #1 and 2 without the distraction of conversation. It’ll be much easier to do this if you agree ahead of time, before you even start the hike. If you bring it up suddenly during the hike, it might feel insulting to your partner.
When I take groups on hikes through my MeetUp, the agreement that we are not going to talk or socialize is already in place. It allows everyone time and space to be with their own thoughts and experiences. But often people still tell me that they couldn’t stop the negative thoughts. Coming back to the present moment is a practice, not a remedy. You’ll have to keep doing it over and over again, just as in meditation when you return to the breath. In time, it’ll get easier, and you will be able to mostly stay present with what’s around you on the trail. At the very least, you’ll be able to make a choice about it.
After all, you don’t want to long for the woods when you’re at work or at home, and spend all your time thinking about work and home when you’re finally among the trees.
Our ego is our constant, drama-addicted and often irritating companion. Our ego tells us that we are better than other people or not as good as others. It tells us that we’re smarter than that guy down the hall in Marketing but a slacker and dumpy compared to that athletic bicyclist in the office next to ours. Our ego tells us that we aren’t doing enough to realize our goals and it tells us that we know more about health/politics/religion than our best friend.
We find it very difficult to separate ourselves from our ego, and therefore we feel exhilarated whenever information from an external source elevates our sense of self (“You did so well with that, I’m impressed!”) and devaluates it (“I’m not in love with you anymore.”), because we derive our emotions from our thoughts, and our thoughts are dominated by ego. Our mind cannot distinguish what is actually happening to us from what we think is happening.
In this way, we suffer needlessly. We tell ourselves stories about how this or that person is not respecting us. We convince ourselves that someone else is standing in the way of what we really want, and therefore we can’t truly be happy. We hold grudges and we feel anxious much of the time. Our blood pressure surges and our adrenal glands are pumping out fight-or-flight hormones in response to some perceived threat to our wellbeing.
And yet, this is all happening in our minds. Our bodies are just sitting there, staring at the computer screen or laying awake in bed at night. We are creating our own suffering.
We cannot live with the peaceful joy and sense of aliveness that is our birthright and natural state unless we recognize that who we are is not who our ego tells us we are. Our story—of what happened to us in the past or what we think will happen to us in the future—is not who we are.
So if you’re not your role or your story, who are you, really?
Are you a teacher? An engineer? A writer? A mother? Are you a bicyclist, Apple user, intellectual, athlete, urban farmer, vegan, ominvore, conservative, liberal, progressive, peak oilist, naturalist, yuppie, or sports fan?
Do you have a high opinion of yourself or a low one? Are you a valuable person? Who are you without your identities and without your ego?
We are not who we think we are. We are the awareness of our identification with form. In the moment when we realize we are placing a label on ourselves and feeling a certain way about that label, we have brought awareness in between the thought (ego) and our identification with it. We are the space that separates us from the thought that tells us, “You are not enough” or “You are better than everyone else.”
We suffer because we feel inadequate in our roles and identifications. We didn’t get that promotion, we lost that client, our child came home with an F on their report card, we suspect our spouse is cheating on us, we aren’t making progress on that project or goal we’ve been obsessing about for the last several years.
In nature, consciousness and life are ego-less and have intrinsic value.
Here’s an activity in nature you can do on a hike or just out in your backyard, that will help you answer the question, “who am I?”
Find a place to sit comfortably outside, where you can feel safe and where you can spend at least 30 minutes undisturbed.
Close your eyes and extend out your hand. How do you know that your hand is alive? How does it feel, inside of your body? Is there a buzzing, a vibration that tells you that your hand is alive, that you are alive?
Don’t think about the fact that your hand is alive. Don’t think, “I know my hand is alive because I can see it and I used it just now and there’s blood flowing through it.”
Don’t think, just FEEL. Feel the sensation of aliveness in your hand.
You are this sense of aliveness. You are not your thoughts, you are not your past, you are not your future. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are consciousness and life itself.
Now, open your eyes and look at a plant or some other living thing near you. Perhaps a tree, or a flower, or an insect. It’s best if you look at something you know very little about—perhaps an insect or plant you haven’t seen before.
Look at it without trying to identify or label it. You don’t need to know what it’s called or what it’s usefulness or function is.
You know nothing about this being. You don’t know what it thinks of itself or what it knows. You don’t know how long it’s been alive or who its mate is. You don’t know if it will die today or next year. You don’t know what diseases it may harbor.
Does this being have value, even without you knowing anything about it?
I’ve been considering categorizing hikes on a “Payoff Scale” – in other words, what is the payoff in terms of scenery, ambiance, beauty in relationship to the effort (elevation gain and distance)? I know that it’s not very “contemplative” to rate trails like this, but it sure is helpful in managing your time and energy when planning a hike.
The payoff scale would go from 1 to 10, with 1 being too high an effort for too low a payoff, and 10 being low effort for a high payoff. Most hikes are somewhere in between, with some effort expended to see a gorgeous view or experience beauty and solitude.
Yesterday I hiked up to the Crater Lakes. This is in the James Peak Wilderness area, near the Moffet Tunnel. It’s 3 miles up to the lower lake, with about a 1,000 foot elevation gain. I rate this hike a “3” on the payoff scale, which is a low rating, because the last mile up to the lower lake is a grueling vertical climb up rocks that are like tall stairs. There are no great views along the way, with most of the hike in thick lodgepole and spruce. Most summer weekends there are a lot of other hikers along the way. Yesterday we counted around 75. There are some meadows and wet areas at the start of the hike, and wildflowers that are most abundant mid-summer, but all that is tempered by the booming noise of the tunnel ventilator fan, which drones on for a half an hour every so often, ruining your peace and quiet, especially within a half mile from the trailhead. The view at the lake shore is average in comparison to other alpine lake views, such as Loch Lake or Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain Park, or Lake Isabel in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Here’s how I would rate some of my favorite hikes in the Front Range area, in terms of the payoff scale:
Isabel Lake – Brainard Lake Recreation Area: 8 (moderate effort with a big payoff view and lovely scenery along the way)
Loch Lake, RMNP: 8 (moderate effort with elevation gain, 3 miles to lake, incredible views, waterfalls and wildlife along the way)
Fraser Trail to Eldorado State Park, Eldorado Springs: 10 (low effort, short hike, wonderful scenery, especially in the canyon looking at the rock walls)
Goskawk Ridge Trail, Eldorado Springs: 7 (moderate effort, lots of variety of scenery and vegetation)
Ranger Trail or Gregory Canyon to the top of Green Mountain, Boulder: 6 (strenuous effort, 360 degree views at top, but not as scenic on the way up as other trails)
Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder: 10 (only half hour or less to the top, with spectacular views all the way around, and in mid-summer some wildflowers along the way)
Mt. Evan Wilderness State Wildlife Area, Lost Lake or Captain Mountain Trail: 8
Deer Mountain, RMNP: 9 (the views along the way and at the top are worth the moderate effort up the hill)
How would you rate your favorite and not so favorite hikes along the Front Range on this “payoff scale”? Is there a hike with little to medium effort that has huge payoffs? Or one with a lot of effort and not much payoff? Share your experience in the comments section below.
Location: Clear Creek County, west of Evergreen, near the Mt. Evans Wilderness
Directions: From Denver, take I-70 west to Evergreen Pkwy. exit; go 6 miles south on HWY 74 to Evergreen Lake; turn right on Upper Bear Creek Rd. Go 6.5 miles to CR480 go right on CR480 for 3 miles. Look for the signs for the Colorado State Wildlife Area. To access both the Lost Creek and Captain Mountain trailhead, drive past the gate on the narrow, unimproved dirt road another couple of miles.
Route: Take either the Lost Creek Trail No. 42 or the Captain Mountain Trail.
Access Notes: The road to the trailheads for Lost Creek and Captain Mountain trails is closed to vehicles September 1-June 14 and the State Wildlife Area is closed entirely to the public January 1-June 14. Four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended on the summer-access road past the first State Wildlife parking area. Dogs are allowed, but must be on a leash. There are pit toilets in the first parking lot, but none at the Lost Creek or Captain Mountain trailhead.
It’s a challenge to find a trail that is scenic, uncrowded and quiet on summer weekends, especially one that avoids the brunt of I-70 eastbound traffic from Silverton to Idaho Springs on a mid-afternoon return. My favorite summer alpine trails are Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, and almost anything west of the Continental Divide. While these trails are pleasant on weekdays, particularly early in the morning or late in the afternoon, they’re hard to access on weekends. Lack of adequate parking spoils Brainard Lake, and having to deal with tourist and I-70 traffic spoil the others.
The trails accessible from the Mt. Evans State Wildlife area, about 10 miles west of Evergreen Lake, seem to have a lot going for them: They’re about an hour and a half drive from Denver (about as far as Brainard and RMNP), they’re uncrowded, there aren’t any fees, they’re quiet, scenic and, at well above 9,000 feet, a cool respite from the heat of the city. There’s only one drawback, which is that unless you don’t care about your car’s suspension, or don’t care about adding another hour each way to your hike, you’ll need a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle to navigate the last two miles of road past the first parking lot to the Lost Creek/Captain Mountain trailhead.
We hiked a little of both the Lost Creek trail and Captain Mountain on August 28th. Access to these trails ends after Labor Day, so it’s a short and sweet season for human activity in this beautiful and protected area.
The Lost Creek trail descends rapidly down from the trailhead and then follows Lost Creek for many miles. This time of year it’s a study in abundance. Because this area has gotten regular precipitation, the trail is dark, cakey mud and the vegetation often wraps and clings to your legs on the narrow path. Often the canopy from spruce and aspen is so thick that it creates a Handsel and Gretel ambiance where ripe, red berries of unknown toxicity beckon to be sampled and mushrooms of varying shapes and colors pop their tender heads out from the forest floor.
There were long sections of trail that were bordered by low-growing raspberry bushes, so it was a treat to have a few sweet ripe ones as we enjoyed the sound of the creek nearby. I didn’t eat too many, so that others on the trail could enjoy them as well, not to mention any animals that might be busy foraging in preparation for autumn. In fact, there were so many berries ripening on the trail I couldn’t help but wonder when I’d round the bend and encounter a black bear feasting on the delightful snacks.
One berry didn’t resemble a berry as much as it looked like a bright red grape, and grew from a single stem, like cherry. I found out later, after failing to find the specimen in my field guide, that it could be a clasping-leaved twisted-stalk, or streptopus amplexifolius, which is apparently from the cucumber family and is edible, but has laxative-like properties.
Directly to the west of both trails is a majestic view of Mt. Evans and Bierstadt, shrouded on the day I went in half-serious rain clouds and giving the area a boost in scenery. So far from any major freeways and roads, the area is serene and lovely, and perfect for contemplation.
After several days of hiking, fishing and canoeing near the Flattops Wilderness and Steamboat Springs with my husband, I’ve concluded three things:
1. I prefer silent hiking. After nearly two years of leading groups on contemplative (silent) hikes, and hiking alone (silently, of course), I have found that it comes naturally to me to just be present in the woods and on the mountain without the need for chatter. I can talk in the car on the way to the trail, I can talk after the hike, but during the hike, I want to experience everything. I want to listen to the land, not to the same five stories I keep retelling myself and others over and over.
2. I need more “silence” in my life. It was refreshing to spend all day in a place where we barely saw any other people. No one on the road, no one on the trail, no one at the Ripple Creek Pass overlook and picnic area. I felt my body settle into a completely different rhythm without the “noise” of cars, machines, and the daily panic of clients, to-do lists, and mainstream media. I ate when hungry, slept when tired, woke when ready for more.
3. I need more wilderness to remind me of what’s really important in life. I saw people who have made a life for themselves in remote, natural places doing things that speak to their soul: running a small marina in the summer and training sled dogs for winter, raising cattle sustainably, making sure people are safe while enjoying a state park area, leading pack trips into wilderness, teaching people to fish and giving people the means to enjoy the thrill of a river from an inner tube. They live in the mountains because they see the value in small-town life, and a simpler life. I admire them.
There is something disturbingly soothing about routine, now that I’m back in it at home. Perhaps as I’m getting older, routine is wearing grooves in me like a river wears streams into canyons. The tributaries of my life–the vacations and getaways–are getting narrower and narrower, but there are more of them. They’re necessary to keep the river from overflowing its banks or rushing too quickly downstream. I will churn my way downstream, down the destiny of my life, and hope that somewhere up ahead there’s a tributary large enough to take me into a calmer, more wild landscape again—perhaps for good.
The 3-Day Mindfulness in Nature contemplative hiking retreat was a huge success! Participants of the retreat enjoyed pleasant weather, nutritious vegetarian food prepared by local chef Sandy Robinson, quiet and natural surroundings and indoor lodging at Syzygy House. We did activities and discussions around the concepts of mindfulness, beginner’s mind, the New Cosmology, setting intentions and opening up to nature’s omens. We also did a short night hike, where we talked about discomforts and fears around nature, and darkness, and being alone in the woods. We began the morning with a little bit of light yoga and some sitting meditation, as well.
The weekend was both relaxing and educational. Please keep checking back at the “Upcoming Workshops” link to learn about future retreats, or sign up for my newsletter on the home page.
This book signing and talk took place on May 4, 2011 at the Boulder Bookstore.
Carolyn discusses her book, “Navigating the Coming Chaos”, and the psychological implications of the impending collapse of industrial civilization. Margaret discusses the benefits of contemplative hiking and time in nature.