Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

(For this hike, you’ll need to bring a pen or pencil and something to sketch on).

Location: White Ranch Open Space Park, West Access Trails

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on Golden Gate Canyon Road. Travel approximately 4.1 miles to Crawford Gulch Road and turn right. Turn right again on Belcher Hill Road or follow the signs to White Ranch Park.

Duration: Approximately 3-1/2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, hike the north (downhill) Belcher Hill trail, then turn left on Rawhide. Walk through the campground, continuing on the Rawhide trail or taking the Waterhole trail shortcut that meets back up to Rawhide. For a longer hike than 3-1/2 hours, you can continue the Rawhide loop until you loop back around to the Belcher Hill trail, or you can cut across Wrangler Run, which is a pleasant west-facing trail through meadows.

The Hike

View of Arvada from Rawhide Trail, White Ranch Open Space Park

When I arrived at the Belcher Hill trailhead around 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in April, mine was the only vehicle in the lot. The drive up to the trailhead along Crawford Gulch road was very pleasant, with views of endless dark green hills and distant snow-covered peaks (Pikes Peak). As soon as I stepped out onto the trail, I could tell no one had been hiking since our last snowfall Wednesday morning because there weren’t any footprints delineating where to go. It was a guessing game for the first 10-15 minutes downhill through the trees about where I should step next. The ground was a lumpy, snow-covered sheet of ice in places and I had to grudgingly put on my YakTrak. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost—after all, I could always backtrack with my fresh bootprints to guide me.

Eventually out of the snow and down onto the meadows with a view of Denver and Arvada below the hills outstretched ahead, the landscape opened up to reveal rolling hills to the west and a vast, flat plains to the east. This would be a good location for a sunrise hike because it would only be about 15 minutes to a spot where you could watch the sun rise over the horizon. I would only recommend that in the summer, when the trail is dry and obvious from the parking lot down through the trees. It was difficult enough to guess the way down in the yet-undisturbed snow on a sunny morning, let alone at dusk with a flashlight.

There was no one else on the trail when I headed out, and in fact I only ran into only two other people the entire three hours I was hiking. This further demonstrates the advantages of hiking in the off-season on a weekday morning. It was peaceful, and as one hiking guide book describes, “bucolic.” The sounds from the city below—the road noise from Highway 93 and the deep whirr of some industrial machine—only leeched in a few times during the hike. I can imagine this trail is even more bucolic in the summer when the prairie grasses awaken from their winter slumber and hillsides are green instead of straw-colored.

Woodpeckers constantly called out their loud kwik-kwik-kwik call from all directions, drowning out the sound of other, quieter birds like robins and chickadees. Either there are more woodpeckers around this year or I notice them more because I just discovered last year what bird made that raucous call. A few houses are seen nestled in the trees in the hills surrounding the park, but in this part of the park they don’t detract from the feeling of wildness and serenity.

The trail is wide enough for a vehicle and alternated between mud and snow, depending on which direction its slope faced. At the halfway point, about when you begin the turn southward around the hill along the Rawhide trail (the northern-most point of the park itself), you’ll see beautiful rock outcroppings across the valley, then as you make your way further, Ralston Reservoir and a view of downtown Denver below. The trail becomes steeper and rockier here and is the most challenging part of the hike (although if you’re coming in a clockwise direction like I suggest, the steepest part is mostly downhill).  You may spot a black Alberta squirrel scurrying up a tree, or a small group of mule deer. The squirrels are very black, unlike the common suburban squirrel, and have tufted ears.

This park offers a mix of a variety of landscapes: distant mountain vistas, hills, forest, meadows, rock outcroppings, views of Denver. For this reason, I found the following activity to be perfect for this particular hike.

The Activity: Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

This is a fun activity for adults and older children (age 10+). It requires that all participants have a pen or pencil and something to draw on, like a notebook.

As you begin the hike, imagine seeing yourself in the landscape the way the birds and trees and animals might see you. At about the halfway point, you will be sitting down and drawing yourself in the landscape. This is something you may wish to contemplate before you actually do it—not the act of drawing itself but how you see yourself in this landscape.

Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for about a half and hour and draw. Ideally, this should be a spot that’s visually appealing to you. Pretend you’re an artist and you’re scouting around for a good view to draw. One suggestion is along the Rawhide trail after you pass through the campground and past where the Waterhole trail meets the Rawhide trail. The trail will make a south-facing curve and there will be a view of the meadows and hills in the distance. There are some rocks to sit on. But don’t let this suggestion limit you! Pick a spot that calls to you.

Settle in and start drawing in your notebook or whatever you brought for sketching. The only instruction here is to use your non-dominant hand to draw yourself in the landscape. The reason you will be using your non-dominant hand is because the drawing will flow more from your subconscious and creative brain, rather than from automatic movements that flow from assumptions about what you’re drawing, as they would from your dominant hand. This can be any kind of drawing: abstract, detailed, gestural, geometric. Do whatever feels natural to you. You aren’t trying for a masterpiece here. This is a contemplative exercise, not an artistic contest.

How I drew myself in the landscape. I circled where I am in the drawing.

Important instruction! Do not read the questions below until after you’ve completed your drawing. The questions themselves may alter how you do your drawing and will ruin the activity if you think about it while you’re doing it. It’s best to do the drawing first, then come back to the drawing with these questions to see what is revealed.

When you feel that you’ve finished your drawing, ask yourself or your hiking partner the following questions about the drawing:

What surprises you about the drawing?

Are you a part of, or distinct from the landscape in your drawing?

Are you the central figure? If not, what is? What do you think that means?

What is the vantage point of your drawing? In other words, if this were a photograph, from where would it have been taken? Or is it so abstract it has no vantage point?

If your drawing has a vantage point, look to see where the “photographer” or the “artist” is situated. Can you imagine that there is something watching you from that vantage point, and perhaps you drew what it saw?

How would you describe the mood of the drawing? (angry, soft, tenuous, peaceful…) Does the mood of the drawing reflect your mood or the mood of the land? What do you think?

What do you think your drawing says about your feelings about the land? What might it say about the land’s feelings toward you?

When I drew myself in the landscape (see image above) I noticed a few things. The trees and mountains in the background were more wispy and tenuous. The trees in the foreground were drawn jagged, pointy, dark—scary. I was feeling a little apprehensive on the hike because I was the only one on the trail and I kept imagining a cougar stalking me (I have to get over that, I know…). I am the central figure, but I’m drawn into the landscape in such a way that you can’t recognize me or that it’s even a person at all. This perhaps means that I see myself as part of the land, or that I belong in the landscape. I’m small and humble under the scary trees and looming hills, but I don’t look threatened or frightened. You can’t really tell what I’m feeling from the drawing. The vantage point was from above and behind me. When I noted that, I formulated the question about it, so I didn’t know that it was an issue until after my drawing was finished. I was sure to do the drawing, THEN come up with the questions around it.

As I turned around to see where exactly the “watcher” would have been perched to see me from this vantage point, I noticed several large pines in about the location that would have resulted in this drawing. At that moment, a raven croaked at me from one of the trees at exactly the height I was estimating, as if to acknowledge, “I see you.”

A Post-Blizzard Spring Hike

The Front Range got anywhere from 8-16″ of snow yesterday (3-23-10), and this was a heavy, moisture-laden snow. The clouds parted this morning and the sun is now melting away the evidence of an early spring blizzard.

These are photos taken from Chautauqua – one at the Ranger Station and one from the McClintock Trail. Snow was sliding off tree limbs as we passed underneath, giving the impression that the trees were throwing snowballs at us. It was beautiful. The trail was already well-traversed at lunchtime this morning, indicating that many people were eager to experience a little beauty in their day.

boulder flatirons
Boulder Flatirons covered in snow. Taken from Chautauqua parking lot.
trail in snow
Mcclintock trail post-blizzard at Chautauqua

A Secret World in the Bobcat Ridge Natural Area (Loveland)

bobcat ridge natural area viewLocation: Bobcat Ridge Natural Area, West of Loveland near Masonville

Directions: From I-25, take Hwy. 34 west to Loveland/Estes Park. Turn right (north) on CR27 where the sign indicates Masonville. Go north on CR27 approximately 4.7 miles and turn left (west) on CR32 at the Bobcat Ridge sign. Go another ¼ mile to the parking lot for Bobcat Ridge Natural Area.

Duration: 2- 1/2 – 3 hours

Route: The Valley Loop Trail, a 3.8 mile roundtrip.

Access Notes: Some trails may be closed due to muddy or slick conditions, so check before you go. The parking lot fills up fast, even on a weekday off-season, so arrive early (before 10 a.m.), especially if you want solitude. Dogs are not allowed, but horses and bikes are allowed. There are many flash flood warning signs surrounding the parking lot and access road. Check the weather before you go and be cautious about using this trail during times when heavy thunderstorms are predicted.

The hike

After blasting past the mile markers on I-25 at 75 m.p.h. and then driving through the strip-mall-lined streets of Loveland, the first impression you get when you step out of your car (especially early in the morning) at the Bobcat Ridge parking lot is…silence. Blessed, soothing silence. Sure, once in a while a plane will rip through the sky overhead and rumble its way east or west, but otherwise this long valley nestled between Horsetooth Reservoir and the western foothills is calm and peaceful. To the east of the valley are red-capped cliffs that are reminiscent of extreme western Colorado and Utah canyon country. To the west are rolling hills that bear the scar of a fire that raged through the hills in 2000. Charred tree trunks dot the hills where the fire destroyed the forest, but to the north and south the hills appear untouched and green with pine and spruce.

view of valleyThe valley is lush with native, tall grasses that cover the gently rolling ground. In spring through fall you’ll hear meadowlarks calling out with their distinctive chortling warble, or you may spot one perched atop a thick blade of grass or a shrub. There is a historic cabin along the Valley Loop trail (if you start counterclockwise) as well as a few present-day ranches and small farms that are situated to the north of the parking lot.

The Valley Loop trail cuts across the valley meadow and up into the pines at the base of the burn area, affording you a beautiful and expansive view of the valley below and Horsetooth to the east. If you choose to go on the Ginny Trail further west, you’ll get an even better and higher view of the western mountains as well as the valley. Adding that trail will probably add another hour or two to the total hike.

I did this hike in very late winter, right before the first day of spring, on a day when it was mostly clear and sunny and the high temperature climbed up to a pleasant 65 degrees. This is a good hike for either cloudy summer days, or in the spring and fall, because most of the trail is exposed and I can imagine it can get fairly beastly on a hot summer day. The exposed nature of the trail can also make it a challenging hike on windy days.

A Secret World

deer scatOne of the first things I noticed on the trail was the large amount of deer, elk and coyote scat right there on the trail. It was everywhere! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scat without being deep in the woods somewhere west of the foothills. The coyote scat is obvious, since dogs aren’t allowed on the trail and this stuff was full of gray fur from the rodents they’d been eating. I didn’t see one single deer or coyote while hiking, which made me wonder when these animals actually come out to hunt and defecate on the trail. At dusk? In the middle of the night? I realized there’s a secret world that I’m not privy that exists when I leave or sleep at night, and I found myself imagining catching a glimpse of it. There’s a sign at the parking lot that access to this area is only allowed from dawn until dusk, so I doubt very many people have seen the secret world of coyote packs hunting down voles and deer herds foraging in the meadow.

This scat was evidence of beings that were in existence somewhere now, napping or hiding in their dens or foraging in more remote and private areas of the woods during the day. They are just out of reach and out of eyesight. But they exist in this moment in time.

Then there are the creatures that existed in a different moment in time, creatures that I know very little about and have never seen, nor will you or I ever see, alive and in person. Those are the creatures that lived on this ground 28 million years ago, when the Front Range was a different eco-system and the entire region between Kansas and the deserts of Nevada began to rise to form the Rocky Mountains. Volcanoes erupted up and down the Front Range in throughout Colorado. All that remains of the sedimentary blanket that extended west before the Rockies formed are blocks of rock that rise perpendicular to the ground. These rocks can be seen along the trail, some as large as suitcases and some like books, lichen-covered and dusty, sticking straight up or at a 45 degree angle out of the ground.

The burned out trees speak of a moment in time in the past when these hills were burning almost out of control. In February, 2009, the fire burned about 52 acres here. In 2000, a fire burned more than 20,000 acres.

rocks jutting out of groundThe activity

This is a good activity for kids ages 6 and up as well as adults.

Find a place to sit for about fifteen minutes where you can have a good view of something that feels compelling.

Take a few minutes to think about everything you’ve seen and heard that is evidence of a being passing through and living its life in a different time in the past. It could be animal scat from the day before, a dead tree, a sedimentary rock formation millions of years old. What other evidence have you seen that speaks to a secret world, or of creatures that can be thought of or heard, but not seen?

Imagine seeing the past like a slide show. First, 30 millions years ago when this area was much, much flatter and the mountains hadn’t yet formed. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Then the upheaval of the ground and the formation of the Rockies. Ancient horses and mastadoons, then the ice age, then the arrival of humans, all the way up to the present moment. You are sitting here, a snapshot in a moment of time. See it as you see a time-lapse series of photos. See trees grow and decay, snow melt and fall, erosion reshaping the hills.

Imagine what this land may look like in the future, in months, then years then millennia.

How does it feel to see yourself here in such a brief moment in time?

How does contemplating all the beings that were here before you, even only minutes ago all the way up to hundreds of millions of years ago, make you feel about being here now?

Does imagining all the things that have lived and died here make you feel more like a part of the Earth or less? What is your part in the story?

Author, philosopher and anthropologist Loren Eisley once pondered what human or non-human creatures a million years from now or longer would think if they came upon his bones in the sediment. Here he was, examining ancient bones in the desert, wondering who would examine his bones in the future.

Almost everything that has ever existed, still exists in some form on Earth. Decaying plants and animals break down into chemicals in the rock or nutrients in the soil, which then get absorbed into new beings like trees and insects. The Earth takes in sunlight energy and a few random rocks and dust from space, and churns out new forms of life every day. If you were to view the Earth from space in a time-elapsed series of photos, you’d see the face of it swirling, shifting, moving underneath the constantly moving clouds. Landmasses pulled apart and stacked back together in different arrangements. Ice encroaching and receding over mountains and oceans. Water moving like blood, circulating from the air to the land and back out to sea.

The Earth is in constant state of change, from the molecular to the global level. The arrow of time never changes direction as far as we know.

What evidence of its existence do you think modern Industrial Civilization will leave behind in the landscape?

The Spirit of a Place — The Anne White Trail, Boulder

stream

Location: Approximately 1.5 miles west of Broadway in north Boulder

Directions: From Boulder, take Lee Hill Road west exactly one mile west of Broadway to Wagon Wheel Gap and turn left (the street sign is nonexistent or hard to see, so watch your odometer). From Wagon Wheel Gap Road, turn left on Pinto Drive. Go the very end of Pinto Drive where it dead ends. You’ll come to a small parking lot at the trailhead.

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trail is limited to 5 spaces, so arrive early or go during a weekday. There is no other nearby parking and street parking is prohibited along the narrow dirt roads. Dogs are allowed on a leash and bikes are not allowed, so you don’t have to worry about negotiating the trail with bicyclists riding past. This is a very shady canyon, so mud or snow will still be on the ground when other, more exposed trails have already melted and dried out in winter, spring and fall.

The Anne White Trail

The Anne White trail is a hidden jewel in Boulder.  With all the hiking I’ve done through the years in Boulder, I didn’t even know about this trail until recently when my husband discovered it and took me there. In the summer, the deep canyon walls, trees and foliage that surround this trail make it a shady respite from the heat. Because of its location away from a main road limited parking, it’s also a good place to go for a quiet, relatively un-crowded hike.

The trail curves back and forth, back and forth over a small creek, so that most of the time you’re hiking, you’re following the flow or sound of water. Rocks are placed strategically in the stream at crossing points, requiring a little bit of balance to get across without getting your boots wet. The combination of shade and moisture has created large, green mossy areas on north-facing rock outcroppings.  This is a wonderful place to see wildflowers in July. Berry bushes also thrive along the creekbed, so black bear sightings are not uncommon during foraging season. What’s most unique about this trail are the rock outcroppings and overhangs—places you can just imagine cougars are stretched out, napping or quietly watching as you walk past. A sign at the trailhead warns that this is cougar habitat, and although sightings are “rare”, it’s prudent to be watchful when you’re with children and small dogs, especially at dawn and dusk.

What is the spirit of a place?

When you spend enough time in any one place, you come to realize that it has a certain feel to it—a spirit, if you will. Think about any place you’ve gone or spent time that has felt incredibly relaxing and familiar to you. Maybe it’s your grandmother’s farm or a beach somewhere in a warm climate.  Think about a place that you avoid or don’t particularly enjoy.

There are places that feel welcoming and warm and there are places that feel ominous and cold. Places can have a “vibe” all on their own because of some mysterious reason, or they can remind you of something, so the feeling you get is related to a past experience or deeply buried memory.

For several years my family and I owned a vacation home in Fairplay, Colorado. The house was situated at an altitude of 11,250 feet, on top of a forested hill overlooking Mt. Sherman and Sheep Mountain across a valley, with the distance tops of the Buffalo Peaks visible between the two mountains. When we were searching to buy a cabin in the mountains in 2005, we knew we wanted a place with a spectacular view, so that we could feel surrounded by that awesome and ancient splendor. That is exactly what we got when we bought the place. But we hadn’t spent enough time up there before buying the house to really get a feel for the spirit of the place.

It wasn’t quite what we expected.

I don’t know exactly why, but after spending several weekends up there, we realized that area in Fairplay felt forbidding and lonely to us. There was a spirit that felt ancient and harsh, wild and untamable. It’s not that we were living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing. Our house was one of about a half dozen homes on a dead-end street, two of which were occupied full-time and the rest vacation homes that were visited by their owners only a few times a year. The “Valley of the Sun,” as the development was called, had hundreds of homes nestled in the pine trees, each sitting on anywhere from 1-10 acres. We were only about a half hour’s drive from Breckenridge and a 15 minute drive down the mountain from downtown Fairplay, a small town with maybe only several hundred residents.

Every time we went up to our mountain house, I remember the landscape evoking two distinct feelings in my subconscious—a deep and depressing loneliness and at the same time, a longing for wildness and freedom. I liked how quiet it was there, and how private it felt. But at the same time I could barely tolerate being there alone, especially at night. It felt foreboding and eerie. The spirit of the place was like a wild and dangerous animal, asleep during the day and awake and on the prowl at night.

I remember one day in late September up there when the weather was already starting to change (summers lasted only weeks at that altitude). A low cloud bank had rolled in and was crouching over the peaks, leaving the thinnest blanket of first autumn snow on their flanks. When I looked up at the misty, snowy peaks I suddenly felt aware of time passing and the inevitability of my own aging, and even death! The cold, creepy hand of winter was already stroking the mountains, and the cheerfulness of summer had barely waned. Talk about depressing!

Before we sold our Fairplay house we asked some friends who had stayed up there if they felt anything unusual about it and what they thought was the spirit of the place. They said they, too, felt a loneliness and creepiness that was almost inexplicable. It was a beautiful location. It was peaceful. There was fresh air. But it was creepy. Go figure.

I wonder if part of the reason for those feelings had to do with the fact that the entire area was once a hub for gold and silver mining. Not only were the mountain gouged and raped of their integrity, but many people and horses died while trying to make a go of it in those harsh and oxygen deprived conditions. Does the experience of the land have anything to do with the feeling we get from it? What about the fact that there are thousand-year-old bristlecone pine trees growing in that area, like nowhere else in the state? It could explain the ancient, wild vibe. Those trees cling to the mountains with an arthritic grip, twisted and half dead but regal in their longevity. They’ve seen so much in their lifetimes. They’ve seen blizzards and gale force winds and humans move in and out of the landscape, pillaging and bulldozing and cutting down their relatives.  They’ve felt the searing sunlight on their trunks and the bitter cold of minus 30 in the dark reaches of December. Maybe the trees feel a sadness and longing, and because I had so little to distract me up there, I started to sense that on an unconscious level.

The activity

The Anne White trail is nothing at all like the mountains of Fairplay. For one thing, there are no bristlecone pines or mining claims this close to Boulder. There are no 14,000 foot mountains looming in the near distance. But this trail does have a spirit, a feeling, a personality. The question is, can you sense it?

Begin the hike by setting an intention to be open to feeling the spirit of this place. You want to sense, with your heart and eyes and ears what the rocks and trees and animals sense. What do they know that you don’t know about the place they call home?

After you set your intention, select a place that will be your threshold for crossing into sacred space and time. It could be the metal barrier at the trailhead, or if that doesn’t quite feel right, it can be the first stream crossing after you’ve had a few minutes to walk the trail. After you cross the threshold, consider any feelings or images that come to mind as communication from The Other.

At some point during your hike, you may notice a shift in the way you feel. You will feel happier, creepier, more alert, frightened or suddenly depressed. You’ll suddenly stop and feel drawn to a spot. Or you’ll feel like you want to move on as quickly as possible. If you slow down and really allow yourself the space of quiet mindfulness, this shift will come. It may or may not have anything to do with what you’re thinking about in the moment.

If you’ve had a lot of contemplative hiking experience, you’ll easily recognize this shift in perception.

When this shift happens, stop walking. Find a place to either sit down or stand still away from the trail (in case someone is walking ahead or behind you). Close your eyes and really deepen the experience. Lean into the feeling. If having your eyes closed takes away from the perception, keep your eyes open and allow the experience to wash over you. Don’t rush it. Stay still and allow yourself to feel as long as you like.

In this moment, in this place, what is the feeling you’re channeling?

What do you think the spirit of this place is?

What kinds of things do you think the rocks, trees and animals have seen in their lifetime? Imagine it. See it in your mind’s like you would see a time-lapse photo.

Are you aware of any personal memories or experiences that you think may be affecting the way your feel at this moment? For example, maybe something about this place reminds you of a childhood trip, a photo you’ve seen, a place you’ve dreamed about visiting.

How much does knowing this place is a habitat for large predators affect your experience? Do you think you have an unreasonable fear of cougars or bears that is coloring your experience? (I know it’s hard for me to forget about that when I pass under rock outcroppings!)

Winter Fatigue and the Power of Now

hiking wild basin in winter
Wild Basin in winter, Rocky Mountain National Park,

Location: Wild Basin, northwest between Allenspark and Meeker, Colo.

Directions: From Boulder, take US 36 to Lyons then take Hwy 7 to Allenspark/Estes Park. The big brown sign for Wild Basin will be slightly past Allenspark but before the town of Meeker.

Access notes: This hike is located on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Wild Basin. In the winter there is no cost to enter the park at this location, but you will need to purchase a park pass in the summer. Dogs are not allowed in the park at any time. Arrive early in order to secure a parking space at the trailhead in winter (before 10 a.m.) The road may be snowpacked or icy in winter, but level so it’s passable with any passenger car, as long as there hasn’t been a lot of recent accumulation.

cross country skiing wild basin trailIn winter, depending on the precipitation, Wild Basin is a pleasant snowshoe, YakTrax hike or cross-country ski. The terrain from the winter recreation parking lot to the warming hut is fairly flat, surrounded by forest on both sides, with only slight undulations of the trail through the trees. There are hills on either side and mountains to the west—Copeland Mountain is the tallest nearby peak at 13,176 ft. and the second tallest is Ouzel at 12,716 ft. You can’t see the peaks very well while following the first couple of miles or so of the trail. St. Vrain creek runs alongside the wide trail after it forks off from Ouzel Creek about 4 miles up the trail. You have the option of staying on the wider, flatter path or venturing off into the side trails where hikers with snowshoes have blazed a lane. The side trails meander into the trees and roll up and down, steeply at times, around giant lichen-covered boulders.

The trails keep going west for several miles, so you can make this hike as long or short as you like. I did this one on a weekend winter morning as a two-hour roundtrip.

Growing weary of winter and hiking in the snow

By late winter, I’m getting sick of snow and tired of the cold weather. I can’t say exactly why, except that I start to grow weary of seeing brown everywhere and I want to get outside and start planting seeds in the garden. In previous years, I hadn’t done much winter hiking. I had gone cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but mostly on established and groomed trails where you have to buy a pass. Not to mention that the thought of going on a hike when it’s 20 degrees outside and snowing seemed absurd in the past—I’d much rather be sitting around the fire reading a good book and smelling a slow-cooking stew simmering on the stove than subject myself to that sloppy, bone-chilling mess.

But this year was different. Armed with a good 4-wheel drive vehicle, YakTrax, snowshoes and decent winter attire, I didn’t let gray, cold weather stop me from enjoying natural places that were an hour or less away from home. So many people hike in the winter along the Front Range that it’s almost as accessible as hiking in the summer. Trails are packed down and obvious from use (sometimes even more obvious than in the summer) and roads around here don’t stay icy or treacherous for long after it snows, especially in late winter when the sun is beginning to gain intensity. Hiking in the winter has its advantages for sure: relative solitude, silence, lots of parking on weekends, no mud (on a good year), no bears (they’re hibernating), and a good workout burning a lot of calories to stay warm.

snow in woodsEven so, I was getting tired of hiking in the snow. It was late winter, only three weeks before the official start of spring. I wanted to smell the greenness of a summer day in the mountains already. I wanted to see Columbines blooming in the shade of the lodgepoles and ponderosas. I wanted to see green hills, little mountain blue birds, waterfalls, mossy stream banks and clumps of Indian Paintbrush and little white daisies. This late in the season, I’m itching for the next thing.

It was with this attitude that I set my intention on this particular hike. My intention was to find a way to be grateful for winter, to appreciate its qualities, because in a month or so the weather would change and mud season would begin. I intended to think of all the things I like about hiking in the snow and in winter and keep those aspects in mind, so I could eke out another month or two of enjoyment.

As I started the hike another important contemplative principle came to mind, one which I felt was even more important than mere appreciation or gratitude for something that’s starting to feel “old hat.” And that is the principle of presence, and the Power of Now.

In his book, “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle describes a period in his life when he felt so suicidal and anxious, he felt little appreciation or gratitude toward anything. One morning, as he lay in bed surveying the dark shadows of his room, he became overwhelmed with a feeling of fear. Instead of resisting, he allowed himself to get “sucked into a void” and let the darkness overtake him. When he awoke several hours later, he suddenly and inexplicably felt no fear at all. Instead, he felt wonder at everything: the bird chirping outside, the way the light fell through the curtains, the objects in the room. This peak experience marked a new beginning for Tolle. Instead of feeling burdened with depression and hopelessness, he spent the next two years simply…being. He writes in his book that he “had no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity.” He spent almost two years sitting on park benches, but instead of feeling depressed or empty about it, he was in an almost constant state of wonder and joy.

This was the revelation of Tolle’s “power of now.” He was able to enjoy the moment without allowing his mind to indulge of fantasies of “what if” or obsessing about all the things that should be or could be.

Tolle writes that the pain or discomfort in our lives is the result of not being able to accept our circumstances, or a resistance to what is. My resistance to the fact that it was still winter and that it was going to be several months more of bare trees and snow on the ground in the mountains was making me feel irritable. It was causing me to suffer when I didn’t have to.

There’s a way to obtain relief from suffering and worry, resistance and anxiety. All you have to do is disassociate yourself from ego, get out of your head and snap right into the present moment. This contemplative activity is about doing just that.

The activity

At the start of the hike, consider all the things you are resisting right now, all the ways in which you’re suffering. These can take many forms. Ask yourself:

Is there something I wish I could be doing?

Is there someone I wish were with me right now?

Is there an event in the near or distant future that causes me worry or fear?

Has something happened recently to make me feel bad about myself?

Have I been daydreaming about a different time, a different place or a different circumstance in life?

When I did this hike, it was as benign a discomfort as feeling a bit burned out on winter and wishing for summer.

Set your intention to stay completely and utterly present. Enjoy the moment, and don’t let your mind wander to the negative thoughts that are associated with your mind and ego.

The way Tolle describes this exercise in his book is very simple.

Whenever you feel yourself descending into any kind of despair, ask yourself: Am I okay now?

To demonstrate the simplicity and power of this exercise, imagine sitting in the waiting room of an attorney’s office, waiting for your appointment so you can file bankruptcy. This would normally feel very depressing, would it not?

But if you were in this situation, all you have to do is ask, are you okay now? Are you feeling well? Is there food in your stomach? Are you breathing in and out without obstruction? Right now, right this minute?

You’ll probably answer yes at first, but add a disclaimer…

“But I’m losing  everything, but I’m a failure, but what will my friends and family think, but what will I do now?”

All that stuff is stuff of ego and mental projection. It’s about fussing over a thing that really isn’t a thing at all, and that’s your ego. It’s your ambition, your pride, your sense of self. Those aren’t things and they don’t really exists outside your mind. And that’s the beauty of snapping yourself right back to the present. You realize that that which DOES exist—your body and the environment around you—is actually doing just fine in this moment.

On the hike, as you find your mind veering into unpleasant thoughts, ask yourself, am I okay now? Is everything around me okay now? By doing so you will come to realize how much your mind plays a role in your happiness and sense of wellbeing. Everything may be perfectly okay, but you can still drive yourself into a state of malaise just by creating stories in your mind about the past or the future and then believing them.

Wild Basin
Wild Basin, early morning, winter: enjoy solitude and quiet

Look around at the trees and the sky. Realize that everything is as it should be, and that you are well enough to be hiking, that you are alive in the moment, and that nothing is hurting you right this second.

If you feel thirsty, take a drink. If you’re in discomfort in some way physically, see what you can do to shift your body or stretch or rearrange your pack.

The more you come back to the present, the more you’ll find it easier to slow down and take in the surroundings. You’ll hear the screechy call of a bluejay and you’ll stop to acknowledge him. You’ll look up the hillside at the trees and see the way they sway in the breeze or wind. You’ll realize that you have a feeling about this place, whether it’s late February or mid-July, and that you can enjoy it in this moment without ruining it by thoughts of “I wish it were something else.”

We humans are not just creatures of habit, as the saying goes, we’re also creatures of novelty. We like to be entertained in both small and dramatic ways. The problem is that we don’t enjoy what we get long enough, and as soon as we get something or achieve something, we start to desire something else or something more.

This endless cycle of desire, consumption, boredom, desire, consumption, boredom is not just depriving us from experiencing a decent amount of joy and gratitude, but it’s also causing untold damage to our planet. Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money Or Your Life” said during a teleclass I listened to, that as Americans we have a warped notion of what “freedom” really is. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, anytime, any place without regard to limits. True freedom is setting up reasonable limits, knowing when we’ve had enough and therefore being able to be truly happy and fulfilled more often. There’s a bell curve to consumption and fulfillment. We need certain things for our wellbeing and beyond that, to feel comfort. But if we start to do or purchase too much, it becomes more of a hassle to try to maintain (all our possessions, all our hobbies). The enjoyment we get from it dwindles.

At some mid-point in your hike, while you’re walking on the trail, stop and ask yourself what you really need in the moment to be happy. Do you have what you need in THIS moment?

If not, what is it that you need in order to feel more comfortable or fulfilled?

Then go back to now. Be aware of everything around you now. The sound of the stream below the trail. The sway of branches. The call of birds and squirrels. The way the clouds are moving overhead. The snow that’s blanketing the nearby mountains. If you don’t stay in the present moment, you may just miss all of the wonderful things about winter in the mountain forest.

%%POSTLINK%% is a post from: Contemplative Hiking

Gratitude Hike (Increase Your Happiness 25%)

(Note: This is a contemplative hike you can do on any trail or park near your home. I did this one in Evergreen, Colorado at the Elk Meadows Open Space Park.)

Directions: From Interstate 70 (east or west) take the Evergreen Parkway exit. Go west on Stagecoach Blvd. to the Elk Meadows open space parking lot on the north side of the road.

Duration: 90 minutes–3 hours

Route: Proceed west directly behind the trailhead sign to Meadow View trail. Turn left on the Bergen Peak trail and walk as far as you want before turning back.

Access Notes: Dogs are allowed on a leash. This hike is moderately strenuous at the point where you turn onto the Bergen Peak trail because it is a steady uphill walk up. The trail is gravel with occasional rocks, roots and small boulders to step over. In the winter the trail is likely to be snow packed or icy, so be sure to bring snowshoes or YakTrax. It’s mostly shady the entire hike, which keeps this trail cool year-round. There is some road noise at first from Stagecoach Blvd., but that gets muffled as your make your way north and into the trees.

Along the Bergen Peak trail, Elk Meadows Open Space Park, Evergreen, Colo.

Hike:

In his book, “thanks!”, Dr. Robert A. Emmons details research that shows that people who took time to list the things for which they’re grateful every day for a period of 10 weeks experienced 25% more of a feeling of happiness than a different group that focused on hassles or events.

In other words, if you want to feel happier next month than you do today, make it a habit to be thankful for all the blessings in your life.

A daily affirmation of gratitude can put you in a positive mindset for the entire day, in my opinion. I also think that having an attitude of gratefulness for what you have, even if it isn’t quite everything you dream of, can actually get you more of what you really want than constantly complaining about feeling deprived. It’s the Law of Attraction—you attract more of what you want by focusing on the positive and following the energy of gratitude and optimism.

This hike is a way to boost your energy and mood by focusing on the things in your life that make you feel thankful and appreciative.

As you begin the hike, you’ll pass the trailhead sign and shortly past that is a small bridge. Stop before you cross the bridge and think of your intention for the hike. If you want to, voice your intention out loud. Then imagine the small bridge as your threshold between the profane space and the sacred space of your contemplative hike.

Walk in silence (if you’re with others) along the Meadow View trail, which winds its way around the mountain to the north, at which point it gets encased in shadow and trees. This is a nice hike to do when it’s hot in the city in the summer. In the winter, the shade keeps the snow from melting even when temperatures spike into the 40s and 50s around Denver. On a weekday, you will probably encounter a few hikers on the path, some with dogs, and even a few bicyclists (probably fewer in the winter).

elk meadow trail
View from the Bergen Peak trail, looking east

Knowing that this is called a “gratitude hike” you’ll probably start thinking of things you’re grateful for as you walk through the woods. Resist doing this as much as you can until you reach the point where you’d like to turn around and head back. That way, you’ll be mindful of everything that you’re seeing and hearing along the trail instead of being lost in thought. Try to open up your vision to the slope of the trail, the way the trees look, and any animal sightings or calls.

Hike along the Meadow View trail until you get to the Bergen Peak trail and follow that trail to the left and up the mountain. The trail will switchback several times before you get to the top, and at that point you will be able to see a view of Evergreen, all the way down the foothills to the plains, if it’s clear enough that day.

When you’re ready to call it a half-way point and turn around, find a spot to either stand or sit for 15-30 minutes. Take a water and snack break.

Activity:

(If you’re alone) Find a spot where you can look out toward a direction that feels peaceful and soothing—either into the woods or looking east onto the meadow and the town of Evergreen below. Take several deep breaths and a few moments to transition from the active, body-focused task of walking to a more internal, restful and reflective state.

Answer these questions. Take time in between statements to absorb what you just wrote. Don’t rush it. Let each one settle in. If you prefer, speak your answers.

Take notice of any birds or animals while you are doing this activity. Do they play a role in your life on this day, too?

What are you most grateful for in this moment?

What are you grateful for in your life?

(If you’re with a friend or group) Take turns saying what you’re grateful for in the moment and in your life. Don’t judge anyone’s answers and resist the urge to say, “me too.” Acknowledge everyone’s statement with a nod. Be sure to count to five between each person’s proclamation, so everyone feels acknowledged and heard, not rushed.

The activity can end when no one has anything more to say (and it can go on for a while, depending on the size of the group and everyone’s mood).

Before you return to the parking lot, offer gratitude to the mountain and forest for all your insights and mindfully step back over the small bridge threshold.