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!)

7 Signs You’ve Become Disconnected from Nature

logs1. You view nature as a “resource.”

Nine thousand years ago, when human beings began to cultivate the ground and grow their food on a more organized and systematic scale, we began to see ourselves as being in control of the land and of nature. For our civilization, it was a turning point. Agriculture and animal husbandry allowed civilization to flourish and develop. We began to tame the forests and prairies and build expansive cities where great minds could invent and explore and innovate.

However, in the process of all this so-called “progress” we’ve become convinced we are somehow separate from nature. We’ve somehow forgotten that we, too, are animals and that we need a healthy and thriving ecosystem in order to breathe, eat, feel content and safe. We are not exempt from the laws of biology and physics.

Like animals, we need to eat and take shelter. But unlike animals, we take much more than we need and we enslave and marginalize those of our species that we see as inferior or undeserving. We compete instead of cooperating. We spoil and poison the land where we live.

We have forgotten that everything is connected; that when we blow off a mountaintop in order to extract coal, we pollute the waterways and air and cause suffering in other ways; that when we kill off the predators in an area to protect our livestock, we see an explosion in the population of herbivores, who soon decimate the landscape with their foraging.

If you know you’re guilty of seeing nature only as food or a “resource” to be exploited or used up, you probably need to spend a week enjoying the beauty of nearby wilderness, to see how there is intrinsic value in nature, not just economic value. Because without a healthy ecosystem, you yourself will become diseased.

buildings reflection2. You have no idea what the native plants and animals are where you live.

This is because you don’t go outside enough to have a chance to see them, or you simply aren’t aware of what grows naturally outside of the pristinely maintained shrubs and lawns of your suburb. (By the way, most of the weeds on your lawn are not native; they were imported many decades ago as seeds in cargo ships and on the clothing of travelers and pioneers.)

If you spend a lot of time outside, whether on daily walks or just relaxing in your backyard, you’ll notice some things. You’ll notice what time the sun rises and sets each day, and you’ll look forward to the solstice and the shift toward longer days. You’ll know the average first day of the first frost, or exactly when in the spring trees start to bud in the spring.

If you know all this, you’ll be aware when the climate changes and things start to go awry. You’ll see more or less of a bird species and you’ll realize that a warm winter and a sudden spring freeze means no fruit from your plum trees in the summer. You’ll know that less fruit year after year means less birds and animals.

When you’re aware of the ebb and flow of the natural process where you live, you know immediately when something isn’t right, or is out of the norm. Not only that, but you’ll know the effect those changes will have on the wildlife and landscape in your city. Not many people can do that. Maybe that’s one reason why some climate change skeptics might think temperatures getting a little warmer (or colder) is actually a good thing.

3. You feel an underlying sense of despair about what’s happening to the Earth.

You watch the news, you see the kind of books that are appearing on the bestseller list year after year, and you’ve seen documentaries that have enraged and depressed you. You know that we’re experiencing a rate of species extinction that is so pervasive and accelerated, it’s rivaled only by what happened in the Permian era, or maybe the Jurassic era that wiped out the dinosaurs. And yet, no comet has collided with our planet. The source of the impact this time is humans.

You’ve heard about climate change and peak oil and you’re disturbed and frightened by what you imagine might happen to civilization a decade or a century from now.

And yet, you have to live in this world and participate in society just like everyone else. You still have to drive to and from work. You eat food you know is probably tainted with GMOs and imported from ridiculous distances away. You feel like you need to own certain things in order to function in this world—like cell phones or computers—but these things are making you feel more stressed and disconnected.

You know things have to change, but you don’t know how. You want to do something, but you don’t know what. You feel a vague sense of doom and despair that never quite goes away.

If you’re feeling this way, the best remedy might be to shut everything off for a while and go spend a weekend in a natural setting. When you spent time in the woods or in the peace and solitude of nature, you realize that there still is a sense of order and sacredness in the world.  You feel aligned with the world in a way that’s ancient and unshakeable. The despair dissipates for a while, because you sense that whatever happens, that mountain will remain in its glory centuries, even millennia from now.

Another remedy is to do something—join an organization that is working toward changing the paradigm of our culture.

4. You’re feeling down and you don’t know why.

Human beings need a connection to the natural world in order to feel mentally healthy and whole. Whether that connection is a pet, a garden, a tree or a nearby park—it doesn’t matter. Studies have shown that spending time in a natural setting can be psychologically healing and relieve stress. One study in particular done in the U.K. concluded that individuals who spent the same amount of time walking in a park each day reported feeling less depressed and stressed than another group that spent the same amount of time walking in a mall.

So if you’re feeling down and you don’t know why, take a walk outside, preferably somewhere with plants and animals and the sound of birds chirping. You’ll feel a little bit better, and if you do this often enough, it might just keep the blues at bay.

5. You saw the movie “Avatar” and now the real world seems gray and depressing in comparison.

A recent article on CNN reveals that some people who saw the movie “Avatar” feel depressed and even suicidal over the idea that the utopian, beautiful world of Pandora does not exist on Earth. One moviegoer posted this on an Avatar forum:

“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”

While I haven’t seen the movie myself, I’ve heard from several people that it has “ecopsychological” undertones. It appeals to our desire for a better connection to our world, for a more sustainable relationship with the Earth that would allow the possibility of the kind of beauty and prosperity that’s depicted in the movie.

If Avatar depressed you, you probably need to find a beautiful place in nature and spend a little time there.

6. If had an acre of land and you suddenly had to grow all your own food, you know you’d starve.

If things got bad economically and there were food shortages, or if you couldn’t afford store-bought food for some reason, you suspect you’d be in trouble.

Not just because you may not own enough land to cultivate, but because you wouldn’t know what to do with that land if you had it.

That’s because you have no idea about how to mend the soil, how to grow food, and how to save seeds. It’s not your fault, really. Agriculture and animal husbandry isn’t something that’s taught in public schools, not even rural ones.

Blame it on the industrialization and globalization. Even people living in the West knew how to be self-reliant probably up until fifty years ago. During the Depression many of those that survived and thrived did so because they were able to grow their own food. Victory Gardens that sprang up during WWII provided 40% of the American population’s vegetable and fruit needs. When Cuba faced an oil crises in the early 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people lost an average of 20 pounds because they were eating less and walking more. Fortunately for Cubans, they didn’t starve en masse because many city dwellers still remembered how to cultivate the soil and grow food, so when the government mandated that every available inch of ground be used to plant crops, an urban revolution took place. Empty lots became community gardens and rooftops became lush with edible plants. People knew what to do, and if they didn’t, they had relatives and friends who did.

You don’t have to grow all your own food now. You don’t even have to have land. But it’s good to learn how, whether through renting a plot in a community garden or volunteering at a local CSA.

It’ll make you appreciate the soil, the climate and the land where you live.

7. Your idea of a good time is Las Vegas, Monday Night Football, and spending the entire day at the mall.

Hey, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy watching sports once in a while or letting it all hang out when you’re on vacation. I enjoy shopping and entertainment just as much as the next person. It’s when you rely on those things for your sense of fulfillment and joy that it becomes a problem.

What happens when the TV stops working for some reason or you’re unemployed and can no longer afford to go shopping? What happens when vacations become staycations due to budget constraints and you’re faced with an entire week at home with no money to spend on outside entertainment?

The bigger question is—are any of these activities really contributing to your physical and psychological wellbeing?

There is such joy in seeing mist float over a lake. The sound of rain dripping off trees or the wind combing through a meadow can put you at ease. A deep red desert canyon is both mysterious and timeless to contemplate. None of these things—short of the resources it may take to drive to where they are—cost money to enjoy. You can even find a trail near your house and spend an hour watching birds. Nature is everywhere. You are nature. You belong to this Earth, you just need to find your place in it.