Contemplative Hiking With a Group

At the end of June, 2010, I had the idea to start a MeetUp group in order to manage my group contemplative hikes. Prior to this, I was scheduling hikes through my blog or just with friends, and it was proving to be ineffective. People were interested in going on a group contemplative hike, but would miss one and not return to the blog check for upcoming hikes, or they had a scheduling conflict with an upcoming hike but forgot to ask about upcoming hikes. Mostly, though, I knew I wanted to reach more people who were interested in hiking together in a group but in a mindful, silent and contemplative way. Relying on visitors to my blog wasn’t going to cut it, since many of the people who read it don’t even live near Denver.

At about the same time, I joined another hiking group on MeetUp. It advertised itself as being just a regular group – nothing thematically special about this club. Most of its members were avid hikers and the organizer had already been on more than a hundred and fifty hikes with the group since its inception. It wasn’t a contemplative group, it wasn’t necessarily competitive and it wasn’t for just singles or a certain age group. I joined because I thought it might be fun to try new trails with a group and meet other hiking enthusiasts.

It took a little while for my own MeetUp to get promoted by the website’s administrators, so in the first few days the only members were my close friends and family, who joined to show their support. I was excited to attend my first MeetUp with the other hiking group, at a trail that was almost two hours’ drive from my house and one I hadn’t hiked before. I carpooled with a couple of nice women that lived near my house.

When the entire group of more than 25 finally converged on the trailhead, we split into the required two groups (to stay within NFS group limits) and began our trek up the hill in the middle of the Lost Creek Wilderness. The pace was decent, certainly not relaxing but not crazy fast. Many people brought their dogs, half of which were border collies that wove in and out of the line of hikers, “herding” us together and then bounding up into the brush. As if on cue, we all started various strands of conversation as we walked over logs, crossed streams and passed wildflowers. There was no time for stopping. We wanted to limit our hiking time to 4 hours but there was a pretty beaver pond to visit, so we had to hustle.

I noticed interesting rock outcroppings at several points on the trail where the trees parted enough to view the landscape. I couldn’t stop to admire these, as the group was in the “zone” and I would have caused a bottleneck. At one point, we began a steep ascent up some rocks that required an extra effort, and I slowed down to preserve my energy since we weren’t even half finished with the long hike. A smaller group bounded ahead—practically racing to the top. Maybe they were training for something. I felt sluggish and out of shape in comparison.

More dogs joined the group. With at least seven circling around, I wondered when one or two would start nipping and growling at each other or trip someone. It didn’t happen, fortunately. When we arrived at the beaver ponds many of the dogs jumped in, got completely soaked swimming the pond, then ran around the group, shaking off the water into people’s lunches and laps.

At the beaver ponds most of the group stopped to take a break and eat something. Clusters of hikers gathered to converse and some laid down to relax on the grass. I enjoyed the scenery, but it was hot and getting late and I was ready to make my way back down.

I lead the way for the women I carpooled with. I kept a steady, quick pace. The fast group made their way past us again, this time practically running down the trail, their butts and hips swaying quickly and their elbows swinging wide in order to keep balance. I thought they were a little ridiculous. Weren’t they going to miss just about everything around them by hiking that fast? Certainly, you can’t even look up when you’re trotting downhill over rocks and roots without the possibility of launching into the bushes. But hey, I know how much more fun it is to exercise outdoors, so I shouldn’t judge.

When I finally got home I felt worn out, through and through. The heat, the pace, the endless chatter, the dogs bouncing around me frayed my nerves. I wondered if my own experiment with starting a MeetUp group was going to bomb. Maybe people didn’t want a quieter, more contemplative experience while hiking. Maybe people just wanted to work out and use the trail as a background for socializing. Maybe they preferred to hike with their dogs, not without them. Maybe I was out of touch with what people really wanted.

I felt defeated and a little sad.

When I got home I checked my e-mail. In my inbox were no fewer than two dozen requests to join my Contemplative Hiking MeetUp group! I read through the reasons people decided to join the group and felt giddy with each new e-mail:

“Want more solitude and appreciation of surroundings.”

“Being in nature feels like a spiritual practice.”

“…not just an hiking club, but combining hiking w/ finding that divine connectedness while enjoying the nature.”

“I think it is good to be outside and get in touch with nature while also looking within.”

“I want to learn how to read and listen to the environment and to spend more time connecting to the wind, water, flowers and earth.”

One person even commented that they themselves were considering joining a similar group, but then they saw mine. No one seemed bothered by my “no dogs” rule, either. (See my blog post regarding “Should You Take Your Dog on a Contemplative Hike?”)

Since that day, my MeetUp has attracted more than 85 members and I’ve led five hikes with the group. I limit the amount of RSVPs, so there have never been more than ten people hiking with me on the trail. Keeping the group size small is important to keeping the feeling of intimacy and contemplation. Almost every person I met who has attended a hike said that they loved the required silence. Some have said that it’s like hiking alone, but they feel safer with a group. Some said they don’t like the chatter of other groups, because it detracts from their appreciation and awareness of the surroundings. Some have said the group is perfect for introverts who don’t want to talk too much or feel strange about being quiet. We spend so much of our day in chatter: e-mail, Facebook, text messages, television, radio, headlines and advertising. It’s rare to experience relative silence, just the sounds of birds and animals and weather, especially with other people. That silence radiates out like a balm, soothing our minds and opening up our inner and outer awareness.

We’ve had some adventures together in the short time I’ve led the group. A couple of the hikes happened during rain storms. The first hike I led was to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain before sunset, and we were the only people on the trail that evening. Things that would have felt inhibiting otherwise felt invigorating within the context of the group hike: an impending wind and rain storm, darkness and dusk, evidence of bears, a deep and solitary silence in a canyon. I love seeing the light in people’s eyes when they experience something extraordinary or notice something new. I know their souls are coming alive and they are creating memories that will stick with them for a long time. I know I am.

It’s not easy staying silent for the entire hike – not for me and not for most people. Each hike has a theme and at some point in the middle I stop and we do some kind of activity that I have created (many of which I write about in this blog or in my book). I like to “check in” with people when we’re close to the end of the hike, or after the activity. We talk about what we’ve observed or felt, which deepens the experience. It’s interesting to observe that need to speak, then stay with the desire and let it pass. It’s like walking meditation and each desire to blurt out a comment becomes an observation of our monkey mind, then a letting go. No judgment, no criticism. Just a letting go and coming back to the present, to the forest, to the meadow and to the mountain.

At the end of each of the group hikes, I come away feeling invigorated and calmed. I can’t wait to see what adventures and experiences lay ahead for myself and the group in the coming year.

If you live in the Boulder/Denver area and would like to join my MeetUp, visit http://www.meetup.com/Contemplative-Hiking-Along-the-Front-Range. It’s free to join and you get reminders and invitations in your e-mail about each upcoming scheduled hike.

Why Yellowstone is Not a Good Place for “Contemplative” Hikes

Yellowstone hot pool

One of the “rules” that I have for contemplative hiking is that it should be done in silence. You don’t have to hike alone, although sometimes it’s good to get outside in nature with yourself, by yourself, and really unwind from the expectations of friends or loved ones. You can relax, go for a long walk in the woods, think about nothing but how the clouds are moving over the mountain peaks, and feel that momentary feeling of oneness and self-lessness. You can do that whether you’re alone, or with a friend, or with a small group of strangers, as long as there’s silence and space for everyone to have their own experience in peace.

Last week I went on a family trip to Yellowstone with my husband and daughter. It wasn’t my first time there, although I was my daughter’s age when I was there last with MY parents. Yellowstone is a place of beauty and danger – lots of danger. It is a place where you have to watch your step, stay on the path, stay far away from wildlife, and be conscious of where you are and what you’re doing at all times. You can be scalded, drowned, bit, and mauled if you don’t. The volcanic nature of the area makes it an ever-changing and shifting landscape, and sometimes the ground beneath your feet can literally drop out on you in a second. (Incidentally, while we were vacationing there last week, a pair of escaped convicts were hiding out in the general vicinity. Something else to be leery of!)

One of the guidelines the park has set up for visitors is not to hike alone and NOT to hike silently. This is to assure you don’t surprise a bear, whose sense of hearing is probably much better than their sense of sight. Bears don’t like to be startled, especially if there are cubs involved. A grizzly can and will rip your face off if it senses that you are a threat.

We listened to a ranger during a group hike in the nearby Teton Range tell us that wearing bear bells on a backpack isn’t enough – as a matter of fact, they’re insufficient in warning bears of your presence. Park officials advise that when you’re hiking in Yellowstone, you go in a group and you get LOUD. I mean, chatty and obnoxious. Give the impression of a large, obnoxious herd clomping down the trail. This way, they say, you’ll scare the bear away and ensure your safety. And just in case, have bear spray with you and “know how to use it.”

Apparently, in the history of the park, there have been only a  handful of fatalities from bears (grizzlies) and in all cases the parties in question were hiking alone.

So when it comes to Yellowstone, contemplative hiking is not a good idea. At least my idea of it.

This led me to consider my recommendations for doing contemplative hiking along the Front Range in silence. I don’t see it as a problem here the way it is in Yellowstone. For one thing, there are no grizzlies here. Black bears hibernate from November – April, so the only time where this may be an issue is in summer. As anyone who likes to hike along the Front Range in summer will attest, there is rarely a trail where there aren’t at least a few people around, chatting away, making the noise, even if you aren’t. As for mountain lions, they know you’re there. There’s never been an incident of a person “surprising” a mountain lion. They’re saavy and stealthy creatures who see you even when you can’t see them.

If the idea of hiking alone and in silence anywhere near the Denver/Boulder area freaks you out, then I invite you to join my Contemplative Hiking MeetUp group. You can meet like-minded people who enjoy going out in nature and hiking, but don’t necessarily enjoy all the chatter and social pressures that go with hiking in groups. I’ve organized four MeetUps so far that have been wonderfully relaxing, contemplative and for the most part, silent. But they’ve also felt safe, because we’re in a group, and a group is intimidating to all manner of predator, be it a furry black one on four legs or a less furry taupe one one two.