On Tuesday, my Naturopath told me she thought I needed to go visit my happy place, preferably with lots of greenery. I didn’t need to be told twice. It had been a month since I’d been out hiking, which is way too long for me to go without. I blamed the scorching heat in July and illness in early August. But I knew she was right: I needed a healthy dose of the mountains. I drove with Ajax to Exit 47 and we enjoyed a lovely overcast 12-mile hike to Island, Rainbow, and Olallie Lakes. It matched my doctor’s orders perfectly.

Doctor's orders: go for a hike. View looking south over Olallie Lake toward Mt. Rainier. The fog in the background obscured this lake on the way back; I'm glad I took a moment to snap this shot when I did.
Doctor’s orders: go for a hike. View looking south over Olallie Lake toward Mt. Rainier. The fog in the background obscured this lake on the way back; I’m glad I took a moment to snap this shot when I did.

How Solo Hiking Fills Doctor’s Orders

About a month ago, I wrote about nine joys and benefits of solo hiking. I discovered new ones on my most recent trip to the mountains.

Hiking Is a Form of Meditation

If you’re anything like me, you probably roll your eyes and scroll past this paragraph to see what the other benefits are. Seriously? Meditation? Trust me, I am not one to sit in cross-legged position or stare at a candle saying “Ommmm.” If walking can be meditative, then my closest form is hiking. I listen for birdsong, guess how close we are to running water, study the landscape for spots of color, or watch my dog for signs of squirrels, rabbits, picas, marmots, woodpeckers, or deer.

When the trail bends away from the highway and civilization drops away, I notice the change in sounds. And I can tell when we’re about to come up on other hikers. Hiking turns on my mindfulness and makes me pay attention like nothing else in the city does.

Hiking is a form of meditation. It helps me put things into better perspective. Seeing this enormous Douglas fir against the tiny but mighty Ajax makes me realize that we are all interconnected, and in that one moment we were all enjoying the same space in the forest.
Hiking is a form of meditation. It helps me put things into better perspective. Seeing this enormous Douglas fir against the tiny but mighty Ajax makes me realize that we are all interconnected, and in that one moment, we all enjoyed the same space in the forest.

Hiking to Handle DRY: Dealing with Real Yuck

If I can’t make heads or tails out of what my life has become, or I’m afraid to move forward on something daunting or scary, hitting the trail with none other than my dog is one of the most therapeutic things I can do. In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown writes, “We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” As I swatted at mosquitoes and struggled up the dusty trail, covered head to toe in light cloth in order to prevent bug bites, I was able to “center myself” again. I returned to the state of a human being, rather than doing.

Rainbow Lake on August 9 in the fog. I may arrive at the trailhead with brain fog, but I nearly always return to the car with clarity.
Ajax at Rainbow Lake on August 9 in the fog. I may arrive at the trailhead with brain fog, but I nearly always return to the car with clarity.

Hiking is a Great Way to Create

Almost invariably as I make my way up the trail, I think about my WIPs (works in progress) or future blog posts. I let my mind wander while my body does what it has for over thirty-five years. By feeding myself new sensory input — different things to look at, smell, listen to, and feel — I allow the right side of my brain to make new connections, which helps me clear away the brain fog and clutter. By snapping photographs and asking myself targeted questions, I usually come home with a direction for my next blog post.

How to Follow Doctor's Orders: Go Hike
Reflections in Island Lake.

Hiking Becomes a Form of Gratitude

One of my practices on the way back to the car is to rattle off all the many things I am grateful for, from those people (and animals!) who make my life as rich as it is, to the wonderful things in my life from my health, strength, and home to the opportunities I have to hike in the middle of the week and play whenever I need to.

Doctor’s Orders: Make Time to Soak the Feet

I also had several new-to-me experiences on this hike. The first was bringing a book so I could take a reading break at Island Lake. I had Dusti Bowling’s 24 Hours in Nowhere with me, a novel set in the dry dusty desert of the southwest. At the three-hour mark, I waded into Island Lake, then sat and read a chapter of my book while Ajax watched for chipmunks and squirrels. Four female backpackers and a couple with a dog had just left their camp spots, so we had the lake all to ourselves. What’s more, the half hour I spent without boots on meant my feet felt 100% recovered the next day. Win!

New-to-me experience of soaking my feet in Island Lake while reading a chapter from a book.
New-to-me experience of soaking my feet in Island Lake while reading a chapter from a book.

Follow the Leader

The other new-to-me experience was following my dog’s lead twice. When we left Island Lake, I debated whether to continue right toward the car or left toward Rainbow Lake. Ajax turned left, and I decided not to call him back. Who was I to tell him no? We were both doing great and the bugs hadn’t been too bad at Island Lake.

Then at the Olallie Lake signpost 90 minutes from the car, he turned right instead of left. I figured he would have no trouble going another mile. So, we did. However, when he wanted to turn right toward Talapus Lake, I put my foot down. He had turned down all three offerings of food and I was starting to worry about him. We went back toward the car.

A sprig of beargrass in front of Rainbow Lake in the fog.
A sprig of beargrass in front of Rainbow Lake in the fog.

Return to Blogging

I originally intended to start blogging again in September once I return from Alaska. But I couldn’t wait that long. Blogging about change helps me make consistent changes in my own life. And with a daughter about to enter college, I know I am going to need the continuity to stay grounded.

My intent is to post on Thursdays going forward, but I will miss August 25 and September 1. Know that we have returned to semi-consistent posting. And if you have topics you would like me to address, please leave a comment below. I love to hear from my readers! Onward, upward, forward!

Fog-draped Rainbow Lake. Hikes always help me steer through the murkiness to greater clarity.
Fog-draped Rainbow Lake. Hikes always help me steer through the murkiness to greater clarity.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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6 Comments

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  1. So much to “unpack” (pun intended after close to 3 weeks on the trail 😄) from this captivating blog post! Here are a few points that really “clicked” with me. Free the feet! Oh, how happy they are below the surface of a lake., or being rubbed with a fistful of late snow, or just liberated from socks and boots. On the Repeat Hikes… another aspect I love, for the ones that can be taken all year long, is to see how dramatically different they can be from one season to the other (flowers, berries, foliage or lack thereof, dry creekbeds or rushing streams to ford on rocks or logs, etc.). Meditation and welcoming peace; it is hard for me to stay stressed or worried when walking for some time on a quiet trail. It does feel so out of place and silly to delve in turmoil and worries when all around me is seemingly about acceptance of the inexorable flow of nature by all its inhabitants (“critters” going through the core business of living and staying alive; trees, bushes, mosses, lichens finding their place in an ever-changing landscape; rocks of all sorts slowly rising to new heights or being eroded to their elemental components… and tiny me with a private lightning storm in my head?). On mindfulness: oh, how many times have I been rudely awaken from daydreaming by a rock or a root sending me literally “down to earth” because i was paying more attention (all my attention) to the inner dialog between all my mini-MEs than to where exactly I was in that precious moment! Let’s hike on!… and, for one of us, let’s blog on! 🙂

    1. Perfect, Gerard! I smiled when I read about the rock or root sending you “down to earth” – how many of us get mad at the ROOT in that moment rather than at OURSELVES for not paying better attention! Hike on and thanks for the comment. From one fellow foot-soaker to another.

  2. I love your blogs. The two on hiking have really touched me. I’m aware that even if it is just a “5” minute hike with my “new” dog (that I haven’t gotten yet) it would be refreshing, grounding and healing. Hmmm.. Maybe time to get the kitty backpack. Well written and beautiful pictures.

    1. Thanks so much, Cathy! I am very interested to hear when you get your “new” dog — choice of dog can actually play a huge role in your mood – whether a high-energy dog who demands movement or a cuddlebug lap sitter — but yes, I am 100% sold on dogs as loyal companions and wonder why it took over 3 years between Emily and Ajax. The short answer: I wasn’t ready. Grief takes as long as it takes and only YOU can decide when you’re ready and what type of pet is right. Appreciate your comment and I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the pictures!

  3. Great article. Solo hiking is my number 1 activity. Good to have other hikers with you. For me I prefer hiking and backpacking alone. Like you said I use it as a meditation tool. When I hike or backpack alone, I live on the present. This is what I like. I love to have time with myself. I finally realized that my best hiking buddy is my own self.

    I have been lucky to hike non-stop for over 10 years. If I miss a day or don’t hike over a weekend, I feel it on my mood. I love to hike the same trails over and over. Repeating them is not boring for me. The trails I hike often never look the same to me. I hike them early and earlier when people are still asleep. 😳

    Right now the only deterrent for hiking and backpacking is the weather (if it is too hot or rainy), otherwise I am there.

    Adding a book in my backpack seems to be a great idea…sometimes it is good to take a longer break. I also love the idea to take your boots off.

    This year in my backpacking kit I added a ultra light chair. I love it.

    Thanks for this great article. Great photos with the article.😍

    1. Thanks for your comment, Silvie Marie! Yes, blast those hiking deterrents (unseasonably warm weather, illness, or high winds.) A few times in the last month I thought about leaving Ajax behind and going alone but ultimately his joy brings me joy so I want to take him with me as often as I can get out. Sometimes I bring a journal and pen but this was the first time I tried a novel. I have brought a camp chair or Thermarest pad (the camp chair made its debut on Mt. Catherine last year) but neither was in my pack for this last trip. “The early bird catches the worm” — I like getting out at first light so I have a chance of having the trail all to myself. Appreciate your post and keep on hiking!