Last Thursday, Ajax and I headed for Exit 47, one of my favorite hiking locations during the pandemic. We’d last hiked to Granite Mountain in August of 2021. The muggy, buggy, smoky hike had me questioning whether I’d made the right choice. There was no question this time. A momentary lull between forest fires meant crisp, clear air, fog, and low clouds. My daughter had successfully completed her first day of college classes. I had some downtime between clients. My husband had a full day of work. So, I seized some quiet time to reflect, move, and hopefully see a few views. What resulted was a beautiful walking meditation among the lovely fall foliage.
What is Walking Meditation?
My own form of “walking meditation” is different from popular literature. My definition incorporates the following elements from forays into forest bathing.
- Feel the sensations of each part of your foot from heel to toe. Notice any hot spots or pebbles.
- Walk with deliberate intention. Swing your arms freely. If you use a trekking pole, trade hands to stay in balance.
- Let yourself notice the beauty surrounding you.
- Focus your attention on the breath, on a point in front of you, on sounds – pick one. It’s okay to shift, just notice when you do. Think of focus as a brain muscle that needs developing, like the heart needs cardiovascular training while the bones, tendons, joints, and ligaments need strength training.
- Feel sensations of the breeze on your face, the cobwebs across the trail, the leaves under your feet, the sweat on your arms.
- Notice when thoughts take over. Gently remind yourself that they are an interpretation in the present moment.
- Release all “shoulds.”
Hiking Without Metrics
Whenever I hike with a human partner, I find I focus more on our conversation than on our surroundings. And as a trainer, I have been known to ask clients to track various aspects of their hikes including ascent time, moving time, elevation gain, and distance. This year, however, I hiked without a pedometer, Whoop strap, Oura ring, or GPS, to the surprise of some of my hiking partners. I always have my cell phone with me for emergencies, so I’m aware of the passage of time. But my focus is on staying comfortable. Moving how my body wants to (including dunking my feet). Enjoying whatever Mother Nature reveals. Being fully present at the moment, as much as possible.
Thoughts During the Ascent
For this walking meditation, we left the trailhead at 6:45 with only one person on the trail ahead of us. For the next few hours, we had the mountain all to ourselves. I had plenty of time to think. But some of my thoughts were rather unexpected. And they bumped all over the place, revealing my present state of mind.
- What would it be like to be completely alone, with no human interaction, for months?
- What would I do if something happened to my husband, my daughter, or my dog?
- Would we hear another bear like we did last year?
- How will my daughter handle her current roommate situation at the University of Washington?
- How do I really feel about this new stage in my life?
- Why am I here?
- What should I do next with my life?
Everyone who is loving and human has (or will have) variations of these thoughts at some point in their lives. But walking meditation enables you to recognize them as thoughts and let them float by. I was not out there to solve anything, necessarily. I was out there to let myself be, thoughts and all. And hopefully come back grounded.
Alone: What Is Your Reaction to Solitude?
I also spent more time than I expected thinking about the survival reality series, Alone. My husband and I stumbled across season eight on Netflix several weeks ago, and it captivated us so strongly that we started watching previous seasons on the History channel.
What compels a person to leave their homes and families for an unknown period of time? at an unspecified location? with ten pieces of survival gear and no water or food? What do they discover about themselves in the wilderness, and what makes them tap out (quit the contest)? Some of the show’s participants last less than 24 hours. Would we run into bears on the mountain like the participants? What would I do if one of us got injured?
How long would I last off-grid, in an area where there are cougars, bears, and wolves, without human contact? The answer? Probably about three days, which was how long I lasted last December before I insisted on getting home to my daughter, my husband, and my dog. Certainly not the months that winners endure. On this hike to Granite Mountain, I didn’t find answers to my musings. I found something better.
Walking Meditation: Nature Replaces Thoughts
Once we hiked past the forest switchbacks and started up the avalanche gully where the maples, blueberry and huckleberry bushes, and mountain ashes were turning color, the chatter in my mind finally stilled. Mother Nature captivated me with her beautiful artwork. The foliage was even more splendid than the previous week’s hike to Gem and Snow Lakes. Jaw-dropping colors at every turn demanded to be photographed. I obliged.
When we reached the summit at 9:30, we enjoyed it for over half an hour, all to ourselves. I jotted down thoughts and ideas I’d had during our hike in my journal. I recalled the nasty mosquitoes I’d had to fight off the previous August and starred in the margin, “Shoulder season on Granite Mountain – NO BUGS, no people, A-MA-ZING colors.”
Musings on the Descent
On the way down, my thoughts traveled along a much different path. No need to worry about bears with hikers giggling and chattering loudly on the way up. But instead of getting annoyed, I felt relieved. I was not a contestant on Alone, after all. There were humans around me. Not many, but enough. I’d had my “me time” and felt ready to rejoin civilization. I didn’t have answers, but I was newly grounded. Nature’s beauty healed something within and gave me courage and fortitude to face whatever obstacles come next. I was right where I needed to be, both on the trail and in my life.
How does hiking change you? Does it challenge, frustrate, or ground you? How? Please share your insights, reactions, or comments below. We love hearing from readers.