Why You Really Should Take a Hike
Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect behind Brooklyn’s beloved Prospect Park (and that other park across the East River) once wrote, “It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect.” This has never been truer than in today’s world of disrupting disruptions.
I’ve always loved taking walks out in nature. I’m a city girl, but like many of my kind, I crave the outdoors. As a city dweller, I have to work hard for my access to nature, so I appreciate it all the more. But I have never been properly “hiking” in a place where I could behold scenes of a truly “impressive character,” as Olmsted so grandly put it.
Until last week. My husband and I plucked our children out of school and unceremoniously deposited them at their grandparents’ house in Rhode Island so that we could enjoy a week exploring Acadia National Park in Maine.
As any parent will tell you, getting away from your children for a bit bestows its own particular benefits. But I quickly realized that we were getting so much more than a romantic break from our daily parental duties.
Escaping to the woods
As we spent three days wandering through Acadia’s magnificent woods, disconnected from email, my mind quickly lapsed into that clear-eyed state where you start pondering things like the colors that you see and the smells that you smell and the sounds that you hear. The leaves were So. Red. I had never before experienced such an overwhelming scent of real spruce while not shopping for a Christmas tree. There were 500 different kinds of moss – I have 500 different pictures of moss to prove this – each so magical that I was certain fairies were living in the little openings in the tree trunks that it crept into.
I don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember all of those things. This is only possible because I was actually really seeing and experiencing them. *Truly Paying Attention* is one of the most basic, simple building blocks of human pleasure.
Revelations and ideas just kept popping up, in no particular order.
My first revelation was that hiking has a lot in common with skiing, which I love to do. For me, skiing is more about being out in the snow and the woods than about the actual act of sliding down the hill. It’s what I imagine golf has got to be for some people – an excuse to be on a beautiful rolling green field.
As we packed our backpacks in the morning and put on our hiking pants and hiking shoes, we mused about how it reminded us of getting ready to go skiing. And that is where the comparison abruptly ended. Because here’s the amazing thing about hiking: it is the perfect human leisure activity. All upside. No downsides.
Starting with the cost. Aside from the nominal cost of a week long park pass, which we were happy to pay, hiking is free. It is your birthright. No $70 lift tickets. No $100 ski lesson, or $150 rentals. We borrowed all our friends’ sweet gear, so our only real expense was hiking shoes. And after hours and hours walking comfortably in them, I hereby deem the cost to have been worthy. We marveled at how little we spent the entire week. We weren’t even trying to be frugal!
The other thing about hiking is that you get luxuriously long bouts of quiet and solitude, where you can hear the near-addictive sound of leaves and rocks crunching under your shoes. The people we did pass by? I didn’t mind seeing them at all. Everyone was so polite and friendly. I felt a odd affection for every person I passed. Some would offer a bit of encouragement for what was ahead. Or a simple “good morning.” Or just knowing smiles that said, “yes, this is wonderful, isn’t it?” We were all having the same experience, the same sense of appreciation.
Something about being in a great cathedral of nature affects the way people act. We did not see one piece of trash strewn about. A small thing like this revives your faith in basic human decency.
Getting lost in the beauty of nature profoundly speaks to the soul.
It is no wonder that study after study shows that walking in nature has a transformative effect on our brain. Or that just about every fantastical tale is set in the natural world.
At one point, I was sure I was walking in Little Red Riding Hood’s woods. Any minute, I was going to see a Ginger Bread House. My husband and I joked that we walked through nearly every Middle Earth landscape – the Shire, Rivendell, Weathertop – even Mount Doom, minus the lava. Which was awesome, by the way. I saw where Ophelia drowned herself. And a Heart Tree of Winterfell. I saw the lake beside which Wordsworth wrote The World is too Much With Us. I saw the Thousand Acre Woods.
These visions are so inextricably linked to our ideals and our childhood perceptions of the world. They speak to our innocence, to our desire for the world to be a simpler place, a good place. They are proof of our very deep and important need for beauty.
As an East Coaster who has never been out West before (one day!), or to a national park, I didn’t know that the romantic woods of our childhood fairy tales could really exist. The world feels completely different to me. I left Brooklyn a frazzled mess. I came home refreshed and inspired. Could the solution to all my angst be as simple as taking a hike?
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