The light, unexpected rain began to lift as we found our hiking group near the lower shelter at John Bryan State Park in central Ohio. It was mid-October and this was one of the first group hikes planned for the duration of the 2020-2021 winter season. A schedule designed by one of my friends to help us stay in good physical, emotional and mental health in the dreary Ohio winter that will be exacerbated by social isolating caused by the coronavirus.
My friends and I stepped out onto the first trail, a steep, descending staircase of uneven, wet rocks welcoming our footsteps. I moved with caution — perhaps more than necessary — with each step littered with freshly fallen wet leaves covering the unknown terrain below each foot fall. (Spoiler Alert: None of us fell.) I’ve lived in Ohio for more than five years, but I’ve been to only a couple of state parks. At least I’ll get to know my local geography better in these times of social distancing, I thought.
A lesson that I learned the one time I went mountain biking 20+ years ago, rose up in my consciousness — Look for the “through line.” In mountain biking especially, instructors caution you not to look at the obstacles (rocks, tree roots, etc), but to look for way through the obstacles. Your arms and legs will guide your bike in the direction that your eyes turn. If you look at a rock, you are going to hit the rock — is the mountain biking philosophy.
The advice kind of holds for hiking, too. Looking ahead to know where you’re headed rather than fixating only on what’s in front of you is helpful. The subtle difference in hiking is that you often have to use the rocks or branches as foot holds or stepping stones, especially when the skies poured rain three out of the last five days. Not to mention the fresh coating of slick rain we’d gotten briefly that morning.
I engage in a lot of physical activity, but most of it takes place in urban areas. On city sidewalks, my biggest nemesis are uneven sidewalk cracks, unexpected dashing squirrels and the occasionally biker who insist on riding narrow sidewalks. Hiking undeveloped trails along a low river bed is quite another challenge.
Though we think of hiking as a physical, muscular activity (and it is), I felt my brain stretching and strengthening as much or more than my body this past week. My brain drank in thousands of points of visual data in order to guide my feet, legs and arms to rapidly respond to bogs of mud surrounded by slick fallen branches and embedded rocks. Constantly maneuvering the many things that could have tripped me up was exhilarating and exhausting on the 4.5-mile route we hiked.
At some point, I realized that my brain was as strained as my hips and thighs. I had that slight ache I sense when my brain is rising to a new occasion, making new neural connections that serve this new activity. Though I was sore, it felt good to be outside, to stretch myself, to remind myself that I can do hard things.
Whether we are hiking or just living these days, our lives are full of new activities, adventures, and challenges. Doing things for the first time is hard; it’s taxing on the body-mind. You might be more exhausted or irritable than usual. That’s OK. But, if you lean into the the fullness of the experience, you may also find your body-mind stretching and straining in new and exhilarating ways. Feel into it all — the frustration, the despair, but also the exhilaration and even joy. All these things are present. Even in these times. Especially in these times.
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