By Christine Baker
Clinton, CT, USA
Walking. As human beings, we were born to do it. For millions of years, it was our only mode of transportation until we figured out we could domesticate animals and use them for speedier, and easier, transport. After domesticating animals, we figured out how to make the wheel, then boats, and in the blink of an eye, we had the Concord jet and the Acela train speeding us along to our next pressing engagement.
Even though technology and transportation have evolved to the point that our cars nearly drive for us and mini-vans have vacuum cleaners for those pesky loose gummy bears, we as human beings are still built to walk.
3.1 miles per hour is the average. Imagine going through your entire day at 3.1 miles per hour. Think of the details you would catch that you don't even see while your world is whizzing by you at 69 miles per hour while you fly home on the Long Island Expressway or I-95.
We are so trained to fly through our lives that details inevitably go by in a blur and out in the wash. Recently, I was able to get back on the trail and put in some miles for Walk4Good. It had been a while since I strapped everything I need to survive on my back and head out into the woods alone. It felt good to be out of the house after such a long and chilling winter.
A few minutes after my drop-off, I stood alone in the pouring rain on an incredibly chilly spring day in Connecticut. The leaves had not yet popped to offer me any cover so I was forced to deal with the pelting rain and heavy winds with no protection except for my raingear and pack cover.
After a few miles, I settled into a comfortable pace. The trail markers were easy to follow without much concentration and I was able to let my mind completely wander. The bonus of hiking in the rain is how peaceful the woods are. No animals. No birds. No people. Nothing but the sound of my footsteps and the sound of the rain hitting the dead leaves of the forest floor.
I began to take stock of my thoughts rattling around in my brain:
- When I get home I have to fertilize the lawn.
- I wonder what the dogs are doing since they aren't with me.
- What am I going to get my mom for her birthday?
- Speaking of birthdays! Oh no, I completely forgot my friend's!
- I hope I have checks waiting from clients.
- Did the weather forecast call for this much rain?
- I can't stop moving or I'll get chilled and hypothermia is no joke.
- I'm so glad I packed a hat, gloves and extra sweater.
- Ugh, look at that steep rock face ahead.
But then after three hours of solid hiking, I noticed a distinct change in the pattern of my thoughts. In fact, I walked for over 25 minutes and didn't have a single thought at all with the exception of being mindful that I could hear my own breathing. Then, I began to actually take notice of the beauty around me:
- Look at the way that tree limb is leaning on the tree next to it. I wonder how many years they've been connected like that.
- The colors of the dead leaves varies in so many hues of red and brown and orange that it's the most beautiful patchwork quilt I've ever seen.
- The smell of rain and woods and springtime is unmistakable.
- Ahh! A chipmunk hole. That little guy has it right – this is a fantastic place to call home.
- There is an other-worldliness to mist and fog. It envelops everything.
- Why does walking on wet/mossy rocks remind me of my high school biology teacher who always said "hasty dissection leads to broken bones"?
- I like myself better when I stop thinking so much.
Zen is a school of Buddhism that was developed in China during the 6th Century. The word Zen can be loosely translated to "absorption" or "meditative state" and emphasizes attainment of enlightenment.
Now I understand the Zen of walking in the woods. Everyone from Jane Austin to W.H. Auden to Robert Frost to Noël Coward, Woody Guthrie, J.K. Rowling, and seemingly everyone else in between, was so taken with walking they have opined on the subject too. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking."
We start off life learning how to put one foot in front of the other. We end life wishing we could once again put one foot in front of the other. And everything in between? Well that's the meat of the meat, the nut of the nut. Someone much smarter once said, "It's not the destination that matters. It's the journey." Boy did that genius nail it on the head.
Next time you're bored and sitting in front of the television. Turn it off. Put on an old, reliable worn in pair of sneakers and go for a walk. Walk around the block. Walk to the end of your driveway. Walk down the halls of your apartment building. Find a park, a sidewalk, a trail. You'll be surprised how little you will think and how much you will experience.