Scientifically, we know sunsets release Oxytocin, one of our brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. Intellectually, we know that spending days in the wilderness makes us smarter and more creative because it allows our brain to rest and function clearly. We are drawn to understand wild places; space, under the sea, deep woods and the microscopic. The places where animals and physics ultimately rule. Our curiosity and reason make us capable of fully appreciating the depth of the beauty around us. The beauty that our emotions recognize in an instant.
Nature may seem unfeeling in it’s cruelty, especially this past week up here in the northeast, as three feet of snow buried us so deep that we are still digging out. Climbers lives are taken on frozen peaks making the harshness of the wilderness undeniable. Yet, it conjures such passion in those of us who love it. We change our lives to be closer to it. It is home.
I was around seven years old when my parents took me to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the first time. We would hike from hut to hut, one more each year, and sometimes it would rain and the wind would howl as we walked high above everything I knew. My parents said I complained but all I remember is how much fun it felt to see all those strange places and feel such intense emotions like pride, excitement, fear and wonder. It was on those mountains that I found my passion for the wilderness.
After that first year, when we continued to hike the Presidentials every summer, I wondered why we didn’t go on vacation like other kids. They traveled to warm or exotic places while my parents dragged me to this hard place where I then had to carry my own water and clothes for miles, eat beans for dinner and sleep in a cold bunk room with snoring adults.
Despite what I perceived as hardship it was an experience like no other and I fell in love. The simple things like hot chocolate and Hershey bars at the end of a long walk became grand. It was a magical place where bees wouldn‘t sting you no matter how close you got and I could sit out looking down into the glowing valley with a boy who liked to run over rocks as fast as I did. My mom would spend hours reading the trail journals and I would explore everything. I think my dad would go off and climb nearby summits but oddly, I don’t remember. It became a place where I could really be myself, there was no pressure from people around me, except to keep going. I would enjoy being lost in my own thoughts and fantasies as the miles passed.
When I asked the question on facebook, “What was the experience that made you fall in love with hiking?”, what struck me was the melding of science and emotion in the responses. Many of our followers had called the woods home since they were children, having fantastic, imaginary adventures. Some spent time hiking with friends and family, including beloved pets, making venturing out into the unknown safe and comfortable. For others, achieving a goal through everything nature threw at them made hiking a worthy challenge.
Whatever makes you want to go for a hike, give the forest a chance to capture your imagination this Valentine’s Day. Fall in love! Catch the bug! Share it! Make your experience in the wild whatever you can dream. Ask someone to help if you don’t know what you’re doing or if you want to change a bad experience you’ve had in the past. Think back to when you were a child and the woods were filled with adventure instead of fear and discomfort.
If you are already entranced…embrace it! Sentimental or cynical, journey versus goal; you can find your true nature outside. Happy Valentine’s Day!