“How has it only been 15 minutes?” I thought to myself as I put my phone inside my backpack and took a moment to catch my breath.My thighs were burning, I was out of breath, and I could already feel a big pool of sweat forming inside my sports bra. I had hiked one mile and still had 11 more to go.
“Into the forest I go, to loose my mind and find my soul.”
This morning I woke up determined to spend time in nature. My friend and I were supposed to go hiking, but when I texted her, she was still passed out, so I decided to head out solo. I packed some PB&J sandwiches, a few Nature’s Valley granola bars, and my mala beads for good vibes. At the beginning of the year, I promised myself I would go hiking once a month, but it was October and I had only gone on a real hike twice.
After a September full of emotional ups and downs, I felt that it was time to go into the woods and forget about the world. I searched for trails online and picked the longest one because I wanted a challenge that would get me out of my head and force me to physically work out any issues I was still holding onto. I decided on the 11.6 trail from Woody Gap to Jarrard Gap out in the Appalachians.
I plugged the address into my GPS and began driving the 1.5-hour trek. I alternated between Radiohead and silence, trying to find a little bit of stillness as I prepared for what would no doubt be a long day. A lot of people hate long drives but provided there’s no traffic, I enjoy being behind the wheel – I find it peaceful to have to focus on nothing but driving. I especially love driving out in the mountains; there’s something so soothing about the winds and curves of the road looping around beautiful views.
I managed to find a parking spot in the very
full lot and began my hike around 12:45
p.m. behind a group of three other hikers and their dog. I could hear the wind blowing through the trees, and it formed the perfect soundtrack. I felt at ease knowing that for the next few hours, nothing mattered – I just had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
The hike went from peaceful to difficult in a matter of minutes. The elevation jumped quickly, and the path was covered in giant rocks, but in about a mile and a half, I came to a beautiful view. Wow. Green hills and valleys, blue skies and clouds. I thought to myself, “if this is how amazing the view is at one mile, I can’t wait to see the view from mile six.” I snapped a picture and kept moving forward, eager to see what awaited me.
For the next few miles, I kept asking myself, “Why did you insist on picking the longest hike you could find?” Every few minutes, I stopped to catch my breath and reminded myself to keep moving. Twice, I passed the three hikers ahead of me, and twice I ended up right behind them again after taking the wrong turn. Stubborn as I am, I refused to use the map on my phone to point me in the right way, which meant that I got lost. A lot.
Despite my directional challenges, I felt free out there in the woods. I was alone, but for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel lonely. Going hiking by yourself forces you to dig within. There’s no one there to push you along when you get tired, and no one there to pick you up if you fall. It is your responsibility to keep moving because you have to keep moving to make it home.
I passed ahead of the group of hikers in front of me one last time and increased my pace determined to make it to Jarrard Gap in a timely manner. I wanted to make sure I was at my care before dark. Around 3:00ish in the afternoon I arrived at what was supposed to be my destination, but as I looked around the area I saw no signs of an epic view to reward me for all of the miles I had hiked.
I felt disappointed. Where was my magical view? I wanted to see beautiful mountains and majestic skies, but instead Jarrard Gap was a flat area with signs pointing in the direction for other trails. “I hiked all of the way here, for this?” I asked out loud, frustrated with the Internet for suggesting this hike. I turned around and began hiking back, feeling betrayed by Mother Earth.
On the way, I saw the same three hikers from before and as I stopped to pet their gorgeous dog, I told them about how disappointed I was with the hike. They said they were heading down to a lake, and I decided to turn back around and head down there with them. I had already survived six miles, what was another two?
I enjoyed hiking with a group for once. We swapped stories on adventures and commiserated over how sore we felt. When we arrived at the lake, their dog ran into the water. Watching her swim so freely filled me with joy. I think part of the reason dogs are so happy all the time is because, unlike us, their heads aren’t full of clutter, they’re just there, living in the present moment. We sat by water for a couple of minutes enjoying the cool breeze and our lunches. Although I didn’t get to see my epic view, I felt a quiet stillness as I breathed in clean mountain air.
About 15 minutes into walking towards the trailhead, we realized we were heading the wrong way. We all laughed at how ironic it was that I had joined their groups in hopes of not getting lost, and yet here we were, lost. One of the guys pulled out his phone to get us in the right direction, and eventually we made it back to Jarrard Gap. They told me I could walk ahead, since they’d be going at a slower pace due to their dog, and as we parted ways my heart was full of gratitude towards them.
This time around, I had a clearer sense of where I was going. I began running back, letting my hair down so I could feel the wind dancing in my curls. At times my body resisted the hike. I felt physically worn out, but I knew I couldn’t stop because I had to make it back to my car. I found the will to push myself, and I kept going.
Around 6:30 p.m., I came back to the rock with the beautiful view just 1.5 miles away from the entrance. This time, I sat down to take it in. In my rush to get to the “better” view at the end of the trail, I had missed the beautiful sight right at the beginning. As I sat at Preacher’s Rock, I began to appreciate Mother Earth for her ability to humble me like no other. I wanted to hike five miles to get to a panoramic picture of the mountains, and instead she had put it right there at the beginning of the trail.
I spent about fifteen blissful minutes in there, appreciating the beauty of it all. Part of me wanted to spend the rest of the day there, to watch the sun fully set and see the moon rise over the mountains, but I wasn’t equipped for camping out, and I had a yoga class to teach in the morning, so I hopped up and began the last bit of my trail.
The last mile went by fast and when I arrived at my car, I felt high. I checked my phone to see how many miles I had hiked – 17 total. Woah. Six hours of hiking reminded me that the body is capable of so much more than we know. I felt strong and proud, but above all, I felt grateful to Mother Earth for allowing me to bask in her beauty. May we all take the time to find a piece of ourselves out there in the unknown.