Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hiker, Be Healed

This blog has been sitting in the pipe for two weeks, so it's outdated already. But since you're here....

Winter has come early to West Virginia, and with the arrival of the bitter weather comes the end of hiking season for me. Oh sure, I could drag my sorry self out into the woods in the frigid cold; sometimes I do. However, I'm finding myself more and more affected by the chill. A companion to my Sjogren's Syndrome is Raynaud's Phenomenon, characterized by hands and feet that turn white when exposed to cold. It's exceedingly painful, and when I run them under warm water to revive them, the sensation is agony. My feet freeze in my ski boots now, and gloves are an absolute necessity, even when taking out the trash. Thus, hiking in the winter isn't just a matter of donning a hat or an extra layer; it's a matter of keeping my extremities from suffering actual vascular damage, and I haven't really figured out how to combat that particular foe, yet.

The extreme cold appeared early this year. It's only December. We still have oak leaves clinging desperately to the grove in the backyard, and so it looks more like fall than winter, but the ice has crept across the surface of the fish pond, and the flurries have been flying for two days now. I'm sorry to say that my hiking routine suffers with the falling mercury.

Just moss. Lovely, soothing moss.
My Nature Writing class a few years ago was immensely valuable because it forced me outside, and in so doing I made a discovery about myself: I need the forest. 

I know that's the most obvious thing in the entire world. But it wasn't to me. 

My father has known this very thing about himself for 70 years. He, too, needs the forest. He disappears into it every weekend with the dogs. As a child, I always went along. The forest was a part of my life. Saturdays and Sundays were for dog-hikes. Hundreds of hikes. Hundreds of hours over the years, one walk at a time. He never really had to ask me if I was coming along; it was understood that I would. Looking back, I'm not sure I ever asked myself if I wanted to go. I just went, as if by default. Saturday, Sunday, woods.

Birch bark is the best bark.
Of course, I took it for granted, as you do as a youngster. And it wasn't until I was surrounded by ocean and concrete in St. Petersburg, Florida, that I began to realize the emotional and spiritual value of the forest. For the first time in my life I couldn't just disappear into the trees. Certainly, there are parks in St. Pete, places with sandy paths through scrubland and cypress where you can spot an endangered Gopher Tortoise if you're lucky. But the wild? The deep forest? It was a world away, tucked inland, and most unfriendly to hikers. Florida isn't a land where you hike around. Rather, it's a collection of snake and skeeter, and this is probably why Florida hasn't lost all of its wilderness entirely. It's inhospitable. You can't really live in Florida's forests.

You'd think a woman who wants to be a nature writer would have realized the healing power of the woods long before her 36th year, but that's exactly how long it took me. Of course I knew I liked being there. Of course I had fun. And of course that unmistakable hemlock and spruce smell--the very scent of West Virginia itself--worked its way into my heart before my 10th birthday. But before my thirties I didn't really carry burdens heavy enough to warrant true healing. I hadn't yet met the enemy that is anxiety, the demon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They're both big and heavy, and while a little white pill goes a long way, it doesn't take me to the finish line.

I keep Xanax in my purse, just in case things suddenly feel out of control. I'm not ashamed of it, but I certainly wish I were instead one of those people who walks around with Cheez-Its in her handbag. I also wish I were a person who sits in the passenger seat of the car and thinks, "Wow, there is absolutely no chance of being crushed under the wheel of an Ocean Spray truck today." But I'm not. In fact, on most days, I'm quite certain something is going to crush, smash, or flatten me.

Enter the woods.

No, seriously. Get off your ass and literally enter the woods. Go. Need a kick in the pants? Read about how nature affects mood. How it affects the pulmonary system. The kids' brains. Read and read and read, or just take my word for it and get your boots on.

Because when I enter the woods frantically scanning for an oncoming delivery of cranberry juice (sometimes those guys just pop out of the forsythia bushes, you know), I come out feeling so much better. Science will back me up on this one, over and over again. It will also assure you that a walk in the woods will boost your creativity and help you get un-stuck in your stupid brain.

A few weeks ago we had a quick warm spell before the temps plunged, and I took that opportunity to disappear into the forest to burn off some anxiety. I've been struggling with big-picture things like my unfinished book and my nonexistent writing career, as well as smaller tidbits like a moody 10-year-old and the fact that the cat won't stop trying to fornicate with my heated throw.

I didn't have time to travel to distant lands, but I did make it to the Serpentine Trail at Oglebay Park. It's a recently re-discovered trail made suitable for woodsy types who have to be back at school by 5 to pick up their rugrats from kung fu class. Ironically, you have to park in the lot of a loud tourist trap: a series of buildings draped in Christmas lights and adorned with speakers blaring Bing and Elvis and anyone who ever stepped up to the mic to get their holiday rum-pum-pum-pum on. 

Perhaps because I could still hear the traffic on Rt. 88 as I descended into the woods, I felt the need to leave the trail almost immediately. The choice was to either walk on the path and feel a moderate level of natureyness, or to bushwhack my way through the tangle of brush, fall down the hill, and land in a muddy gulch. I chose to land in a gulch, and though it didn't shut out the noise of traffic, it made me feel pretty good. And just a little wilder. (Because there's nothing so badass as a 37-year-old woman in a pink Columbia jacket who grabs life by the nads and leaves the trail in a city park for a whopping six minutes.)

Hey, it helped.

Despite the tameness of the afternoon's adventure--I tried to spice up the rawness of the experience by fording a few streams and leaping out at a startled runner a la Ursus americans, but he didn't see the humor in it at all--the forest did what I had asked. Like a mossy green Xanax, the smell of the earth and the hemlock stand I found at the bottom of the trail worked its way through my sinuses and into the pit of my stomach. And despite the fact that I was underdressed for the temperature, I stayed well past the moment when the sun dove beneath the hillside. I stayed until I was calm again, until the live wires in my brain fizzled and died, snuffed out by the fern grove and the soggy peat.

Did you know soggy peat does that? It actually snuffs out anxiety. 

I felt so much better, in fact, that when I re-emerged from the woods, I had completely forgotten about the consumer paradise that awaited me in the parking lot. One moment I was swinging on a monkey vine (far less embarrassing if you do it in private) and the next I was enduring a cruel rebirth. I popped out of the deciduous forest and landed in a fog of exhaust. Seven tour buses were lined up beside the tourist trap, and elderly visitors stood about the lot and on the grass vaping and stuffing fudge and ice cream into their gobs. I could no longer hear the chirp of the pileated woodpecker I'd seen, and I smelled carbon monoxide rather than earthy peat. Brilliant red and green lights flashed around a manger scene, and Bing sang about that genetically-mutated flying caribou we all seem so obsessed with. As I stood and surveyed the scene, I felt both saddened that these old smokers had come from afar only to miss the best part of the park, and relieved for the same reason.

I've learned to go to the forest when I'm overwhelmed, when I'm feeling too much. That's often, of late. I haven't always been impressed with the eastern hardwood forest--in the winter it's so dreary--but it's easy to dismiss the value of nature if you don't realize it's capabilities. How human of me to brush it off until I learned what it could do for me. How sad. Nevertheless, I am reborn a believer. 

Sometimes I think the world offers little outside of the forest. Go, and be in it. 

Just keep your distance. Sometimes I have to pee out there.

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