Hiking became for me a key mental health practice a few years ago, and it’s now an integral part of my life. One of the things I love about hiking is the lessons it always teaches me. Although I’m definitely hiking with much more intensity while I’m training for Kilimanjaro, I’m still an “emotionally” focused hiker. For me, it’s about presence, not speed or exercise. I almost always hike in silence – no music or audio media (except for the very rare times I’m pushing myself at the end of an unusually long or tough excursion and need some distraction), no phone calls, and no talking. (I hike alone 99% of the time by choice, which helps with the silence, but I admit I get irritated with the hikers who converse loudly with a companion.)

For me, hiking is a time to be fully present to the trail, the woods, the wildlife, sky and scenery, and to myself and to God. Nature is the best sanctuary that soothes and inspires my soul as I “lift up my eyes to the hills.” I do my best thinking – my best sorting through and figuring out, my best settling in and getting grounded, my best acceptance of life’s processes – when my feet are moving.

Trekking provides a terrific, tangible exercise in trusting the process, which is something I’m especially needing during this season. The longer trails are marked with a red square painted periodically on trees, and they serve as the map to follow. (Yes, I have the All Trails app, and I prefer to stay in the moment without tracking exactly where I am and what comes next.)

It’s interesting that even on relatively familiar trails, the experience differs depending on the direction I choose to start the loop. The landmarks are the same, but I lose the sense of how far I’ve come and how much trail remains if I’m hiking in an opposite direction from my normal practice. This uncertainty especially occurs if I start the longest loop at a different trailhead than usual, since there are multiple access points to that route. The red squares serve as reassuring anchor points that I’m going in the right direction in the face of many diverging trails and winding roads that intersect the path. How often I’ve wished that life choices were so abundantly apparent!

Recently I tried a new trail in an unfamiliar park when I needed something shorter and closer to home. It was an easy walk on a shaded path, and it was also full of sweet surprises. After a mile or so on the marked trail, I ventured down an unmarked pathway and was amazed to find it led to a rushing, wide creek that I had no idea was in the area. In several other places I followed the almost hidden offshoots that soon revealed another portion of the cascading creek, swollen with the recent rain. Rock “beaches,” small waterfalls formed by the changing depth, and crystal-clear water rewarded the explorations.

A sign then invited me to leave the woods, and the route took me through a state agriculture area. After following a slim path along the edge of a newly plowed field, I turned a corner to find an expanse of red and white gladiolus, which are one of my favorite flowers. What a delight!

Several hundred yards later a small overgrown path led to a near-hidden, ancient iron gate with this surprising and ornate sign: “Private Property – All are welcome to enjoy; please be respectful.” I went through the gate and down several steps made of large rock slabs blanketed with overhanging branches that dipped into the path. The last and widest step opened onto a gorgeous, peaceful terrace above the large creek I had been following. A wooden footbridge crossed to a sloping hill that led to a distant house visible at the top. Everywhere, the shaded spaces were adorned with pots of flowers, bird feeders, wind chimes, and scattered benches. It felt like Shangri-La! I stayed in the tranquil spot a long time thinking about its gifts to an unsuspecting passerby, the care of those who created and maintained it, and the delightful surprises of a loving God.

Eventually, I continued following the trail and took a few more tiny side trips that revealed different portions of the flowing creek, along with an interesting wooden sculpture that had no identifiable specific shape, but was clearly created with intention.

As I arrived back at my car, I thought what an unexpected, gentle adventure. It was such a soothing reminder that even if I don’t know exactly what is ahead, trusting the trail has never steered me wrong. Perhaps you might try it.

Life is short. Take a hike!

Marnie C. Ferree, Founder