It’s close to an established medical fact that a vigorous walk in the countryside makes people feel better. I’ve even noticed a local guy in the life-coaching business has a little outfit called Head Lands in which he takes people on hikes in the Bay Area hills to help get their lives in order. Good work if you can get it, I suppose.
A few thoughts on why hiking is nature’s Zoloft.
- Absence of synthetic noise. You can close your eyes to blot out the world’s ugliness, but you can’t close your ears. On a hike, all you hear is wind, birds, maybe some running water. In civilization, it’s all TVs, car horns, talk radio, can’t-shut-up cubicle cousins. Civilization seems designed to amplify all suspicions that the world’s got it in for you.
- Something bigger than your problems. While civilization seems intent on making you feel insignificant, nature has bigger cases on its docket. Life-and-death stuff. There’s no petty bullshit in nature (though there can be cow patties, especially in the East Bay parks).
- You’re part of that bigger something. When you walk into a forest, you’re immediately aware of the scrum to survive happening all around you. You lift a discarded water bottle and see bugs crawling around where it used to be. You see month-old saplings next to their centuries-old grandparents. You climb a hill and feel the air temperature change as you pass through the atmosphere’s marine layer. The meaning of life is tangible on a trail in ways it will never be while walking down Main Street.
- There are no stupid things to fear. Every fear on a hike is a rational response to a plausible threat. In civilization, we can do everything right and still get screwed, which poisons our brains with a thousand “what-ifs.” In the wilderness, you prepare for threats and address them when they arise, and you never have to take on more risk than you can handle. You can always turn back on a hike.
- Nature is not cruel. Nature will never betray a confidence or run off with your best friend. Nature won’t cut in line, talk too loud on a cellphone, or fail to control its screaming brats. Nature’s only mandate is to keep living things living.
- Nature always wins in the end. In a million years, humans will be extinct and life will go on as it has since the first strands of DNA began to replicate untold billions of years ago. When you’re out in nature, you’re joining the winning team. It just feels better to be part of a winner.
OK, so those are the pluses. But there are some things to keep in mind before you ditch the Cymbalta and lace up your hiking boots:
- Consult with your therapist first. Chances are a professional will have read the literature on nature as therapy and will know if you’re a good candidate. Hiking will not untangle all the soul snarls that got you to this point. Forests and canyons can feel claustrophobic, and even the gentle sounds of nature can be overwhelming if you’re not ready for them.
- You’re on your own out there. You may not be able to get any help of any kind when you’re out on a hike. If you get lost, you have to get yourself unlost. If you get hurt, you’ll need to have a way to get unhurt. You could catch a rash from poison oak or get bitten by a rattlesnake (though snakebite is exceedingly rare). You’ll have to deal with it.
- Hiking requires a certain level of fitness. If you’re out of shape, start slow and work your way onto longer hikes.
- Have a plan for your phobias. If you’re afraid of, say, snakes or mice, you will experience a momentary flash of terror if you see one on the trail. So, have a mental game plan for what to do when the terror strikes.
- Be a Boy Scout: Their motto is “be prepared.” My list of “10 essentials for happy hiking” provides a solid introduction to what you need to hike safely.
If you decide to go, the main issue unresolved is whether you should go solo. If you like being around people and fear being alone, you might be better off in a group hike. If you like being left alone, you might be better off hiking that way. I’ve hiked solo every weekend for the past five years, but I’m cautious by nature — I stay on trails, tell my wife where I’m going, and avoid risks that might require a rescue if things go bad.
My brain always feels better after the walking’s done.