The Way Forward | What the Trail Has Taught Me

Sometimes life has a way of kicking you in the ass. You’re cruising along, taking care of day-to-day affairs—going to work, running errands, schlepping kids to and from practices and music lessons, hopefully sneaking in a workout when time allows—and all of a sudden, the unexpected happens and your world is turned upside down. Just like a root or rock on the trail can suddenly rear its ugly head and send you flying, disrupting a perfectly good run, life’s challenges can arise swiftly and without warning.

Just yesterday I was cruising down some sweet singletrack, singing out loud to the tunes on my iPod and feeling strong and powerful when, as luck would have it, I hit the only patch of ice on the entire trail, falling flat on my ass. My first instinct was to lie on the frozen ground and cry. But it was cold, the woods were getting dark, and I had miles to go. So I forced myself to get up, brush off the mud, and carry on, gingerly picking my way through ice and rocks.

For better or for worse, life is the same way. When crisis hits and your world is rocked, you basically have two choices—to indulge in the pity party of “why me?” or to pick yourself up and continue down the trail.

The forest has always been my sanctuary. As a child, and even more so as a teen, that is where I sought solace. Now, as an adult, I find that the woods continue to provide healing. When a problem feels too big or complicated to handle, I know that the trail is where I need to be.

For me, the trail is a living, breathing thing—not just in the sense of the various life forms present, but something larger. Whereas sometimes people let me down, the forest can always absorb whatever emotion I bring to it. I have run down the trail at various times crying, screaming, or praying. I’ve felt emotions so powerful that I couldn’t seem to go fast enough to outrun them, and felt so weak that I had to collapse in the dirt in sobs.

When I am at my wit’s end, the start of the run feels like any other—muscles tight, the stresses and worries of the day heavy on my shoulders. Yet as my feet strike the soft earth, again and again, mile after mile, something magical begins to happen. The change is so gradual that I almost don’t notice it. Bit by bit, the distressing thoughts lose their power. The worries still come, but with less frequency and intensity. The thoughts and concerns that felt all-consuming a few miles ago somehow don’t matter quite as much. Gone are the conversations that typically circle round and round in my brain, and I focus only on the ground beneath my feet. Life takes on a sense of lightness. I wonder if this is how a deer feels loping through the woods, effortlessly hurdling blowdowns and other obstacles. Unlike us, animals don’t seem to obsess about the past or worry about the future. They are present in this moment only, which is how I begin to feel after an hour on the trail.

When I finish my run, I pause for a moment, recognizing that nothing in my external reality has changed. Soon enough, the burdens of being human will sneak back upon me. But for now, something has shifted. I take a deep breath, holding on to that feeling as long as I can, safe in the knowledge that the trail will be there for me whenever I need it next.

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