Hiking through the woods on a November morning

As busy as our lives are in the DC area, today was one of those days where it would have been a sin to stay at home and rest. It would have been a crime to sleep in, and it would have been a waste to not be outdoors. The air was cool and crisp (it even had a bite to it early in the morning), the sky was big and brilliant and blue, the autumn sun was bright and generous, and the fall leaves were an explosion of reds, yellows and oranges. We could not have asked for a better day.

And so it was that J. Miguel and I woke up early and drove to Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, not far from Camp David. We got there before the crowds came, before the sun warmed the mountainside and before the day was half over. And as soon as we got out of the car, we just walked, and climbed and marveled at the views around us, the leaves above us, and the hard, solid mountain below our feet. And as we hiked, something inside both of us changed. J. Miguel called it the “energy of the nature around us.”

I’m not a mystical person. I don’t believe in things like energy or spiritual vortexes. But I do believe that when the planets align, they can create a positive transformation in people with the right combination of beautiful weather, clean air, breath-taking scenery, and silence. And that’s exactly how things fell into place for us today on that mountain. We both felt…happier, lighter, energetic.

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During the occasional moments that we did pass other hikers along the Charcoal Trail or at Wolf Rock, I noticed something strange. Everyone greeted us with a “hello” or “good morning.” That’s unusual in the DC area. This is a part of the country where you can be walking in the street, crossing in a crosswalk with a green light and get hit by a car, and people will just walk around you as if you weren’t there. No one says “hello” muchless “good morning,” here (not counting the mentally ill, but very friendly man who yells “Good morning!” at the top of his lungs to passersby each day near my office). Generally speaking, people don’t smile here, and they don’t make eye contact. Instead, they flip you the bird if they don’t like how you drive or they intentionally key your car if they feel it looks too nice. In short, people are pretty mean here. But not today on the Charcoal Trail.

“It’s because people are exiting their cars and are climbing up the mountain,” J. Miguel said to me when I commented on the unusual friendliness of those we were encountering. “We are crossing paths with them at the point where they have been hiking for a while, and the higher they climb, the more their minds and bodies are cleansed of all the demons they have brought with them to this place. That is why they smile and greet us on the mountain, but not anywhere else,” he acknowledged. Spoken like the partial Incan he is.

I think there is something to be said of that. I can’t say the earth has ever “spoken” to me, but I also can’t deny that nature has a calming effect on people. It was having an effect on me, right there in Catoctin Mountain Park. I was unusually care-free. I was curiously happy. The hike was physically testing for me at times, but I didn’t care. Something about that place and the experience of walking in the woods with fall colors around me recharged me more than any nap, energy drink or gym work-out could.

I now realize that as an urban dweller, I have to make an effort to find nature. But I also realized that I need more of it in my life. I am starving myself in the concrete jungle and florescent light maze I battle five days a week. My skin needs vitamin D. My body needs to move. My soul needs to be refreshed.

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