“When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
The Colorado Trail stretches 500 miles from Denver to Durango. That’s a lot of time to think.
Ask any young man who isn’t a father, and he’ll tell you he isn’t ready to be one. Ask any father, and he’ll tell you there’s no such thing as being “ready.” Such is fatherhood, and such are young men.
A few years ago I traveled into the backcountry of Colorado with two purposes: to walk from Denver to Durango along the Colorado Trail and to determine if I was “ready” to be a father. I didn’t yet understand that there was no such thing. After three weeks of hard hiking, a thought struck me. Deciding to be a father was more about the kind of man I wanted to become, not about the kind of man I already was. I wasn’t ready to be a father. But I wanted to do it anyway, and I knew that I could.
This revelation is not the kind of thing that comes to a man while he’s binging on the latest season of his favorite podcast. It only occurred to me because I’d given my brain a little empty space.
That Colorado trip was an experiment in modern minimalist long-distance backpacking. I took no music, no audiobooks, and no podcasts. As the miles stretched on and my pain and exhaustion increased, I had nothing to lean on but the contents of my mind. Nothing to distract me but the sprawl of the Rockies stretching a thousand miles in either direction.
In the last few years, there’s been a glut of scholarly work and popular articles on the benefits of spending time in nature. These articles present nature as a cure for everything from ADHD to PTSD. I believe the science. I take issue with the unstated assumption that so-called “nature bathing” is the magic bullet we’ve all been seeking. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t, and the magic bullet doesn’t exist.)
A few years before Colorado I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. On that hike, I had all kinds of entertainment as I walked: music, books, podcasts. Not consistently, not even daily. But when the going got hard, or when thoughts became troubling, I had something I could lean on — a crutch. But crutches, come with costs of their own.
Upon finishing the AT I believed that the trail had cured me of the anxiety, depression, and addiction which ruled my life. When those things crept back in after a few months, I was shocked and disillusioned. It took years to realize that the woods do not heal us, we heal ourselves—with the help of the woods, not to mention our loved ones, mental health professionals, better habits, and medicine.
But we need the space to do it. And that’s what the backcountry offers us. A blank slate. Afternoon thunderstorms echoing through the valleys. Marmot whistles. Ravens catching thermals. A wall of granite. The sweet pull of gravity over virgin snow. A perfect wave, molten in the Pacific sunset.
Wild places offer a meditative space to heal and think. But you have to minimize your distractions.
It isn’t magic. It isn’t medicine, at least not in the direct sense. It’s space. Room to do the work. I believe this with all my heart—nothing offers that room better than wild places. Salt and sunlight. Stones and trees. But it isn’t automatic. It takes a commitment to avoiding distractions, particularly those that come with earbuds or a flat slab of glass and plastic.
My wife and I recently suffered a miscarriage. After three years of trying to get pregnant, the pain is incandescent. There’s the pain of the loss and the secondary pain that online connectivity brings. Every pregnancy announcement is a stab in the heart, every parent on Facebook complaining about exhaustion is an exercise in anger management. Baby bump photos? Pure torture. I don’t begrudge my friends and family their joy, but there is a nasty vein of jealousy and resentment threading through my feelings. Pain is seldom logical.
I only know of one way to move on.
So I will take to the woods and the high places and the deserts to do my part of the healing, the part I have to do alone. I will do so knowing that what I find in the backcountry is only what I bring with me. I won't go there expecting magic or a quick fix. Instead, I’ll feel above me for Wendell Berry’s day-blind stars, try to find the place where the great heron feeds. I’ll seek the peace of wild things.
And I’ll leave my smartphone at home.