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Lessons learned in the wilderness

Wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park. Wikimedia commons photo Wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park. Wikimedia commons photo

My last column was written just before I returned from Wilderness Trail. I’m not sure what propelled me to sign up for this adventure, other than I felt it was time to challenge myself.

I’m here today to tell you that spending four nights/five days in the woods of southwest Virginia, disconnecting with everyday life and reconnecting with the natural world and my own inner guide, was very good for my soul. 

Although we were in the literal wilderness, this experience also nudged us into the metaphorical wilderness, that spiritual space that’s expansive and welcoming, the space which opens our souls to compassion, creativity and new possibilities. While my body put one foot in front of the other along the earthen ground, my mind and heart were doing their own thing.

To begin with, I realized that living in the present is truly a glorious gift. We all cognitively know that being more mindful is the best way to live, but to actually do it is easier said than done. When backpacking, you can only focus on the next thing, even if that’s simply not tripping on rocks or roots, keeping up with the group or tightening a strap on your pack. Then once you get to the campsite, you immediately set up camp, organize materials, prepare to cook food or find a bathroom.

Additionally, being disconnected from the noise and overstimulation of regular life helps a person more easily live in the moment. It’s easier to enjoy the natural beauty and lean into sensations such as the breeze across your skin or the sound of birds. I read that boredom can stimulate the production of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in our brain, but we so rarely let ourselves be bored these days that we forget how beneficial it can be. When backpacking, there is a chunk of time where a person can feel “bored,” but this is when the deep conversations happen, laughter explodes or creativity emerges.

On trail I was also reminded that we need so little. When carrying everything on your back, you have to be strategic about what and how you pack it. I didn’t care what I was wearing as long as I was mostly dry. I certainly didn’t wear makeup nor was I concerned with my hair. When functioning in the real world, it’s easy to be overly concerned with appearances and believe more stuff equals more happiness, but in fact, the opposite is true. The more possessions we have to manage, the more suffocated we can feel. I was reminded of this routinely while out in the wilderness.

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Part of the mystique of Wilderness Trail is that you’re with people you may not know very well, and there was something really cool about that. When hiking or backpacking with family or close friends, we often talk about the same things we’d talk about in our living rooms or at the dining room table. Being with relative strangers requires you to stretch your social skills and curiosity, and sometimes you or they become more vulnerable and open because there’s less judgment with two people who don't know each other and aren’t affected by the other’s choices. The defensive nature that often exists in everyday life is stripped away when you’re all collectively surviving together in the wilderness.

There were other lessons learned on trail, but I only have so much space in this column. To try and sum it up, the experience was refreshing, relaxing and challenging all at the same time. I walked away feeling very proud of myself. When we were registering the kids this year, my inner voice told me to sign myself up as well. I’ve been trying to really listen to those nudges because life is zooming by and I don’t want to look back with a lot of “I shouldas” and “wish I wouldas.” I’ve learned that something can feel scary and foreign while also feeling exciting and right.

There was a rainstorm one night while we were in a campsite on a mountaintop. During a break in the rain, one of the girls in my tent needed to find a bathroom. As we stepped out, there were eight or nine wild ponies highlighted under a bright moon. If another person hadn't seen it with me, I would’ve thought it an illusion or part of a dream. It was truly one of the most magical scenes I may ever experience. When I reflect upon this backpacking trip, there is one overarching emotion. Whether it was joking with fellow hikers, frolicking in a chilly creek, patching blisters during a snack break, listening to the comforting cadence of our feet, falling into deep conversation or seeing horses in the moonlight, I will forever look back on my first Wilderness Trail experience with unbridled gratitude.

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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