I have always been a physical person. As a young child, I spent most of my time outdoors running around with friends, playing field games, and exploring the “spooky” forest that surrounded our neighborhood. As a teenager, I enjoyed many weekends at the beach doing water sports or at a friend’s ranch riding ATVs and camping. As an adult, I was still very physical by nature: I joined CrossFit in my 20s, ran my first full marathon in 2016, participated in sprint triathlons, and found a career in fitness. My husband and I do epic 8 to 10-mile hikes on nearby trails; on vacation, we find the tallest hill or mountain and climb it. While my relationship with nature was initially for pure enjoyment, as an adult, I only met nature with a checklist, a buzzing mind, and a hard goal to finish the course. I should also mention that I grew up in Florida and have never been too keen on Baltimore winters. Even though I have been here for 16 years now, winter is usually a time I hibernate and count down the days to spring, when I can enjoy the outdoors again. Therefore, I really did not know how I was going to respond to participating in CMHC’s weekly mental health hikes in the dead of winter.
For our first hike, I showed up with a full bladder and wool sneakers on, which I thought would be enough to keep me warm. (Wrong! I had frozen feet halfway through the hike.) But, despite my freezing feet and wishing that I had used the bathroom before I left the house, I was immediately struck by the scenery. Four in the afternoon is a magical time in the woods, and that was only amplified by the magnificent view at an overlook, stretching out over a lake and the setting sun. I immediately felt connected to a calmer part of myself, a part of myself that wanted to feel something deeper and grounded in this present moment. I left that first hike feeling invigorated by a sense of hope in a personally stressful time. On top of this feeling, the psychoeducation that was provided helped me notice the flurry of stressful thoughts that were trying to keep me out of the woods, out of the present moment. These came in the form of to-do lists, ruminating worries about future events, and lingering resentment over things that had happened in the past. Dr. Heidi Schreiber-Pan, Ph.D., LCPC was our facilitator. Instead of letting us sit with this suffering, she helped us tap into awareness about our internal experiences and invited us to reflect on deeper parts of ourselves and start to develop a new relationship with nature. I needed the nudge, and it was what made this experience so unique for me. I also loved just showing up and not knowing what to expect. I didn’t know where we were headed or what was planned, but I can say that there was always a moment of bliss during every hike, even if it was fleeting.
The hiking trails only got better, the reflections deeper, and the weather slowly turned into the early signs of springs. By our 6th hike, the birds were chirping again, signaling that a new season was right around the corner—even though we were hiking in a foot of snow! By this last hike, I had developed a new relationship with nature simply by noticing week after week the beauty of the birds flying over the lakes; the amazing sunset; the sun’s reflection on the snow; the blue skies; and, importantly, the newfound energy I had experienced by embracing winter instead of avoiding it. I was soon annoying my family by shouting from the rooftops, “Everyone needs to go out in nature!” The outdoors had transformed into this wondrous place, this life force that I realized I had been taking for granted. I had gained recognition of how much nature provided for me despite me not returning the favor. There was so much to be thankful for and so much to enjoy at all stages of the year, not just on warm days spent soaking up the sun.
To state the obvious, I so enjoyed my time in the woods this winter that I invested in proper hiking boots, and I plan to use them often. This May, I will be participating in the Women’s Spring Mental Health Hikes, and I am so excited to experience this with a new group and a new season with new energy when flowers and trees are coming back to life and there is a sense of rebirth. I also take with me a new awareness of the accessibly of nature, that I can enter nature at any time and that this doesn’t have to be a planned event. Finally, I have a new intention to be present and grateful for all that Mother Nature offers: the clean water, air, and sunshine I am given daily. My family and I are planning a beach trip soon, and I am excited to meet the ocean for the first time with the lessons I learned during our winter hikes in the woods.
Photos by Payton Schreiber-Pan