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Hike To Be Present

I believe that I am most myself when I am hiking. It is in the act of walking along a wooded trail or a well-worn path that I feel grounded in my own body. I am connected to the Earth with the passage of each step. As I move my arms and legs, I draw in clear clean air with every breath through my lungs. With a heavy sigh I exhale and release the tension of life and find an overwhelming sense of calm. Outdoors among the trees I feel the wind on my cheeks, and I hear birds on nearby branches all around me. Even as I pass through it as I hike, I am part of the landscape. I am present.

The hike to the top of Gibraltar Rock is one of my favorites. Along the Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail in Wisconsin, it’s a perfect section to explore the eastern edge of the jagged scar left in the wake of a retreating glacier. On the outer rim of a region called the Driftless, this towering cliff carved of Precambrian quartzite and blocks of rhyolite over more than 100,000 years, offers an exquisite view of sprawling farm fields and lush green meadows made fertile by the free-flowing waters of the Wisconsin River. Near the historic shack in Baraboo, where Aldo Leopold penned the Sand County Almanac, is the home of the Ho-Chunk people. Long before modern environmentalists defined the ethical treatment of our sacred land, it was here that native tribes of North America first set the precedents for the thoughtful preservation of our natural resources more than 10 millennia ago. It is here that I now call home.

A landscape view of Gilbralter Rock on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin Image via Tim Yanacheck

Just 18 miles from my house in Madison, the Ice Trail is an excellent place to expose people to the world outside through hiking. I know that for a variety of reasons, not everyone feels as comfortable in the outdoors as I do. There are entire communities of people, of different races, ethnicities, genders, and physical abilities that are underrepresented among those who hike the trails of the world. Too often we are made to feel that the very notion of hiking as a person of color, a woman, or a member of LBGTQ+ community is an act of defiance in the face of social disparity. But in reality, our best remedy in service of our physical wellbeing and mental health is to venture out into nature with the confidence of who we are. It is our purpose to be present.

As each of us finds our place in the world outside, I believe that we will find ways to protect it and each other. In the quiet solemnity of nature, we are encouraged by our own self-interests to preserve the integrity of the soil, water, foliage and wildlife so that we might enjoy them again on our next visit. In doing so, we possess the presence of mind to model for the benefit of those we meet along the trail the same kind consideration we most want for ourselves. Though we can never be assured of the good behavior of others, we can insist that in our hiking we will be the best expressions of who we most want to be.

A man walking on a boardwalk through a forested trail

We are our best selves when we are hiking. It is in the exercise of movement along the trails of the outdoors that we can welcome friends and members of our community to find themselves, both literally and figuratively, in nature. The Ice Age Trail, like many paths around the world, is a gateway to ambitious experiences in more rugged terrain from the Rockies Mountains of Colorado to the step inclines of the Himalayas in Nepal. As more people discover who they are while walking outside we’ll find that the natural world is far more inclusive than we realize. To be recognized, to be seen, to be respected, to belong we must first be present.

A man in hiking gear standing and posing Image via Carly Harmon

Featured image via Tim Yanacheck

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