Hiking and Loss: How Trails Can Lead Us Out of Grief

For most of my adult life, I sought sport to avoid thinking. Mountain biking, for example. Contemplating life has no place on single-track. I recall an incident last year while ripping through the Don Valley Trails in Toronto—for a few moments, I started thinking about a receipt I forgot to include in my tax file. In seconds, I hit a root at the wrong angle, my handlebars jerked around and I went flying, spread-eagle, over the bars into the muck. But after dusting myself off, I rode on feeling like a badass champion. Post-ride is always gratifying.

 

Dave Barnes illustration

words: Melanie Chambers

Friends often recommended meditation, noticing my chronic restlessness. I thought it was a waste of time—too slow, not enough immediate gratification. The Japanese have a name for gardens where nothing grows: karesansui.

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Contemplation in the absence of growth. Insight from under-stimulation. There’s a thought. And after my mother’s recent death, with all the confusion, grief and turmoil, I found myself needing meditation more than ever. During my weekly yoga session, I often ended the class crying about mom. Somehow after an hour of letting go of all my mind clutter, and an instructor reminding me to clear my head, while in shavasana (“laying down”), I found myself able to grieve.

Laying there I would think about something I needed to ask her, to tell her something new, and then it would hit. I cannot. The first time the hot tears rolled down my temples I thought everyone would be looking—but that is the beauty of yoga: No one cares. Everyone else is consumed in their own head.

It happened in yoga, but how could I extend this feeling? I began to think about some of my epic hikes around the world—hikes that were often days or weeks long, and often solo. With no agenda, other than to reach a hostel.

Recently, in southern Peru, my friend and I hiked out of the Colca Canyon—twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, it’s mountain hiking, in reverse: you first walk down into green oasis of palm trees and blue pools, then climb out.

For me, hiking is an extended meditation—a prolonged time for drifting thoughts and feelings. It’s a time to slow down.

Once I pulled ahead of my friend, my thoughts surrendered to my movement: a heavy exhale after lifting my leg, a solid thud stepping onto the rock—step, step, breath—repeat. With my body on autopilot, and no deadline to finish, my mind was free. I couldn’t tell you what I thought, there were no epiphanies, but I do recall feeling mentally lighter when I finished.

As someone who is now on the other side of middle age, with a recent loss in my life, things have changed: I am ready to be in the moment—or at least try to be. So I booked a four-week hiking trip in Bhutan: four weeks of hiking to meditate and give my grief the time and consideration it deserves. By the time I start the hike, it will be almost a year since my mother died. I want my time on the Bhutanese trail to replay moments of my mother, to feel her long nails on my cheek on the hospital bed, telling me, it’s okay honey. I want to let myself cry in a way that I can’t when I’m busy in life.

For me, hiking is an extended meditation—a prolonged time for drifting thoughts and feelings. It’s a time to slow down.

It reminds me of something mom said before she died. “You impatient? Oh God, I just fell off my chair with laughter. The discovery of Melanie by Melanie. It would make for good reading.”

This was the last email I ever received from my mother. The following month she was diagnosed with lung cancer—the next, she was gone.

Slow down, Melanie.

Since she has died, I have taken on more work than ever; organized more trips, written more stories; I’ve even begun overtraining to the point of fatigue. I can’t stop. Slow down.

Am I filling my head to the point of bursting so I don’t have to think about her death? Likely. The last part of mom’s email was prescient: “The mature version is looking good; keep working on it—you have a short way to go yet.” She knew me better than I knew myself. Maybe now I will sit still, listen, and for a brief time, we can talk about it on a trail in Bhutan.

 

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