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Lessons from the Trail

by Lisa

I’ve never been much of one for New Year’s Resolutions but more for New Year’s Reflections. These past couple weeks I’ve been doing a good bit of thinking about what 2016 offered me, and what I might be lucky enough to receive from 2017.

This last year has been a particularly challenging one for me, as I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and major depression. I could no longer function at my job as a teacher and had to go off on medical leave in order to develop a treatment plan. I’m glad to say that I’m starting to recover, thanks to the help of medication, therapy, yoga, hiking, knitting and the amazing support of my family and friends.

Tonight I think I finally hit on what’s been percolating in my brain for the past few months as I’ve been revisiting my various National Park experiences and absorbing my time on the John Muir Trail. I am starting to see how the Trail has been full of lessons for life and for my recovery.



Ups and Downs​
​The most obvious piece to me is the physical ups and downs of travelling along a trail as a metaphor for the mental and emotional ups and downs of life. I’m a mountain hiker and so most of my destinations are high up in the mountains. I see the time in the valleys as a lead-up to reaching the peaks and passes of the trail. But one needs to pass through those low valleys in order to then be able to climb to the next pass. The valleys also provide water and sometimes other awesome sources of nourishment (berries!), just as my low points in life have given me tools and resilience to be able to move upward again.

Visiting the high places means passing through some lows first.

Hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains means getting high. No, not the drug-induced kind, but the elevation and altitude type! I had been learning about proper breathing in my yoga therapy course and was able to put that training to work on the trail. Our breathing is so important, and I can’t believe how much I took it for granted until it was nearly stripped from me on my first climb to 12,000 feet! On the trail you’re forced to breath properly, using a good strong diaphramagtic breath. I just have to remember that first climb to bring myself back to my breath.

Being present can mean noticing the little things.

Mindfulness is a term I’ve only recently become aware of. Essentially it means being fully present in the present moment, with acceptance and without judgement. I find that state is easiest to attain when hiking. There is only the trail immediately ahead of you to focus on, as well as your surrounding environment. There isn’t much point expending energy on worrying about the trail further ahead until you actually get there. In day-to-day life, that means focusing on your immediate surrounding, and letting go of worries about the future or the past. Challenging, but worthwhile.

Is reaching a summit easy? Of course not, but worth every step!

Hiking isn’t easy. Neither is our journey through life. When hiking on a trail one expects there to be challenging moments. You have to climb a hill to reach a viewpoint, or fight back pain if you develop blisters. One should expect (and perhaps even embrace!) the challenging moments in life. While easy moments are necessary, it is often the challenges we face that stick in our memories.

If life gives you a series of switchbacks, you only have 3 choices: stay in one place, go forward, or go back. What’s your choice?

Among other elements, resilience is defined as the capacity to recover from difficulties, maintain a positive outlook and soldier on. Nowhere has that been more real for me than when hiking. I’ve had to endure worse weather conditions than expected, pain from blisters, and more miles on trail than originally planned. There aren’t too many options when on trail. You can stop and feel miserable for yourself, or you can reset your attitude, continue to put one foot in front of another, and push through your challenges.

Sharing a sunset can be so much more meaningful

The Trail brings people together in a way that reminds us all of our commonalities, instead of our differences. We meet many strangers along the trail, and inevitably swap hiking stories as well as life stories. Most people on trail are also very willing to help and support one another, especially in moments of challenge. But most importantly perhaps is the chance to share an experience with others, such as watching a sunrise or tackling a challenging climb. Those moments can be found in everyday life as well, so long as you keep an open mind and an open heart.


Who’d have thought that the Trail had so much to offer?! I am extra grateful for these lessons, and the time for reflection and self-care that I was given in 2016, especially as I plan my next hiking adventures.

​I hope that your 2017 is full of many miles on trail and especially full of meaningful moments and lessons that you can carry back into regular life with yourself.

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