Walking with friends: The healing power of the woods
I’ve taken so many walks lately, both with friends and alone, that it got me wondering when human beings first started walking, not literally, but as a means to clear their heads, catch up with a friend, or hash things out. When I tried to look up the history of this ordinary yet significant thing we do, the history of going for a stroll, I could only find articles about infants’ milestones and 5ks. So for now the origin will have to remain a mystery. And until I find evidence to the contrary, I’ll just continue to imagine that the first humans found solace in taking a walk to get away from the cave, maybe to clear their heads, and we’ve been following suit ever since.
History aside, it’s really my own experience and awe of the power of a walk, especially in the woods, that brings me to write this post. A few years ago when I was going through a particularly rough patch in my life, the solitude and peace of the woods called to me. And every time I heeded the call, I found a greater sense of clarity and quietness of mind. Though it wasn’t my motivation for those walks, at least consciously, I soon discovered that the woods were healing me, step by step. A walk is great anywhere, down the street, around the block, but I have grown partial to the woods because there is nothing I can judge, nothing I can find wrong with my surroundings. Everything in the woods is as it is supposed to be, and it’s that perfection that evokes so much awe and wonder in me. Whatever problems I may face in the life I live outside the shelter of a canopy of trees, seem to dwarf and eventually diminish in the cool shadow of their protection.
When I returned to Louisville after living in Mississippi for two years, I found myself regularly visiting this city’s parks, and discovering the many trails that traverse bustling neighborhoods. The great thing about being an explorer and making discoveries, is that you become well-equipped to guide those who come after you; those who are seeking what you once sought and found.
Last Saturday night a friend called and as I listened to her litany of complaints and discontents, I stopped her short. And I blatantly said, “Look, I know what you need. You need the woods. This is what we’re going to do. Tomorrow morning we are going to get up and we are going for a hike. I need it, you need it. So that’s what we’re doing.” She agreed immediately, intrigued. Sunday morning we met at the parking lot near the Coppiced Woods trailhead. It was cool (perfect for walking), and drizzling, and though I had anticipated her cancellation after seeing the rain that morning, here she was, eager to get started.
We set out on the paved path of the Louisville Loop and my friend pointed to her left and said, “Oh look, you can go up that way if you want.” And I took a sharp cut in front of her and revealed,”Yep, that’s where we’re going.”
“You mean we’re not even going to start at level one?” she asked with some dismay.
But fear not, we had an experienced and eager, self-proclaimed tour guide in Boy Wonder. As we huffed up the first incline, he pointed out such things as tree arches hanging over the trail, and would inform us at various intervals that we were 10, 20, now 30 feet above the path below. He was taking us along at such a quick pace that my friend finally said, “No wait, this is all new to me. I need to look around a bit.” And as she began snapping pictures with her phone, capturing through her lens this beauty for the first time, she began saying such things as “It’s so beautiful” and “I had no idea.” They were the same phrases I heard from the mouths of others who walked beside me; the same phrases that resonated in my head when I first became reacquainted with the woods as an adult.
All the problems of the night before diminished from our conversation as we trekked onward. How could they exist alongside this perfection? By the time we crossed under the bridge, she was talking of painting. She was coming to life. I could recognize it because it was the same change I saw in another friend weeks before in our walk through the Big Beech Woods, and later at Red River Gorge. It was the very thing that happened to me, when in pain, I set out on a walk through the woods. Those were the moments I realized the power of a walk, and the power of the woods. It’s a power that can literally change a human being right before your eyes; or strip them down until only the truth is left.
And though these walks must always end in an exit from the quiet of the forest and a reentry into our lives, with its problems and joys, there is always a plan for our return.