Hiker, Be Healed

This blog has been sitting in the pipe for two weeks, so it’s outdated already. But since you’re here….

Winter has come early to West Virginia, and with the arrival of the bitter weather comes the end of hiking season for me. Oh sure, I could drag my sorry self out into the woods in the frigid cold; sometimes I do. However, I’m finding myself more and more affected by the chill. A companion to my Sjogren’s Syndrome is Raynaud’s Phenomenon, characterized by hands and feet that turn white when exposed to cold. It’s exceedingly painful, and when I run them under warm water to revive them, the sensation is agony. My feet freeze in my ski boots now, and gloves are an absolute necessity, even when taking out the trash. Thus, hiking in the winter isn’t just a matter of donning a hat or an extra layer; it’s a matter of keeping my extremities from suffering actual vascular damage, and I haven’t really figured out how to combat that particular foe, yet.

The extreme cold appeared early this year. It’s only December. We still have oak leaves clinging desperately to the grove in the backyard, and so it looks more like fall than winter, but the ice has crept across the surface of the fish pond, and the flurries have been flying for two days now. I’m sorry to say that my hiking routine suffers with the falling mercury.

Just moss. Lovely, soothing moss.

My Nature Writing class a few years ago was immensely valuable because it forced me outside, and in so doing I made a discovery about myself: I need the forest. 

I know that’s the most obvious thing in the entire world. But it wasn’t to me. 

My father has known this very thing about himself for 70 years. He, too, needs the forest. He disappears into it every weekend with the dogs. As a child, I always went along. The forest was a part of my life. Saturdays and Sundays were for dog-hikes. Hundreds of hikes. Hundreds of hours over the years, one walk at a time. He never really had to ask me if I was coming along; it was understood that I would. Looking back, I’m not sure I ever asked myself if I wanted to go. I just went, as if by default. Saturday, Sunday, woods.

Birch bark is the best bark.

Of course, I took it for granted, as you do as a youngster. And it wasn’t until I was surrounded by ocean and concrete in St. Petersburg, Florida, that I began to realize the emotional and spiritual value of the forest. For the first time in my life I couldn’t just disappear into the trees. Certainly, there are parks in St. Pete, places with sandy paths through scrubland and cypress where you can spot an endangered Gopher Tortoise if you’re lucky. But the wild? The deep forest? It was a world away, tucked inland, and most unfriendly to hikers. Florida isn’t a land where you hike around. Rather, it’s a collection of snake and skeeter, and this is probably why Florida hasn’t lost all of its wilderness entirely. It’s inhospitable. You can’t really live in Florida’s forests.

You’d think a woman who wants to be a nature writer would have realized the healing power of the woods long before her 36th year, but that’s exactly how long it took me. Of course I knew I liked being there. Of course I had fun. And of course that unmistakable hemlock and spruce smell–the very scent of West Virginia itself–worked its way into my heart before my 10th birthday. But before my thirties I didn’t really carry burdens heavy enough to warrant true healing. I hadn’t yet met the enemy that is anxiety, the demon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They’re both big and heavy, and while a little white pill goes a long way, it doesn’t take me to the finish line.

I keep Xanax in my purse, just in case things suddenly feel out of control. I’m not ashamed of it, but I certainly wish I were instead one of those people who walks around with Cheez-Its in her handbag. I also wish I were a person who sits in the passenger seat of the car and thinks, “Wow, there is absolutely no chance of being crushed under the wheel of an Ocean Spray truck today.” But I’m not. In fact, on most days, I’m quite certain something is going to crush, smash, or flatten me.

Enter the woods.

No, seriously. Get off your ass and literally enter the woods. Go. Need a kick in the pants? Read about how nature affects mood. How it affects the pulmonary system. The kids‘ brains. Read and read and read, or just take my word for it and get your boots on.


Because when I enter the woods frantically scanning for an oncoming delivery of cranberry juice (sometimes those guys just pop out of the forsythia bushes, you know), I come out feeling so much better. Science will back me up on this one, over and over again. It will also assure you that a walk in the woods will boost your creativity and help you get un-stuck in your stupid brain.

A few weeks ago we had a quick warm spell before the temps plunged, and I took that opportunity to disappear into the forest to burn off some anxiety. I’ve been struggling with big-picture things like my unfinished book and my nonexistent writing career, as well as smaller tidbits like a moody 10-year-old and the fact that the cat won’t stop trying to fornicate with my heated throw.

I didn’t have time to travel to distant lands, but I did make it to the Serpentine Trail at Oglebay Park. It’s a recently re-discovered trail made suitable for woodsy types who have to be back at school by 5 to pick up their rugrats from kung fu class. Ironically, you have to park in the lot of a loud tourist trap: a series of buildings draped in Christmas lights and adorned with speakers blaring Bing and Elvis and anyone who ever stepped up to the mic to get their holiday rum-pum-pum-pum on. 


Perhaps because I could still hear the traffic on Rt. 88 as I descended into the woods, I felt the need to leave the trail almost immediately. The choice was to either walk on the path and feel a moderate level of natureyness, or to bushwhack my way through the tangle of brush, fall down the hill, and land in a muddy gulch. I chose to land in a gulch, and though it didn’t shut out the noise of traffic, it made me feel pretty good. And just a little wilder. (Because there’s nothing so badass as a 37-year-old woman in a pink Columbia jacket who grabs life by the nads and leaves the trail in a city park for a whopping six minutes.)

Hey, it helped.

Despite the tameness of the afternoon’s adventure–I tried to spice up the rawness of the experience by fording a few streams and leaping out at a startled runner a la Ursus americans, but he didn’t see the humor in it at all–the forest did what I had asked. Like a mossy green Xanax, the smell of the earth and the hemlock stand I found at the bottom of the trail worked its way through my sinuses and into the pit of my stomach. And despite the fact that I was underdressed for the temperature, I stayed well past the moment when the sun dove beneath the hillside. I stayed until I was calm again, until the live wires in my brain fizzled and died, snuffed out by the fern grove and the soggy peat.

Did you know soggy peat does that? It actually snuffs out anxiety. 

I felt so much better, in fact, that when I re-emerged from the woods, I had completely forgotten about the consumer paradise that awaited me in the parking lot. One moment I was swinging on a monkey vine (far less embarrassing if you do it in private) and the next I was enduring a cruel rebirth. I popped out of the deciduous forest and landed in a fog of exhaust. Seven tour buses were lined up beside the tourist trap, and elderly visitors stood about the lot and on the grass vaping and stuffing fudge and ice cream into their gobs. I could no longer hear the chirp of the pileated woodpecker I’d seen, and I smelled carbon monoxide rather than earthy peat. Brilliant red and green lights flashed around a manger scene, and Bing sang about that genetically-mutated flying caribou we all seem so obsessed with. As I stood and surveyed the scene, I felt both saddened that these old smokers had come from afar only to miss the best part of the park, and relieved for the same reason.

I’ve learned to go to the forest when I’m overwhelmed, when I’m feeling too much. That’s often, of late. I haven’t always been impressed with the eastern hardwood forest–in the winter it’s so dreary–but it’s easy to dismiss the value of nature if you don’t realize it’s capabilities. How human of me to brush it off until I learned what it could do for me. How sad. Nevertheless, I am reborn a believer. 

Sometimes I think the world offers little outside of the forest. Go, and be in it. 

Just keep your distance. Sometimes I have to pee out there.




Wherein the writer collapses in on herself

You know what I suck at?

Uncertainty.

That and hanging up my clean clothing. Laundry itself doesn’t bother me: it’s the part where I have to take it out of the basket where it’s been sitting, clean, for two months, and put it on a hanger. Why is that so detestable? I’d seriously rather just re-wash it and start the cycle of ignoring all over again.

I digress. That’s another thing I do that sucks. I digress all the time. And now that I have no teacher reading my words, I can digress until the cows come home and nobody will say anything. They’ll just hit the arrow button and go back to Reddit. I’m going to digress myself right out of my readers.

See what I did there? I digressed for so long because I’m uncertain. My thesis is finished, my tenure in grad school almost complete. And now I’m sitting here in recovery mode, totally clueless about what to do with myself and so mentally tapped out that I haven’t any energy to figure it out. Many people have told me to take a break from writing. In fact, a writing friend told me recently that when she completed her MFA she took a step back for the better part of a year and that it was a necessary endeavor. She assured me that the words did come back eventually, and now she’s in a pretty good groove, teaching and writing and publishing.

Enter: the control freak. If God took the “O” in OCD and formed it into a gangly pile of legs and sarcasm, He’d have me. And as the human embodiment of obsession, I cannot possibly just sit back and enjoy my time off. Oh hell no. Rather than taking a few months, or as long as I need, to reflect on the last two years of very hard work and considerable learning, I’ve decided it would be far more productive to open and close my laptop forty-five times a day, start a piece, write half of it, announce to the empty room that it’s sheepshit, hit save, and shut the computer. And then go outside and blow cicada shells off the deck, where I berate myself in the overwhelming thunder of both insect and leaf-blower.

I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of behavior they treat with SSRI’s.

Timelines haunt me. I allow them to snake their way into my writerly consciousness. So-and-so wrote blabbity-blah at age whatever. (Annie Dillard, I’m looking at you.) I hardly think I’m alone in this, and the tendency goes way past writing and bleeds into my regular life, which tells me that I’m first and foremost an obsessive and that writing chose me because I’d make it such a great little servant.

But so what if I take a few months off? What’s the worst that happens?

Well, my head tells me that if I should dare to take these months off, to let my guard down and give my body and brain a little rest, that gradually I’ll stop cracking open the laptop altogether, and I’ll stop going into my tiny blue office to write. And that in itself is a slippery slope, because I have a Christmas cactus in there and there’s nothing more pathetic than a dried out Christmas cactus lying dead on the table silently asking me if it really had to die for my lack of a literary work ethic. (The aloe plant, on the other hand, seems to have a sharp tongue, and it would loudly tell me to go fuck myself and drop dead out of spite.)

Good job; get to work.

Chatham’s MFA department awarded me “Most Innovative Thesis.” It was supposed to be “Best Creative Nonfiction Thesis,” but I told so many tall tales of raccoon and cricket that I wrote myself out of that particular category. Nevertheless, it was an honor and I was stunned to receive it. So you’d imagine that in itself would inspire me to rest upon my [very small] laurels for a few weeks, but instead it only served to remind me that I was being recognized for yesterday’s work, while today’s had not yet been finished.

Come on, brain. You can’t even budge an inch, can you? You sick little ganglion freak.

So now it’s June 1, and I’m working on settling down with the blog, and I have an essay in its most raw form, and I have ideas that are reaching for paper but not finding much success. But the children don’t start camp until next week, and somehow they’ve got this idea in their heads that their mother should do fun things with them instead of holing up with a computer and a group of foul-mouthed succulents. And next week Shawn will have a painful back procedure and Andy will have his tonsillectomy, and if the stars align properly, I’ll be driving down to Ripley for my favorite writerly event of them all: the West Virginia Writers’ Conference. The universe is making it difficult for me to focus on writing. God knows I hate taking a cue from the universe, but I may have little choice in the matter for the moment. I’m pretty sure I’m being not-so-subtly guided, but unless I receive a certified letter from Destiny advising me to put myself on hiatus, I can’t be sure.

With that, I leave to water the spider plant before it develops abandonment issues.