10 Zen-ish Things I Learned from Hiking 60 Trails
By Mindy Sink
As I was updating the book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Denver and Boulder, I found myself learning new things—about myself and hiking. I hit the trails mostly on weekends to complete more than 60 hikes for the book in every season. Here are my takeaways that seem relevant to life, both off and on the trail:
1. Meditation doesn’t require sitting still.
I have never been able to meditate. Finding quiet time to sit in a comfortable position and let my mind go still leads to what yoga teachers call “monkey brain.” That is, my thoughts are racing around in my mind. Yet without trying at all, my thoughts would quiet on the trail. In fact, I would mentally plan in advance what problem or issue in my life to think through while on the trail. Then I would arrive, get my backpack ready, set my GPS, and start off… and nothing. By the time I returned to the trailhead after a few miles I felt calmer and sometimes realized that what I had thought was a problem really wasn’t. Om.
2. Be grateful. Or, I like my body.
I recently read an article about how we—as humans—are all increasingly out of touch with our bodies. Essentially what the author was saying is that we aren’t using our bodies, and when there is a problem, there’s a pill to take, so the true cause of a pain or other symptom is often ignored. Add to that all of the body judgment so many of us have about ourselves or others. Rather than just being awed at what our bodies can do, we push them to have certain shapes or skills (or even harm them). When I was signing on to research and write my guidebook, I boasted to my editor, “Imagine the shape I’ll be in!” How embarrassing! Who cares? By trail 30-something I was just grateful to my body for getting me up the sides of mountains and safely back to the trailhead. I stopped caring about my shape and began treating my body with more kindness and appreciation for the hard work it was doing.
3. It’s probably not personal.
I like hiking alone, but I also like to hike with family and friends. I think it’s safer to hike with companions. When I started doing my guidebook research and posting pictures on social media, people came out of the woodwork asking if they could join me. Family, close friends, people I hadn’t seen in years, all asked to hike. “Yes!” I said to every single one. Then many of these same people would vanish mid-text. There was a moment where it bugged me, but as these good intentions piled up, I found my sense of humor and empathy. For one thing, I barely had time to join me on the trail! At any moment, people might be busy with family or work or find themselves ill or not up for a hike in winter, and it doesn’t matter. Instead I saw this as a chance to appreciate that they’d reached out in the first place. (Sometimes it turned out to be a good thing I was hiking alone anyway, as I would get a little lost or discover poor conditions; it was a relief to not feel responsible for another person on the trail.)
4. You got this. Or, believe in you.
Given my deadline, as well as travel plans in another country during peak hiking season, work, family, and just life, I had friends say, “You can’t do it.” Not in a mean way, but in a math way. Ouch! But it’s not personal—and I had a deadline—so I just did the work. Yes, at times things felt out of balance in my life, but it was finite; after some time on the trail, my mind felt calmer, so I wasn’t worried. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it; I just kept hiking and doing the math and moving forward with my deadline/goal in mind.
5. A little stubbornness goes a long way.
I’ve always been a stubborn person, for better or for worse. If you’re into the zodiac, I’m an Aries through and through. There were many times on trails where I was tired or confused or fed up or not sure if I could do it, and I just kept going. For example, I hiked a mile on the wrong trail, turned around to the trailhead and started over, making my 8.5-mile hike a 10.5-mile hike one day. To be sure, this was no Cheryl Strayed moment on the Pacific Crest Trail, just a lady less than an hour’s drive from a comfortable home and a hot meal who was feeling unsure and weary and time-starved. Yet in so many ways in life this lesson can serve as a reminder to push through bouts of discomfort to achieve a goal.
6. Connect where and when possible. (Say hi to your fellow travelers.)
There’s something about being among ancient, massive trees and rocks to make a person feel small in the universe. I ended up doing many hikes in the off-season, and this meant seeing fewer hikers on trails than I would have in the summer months. I would get so excited to see them, ask about trail conditions, and share a laugh about something or other. How amazing to connect with other people! Now that we are so often looking at our little devices, hearing them unexpectedly ping in the wilderness (I used an app on my phone for my GPS), human-to-human connection feels increasingly rare and therefore special when it happens.
7. Preparation is vital.
I think I’m in the majority when I say planning is something I’m planning to get to… eventually. When it came to hiking every weekend, as opposed to just once in a while, I had to train myself to get my backpack prepared ahead of time, to research what I was getting into, to call ahead and ask about possible closures or trail conditions, to maybe buy additional gear, and so much more. The more prepared I was, the more enjoyable the experience—even in less-than-ideal conditions at times.
8. Stopping is just as important as going.
Given my schedule, I often wanted to just get to the end of the trail. Not so fast there! What’s the point if I don’t pause to see where I am? Gosh, the views. So often I was hiking in a place I had driven by my whole life, or even hiked before, but I was seeing it with new eyes, from a different perspective. Yes, I was being mindful. Remember to pause, look around, take a deep breath, and have a moment of gratitude and awareness for being in this time and place.
9. Love begins with the self. Or, keep hydrating.
It’s nice to be pampered and taken care of, and I certainly earned some massages. Yet caring starts on the trail—not after—with doing what your body needs in terms of drinking plenty of water, eating nutritious snacks, and taking a break as opposed to pushing on to the summit or rushing to the finish. When we fill our own cup, so to speak, we can be there for others, too, and research shows that giving to others simply makes us feel good. When I had to plan my own refueling, it reminded me to be kind to myself, to take care of me, and, in that way, I became more able to spread kindness to others I met along the way.
10. It’s the little things.
I didn’t do a thru-hike (or even a full segment of a thru-hike!) or climb a famous mountain or do anything extraordinary, but I did something that challenged me and I’m better for it. It wasn’t about competing or punishing my body; it was about doing something that was fun and finding ways to share it with others. None of us has to be the best, to have the most likes or follows or sponsors; we just get to improve daily and with each new hike.
About the Author
Mindy Sink is the author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Denver and Boulder and Walking Denver, which her daughter, Sophie Seymour, contributed to. She contributes regularly to The Denver Post, Colorado Parent, and other publications. Before becoming a guidebook author, Mindy worked for The New York Times Rocky Mountain Bureau, covering regional topics. Mindy also works in healthcare communications. She lives in Denver with her husband, Mike Seymour; their daughter, Sophie; and the family’s non-hiking cat, Marvel.