a walk in the woods and a realization of the inadequacies of the natural world

A few days ago, I set out on what would be my first ever solo hike. With the weather improving and a noticeable need for some time spent outside of the city limits, I packed my bags and laced up my hiking boots for what I assumed would be a life-changing bipedal adventure.

With only a few days to spare and an acute fear of being a woman alone in the wilderness, I Googled incessantly for a short and safe—but still physically rewarding—hike. After scrolling through several forums and planning public transport journeys to what seems like all of Australia’s national and state parks, I finally settled on the Walk Into History trail located in the Warburton valley. That breath of fresh air I had so been longing for was just a three-hour train and bus ride away.

The first leg of the trail would take me to Starlings Gap, where I intended to camp for one night before heading back to Melbourne the following day. But only a nine kilometer (5.59 miles) hike was nothing for this overly-determined sometimes-runner! I knew that I had to spend my whole day trekking and added a quick hike around Victoria’s own Redwood Forest and a walk to the beginning of my forested footslog to my itinerary make for a hiking adventure I could brag about.

Up at 5:30 am with a surplus of Clif bars and arguably too many layers for what was expected to be a cold night in the outdoors, I was nervously-excited for the adventure to come. I said goodbyes fit for someone leaving for a year abroad and happily switched my phone to airplane mode.

I was on my way—a self-described introvert ready for solitude… or so that’s what I thought. 

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With a beaming smile on my face, I disembarked the bus to experience the awe of the monocropped swath of Californian Redwoods. Feeling the relaxation and comfort that only Mother Nature can provide, I sauntered by a trickling creek and felt the delicious springtime sunshine on my face. It was at this point—approximately 17 minutes into my transformative traipse—that I became acutely aware of the burden of my overpacking tendencies.

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My 70L backpack was full to the max and decidedly much more carrying capacity than was recommended for such a short hike. I have a rather large tent—the Taj Majal for an overnight hiking trip—and just had to bring a book (or two). My love of coffee had necessitated the purchase of a hiking stove and, to blind and ward of tent intruders, I brought the brightest (and heaviest) flashlight available—in addition to the other lights I packed. These items were heavy—so heavy in fact, that I barely filled my Camelbak as to compensate for the nearly 20 kg (40 lbs) that would be strapped to my person (spoiler alert: trading water for practically anything is the DUMBEST way to shed backpack weight).

With no options—save litter the contents of my backpack contents—I continued on my way. To take a much-needed iPhone hiatus, I vowed to only listen to music while walking along the roadside, where cars—not nature—would be the main soundtrack. Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On became my theme song as I battled feelings of doubt about my decision to ramble alone.

After second-guessing my directions several times (no phone, no Google Maps) and almost turning back to catch a bus home, I finally made it to the beginning of the trail. I was surrounded by immense beauty—the cool environs of being deep in a forest and the cacophony of what seemed like trillions of different birds. The trees swayed in the wind, symbolic of a gesture that seemed to welcome me into their homes.

Here, I truly embarked on what would be one of the most difficult—and after returning home, eating real food, drinking a few beers and sleeping in a real bed, rewarding—experiences of my life.  

You know that feeling when something annoys you (a co-worker chewing, a pen clicking, a noise at 3 am) and then you begin to notice it nonstop? That’s how my solo endeavor in the rainforest began. If I wasn’t getting slapped in the face by a fern, I was stumbling headfirst into a spider web. I’m an American living in Australia—of course I’m terrified of the spiders here! With each sticky web clinging to my face, arms, and hair, I was sure that my deadly bite was here and I would die in the woods alone with the flashlight that didn’t offer any protection.

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I quickly lost all sense of confidence and purpose in the journey. I mean, who can have profound thoughts when Arachnophobia consumes their concentration? With each fallen log that I had to scramble over, I became utterly frustrated. I was angry and wishing there was an Uber available to save the day. With each hour that passed, I was searching endlessly for the trail to flatten out and indicate that I had made it to my resting point. I felt defeated.

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As I’m sitting in the comforts of home writing this, it’s pretty safe to assume that I made it. Seeing the clearing of the campsite amidst the ferns and 300-year-old trees, tears streamed out of my eyes. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally defeated—ready to enjoy a hot meal and a peaceful night.

But alas, my inadequate amount of water presented an additional obstacle. Rationing my 1L throughout the day meant that I had sips left by the time I arrived at Starlings Gap. With each gulp I had taken throughout the day, I was assured by my recent internet searching that indicated that the campsite had water. WRONG. Panic-stricken with thoughts of another way I was going to succumb to death, I sat in my recently erected tent and cried and cried. Not only was I scared and physically exhausted, but I was also alone.

I’ve always been independent, many times stubbornly independent. I tend to shy away from building relationships—citing introversion or insecurities or preference for solitude as reasons. Realizing now these tendencies, I became aware that the profound lessons Earth was giving me weren’t in the form of environmental insight or the reverence for the natural world. They were, in fact, the opposite. Human beings I’ve so often blamed for the environmental disasters we currently face are exactly what I needed in that moment—and what we all need now.   

Let’s face it, loneliness is killing us. We’re more isolated today than ever before (even in a world with seemingly limitless connectivity) and it’s ruining our health, our wellbeing, and I’d argue, our ability to protect the planet.

When I departed the campsite the next morning, I had a new outlook on life (and my formerly treacherous hike). Still exhausted and blister-y, I found optimism in my return journey. I felt renewed by my appreciation and, dare I say, need for human connection. As much as I’d love to live peacefully isolated and off-grid,  surrounded by Eucalypts and ferns (and even spiders!), I’m a social animal who needs other people in order to thrive.

In the days following my hike, I’ve done what I normally avoid. I’ve talked to strangers. I’ve overcome the bystander effect and helped an elderly gentleman on the train. I haven’t been engrossed in Facebook or Instagram and instead observed real humans doing real things.

For someone like me who becomes drained by excessive social interaction, I know that these are baby steps. But I also know that if we’re going to defeat the biggest threat to humanity, we’re gonna have to do it together. This means talking to people, joining as a group to protest/clean/garden, appreciating other humans for their unique attributes, and overcoming race/religion/gender/sexuality to act in a cohesive manner. For me, this means overcoming shyness and awkwardness to fight for something greater than myself.

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The natural world is amazing and awe-inspiring—certainly the source of epiphanies.  In just one day I had a changed perspective, an improved outlook on my place in the world. That’s some pretty strong medicine. Being immersed in the woods didn’t provide me with the sage tree-hugger insight I expected—it instead provided me with so much more.

If you’re in the Melbourne region and are a friend of fresh air and sore knees and glutes leave a comment to get a hiking group started 🙂

 

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