My last few Januaries have been dark.
I mean, January is always physically dark. The sun drags its feet in the morning, showing up late on the world stage without so much as an apology. Then it quietly exits stage left before dinner is even served, like a socially anxious person ducking out of a party to go home and curl up in bed.
January is dark by definition, and by design. But the last few Januaries, for me, have been dark-dark. “Dark night of the soul” dark. Dark like that Netflix show, Dark. (Fortunately, neither of my children have wandered into time portals via a mysterious dark cave in the woods. And I’m very grateful for that.)
My mental health ebbs hard and flows hard. The highs are usually quite high, while the lows are sometimes quite low. And December-into-January is usually the lowest ebb tide of the year.
But this year, December felt quite good. And January has felt, while not quite as good, at least manageably alright. (Although this week has been a bit iffy.) Assuming the last few days have been an anomaly, I have a partial theory why, overall, I’ve felt a bit sturdier than usual.
On each of the past 6 weekends, starting in early December, I have made it a priority to take a 2-3 hour solo hike. This is in addition to the hikes I try to take each week with my kids which, as any fellow hiking parent will attest, is a whole different experience. Hiking with kids is much slower, much noisier, and much less of a recharge (while still being refreshing on a different level).
Solo hiking is a different beast altogether. A quiet, peacefully grazing, non-predatory beast. A beast of un-burdening.
I am quite lucky to live 5 miles, 8 miles, and 11 miles away from three different Appalachian Trail crossings. Easy access to one of the most epic, historic trails ever blazed is an ever-rewarding perk of my rural central Pennsylvania existence.
The mighty Appalachian is a well-maintained, nicely contoured, rock-encrusted, densely wooded trail. It’s a sprawling corridor that lends itself to solitude and self-reflection. Two things which are, for a parent of young children, distant and faintly remembered pleasures. Heck, I think the last time either Dani or I had an uninterrupted thought at home was in June 2016 shortly before Greyson was born. (To be fair, we might have had one or two of them in 2017 while he took a nap.)
So the act of getting away from home, away from work, away from kids who demand my attention, and away from computer screens that fragment my thoughts, is a vital weekly ritual. Sometimes the only place where I can still hear my own still small voice is in the still, vast, voiceless woods.
There is a reassuring rhythm to the feel of my own footsteps on the winter-hardened wooded ground. That connection to the earth which I always maintain, courtesy of gravity, but never quite notice until I’m placing one foot in front of another on a trail.
Unlike when I walk down the uniformly carpeted hallway at work or the sturdy hardwood floor at home, no two steps on the forest floor are alike. Each one must be individually calibrated to account for rocks, roots, and constantly shifting terrain, each adjustment of my soles made subconsciously in a matter of milliseconds. It requires focus, but not the kind that furrows your brow. It’s more of a Zen thing.
I don’t truly know if my weekly solo hiking escape is what has kept me afloat during the sun-scarce days of December and January. But I’ll keep it up regardless. Because as parents, and as human beings generally, we need to recharge in solitude. And we need rituals of self-care in order to preserve our mental health.
For me, solo hiking is self-care. And the woods is my rejuvenating day spa.
If my body was a phone, nature would be my charger. And usually in January, with less time alone outside, my body battery hovers around a 25% charge. Sometimes it drops below 10%, where you start getting that red warning symbol. But this January, on the whole, I’ve been closer to 50%.
Which means my cup, while it doesn’t runneth over, is half full.
And until spring fills it up again, I’ll take that.
Gifford Pinchot State Park, 12/9/22 (not on a solo hike, but it conveys the general vibe)