An Hour, A Trail, and a Camera

August 21, 2012. Twenty one days down, ten to go. On-lookers may reason we’re on the downhill side, but August is a lopsided mountain in student affairs – the climb, the long-haul, just keeps going until it suddenly stops somewhere in the vicinity of Labor Day (if we are lucky and our students stay sane, safe, and sober).

I was at my desk. I had reached the limit of my ability to reason clearly and push forward with the paperwork that has piled up while I’ve been training the Resident Assistants. I looked at the clock. It was only 5:20 on a beautiful afternoon. No evening session planned. I wasn’t on call.

So I bolted.

I was possessed by a sudden, single-minded energy. I had not planned it, nor had I thought of doing it until that moment. It just popped into my brain as a whole thought, and I practically tripped over my own feet in my attempt to move quickly (the fear of getting stopped by someone’s need as I try to leave campus is a very real one in August). I was home, changed, and on my way within minutes.

I saw others setting foot on the path as I pulled into parking at the Indian Creek Nature Center. But once I set out on the trail, camera in hand, I did not see another human being for a full hour. As I walked, I felt my entire body relax. My breathing deepened, and I felt my soul open up, not like a flower to the sun but like a jack-in-the-box, swiftly and all at once. I have never been a  “granola” girl, but as my physical fitness has improved I’ve discovered that getting out in nature, on foot or by bicycle, has the automatic effect of releasing any tension I carry. I relax completely.

I’ve also discovered that taking my camera has an interesting impact on my experience of nature. I feel myself expand as the tension leaves my body. And the camera exerts an opposite pull: that of focusing my attention. It would seem that expansion and focus are opposites. But in the context of nature photography, they not only coexist, they paradoxically enhance one another. As my being reaches out to the natural world surrounding me, my camera lens selects something on which to focus and I see the place and the moment in striking detail. I see light, color, texture and find I am also more grounded, able to use my other senses more extensively.

I spent one hour on my own – just me, my camera, and a few critters (both seen and unseen). By the time I returned to the parking lot, my shoulders were no longer hunched up to my ears, I was breathing normally, and (best of all) no sense of panic or worry remained in my head or thumping heart.

And now that I’ve used my words to describe the experience, I thought you might like to see some of what I saw on my short journey of expansion and focus (I took 100+ photos, so this is truly a sampling):

A Solo Hike

The beginning of the Cedar Crest Trail.

In my entire adult life, until today, I have never managed to go for a long hike in the woods by myself. I have started to, a few times, but always turned around in fear before I managed to go very far. No, I am not afraid of the woods. I admit I am easily startled by even small wild animals, but that isn’t why I have feared such hikes. Some of you know I can be a bit clumsy, and this might be a good reason to avoid heading into the woods solo, however, even the fear of injury hasn’t been the thing that stopped me.

I don’t walk alone in the woods because I am afraid of men. More specifically, I have been afraid of finding myself alone and isolated with a passing stranger who might seize this moment of vulnerability and take advantage of it. Or a couple of passing strangers.

I have had many arguments, with myself and others, about whether this is a realistic fear. I have debated the relative merits of curtailing activities in order to feel more secure (thereby holding myself back from fully experiencing things that might enrich my life) OR of taking a more courageous stance and going full steam ahead in spite of fear. In spite of what I have learned to think about as a woman in this world – that I might be easy prey for someone stronger than me.

I have been working to fear less in my life. And today just seemed like a good day to set forth on my own. I felt trepidation. When I experienced a bout of vertigo upon stepping too close the edge of a rocky cliff, I worried that I might be incompetent to hike alone on a ridge-top trail! Twice (in the same spot, headed out and back in) I encountered a beaver who was as startled to see me as I was to see him.  The only other people I encountered in the woods today were men, also out enjoying nature alone (well, one guy had a baby snuggled to his chest). I tried to cross paths with them confidently and with trust in my heart.

It was beautiful, cool and crisp in the green woods. So quiet I could hear trees creaking in the wind. So still at moments that the shy blue dragonflies hovered all around me, nearly alighting on my toes a couple of times.

Holding still, you can't see his gossamer wings!

A few hours after returning from my hike, I sat chatting in a friend’s living room. She asked if I had told anyone where I was going, when I would be back. She scolded me for not doing so, and shook her head at my impulsive trek. I could only agree with her.

And yet. There was a moment on my solo walk, breathing deeply in the loveliness and solitude, when I felt such happiness that I literally broke into a run. Me. Running. Not in fear, but in joy.

Resting on a trail-side bench.