• Mary Anderson

Hiking and the Busy Brain

Editor's note: Mary wrote this post on June 21, the day she began the southbound portion of her thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail. This portion of the trail will be a real challenge, with some deep snow. You can send her an "attagirl" in the comments, below.

Glacier National Park, Montana, June 21, 2021. Photo: Mary Anderson

By Mary Anderson

Relaxing is an art I don't think I have ever been particularly good at it. For starters I have one of those bodies that likes to be in motion. If I was growing up today I might be drugged for Attention Deficit. I always want to be doing something. I like the sense of accomplishment when a task is completed. I hate the feeling of sitting around "wasting" time.

To some extent, hiking helps me combat this. My body gets so tired that it feels good to stop. I'm there in part for the views, so I am able to take at least a few moments to soak in the scenery and relax.

I've learned that true relaxing means getting the mind to quiet down along with the body. Hiking doesn't help me as much with that. It is easy to worry constantly out here. I can obsess about where I will find water, how many miles I can make in a day, the weather, worries that a grizzly will come after my food—four grizzlies have been sprayed by hikers in the last week in Glacier—and so much more. Of course, I do the same busy-brain thing at home with different worries.

Lately, I have been so tired and overwhelmed that I discovered my brain was too tired to worry. I was in 100-degree heat, moving from place to place as I rehabbed my knee. I had no clear sense of direction. One day I was in a hostel, another I was in a campground. On yet another day I was terribly car sick, stuck for hours on a broken-down bus in baking heat. I was too tired to worry. I just tried to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And darned if it didn't work.

I didn't overplan my return to the trail. I just did what seemed doable in the moment. I walked the remaining road walk on crutches, focusing just on each step and how good it felt to be moving again. The next day I was too engrossed in route-finding to do much worrying. I learned last year that I can find my way back to trail and panicking does no good. I was thrilled to discover that worry did not even enter the picture when I was lost in 100-degree heat in the desert with a bum knee. The following day crawling over 100 blown-down trees took my attention, at least until I hit snow and had to watch my steps. I had one brief moment of concern when just after seeing what I thought was a mountain lion cross the trail in front of me, I came upon its scat and tracks in the snow.

I've had moments of not worrying in my life, but this place I am in now feels like it is more encompassing. I didn't worry about if and when I would get my permit to allow me to start hiking through Glacier National Park. I just did what was in front of me to do. And darned if it didn't work out great. I was first in line at 4 a.m. and got my permit, even though the Internet was down in the park and they were having technical difficulties. Since four people are allowed on each permit, I was even able to give a spot to a hiker who arrived later than I and who would have otherwise lost out on a permit.

This is not the first time that hiking has made it clear to me that worrying about the future is a waste of brain power. I doubt it will be the last, but I sure hope I am on my way to making not jumping to the worst possible scenario a new ingrained habit.

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