There is a certain sense of zen when you travel in a complete circle. I’ve hiked many sections of the Ozark Highland Trail and made many “there and back” treks to stunning sections of the Ozarks like Whitaker Point and Hemmed-in-Hollow. Each form of hitting the trails is fun in its own right. I’d like to shine some light on what makes the loop life so special to my mind.
Something interesting happens to your mind when you travel in a circle. Although you are physically progressing in the subjective sense, you are also working hard to make exactly zero progress in a geographical, or objective sense. There is some magic in this paradox--I’m certain of it.
The loop life reminds you of the well known axiom of all adventures - it’s not the destination that is of supreme, life changing importance, but rather the experience of travel in itself. The simple fact that you do not a have a new destination to arrive at, but rather a starting point to return, eliminates the distraction of being overly fixated on the destination, and instead places the experience front and center.
The mind wonders about the loop. How many times has the circle been carved around by fellow travelers? How might it look different each time it is traveled? What could be deeper learned from each time you experience it? Because of this, it calls you to come back, even before you’ve left it.
The loop has a meditative like feeling to it. In meditation, you practice calming the "monkey mind," from its scattered state, to a pure, original form. You return to where you started - in a sense - to a simple state of pure present tense, to a state before your mind was cluttered with anxious thoughts toward the future, and emotional thoughts of the past. The loop life is a moving meditation.
When you are locked on the loop, there is no need to think of other options on how to spend your day, and there are no distractions toward potential actions. It removes the future decision making elements from your cognitive workload, and in doing so, frees up your mental bandwidth to more fully experience the present, because you don’t have to worry about what you might do next. There is a sense of freedom found in these moments.
The sensation of being “locked in” to the loop is accompanied by a robust feeling of connection to nature. You see, understand, and most importantly, experience how nature is connected. You sense how the clouds, rivers, and ridges are connected in through exchange their many elements. You learn that the trails work together because nature works together. You are reminded that you are inherently apart of nature because forest's and river's endless hospitality makes you feel at home. You know you are at home because of the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits you immediately experience while on the trails. Here are some of my favorites.
BENEFITS OF EXTENDED TRIPS INTO NATURE:
• Concentrated social practice. Whether you travel solo and have an extended stay with the self or travel with a group of companions, the company you keep on the trails is subject to significant development. Socially, you learn a lot about the people you share experience with and all are left better because of it. Looking to better understand an old friend or fast track a new friendship? Hit the trails and watch what happens.
• Backpacking teaches you to prepare for life things. It is fun to prepare for a backpacking experience. Gather your favorite road trip knick knacks, outdoor gear, and a proper topographical map that details your upcoming journey. As you do grab each item, your mind is flooded with the pleasures and perils of past adventures and becomes excited about what’s in store. This process highlights how preparation in life can and should be enjoyable, not just a mundane adult process.
• Mandatory mental self-improvement. Simply put, the trail makes you better. You are made better by each experience, and a backpacking experience, whether filled with pleasure discomfort, is sure to make your more confident in yourself and your abilities. Only the best version of your mental self arrives at the end of the trek. In the loop life, you can perceive the change an immediate, robust sense. Because you start and end in the same place, you aren’t distracted by the novel nature of your new destination. Ideally, everything about your physical world is the same, so the change your feel inside can be pinpointed to your mental development.
• Improved physical health. Backpacking is reported to decrease your risk of heart disease and blood sugar levels, improve your blood pressure, boost bone density and build strength throughout your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and muscles in your hips and lower legs. Need more motivation? It’s out there in spades. Backpacking strengthens your core, improves balance, helps control weight, and boosts mood as research shows that hiking has a positive impact on combating the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that at long distance hiking trips may improve our antioxidative capacity, which helps fight off disease, in the blood of oncological patients. Those big breaths on the trail aren’t just for theatrics, your body is actively improving its ability to survive and thrive on this planet.
• Improved psychological health. The combination of all the physical and mental benefits of backpacking leave the traveler in a happy and inspired state. Extended stays in nature have been anecdotally and therapeutically understood to unwind anxiety, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. Even though it is especially effective on these more negative mental dispositions, the benefits can make positive impressions across the entire spectrum of the human experience.
• Induces creativity. Research shows that spending time outdoors increases attention spans and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50 percent. We know this well at Fayettechill and are consistently amazed at the endless inspiration that nature offers.
• The ability to face challenges head on (personal favorite). Backpacking teaches you how to face challenges head on, one step at a time. The immediate, and sometimes intense physical experience serves as a guide on how to do the same in the less wild, more modern world of school and work. Attend to your projects and problems with the understanding that the solution is inevitably some distance away, so you will need to travel, or change, to get there. It will take work to accomplish your goal, but that’s okay, because you agreed to that effort when you signed up for the challenge in the first place. And you will feel and be better because of it. And just imagine what you will see along the way.
The trails are out there and believe me when I tell you they are everywhere, waiting to be walked on. Each step you take reinforces a path laid out by our predecessors in the outdoor community. You improve the trails as they improve you. And if you happen to walk in a circle, you are reminded that the trails are simply a guiding force, and that your mind is the real crucible of change when you adventure into the unknown.