The guides take us into a small clearing under pine trees and next to a small, rushing stream. We plop our backpacks down, our breath heaving a bit as we try to recover from the rocky, uphill walk to the trail head. Some have portable camping chairs while others of us brush away the pine needles, tiny pine cones, spiders and ants before sitting.
“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I think to myself as the group settles in and the guides begin explaining the first exercise of the 5 day retreat.
For the past few months, I’ve felt the urge to somehow mark my 40th birthday in a big way. I feel, for whatever reason, that this is a year of transition and manifestation. A year for me to finally take root and fill out the shape of who I am as a woman. Since the time I was 5, a tenderness and artistic sensitivity were present in my heart and mind. When I was 8, 9, and 10, I would walk to the edge of the woods behind my house, breathe in the scent of the earthy ground mixed with the sweet decaying smell of oak leaves, and get excited because inside those woods mystery abounded. I would take the longer, darker path and wait to hear some whispering of imagination or my spirit speak to me or reveal something important or meaningful to me. In those woods, I felt large, alive, and magical, like a woodland spirit or sprite, or when I was feeling particularly powerful and imaginative, like Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon. In my room, I would write poetry, draw my ideas, and dream of the wild things that lived not too far from my backyard.
Flash forward some 30 years later and I found myself quite removed from those childhood fantasies, dreams, and other-worldy connections. My heart was tucked away for safe keeping, and I became dominated by my mind. I was a functioning neurotic with an oddball sense of humor, a high sensitivity to other’s words and emotions, and a thirst for knowledge and wisdom. I was wracked with guilt, fear, shame, loathing, contempt, and anger at myself and my life. I secretly longed for love, passion, connection, and expression. I was having an “existential crisis” without labeling it that. Somewhere along this path, some part of my guard around my heart cracked open and I began to question if 40 would finally mark the time in my life where I stopped fearing not only my impending death but also fearing my existence. I decided to get brave and took it upon myself to find out. That’s how I found myself in the forest of the Colorado Rockies with 9 other like-minded individuals and 2 guides willing to lead us not only back into the woods but also back to our true selves.
I can not recall what the group talked about a few moments ago. On the break, I pick up a small black pebble near the creek bed and turn it over and over in my hand. It feels warm to the touch and I press it up to my face and let the sun’s baked-in warmth soak into my cheek. My head and ears are still muffled from this afternoon’s earlier altitude sickness. I hear one of the guides calling us back from break and impulsively I dip the small rock into the stream and press it again to my cheek, this time noticing the drastic difference of the cool water that surges and prickles my nerve endings.
I carry this rounded pebble with me, hold it, and use it almost like a worry stone when I hear the instructions for our first solo hike. “You probably won’t encounter a bear,” they say. “Or a mountain lion. But if you do, get really large and yell. Hold your pack over your head and show no fear. Do not run. If you see deer or elk or moose. . .give them plenty of space. . .Carry your whistles and blow really hard if you find yourself in need. Don’t stop blowing the whistle until someone finds you.”
We are instructed to find a place, preferably off-trail, that calls to us and to walk into that space and sit with that feeling of being welcomed back into the wild world. As silly as it sounds, our guides tell us that it may be beneficial to even have a conversation with the place and introduce ourselves. “Silently, right?” someone asks. One of the guides laughs and gently says, “You can. But why not speak your heart out loud? Let yourself be known. You’re being watched as it is.”
We all walk out of the clearing and like birds searching the ground for food, we begin cocking our heads, turning in circles, looking at the ground, and then looking up and down the trail to find our place. We slowly break from the flock and go our separate ways.
I begin walking up the trail, wondering when I will know where to go. I’m mindful that the creek is to my right. It’s comforting to hear the rushing waters at all times. I walk, searching for the place. My mind begins to wander with each step I take. My old patterns of worry and fear start playing their one-track song inside my head. I notice that I am no longer in the present and this noticing actually helps bring me back to the moment. Just then, I look to my left and see the sun streaming softly through the trees. This place welcomes me and invites me in.
“It’s like being in Sherwood forest or in King Arthur’s Camelot,” I muse to myself. I creep to the edge of the trail and peer through the underbrush and the overgrowth and see, at the top of the hill, a log, perfect for sitting and contemplating my life. Without any hesitation, I venture into the woods. Twigs snap under my hiking boots, tiny limbs catch on my sweatshirt, pants, and backpack. I walk on and gingerly cross over small, rotted pine trees and push aside brambles and weeds. The birds become quiet and the scramblings of squirrels and other ground animals stop as well. I have arrived at the log and I look up and see a clearing of sky between an aspen to my left and two beautiful pines to my right. There, in the blue sky and the muted sunshine is the quarter moon on its slow journey to becoming its full, luminous self.
It’s breathtaking to be able to experience sunshine, the moon, the whispers of pine and the rustle of wild grass in the breeze.
I sit down on the log and look up at the moon. The trees in front of me slightly sway, left to right, back and forth. Nature’s way of saying, “Hello.” I smile and without even thinking I wave back to the trees. I take a few deep breaths of the fresh mountain air and settle into myself. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that I’m alone, in the forest, with mountain lions, elk, moose, deer and whatever slithered away behind me. I’m supposed to be here, in this moment, with all the other living, breathing creatures of this planet. I’m supposed to sway slightly like the trees as the wind from the mountaintop breezes through this space.
I continue to gaze at the moon and just breathe. The slight chirping of birds turn into their full songs. A little squirrel begins cracking a nut at the other end of the log. We look at each other and he decides I’m not to be trusted with his bounty, so he scampers away. I laugh and I hear some creature behind me make a noise that sounds eerily like a grunt. I speak out loud to him, saying, “I hear you. I promise you I’m not here to hurt you. You’re safe. It’s Ok.” I hear him retreat and let out a sigh of relief and giggle in amusement at my bold 10 year old self talking to the woodland creatures like a loving Artemis or Snow White.
“Why have I come here?” I ask out loud to the trees that are framing the moon. “What desire lured me out West to sit on a log away from a well-worn path?” I get no response except for their gentle swaying and the glorious views around me. Suddenly, I have my answer: I am here to simply be myself. All of me. All of those parts of me that I have hidden away for whatever reason, for whatever necessity, for whatever excuse or fear or desire or need or longing that I have denied. I am to be like both the sun and the moon. The light and the shadow. The wind and the trees. The scurrying squirrel. The hidden beast. The chirping birds. The clinging vines. The broken twigs. The resting log. And I don’t have to choose; for it all has been chosen for me simply because I am a living, breathing creature of this earth. And all of me has been waiting for this part of me all along. I have been welcomed back to my wild, beautiful, natural self.