I never know when the feeling will hit me. But it's usually around the one-week mark. I'll be tramping along a trail, random thoughts meandering in and out of my mind, then suddenly realize I'm relaxed. Not the kind of tranquil feeling you get after a massage, or that dreamy limbo you drift into just before you fall asleep. No, this is an all-encompassing bliss that fills your mind, body and soul.
It's difficult to articulate. Picture feeling light as a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower. Recall the carefree joy of skipping to school as a child, and the wonder of watching an orange-pink sun flame out on the horizon. Remember the deep peace of rocking an infant to sleep. Combine that lightness, joy, wonder and peace, and that's sort of how it feels.
Before I set foot on the Superior Hiking Trail, I thought that if I was mindful, I could watch it happen — pinpoint the exact moment the last molecule of stress left my body. But it sneaked up on me one day that first week. Ed and I were hiking along in silence when I abruptly stopped. Turning around to face him, I said, "Remember right before we left home, when I said this was the most stressed I'd been in my whole life?" He nodded. "Well, for the life of me, I can't remember what I was so stressed about!"
Intellectually, I knew I'd been anxious about work and family obligations. But I couldn't recall specifics. And gone were the angst and agitation that simmered just below my consciousness, ready to invade my body at the slightest provocation.
A few days later, grabbing a bagel from our motel's breakfast bar, a TV newscast caught my eye. President Donald Trump was meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the first time in history that a North Korean leader was meeting with a sitting U.S. president. I'd been avidly following the story, but once on the trail had forgotten all about it. And now it seemed a mere curiosity — nothing all that important. Tucking the bagel into my pack, I walked out the door without giving the television a second glance.
Scientists have long talked about the healing power of nature. How it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol; combat depression, stress and anxiety; decrease anger and symptoms of attention deficit disorder; and even boost longevity. The Japanese seized upon this research long ago, developing a healing practice in the 1980s called "forest bathing" that is now a major component of Japan's health care practices.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, involves walking through a forested area in a relaxed manner. Numerous studies by Japanese and South Korean scientists found forest bathing provides all of the benefits mentioned above, plus leads to increased energy, better sleep and a faster recovery from surgery and illness. Perhaps most important, forest bathing boosts the number of your body's natural killer cells — white blood cells that can slay tumor cells and those infected with a virus.
Like forest bathing, hiking — especially hiking solo — can be restorative, said Christine Whelan, a professor in the school of human ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The combination of being alone and of walking — forward motion — is powerful," she said. "We think differently when we are in motion because of evolved capacities to take in the landscape as we move. And if you can quiet your mind and listen to the sounds of nature, that kind of solitude can make you feel joined with spirit and nature much larger than you. It can offer a bit of a transcendent experience."
Indeed. After passing the 200-mile mark, I noticed a subtle shift. Incredible vistas didn't simply impress me, they filled me with joy. The first time this happened was two days after I left BlueBerry and Green Tortuga behind in Tofte. That morning, Harriet Quarles was shuttling me to the Pincushion Mountain trailhead north of Grand Marais. High-spirited as always, she had me review her van rules before heading out. Scrawled on a small piece of cardboard, they proclaimed: "Harriet's Rules: 1. No Open Containers. 2. No Sex in the Van. 3. No Pot Smoking. *4. Puking = Death!"
I was still chuckling over Harriet and her van rules as I began winding along the wide cross-country ski trails carved into Pincushion Mountain. After nearly two miles, a spur trail led to the mountain's overlook, a spacious promontory. Standing within a yard of its rocky edge, I gazed across the tops of thousands of trees carpeting the earth far below. The endless expanse of greenery was interrupted only by a sapphire patch to the east — Lake Superior — which bled off the canvas into infinity. The view was so powerful, it filled me with awe.
Awe can be defined as the sense of wonder we feel when we're in the midst of something vast and impressive. It's a feeling of reverential respect, and is often experienced in nature, when you can sense how small you are in comparison to the world. Or in my case, to Lake Superior and Pincushion Mountain. Researchers say experiencing awe can boost our well-being, creativity, hope and happiness. In a word, it's transformative.
"Awe will make you feel alive," said Susan Shumsky, author of 14 books, including "Awaken Your Divine Intuition."
Later that day, I was again transformed while hiking toward Durfee Creek south of the Kadunce River. For an hour, I plodded along a tangled mess of a trail filled with downed trees and scabby vegetation. It was difficult and unpleasant. Without warning, the path boosted me up and onto another outcrop overlooking Lake Superior. But instead of standing on bare rock, I found myself in the middle of a lush, expansive meadow smothered in wildflowers: plump daisies, stately orange daylilies, butter-yellow hawkweed, snowy morning glories. Standing in that sea of color, watching Lake Superior's never-ending blue waters meld with the sky, I wanted to stay there for the rest of my days.
Several weeks later, Green Tortuga confessed in an e-mail that he'd often had similar moments of rapture while hiking. "Sometimes when everything is going right, the sun is shining but not hot, the views are large and expansive, and you spot a bear frolicking in a meadow or a moose walks by your campsite, it can be pure bliss," he wrote. "Not a care in the world. Like when I hung out for an hour or two on [the Superior Hiking Trail's] Wolf Rock. Life felt absolutely perfect right then."
Heading out of the meadow, that was exactly my sentiment: Life felt absolutely perfect.
Melanie Radzicki McManus wrote "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail." She lives near Madison, Wis.