I did a funny thing at the start of the year. When most people are making resolutions to join a gym and lose weight, I decided to cancel my gym membership. I had not been much of a gym person, but I had decided to sign up for a membership in the spring of 2014 in the hopes that it would get me to be a bit more active. Working from home had made me less active, and I knew I needed to do something. Going to the gym got me moving, and I found that the stationary bike was an excellent place to read while getting a little exercise. But I started noticing a problem after about a year and a half of that form of exercise. Not only was I getting bored staring at the same walls of the gym, but I was also getting lazy in the way I worked out.
Becoming engrossed in a really good book on the bike or an interesting podcast while on the elliptical often meant I was putting less effort into moving my legs. Of course, I was very good at convincing myself that I was doing a good job. I just spent an hour at the gym after all! But I could see the lack of results in my body, and I knew I had to make a change. The gym works for people who put the effort in, but for me it was becoming a lazy way to think I was getting the exercise I needed. I realized it was time to break up with the gym. It was no longer a healthy relationship.
I am lucky to live in Southern California, where the weather is nice for most of the year. I also live in a place that has easy access to wilderness areas and walking paths. Despite predictions of heavy rain from El Niño, this has been a rather dry winter, which means there has been a lot of opportunity to get outside. I have always enjoyed walking, so I made the decision in January that I was going to commit to walking approximately an hour (or more!) a day. So far, I have been successful at achieving this goal.
Walking has changed the way I think about exercise. In the gym, I kept thinking about the endless battle to lose weight. When I am out walking, it is about being out in the world, breathing in fresh air and taking in nature. Yeah, I know that sounds cliché, but head out for an hour-long hike in a park, and you’ll be throwing clichés around all over the place.
I am trying to make at least one walk a week a hike in one of the wilderness areas in my area. Recently, I have been able to take advantage of the nearby Laguna Canyon hiking trails with a good friend. The first time we went, we took a route that started in a steady two-mile hike uphill before giving way to a beautiful view from atop a ridge and an easy downhill hike back to our car. The next time we went, we decided to try a different trail—one that took us up an extremely steep 1.5-mile climb that made the previous uphill hike seem easy. There were several times I found myself scrambling up using my hands and feet as I hoped and prayed that I would not slide down the hill. I have not done a lot of hiking in my life, so I am still relatively new to this activity. I can easily say this was one of the most challenging hikes I have done.
I could rely on another cliché here and say something like, “There were times I wanted to give up,” but that was not really an option, so it did not cross my mind. By the time we got far enough in that I was struggling and wishing the endless uphill would give way to some level ground, we were nearing the mid-way point. It would have been more treacherous to turn around and try to go down those steep hills. I knew it would be better to tough it out and take the less steep downhill path we had planned to take on the second half of the hike.
Given that I have been walking several miles a day for the past couple months, I do not tire easily after only a mile, but this hike was different. My anxiety about making it safely up the hill was taking all my strength, and I kept finding myself out of breath and needing to stop frequently. My friend kept saying, “Take a step, take a breath. Take a step. Take a breath.” And eventually I made it up the hill even if it took a helpful hand reaching out and giving myself permission to take frequent breaks. And the view was amazing.
I’m just going to leave this story here without getting too philosophical or turning it into a metaphor for some life lesson. But I will say this: when we walk and get out in the world it gives us so much more than the walls of a gym can offer. It is something more than mere physical exercise, and it charges the soul. In all my walking and hiking in the past couple months, I have felt more alive than I ever felt spending an hour at the gym.
The first photo of the John Muir quote is by Tim Pershing. All other photos are by Stephanie Hammerwold in Laguna Canyon and Aliso & Wood Canyons.