Lift your attention
For the appearance of the next road
It might be through a family of trees, a desert, or
On rolling waves of the sea
It’s the ancient road the soul knows
We always remember it when we see it
It beckons us a birth
It carries us home
— Joy Harjo. An excerpt from her poem Road in American Sunrise
Walking is primal. Our bodies can crave that motion. Our thoughts sway inside the boat of ourselves as we set sail on a path or road or trail. Sometimes we walk without thinking, and at other times we walk to think. As we move our muscles, however fast or slow, however buoyant or tired, there is this sense of freedom, of becoming unburdened from stasis, of allowing our minds to unravel along whatever ribbons unfold beneath our feet.
Yes, people walk for exercise. They walk for fresh air. The health benefits include weight loss, muscle gain, lowered heart rates, Vitamin D absorption, and a general sense of wellness. But what if one is unwell? What if the grief or the loss they are in mourning for is too big to sit with, to heavy to carry? What if it is pebble-sized or elephant-large? What if it adheres to the heart, makes a nest inside the chest?
Can we let it fall from us as we walk? Can it dissolve, stay a pace away, soak into the ground like rainfall, peel off of our limbs like the bark of a birch tree?
We asked four articulate friends whether walking has helped them to overcome their mourning over a loss. Here’s what they said.
“Walking is my healing balm”
Nikki Wilson Clasby, a lecturer and composition program coordinator at SUNY New Paltz, doesn’t think of loss or grieving as a specific event or tragedy, but “more like small leaks of precious life-source disappearing on a daily basis.” She grieves “time lost each day in a digital screen,” or “time spent sitting at work — my body deprived of movement. I grieve for forgetting to breathe deeply, for being conscious in the moment.”
She said she grieves for being too consumed by her work to the detriment of other things that she loves. Walking can serve as an antidote, a time out, or a time-in, depending on how you look at it.
“I almost always walk alone,” she said. “Walking is my healing balm, my opportunity to recalibrate and revitalize my spirit, my nerves. Walking for me is nutritious; it’s a vital supplement. Without walking, I wither. I need the silence, the space to unfold — expand. I need to blend into the wind, soak into the smells, lose myself in the birds.”
When she’s out hiking, Clasby feels like her life is fulfilled, and “I can die a happy person.”
“I know that sounds morbid,” she conceded, “but when I’m hiking I often feel like I have completed my life’s work, as though all that’s really important is right there in that moment.”
Her walks and hikes often take her into the Mohonk Preserve. “There is a profound energy up there, and I never tire of it,” she said.
A sense of proportion
Ashley Holloway of Poughkeepsie, a graduate student who works in a law firm, said that walking helped her through a sense of loss when her parents moved from New York to Ohio. “I could feel myself getting anxious and tense and sad about the thought of them moving away, and I didn’t want to dwell on that feeling,” she said. “So I went for a short, five-to-ten-minute walk, and when I got back to my apartment I felt much more relaxed and able to focus.”
From then on, Holloway convinced herself to just “take the recycling outside and get some fresh air,” whenever that sense of sadness would drape over her. “Once I was outside, the fresh air felt so nice that I would just keep walking around [my apartment complex] and I didn’t realize how much better I was feeling until I returned inside from my walk.”
She said that her mood would be so elevated that she almost forgot why she had decided to go for the walk in the first place. “These weren’t long walks, but they were enough to provide me with some solace because I was able to move and breathe and feel the sun, admire nature.” She said being outside gave her sadness a better sense of proportion. “It made me feel small in a way, which was reassuring.”
A return to so-called normal
For Emily Benkert of Highland, walking and hiking “can alleviate anxiety and never-ending thoughts. I don’t think that I was grieving one loss but what seemed to be a constant loss of milestones and memories as a senior collegiate athlete [during the pandemic].”
She would walk a trail behind her college campus, and when she was sent home in April 2020, she walked with her family every day in their neighborhood in Lloyd.
“We would walk to get out of our house, the four walls of our bedrooms, to breathe fresh air that hadn’t been the same air we’d been breathing for two months straight,” she said. “We’d walk just to forget the insanity that was happening around us, and we were grateful to be able to have a home and a neighborhood where we could go for a walk. So many people did not have that.”
The walking began to expand from her neighborhood to various trails and paths throughout the Hudson Valley. “Walking helped me get back to living a so-called normal life. The first thing I did with any of my friends once we started being able to see each other again was to go on walks. I have gone on more walks in the past year and a half then I had in my previous 20 years of life and now sincerely look forward to the want-to- go-for-a-walk?’ text from my friends.”
Walking was for her a life preserver in a sea of collective confusion and loss of the conventional regularity that had marked her days.
She’s right. As we begin to refill those places and spaces, will we still turn to walking, lean on our legs, thrust out our throats to the wind, and express some of that loss within us?
Living with profound grief
For Elise Gold, walking “one mountain at a time, one trail at a time, one step, and really it boils down to one breath at a time,” is how she lives her life. As people flocked to the Shawangunk mountain range to seek their own sense of solace in April 2020, Gold craved even more space.
“While they were finding a place to breathe, I was feeling smothered.” Her husband suggested that they take a hike in the Catskills, where he had been working on the “Catskill 3500 — a challenge to hike all of the peaks, 3500 feet or higher in elevation and repeat four of them in the winter, which totals 37 mountain climbs. The scale of the challenge seemed daunting to her.
She thought to herself, “I can do one peak.” They ventured out and that same day, she said: “I found a new love.”
“When her daughter Maya took her life in 2015, Elise Gold did not know that it was possible to continue her own life. Not in the sense that she was suicidal herself, but that she just didn’t know in her heart if she could go on. “It wasn’t long before I realized that, if I’m going to be here, then I need to find joy. This is my work; to find joy while living with the grief.”
It’s not that the joy that fills her when she is hiking erases the grief. “I will always live with profound grief.” She said. “Where there is grief, there was love. This love will always be there.”
For her, it is about being in this moment, and then being in the next moment. To that end, there is no alleviation. There is no working through. “I live with grief and I find joy and gratitude.”
Hiking the Catskill Mountains provided Gold a sense of timelessness. “I find myself laughing at the playful rock-hopping side of myself, groaning at a challenging rock scramble, angry or sad by the news of the day that still is gnawing at me, the fear of getting lost on the bushwhacks or blissed out while in awe of a view.”
Blliss is sustenance. “I don’t keep my eye on the time. I have my eyes on the buds, the blossoms, the boulders, the moss, the mushrooms and yes, the moon. On a few occasions, I hiked back in the dark.” She has found a new love of winter through her winter hikes.
Whether hiking alone, with her husband or a friend or a group, the act of walking provided Gold with sustenance — physical, emotional, social and spiritual. “Maya’s spirit is always with me,” she said. “When I take my time to be quiet, to just be, I feel her presence more deeply. Hiking has not alleviated the grief. It has given me pause to be more in touch with all aspects of myself, one step at a time, one breath at a time.”
Movement, breath and focus: the root beneath the heel of a boot, or the pile of pine needles hiding a slick rock, or the feel of the sun at high noon and the cool depth of the fern-flecked forest floor. All allow us to carry things with us, not to be weightless, but to be held, propped up, steadied, one soft step after another.