Mindfully Yours: Mindful Hiking that Heals

Alone, under the sky, I realize my interconnection with all that is, and everything falls into place.

I was born in the American foothills of the Appalachians, believe it or not, in Cleveland, Ohio. But that is not the start of our mountain range which I have hiked daily with my dogs in Western North Carolina for 16 years. Our range begins in Quebec, Ontario, crosses the Great Lakes and travels 1500 miles south to Alabama.

Judith Toy

Judith Toy

At various times of the year, the Southern Appalachian forest throws flowers at our feet, affords us breathtaking panoramas of our rolling hills, creates snow jewels of rime ice, dazzles us with hundreds of species of wildflowers, shines with mica, and bursts into autumn color, displaying the world’s most diverse eco-system next to the Southern Hemisphere’s rain forests. I will never forget the day I happened on the miracle of a tiny blood-red salamander on the waterfall trail off the Greybeard Loop. How could this creature be real? We host over 2,000 indigenous plants, including over 130 species of trees—more than in all of Europe. On one hour-long autumn hike in Montreat on Elizabeth’s Path, I counted no less than 23 species of mushrooms. Science estimates that there may as many as 23,000 species of fungi in our region. Alone, under the sky, I realize my interconnection with all that is, and everything falls into place.

I’ve always said if I can just get to the mountains, everything will be okay.

Not incidentally, we live in the largest remaining expanse of wilderness in the Eastern US. What better place to get in touch with our primal being, to be present in the moment, than on a mountain hike? It seems all of nature here conspires to throw away our cares and keep us happy. Nature heals. We feel the bare ground yield beneath our feet and we kiss the earth with each breath, each step. Fragrances of earth and pine fill our senses. The earth kisses us back. Our lungs and muscles feel vital and alive. In the mountains, in the fond embrace of Mother Nature, we forget to count the days. Overheard from a visitor at the hardware store this morning: “I’ve always said if I can just get to the mountains, everything will be okay.”

Every computer chip in the world uses Spruce Pine quartz.

Not only are these the world’s oldest mountains, but the French Broad River here is literally hundreds of millions of years old, among the three oldest rivers in America. I believe that the compressed quartz deposits which liberally vein our region, since quartz is a conductor of energy, create a particular electric and dynamic energy here. Because of its extreme purity, quartz from the Spruce Pine district is used to manufacture computer chips. No other quartz in the world can match the processed quartz purity from this area, and as a result, every computer chip in the world uses Spruce Pine quartz in it manufacturing process. Imagine how this remarkable silica mineral affects the energy of our own brains and bodies.

Maybe this is why folks describe Western North Carolina as a vortex. I’ve never quite understood what a vortex is, other than its physical description of whirling water or air. So I looked it up. Here, supposedly, vortexes—which by their nature are magnetic- are created not by wind or water, but from spiraling spiritual energy believed by some to facilitate prayer, meditation and healing. This explains the vast number of Ashevillians who will tell you that they were “magnetized” to this place. Whatever. I know this: as I get one-to-one with nature every day, my mind and body are calmed and the whirling vortex of my mind is stilled.

Once at the top, his fear of heights vanished … for good.

As corny as it sounds, I have to admit we, too, were magnetized here. It was a fluke. My daughter Halle, then living on the Isle of Palms, SC, searched the computer for a place where she and her one-year-old daughter could spend a long weekend with the grandparents, me and my late husband, Philip. She found what were described as “rustic” log cabins on Montreat road in Black Mountain—read moldy and unkempt, although they have since been renovated—and so we reserved a cabin for the weekend. Our first stop was the Black Mountain Bakery on Church Street, where we were enchanted by the café style, the passing parade of people and dogs, the old bearded Santa-like guy on a bench by the dulcimer store and the bells of the nearby Methodist Church.

Our next stop was the dazzling Blue Ridge Parkway and a visit to Mount Mitchell. We hiked to the top, where gazing at the clear vista of hill upon hill, Philip casually said, “I could live here.” The most amazing thing happened then. All of his life Philip had been afraid of heights, especially of driving in high places. The ride to Mitchell was tense. He was white-knuckling the steering wheel. But once at the top, his fear of heights vanished…for good. Within a year from that day, Halle and her family had moved to Ridgecrest, and Philip and I had packed up our belongings of 20 years on our Pennsylvania farm and moved to a rental cottage, sight unseen, on Sixth Street in Black Mountain. He landed a job with the American Red Cross and I was recruited to teach at a small private school, The Learning Community, on the campus of Camp Rockmont.

Right off the bat, we hit the trails.

Right off the bat we hit the trails with the kids—Lookout, Rattlesnake Mountain, Greybeard, The Old Toll Road, Royal Gorge, The Rainbow Road, the Swannanoa River—all of it. Joleah’s dad would haul her in a backpack and the five of us would set out with our dogs for a couple of hours of pure mountain bliss. Since then, I’ve been rooting here like an old magnolia. The kids moved back to the Isle of Palms and Philip passed on. Still, every day, I walk the trails with my dogs and fond memories and feel the encouragement of the rhododendrons and hemlocks, the wildflowers that speak to my own wild nature, and the grandfather trees who remember.

Judith Toy is author of Murder as a Call to Love. She is a Zen cleric, co-founder of the 15-year-old Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living — www.cloudcottage.org — and an avid hiker who attributes her good physical and mental health to daily mountain hikes combined with yoga. Toy is former associate editor of The Mindfulness Bell, the international quarterly for students of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Science, Boys Life and Exploring Magazines among others. She has made her living as a teacher, a museum educator, an artist-in-the-schools, a columnist, a publicist and a non-fiction writer.

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