Lessons from the Trail

By virtue of spending a mildly obscene amount of time on hiking trails over the last decade, I’ve had a lot of time to ruminate in the midst of an astonishing array of hiking experiences. Because I’m one of those people who seeks out patterns in everything, from which I often derive analogies, I’ve been able to take a lot of observations and lessons from my hiking experiences and apply them to general lessons that can help in life. And, because I’m a therapist, I inject steroids into this process as I often use analogies from hiking to illustrate principles to people in therapy.

One of those principles concerns Black and White Thinking. This style of thinking is a cognitive distortion or logical fallacy that people often use to interpret life events, especially in comparison with other people. Quite often, people distill experiences, personal traits, or other people into two categories: good and bad. We don’t do it on purpose; it happens automatically and often without our awareness, and quite often it’s a defense mechanism we use to spare ourselves from the confusion of everyday life. The end result is that people find themselves unable to incorporate positive, negative, and neutral elements of life into a cohesive vision, instead seeing things in extremes that invites emotional distress.

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On an emotional level, black and white thinking often shows up in depression, especially when people are using this thinking style to compare themselves, their situations, their actions (always unfavorably) to those of others. Black and white thinking can show up in anxiety as anxious people often only see one possible outcome – the worst case scenario, as opposed to a multitude of scenarios that are neither all bad nor all good.

In 2014, I set about re-hiking all 250 hikes from the 4th edition of Afoot and Afield San Diego County. Prior to that time, I had cherry-picked hikes the book based on my preferences for coniferous forests and summit views. I had avoided many of the hikes in the book because certain elements made me think they’d be unenjoyable. I had the hikes I liked, and I had the hikes I didn’t like. Good, and not good.

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Hikers on social media often share similar preference-based choices when discussing trails. One subset of hikers seems to feel that if a hike isn’t challenging, it isn’t very good. One subset seems to think that bucket list hikes are worthwhile, whereas obscure hikes aren’t worthwhile. One subset also thinks that desert hiking is not enjoyable and the mountains are the best. I often fell into those same ways of thinking, all of which echo the sorts of black and white thinking that people also apply to their self-assessment and their outlook on life.

But in revising Afoot and Afield, I had to hike everything. Moreover, I had to adopt the same attitude that Jerry Schad expressed in the preface, wherein he said (and I paraphrase) that he had personally enjoyed everything in the book. If I was going to do the book justice, I would have to put my preferences aside and find what was great about each hike in the book. This process demanded that I stop thinking about some habitats as good and other habitats as not-good, or some hikes as great and other hikes as boring. I would have to appraise every hike for what it is, and I’d have to develop an appreciation for whatever qualities make a given hike special.

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This process was perhaps one of the greatest gifts the book gave to me. Not only did I cultivate an attitude where every trail I hike has something to offer, but I also began to appreciate things that I had never really considered. I fell in love with the desert, and I became more and more curious about botany, herpetology, geology, biodiversity, and bird-watching – all of which San Diego possesses in abundance thanks to a broader perspective. Now, when I take any hike, I quite often shut my brain off and simply enjoy every element of the trail, regardless of how trivial it may have once seemed. And while I still have my favorite hikes and places, any hike to me is a gift.

But this lesson translated into my personal life, too. Instead of tending to see things about myself, situations, or elements of relationships as either good or bad, I began to cultivate a similar attitude wherein I saw everything as a gray area. In the past, I’d look at one element of my job and conclude that I hated what I was doing; but now, I’d  look at that one element and balance it against all of the other elements. And not just the good ones – I’d consider the negatives, the positives, and (most often) the neutral factors that I took completely for granted.

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Looking in things from a more balanced perspective that accounts for everything as shades of gray as opposed sharply divided good/bad or black/white dichotomies allowed me to balance my attitudes, reduce my frustration/sadness/anger, and approach situations with a bit more wisdom. And in the same way that I enjoy every hike no matter how modest or grand, I now tend to enjoy a wider array of experiences without having to fixate on what’s horrible or place the good qualities on a pedestal.

One Reply to “Lessons from the Trail”

  1. Agreed. For some trails that I haven’t been on in 10 years, I can still remember the twists and turns along the way. I remember tiny details that only get stored in this complex brain because I slowed down enough to notice.

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