I moved to Santa Fe in 2001 and immediately fell in love with the mountains surrounding Santa Fe—Sangre de Cristo to the east, Taos to the north, Jemez to the west, the Sandias to the south. I’ve hiked them all, each with its own awe-inspiring typography and place in my heart. Every hike was an adventure. Every hike left me increasingly grateful that I live amid such an amazing landscape.
I have dealt with depression all my life. Nothing—not drugs, biofeedback, therapy or supplements—made me feel better What always helped, at least for a while, was vigorous outdoor exercise in nature.
In 2006, facing months of chemotherapy. I scheduled treatments as best I could so there was at least one day in the week I felt well enough to hike. One morning, depression grabbed hold of me like I was its best buddy and would never let go. Desperate, I called a friend and asked if he would drive me to Big Tesuque so I could hike up to Aspen Vista—only a mile, but fairly steep, and very beautiful. “It’s snowing,” he said.
“Please,” I begged. “I really need to be in the mountains.”
“Don’t you have treatment today?”
“Not till noon. If we leave in half an hour we’ll be back in time. Please.”
He’s a good guy. A kind man. Very reluctantly, he agreed. When we got to the Big Tesuque trail head it was snowing hard. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked, clearly sure it was a terrible idea. In response, I put on my backpack and started hiking. He followed, not pleased to be on a steep trail in the middle of a snowstorm with a woman frail from chemo treatments, but I could feel my spirit rising, a deep happiness filling my being.
“Could you take a photo?” I asked. He sighed and took some photos with his cellphone. As we climbed he kept asking if I was all right. I kept saying I was fine. “My soul is happier than it’s been in years.”
He muttered something like, “Good for your soul,” but even he was soon enraptured by the beauty of the snowy woods. We hiked the rest of the way up in silence, broken only by him asking how I was. When we got to Aspen Vista road, we stopped for a moment, enjoying the vastness of the mountains frosted with snow, before heading back down the trail and to my treatment. The glow from the hike continued to nourish my soul and raised my spirit for days.
Above is one of the photographs from our hike.
Soon after the treatment ended I celebrated my 70th birthday by joining a local Sierra Club hiking group. My first hike with them was supposed to be eight miles. After crossing a stream, which I thought was half way, I learned, much to my dismay, the hike was actually ten miles—more than I had ever hiked. There was nothing to be done but to do it. At the end of the hike I was filled with joy, more than a little surprised at how well I’d hiked, even more amazed at how much better I felt at the end of the hike than I had at the beginning. I discovered I could do more than I thought I could—a valuable lesson when it came to going on long hikes. I soon relied on these outings to maintain a modicum of wellbeing and keep depression at bay.
In March of 2020 my hiking buddies quickly disappeared, not wanting to hike with anyone, even though groups were usually less than five, more like two or three. I live alone and my cat doesn’t hike. Previously, I had seldom hiked alone, and never on trails in the mountains, but the thought of confining myself to hiking on trails close to Santa Fe—parking lots and paths crowded with lots of people—was disheartening. I began to experience increasingly powerful and overwhelming bouts of helpless/hopeless feelings. I needed to do something to make myself feel better that wasn’t dependent on anyone else. This meant confronting fears about hiking by myself on a steep trail that few people knew about. This meant I was less likely to contract the virus from others, but if I fell or needed help, I’d be pretty much on my own since cell service is spotty at best. I chose to ignore my fears and hike three days a week, mostly in the mountains, knowing this was the only way I could hope to feel better.
It’s not so hard to face my fatigue and fears when the weather is sunny with mild temperatures. It’s harder when the relentless summer heat sucks energy faster than drinking electrolytes can replace it. Most difficult is hiking on unbroken snow-covered trails when the temperature is below freezing and every step is a slog. And yet, when a hiking day came, no matter the weather, with depression lurking, ready to pounce, I hiked, often feeling crappy as I began the hike, always feeling fine and grateful when I finished.
I began solo hiking in March of 2020. It is now March of 2021. Although I am a year older, approaching my 85th birthday, the decision to hike three times a week, mostly on a steep mountain trail, by myself if necessary, has been medicine for my soul and nourishment for my spirit.
How did you take care of your soul and spirit during the pandemic?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.