To the woods, seeking silence

The past two months have been a bit crazy – full of mind-bending events and goings-on, including lots of decision-making. This past weekend, I noticed that on my usually quiet, calming walk the voices in my head would not stop chattering. I was making mental lists, planning, calculating, thinking about past and future. My monkey brain was on overdrive, and the tension in my neck and shoulders had me cringing . I knew I needed a getaway that would give me the place and space to let it all go for awhile. I needed a break from all this ADULTING.

So, we packed snacks and water, grabbed our walking sticks, and headed to a new trail southwest of home – the Birkhead Mountain Trail in the Uwharrie National Forest – Birkhead MountainWilderness. Less than a quarter mile in, we saw these famous spring ephemerals – trout lilies – near a stream. They were still closed up early in cool of the morning, but by the time we returned later in the day all their yellow blooms were open and bright.

Trout lilies blooming

A mile or so from the trailhead, I stopped to take a moment and listen to the silence. No car sounds, no people talking, nothing but the hush of the winter forest showing us how to just be. I could feel my shoulders relax, my mind clear.

At one point we came across one of the most unusual things I’ve ever encountered on a hike – the metal flat steel “tire” from an old wagon wheel around a tree that was 25 feet tall. How long it had been there, I have no idea.

Further in we began climbing up to the top of a ridge, where the trail leveled off for a while, and we could see the tops of hills on both sides of us and feel the breeze as it passed over Coolers Knob Mountain and other peaks nearby. The sky alternated between brilliant blue and muted gray as clouds floated between us and the sun, but the temps were perfect for hiking.

At our turnaround point, we stopped to sit on a fallen pine to eat a snack and relax awhile. The only sound was the crunching of leaves under our feet. As we dodged wet spots along the trail on the return trip, I turned my focus to what was going on in my mind and noticed that everything I was seeing, doing, experiencing was being described in words in my head. As creatures whose main way of communicating is through words, it is difficult to turn those words off in our heads, even if we aren’t speaking them out loud.

I stopped walking and made a decision to try to experience the hike without labeling every thing and every action with words. Do you know how hard that is? I challenge you to try it. It took some effort, but I did manage to walk about 10 minutes without labeling every single thing with words. When I was successful at holding off words, the sensations of stepping on the trail felt more exaggerated – crunch, squish, soft, uneven. My skin was more sensitive to the breeze. I saw small fungi, acorns sprouting, trees growing at odd angles, and heard a few pine warblers singing. I was more in-tune with the place itself. Words quieted and out of the way of the experience.

At home, spring is showing in the landscaped cherries and plums and magnolias that are blooming. The maples and elms are flowering, too, with a promise that warmer weather and a growing season is coming. But up here on the mountain, there were few signs of spring. The starkness of the forest was a reminder that it is, indeed, still winter.

Being up on the ridge was a good reminder that it is still winter here.

Near the end of our hike, we crossed several small streams again. This time, I heard their burbling waters trickling down the hill – something I’d missed when we crossed them on the way up the hill earlier. A reminder that being mindful helps us notice what’s going on around us.

Talbott’s creek

For me, being in the woods is always magical. It is where I go to heal, to relax, to recharge, to remember my connection to the universe. Experiencing it without words in my head makes it even better. I’m grateful for my day away to embrace the silence and the magic of the woods.

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