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Celebrating a birthday alone in the woods

May 24, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2017

Recently I enjoyed a day-long hike. It was a Friday, my 51st birthday, and I had cleared my work schedule in advance. As soon as Zoe and Adam, my 10- and 7-year-olds, rolled away on the morning school bus, I headed to the trailhead, about a 15-minute drive from home.

The absence of cars — and even better, people — at the parking area, brought a smile to my face. I enjoyed a couple of gulps from my water bottle before shouldering the small red pack, which contained a light windbreaker, food, first aid kit and basic emergency supplies.

The air was chilly, the sky cloudy. As the forest enveloped me, its many shades of green came into relief. Bird songs and leaves rustling in the breeze played like soft musical notes, set against a backdrop of profound silence.

Twenty minutes into my hike, I paused at a grand overlook, the place where on our family hikes the four of us break for water and snacks, mountain views stretching along the eastern horizon.

I continued on, passed the Beaver Pond and onto a section of the trail where Zoe’s and Adam’s legs have not ventured, to explore the unknown. Three hours out, three back — the trail offered me six hours of bliss and a precious reminder.

I watched a red tail hawk hunt, and a newt swim in a vernal pool. I was greeted by a porcupine, which twice turned its back toward me, before lumbering away. I saw fresh deer and moose tracks, scat of coyote and bear. It reminded me that the natural pace of life is different than the frenetic pace of my own, where my personal, family, work and community roles perpetually collide.

Time slowed during my hike, and after. I felt more spacious, that day, and throughout the following week. In this state, I remembered — once again — that my best humanness thrives under these conditions.

I am more open to ideas and suggestions. I say yes and maybe, more than no. I ask more questions, offer fewer answers. My mind feels fresh — less forgetful, confused and overwhelmed. The world appears full of possibility, and fewer obstacles.

A certain ease, at home and work, results. Though conflicts arise and challenges emerge, they are less unsettling. I function more as the husband, father, friend, colleague and neighbor that I want to be.

Running, meditation and writing — my regular practices — help balance and sustain me. But time alone in the woods is different, more enduring. So, while in recent years, a day-long hike is my special birthday ritual, I am thinking I need to celebrate my life, family and fatherhood — alone in the woods — far more often.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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