We were in the desert, but the concept of forest bathing was not on our radar, let alone desert bathing.
What life lessons would we encounter while surrounded by nature?
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,Lord Byron
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
Forest Bathing Connects Us to Nature
Perhaps you’ve heard of forest bathing.
Thoreau went to the woods to “live deliberately” and learn what it had to teach him. He wanted to make sure that when the end of his life approached, he would know that he had experienced life fully. He wanted to “suck out all the marrow of life…” I didn’t realize this mantra originated with Thoreau. I have a brother who refers to it often.
Jonathan Fields, in How To Life A Good Life, describes “small creeks [that] meander among towering maples…” In the woods, he finds “a small perch” where he can sit, breathe and notice. “When I walk out, life is better,” he says.
“Forest bathing” can be described as “greening up” or surrounding ourselves with trees and green plants. Even indoor plants help to create inner calm and vitality, Fields explains.
The Japanese grasped the impact of nature on our well being long before the term “forest bathing” was coined. Experiments in the 1990s in Japan demonstrated that time in nature makes us feel healthier, happier, and builds immunity.
After a week exploring the Nevada desert, I wondered if life can be equally nurtured by spending time in the desert.
My Personal Experience With Forest Bathing
The Valley of Fire located northeast of Las Vegas is aptly named. For example, rounded rocks emerging from the desert floor delight the eye with striations of red, brown, and sandstone colors.
My friend and I have chosen to explore the White Dome trail that leads to a slot canyon. Moreover, I’m intrigued with slot canyons and have never seen one. The trail is a mere 1.25 mile loop. Piece of cake!
However, it’s 95 degrees and sunny. So what? Why would I need water? After all, I have my camera and my Bandelier National Monument ball cap.
To begin with, we confidently start down the trail and immediately feel as if we’re walking on an ocean beach. On the contrary, we’re in the Nevada desert. Each step on this twisting sandy trail takes energy and effort to push forward. In other words, the tiny grains of sand make gaining traction a challenge as the surface slides beneath every step.
The air temperature feels like a preheating oven, becoming hotter as we hike.
Navigating the Desert
I find myself looking down at the path so as not to trip over a rock or unexpected object. I realize that I do this regardless of whether I’m walking a desert trail or a flat sidewalk.
Looking up from the trail presents stunning views of red rock formations. They surround the trail with an ever changing photo-worthy scene.
Occasional arrow signs indicate the direction of the slot canyon, yet we question if we’re still on the right path. Is this even a trail? There’s so much sand that we could have easily left the trail and not known it.
Are We There Yet?
I am still fixated on the sandy path, step by step.
I remind myself to look around and enjoy all there is to see along the way while releasing an attachment to the slot canyon destination. Furthermore, I’m rewarded with sights that momentarily take my breath away. The textures, shadows, and colors bring me into the present moment.
Meanwhile, the sun is as intense as a dry hot sauna after walking out of an air conditioned room. So much so that I imagine a heating pad covering my face, arms, and legs.
A stairway of rocks is maneuvered carefully as we appreciate more solid footing.
Have we made it to the halfway point? We can’t tell. My oversimplified impression of this 1.25 mile journey is being mightily challenged.
I consider an analogy of this desert hike to the evolution of a life’s story as it unfolds. Can we stay detached from a singular outcome and remain open instead to what is revealed with every step?
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
― John Muir, The Mountains of California
Ten Minutes That Make It All Worthwhile
Another trail marker leads us around the corner of a rock wall that opens to a narrow path, and we are invited into the slot canyon.
This water-less oasis in the midst of the desert is a delight and a reprieve. The steep walls ended far above our heads and brought immediate shade and cooler temperatures. The upper edges of these canyon walls framed the sky overhead in a contrasting canvas of intense blue and rich earth tones.
Can we just stay here?
Our walk through the slot canyon ended shortly after it began, lasting no more than 10 minutes.
We emerged into the bright light with sand once again beneath our feet.
The remainder of the trail took us on a different route back to our point of beginning. The terrain was flatter with more rocks and less sand, and our traction was less strenuous. We hiked on, increasingly hot and sweaty. As a result, my cheeks felt like small hot stones that I could have picked up from the desert floor.
Meanwhile, the landscape continued to reward us with see-through arches in rocks the color of red velvet ice cream. The seemingly smooth surfaces revealed their rough textures as we approached. And the plants! With extreme heat and little moisture, they somehow grow in that desert terrain!
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”Ansel Adams
Desert Bathing is a Thing
In the article, “What is Canyon Bathing?”, Kristin Scharkey describes her desert connection as feeling “immersed in a sense of awe”. She finds “mental and emotional benefits amid the muted palette of the desert.”
Scharkey references Susan Madden, a self described forest bathing guide and host of her website, Mindful Cafe.
“When you connect to nature on a deep level, you leave with a deep appreciation…”, says Madden.
Therefore, Madden confirms what I experienced: “That is particularly true in deserts. For me, it took spending quiet time in the desert to truly appreciate how much life existed there.”
The benefit of being in any kind of natural area is the opportunity to slow down, rest, and “calm our nervous systems,” as Madden states. The natural environment provides a feeling of relaxation while we immerse ourselves in the present moment. Consequently, ss we are surrounded by nature, we experience a sense of awe in response to its beauty and power.
We rounded one last rock on our return from the slot canyon to see a car driving along the road ahead. The end of our hot and challenging 1.25 mile adventure was in sight. Our final steps along the White Dome trail left us inspired by the terrain, the slot canyon, and those green plants that could win any survival competition!
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Doing Hard Things on the Desert Trail and in Life
For me, it had been a challenging 1.25 mile hike in the heat. Not ten minutes had passed on the trail before I thought about turning around.
I wondered how emergency personnel could reach me if I passed out from the heat or fell down a steep rocky incline. How disappointed would my hiking partner be to end our adventure shortly after leaving the parking area?
For this reason, I kept going, one foot in front of the other, slipping along the sandy trail. The 1.25 mile trail was a journey presenting challenges and insights along the way.
Would I do it again? Oh hell yes! The anticipated reward of a future desert bathing experience is more than enough to inspire a return visit. But, a few “course corrections” will be in order. I’ll arrive earlier in the day, carry water on the path, and wear a hat with a larger brim!
The Desert as Teacher
Desert bathing. Connecting to nature. Challenges that reap rewards. Finding solace. As a result, thoughts of this adventure continue to surface days after we left the hot trail and the stunning canyon. How do we know if we are on the “right” path as we walk the trail of our lives? How do we keep moving forward when the going gets tough?
A conversation with a life coach friend, Melissa Francisco of Transition Designs, led to drawing a parallel between my experience along the desert trail and the current chapter of my career.
I embarked on a path that seemed easily accomplished and called to me. Instead, I found unexpected twists and turns. I looked for trail markers, wondered if I had wandered off my path, and discovered unanticipated access to tranquility, beauty, and inspiration. Sometimes this path is slippery. Thus, I ask myself what exactly can I control? Intermittently, I find a place where I feel more sure footed and confident just like being on that desert trail. Absorbed by details and hyper-focused on the minuscule, I zoom in on the tiny pieces of a bigger puzzle. Glancing up, the entire vista becomes the Big Picture. When I look up from the path, I see how far I’ve come. Changing our outlook about life provides a perspective about the whole as well as the parts. Magic is found in the landscape.
Here are some questions to reflect on:
- What part of your path is presenting challenges in your life right now?
- What hard things are you facing, and how are you continuing to put one foot in front of the other?
- Where is your “go-to” location in nature and how do you feel after spending time there? Fortunately in Colorado, we have easy access to many natural areas. Perhaps your “go-to” natural area is as close as a neighborhood park.
- How can you be reminded to look up from your daily routines and be present to the opportunities and beauty that surround you?
Perhaps some forest or desert bathing is in order.
The path is a spiral. If you get stuck, look out at the wider vista and see how far you’ve traveled.Sarah Ban Breathnach
Ready for more? Check out this approach to family time in nature.