Editor’s note: Throughout October, our #hikeOctober guest writers share what hiking means in their lives. Today’s guest is Karen Viola, creator of Climbing Tree Studio, a growing art-space specializing in children’s books and community engagement. A graduate of Parson School of Design, Karen’s roots run deep as an art director in the children’s publishing industry.
It’s a beautiful day. The freshly-washed kind, a perfect day for hiking. But I am at the library, writing about hiking, and what it means to me. This is no simple feat. It seems the meaning of hiking to me has grown over time like wildflowers in a garden I no longer choose to tame.
I didn’t know what hiking was as a child. What I did know was the feel of wet sand and grass on my bare feet. Bee stings and blackberries. The joy of climbing trees. I loved maps. There were so many roads I wanted to take. On foot. I had a best friend who loved to explore, and we sure did. On foot. I was primed…
After college I met a man who showed me wooded trails around lily-pad lakes. So this is hiking. He brought me to the mountains and showed me how to build a proper campfire. We feasted our eyes on dying embers for hours. Thirty years later… it never gets old.
Hiking with my children meant stopping a lot. To skip stones and send sticks down a cascading stream. It meant mud pies and fireflies, scouting chores and eating smores. My kids knew where salamanders hid, they knew the right rocks. Twenty years later… I am still looking.
Life, as it does, brought burdens to carry and boulders to climb and my spirit grew hungry for quiet spaces with gentle sounds. I was lost, out of the woods.
Then I found a new trail, all by myself. Red blazes, every morning before work. Twenty mindful minutes of noticing trees. And all the clinging stumps, their shards of rotting wood pointing and screaming at the sky, we’re still full of life! Ten years later… so am I.
Solo hiking brought my sketching practice back. It showed me how to build my own campfire. It taught me how to show my spouse where I needed to go and where to find me when I was ready to come home. It gave me a challenge I couldn’t refuse: section-hiking the Appalachian Trail, that storied, 2000-mile corridor of community and conservation. 543.5 miles woven into my life so far. The learning is endless.
Hiking has connected me with HIKE for Mental Health. Because that’s what I do. And I deeply care about the quest to alleviate the suffering and obliterate the stigma associated with mental illness. Walking in wildness with intention is a body-mind workout. It is all types of fun, alone or with friends. For me, it goes beyond recreational privilege. Hiking has grown to be my pilgrimage to presence and possibility. And yes, it is a privilege.
My long, wooded walks inform my illustrated blog, Switchbacks. Back and forth. Up and down. Art. Writing. Hiking. Living. It’s all the same struggle and oh so real. Perhaps the best advice I subscribe to is what the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit: It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.
Hiking? It guides me to my better self. It means the world to me because it brings the world to me, with all its mud and rocks, worn-out maps, stealthy salamanders, and embers flickering in the darkness.
– Karen Viola
Click here to learn more about #hikeOctober, an annual program to raise awareness of the challenges of mental illness, fund mental health research and conserve wilderness trails. #hikeOctober is free to join, open to hikers with all experience levels, and an easy way to have your walk in the woods, or around the block, make an impact!
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