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Why Time Spent in Nature Can Be the Key to Unlocking Your Mental Prison

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Dr. Schneck is the founder of SoulTrek, which aims to bring the healing power of nature to those who struggle with mental health and wellness. SoulTrek hosts in-person hikes around the general New York City area that focus on meditation, healing, and mental and physical wellness. To join a SoulTrek and get updates about more blog posts, please subscribe here.

I had been depressed for about two weeks. The holiday season hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped, plans made and plans fell through. Finances were tight, work was tough, and I was bringing the stress home. We’d just moved back to New Jersey and I wasn’t sure what I was doing here. Life felt listless and I strained against a cycle of boredom, depression and anxiety.

Carrying this baggage, I arrived at the Bearfort Mountain Trail at 6am. The trailhead parking lot sits just past the Greenwood Lake Marina. It’s very dark pulling in an hour and a half before sunrise.

Getting out of the car I immediately heard the sound of rushing water. The waterfalls were full due to recent rain and snowmelt. After I shut off the car headlights, the entire forest remained illuminated. I thought my headlamp was on but it wasn’t. The full moon sat perfectly above the mountain. Because it’s winter, the trees were bare so the moonlight shone through in silvery blue rays between the black bars of trees. Right in front of me the moonlight reflected off a waterfall glowing molten silver in the night.

moon rising among a dark thicket of trees

As soon as I saw that moon, I felt an opening inside of me, an unclenching, untying of a knot. Air started to poor through rusted doors and shutters of my body and mind. The rhythm of running feet and flowing water loosened the knots encircling my head.

As I gained more elevation, I could see the first glowing of dawn behind the Ringwood Mountains standing opposite me across Greenwood Lake. As I got to the rise, the full moon reflected off the bare pink conglomerate stone at my feet, blending with the subtle notes of light coming from the predawn.

I ran for about a mile and a half on the Appalachian Trail reaching a 360-degree view by an American flag. It was still definitely predawn so I figured I had enough time to do another 3 miles on top of the mountain and get to the big view by sunrise. I really wanted to see West Lake during the light of dawn. West Lake is incredible — it’s a hidden lake surrounded by cliffs on the eastern side and a tree bank on the west. But I got to West Lake a bit too early so it was more grey than gold.

Next, I got to Surprise Lake (another hidden lake on top of the mountain). This time I’d hit it at the perfect time. The dawn light was just peaking over the mountain ridge so the upper half of the trees ringing the lake glowed rose-golden while the bottoms were still dark. The lake itself was showing the beginnings of ice and the moon sat fat, bright, and full above the tree line.

first light of day illuminating trees above a lake

From Surprise Lake I crested the ridge towards the big viewpoint, an open expanse of rock overlooking Greenwood Lake. As I got over the ridge it felt like running into a world of pink-gold fire. The little quartz crystals in the pink conglomerate stone glowed with rosy light, every bright green needle on the evergreen trees reflected with the dawn fire, even the dead leaves on the ground looked alive with a warm light. The valley, lake, and mountains beneath me all glimmered in different hues of pink orange and purple.

sun rising over a rocky expanse

That moment of cresting the ridge opened my closed mind.

The repetition and ennui of daily life sifted down like dust in front of the wide-open expanse of the pink gold valley. This opening happens like a door opening to a dusty basement and I realize that this little part of life that I’d been staring at, those few hopes and frustrations I’d been ruminating over, were tiny, nothing compared to this dawnfire valley.

Depression and wonder swing around each other like the opposite ends of a bolo — when one pulls, the other opens. The pulling of wonder from the brilliant pink sunrise, from the smell of pine and rhododendron and the blue silver glowing of the moon, and the pink illumination of half-lit trees above an icy lake opened the airways of my depression and let the light, water, and air pour through.

To join a SoulTrek and get updates about more blog posts, please subscribe here.

Originally published: January 31, 2023
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