One quiet and cold early November morning 12 years ago, I woke up slowly. I made spicy chai tea, wiped a skin of frost from the window, and realized that an essential component of who I was as a kid was no longer a part of who I was as an adult.
As a child, I was quite free range — long before “free range” was a thing to be. I spent all day outside. I was happiest with dirt on the bottom of my feet, my hair in a two-day old ponytail, and cold morning air in my lungs. My connection to the natural world was instant and effortless. I understood my place in the larger ecosystem, and I felt a deep sense of belonging.
Then, like a lot of adults, I lost touch with it. It wasn’t an intentional decision, or even a conscious one, but at some point, being outside ceased to be a vital part of my day.
My life back then was wonderful and average. I had a successful 20-year career in advertising. I was often on the road, traveling for commercial shoots and client meetings. I had a healthy family with two growing boys, and a sparkly collection of friends. But during those decades, I spent most of my time indoors, in conference rooms, in meetings, on planes, in the house, in the office, in the kitchen, in cars. I was happy, but I wasn’t whole.
No wise or elegant words arrived to help me convey what I was feeling that November morning. All I could say was all that I knew something was missing. I remember reading a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe about the reason she painted, and the gist of it was: I don't know how to say how I feel, but I do know how to paint how I feel. That’s what being outside is like for me. I couldn’t be myself or know myself without nature as my teacher and companion.
But 12 years ago, there was no conversation about self- care, especially for women. As a mother, putting yourself before others was at best, rebellious, and at worst, selfish.
But if I didn’t do something, I knew the part of me that was missing would be gone forever.
So, the next morning, I got up in the dark before the world had woken; I put on my shoes and went for a walk. It was a beautiful and chilly reunion with me. I promised myself that I’d get up early every morning and go for a 60 min walk, no matter what.
That first week was wobbly, uncertain, dark, cold — and joyous.
I walked with my old hiking boots, a warm coat, one of my son’s old winter hats and mismatched mittens. No headphones. Cell phone turned off (we knew how to turn our cell phones off back then.) The quiet was overwhelming — a little frightening, even, and beautiful.
Without any distractions, I was completely present to each step. One minute I noticed the moon setting. Next, the sun rose. The community stretched all at once, in waking. The brine of the nearby ocean came to me and the spoiled sweetness of aging apples still holding to the trees. Cold morning filled my lungs. It was glorious.
I’ve walked in the snow, in the rain, on bright, sunny mornings, with all the wild birdsong accompanying me.
It’s been 12 years since I made my walking promise and I’ve never missed a day. Most days, it’s very simple: out my backdoor by 5:30 a.m., walk for an hour. A few years ago, walking alongside my sons, I calculated that over the course of these many mornings, I’d traveled the circumference of the Earth.
After more than a decade on foot, I’ve seen much of it too. I’ve walked in the great cities of the world and in the Badlands, which are not bad at all.
I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t started to walk, but I wouldn’t have gotten far.
There was a walk in Hornstrandir, a remote protected nature reserve located in the Westfjords of Iceland, about six hours from Reykivik, where I hiked with a group of 15 women over tundra, cliffs, flowering fields and ice. We were hosting “The World's Most Remote Film Festival,” for 10 days off the grid. (If you’re wondering how it’s possible to host a film festival off the grid, the short answer is … very creatively.)
I was overwhelmed by the steep cliffs, the darkness of the dark, and the brilliance of the light.
Claire cheered me on as my 61-year-old eyes or inner ear or equilibrium faltered on the switch backs, with a steep cliff on one side. Bradlee kept her hand on my pack, tender but steadfast in her care of me. In each step we made a promise of love to ourselves and each other.
Once, at home, I walked all night long through my community on the North Shore. I’d received some upsetting news late that evening at the office, a tectonic shift in my life and my family’s. I walked what I’d come to call “the Loop,” five miles around the neighborhood and through the woods. And that night — through grief, anger and uncertainty. I asked myself after each circuit, “Do you want to keep going? Do you need a hot shower, a cup of tea, a call with a friend, new socks, a hug?” What I needed was to keep walking. I walked until morning, 13 hours in total. My walking practice held space for me, but what I came to realize was that my walking practice also had me.
My favorite walk on the West Coast is an out-and-back on a dirt road that ends with the kiss of the Pacific Ocean. I take a gentle, sunny slope down to the water, pausing briefly in the shade of the eucalyptus trees and bay laurel, which are so fragrant it feels as if I’m wrapped in my father’s arms. In this sacred space, you might find a bobkitten as I once did, which causes you to stop, not in fear, but in wonder. She might be surprised to see you there — or she might not — because you’re part of her ecosystem, her homecoming, too.
This walking practice is not about the number of steps or the number of miles. It’s about the intention, the action, and the promise. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t started to walk, but I wouldn’t have gotten far.
I hope you will join me.