I use the term rambling instead of “hiking” or “walking” to imply a more meditative, purposefully impractical activity. The following thoughts can also be used as an argument for the mental health benefits of trails if you are of a more practical bent. The physical health benefits, improvement in property values, community appeal and security benefits are addressed in the Why Walk section.
When you step out from your door, you become a slightly different, slightly better person. Inside our homes, we are in control of our realm and guard its security jealously. We have our entertainment devices, our favorite chairs and vantage points, our mini-landscapes that we control and the sights, sounds and smells that are familiar and comforting to us. A home is a refuge and a safe place. But it can also restrict and dominate us. The walls that keep us safe also keep us from connecting with anything beyond them. Our horizon shrinks from the boundless to the edge of the yard. The danger of retreating behind doors is that you forever divide creation into what’s inside and everything else. This can be a great voluntary poverty.
Outside your door, there is the anxiety of a wall-less space, but also wealth that otherwise we could never afford. Outside, there are no bills to pay, no floor to sweep, no echoing voices arguing. The ever-present ghosts of our jobs, our families, our daily tribulations stacking up in countless ways all around us begin to fade away as the infinite outdoors absorbs and disperses our nagging worries into the sky and countryside. A ten minute stroll from our door takes us another world away where, even if we have not left our cares behind, we are no longer trapped in amongst them, staring out of a well to the small circle of sky and clouds above. We must have escape. Many philosophers and poets have discovered this. Once we can divest ourselves of our walls, on the trail we experience a freedom not only of space, but of thought. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” And Rousseau observed, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.”
It is hard not to find peace, or a sort of spiritual uplift wandering down the greenway on a summer day with the high white clouds scudding over in a crystalline blue sky, the wind rustling the grasses by the wayside and green dappled sunlight warming the path before you. From the bench above Sky Meadow State Park the valley stretches out like a blue green bowl hazy with cloud and you can almost smell the grapes ripening in the vineyards. We deny ourselves more than we know when we lock our doors and shut out the happiness of trees, hills, rustling grass and the smell of honeysuckle and running water.
It is easy to just wax poetic on the virtues of communing with nature. In a world that values strip malls with copious parking, cul-de-sac suburban developments that snarl traffic, endless commutes so people can live ‘in the country’, and the eclipse of community health by walls and stranger anxiety, it may seem counter-intuitive to argue that the people of the county would be happier with less of those things. There are, however, some studies which would seem to suggest we are actively making ourselves less happy by relentlessly pursing, and achieving, the accumulation of goods. In short, more ‘stuff’ will not bring us fulfillment.
I think walking, and having a safe, beautiful, and available place to do so, reduces stress and improves mood. And it also makes sense to spend money on these things. Money that could be spent on other ‘stuff’. Walking lends a wider perspective to your view and allows your cares to recede. It also grants humility and patience over time and fosters an appreciation for the local countryside and its natural charms. We do know that exercise is good for you and improves happiness. Your state of health has a correlation with mood and the amount of activity you engage in correlates with health. Thus, rambling can improve your mood in different ways, physically and mentally. Plus, walking is free. You need no gym membership or special gear.
But why spend money on trails? Our tax dollars should remain in our pockets right? What could make any of us happier than having more money? It may not surprise many to find that studies on this are mixed at best. Above a sustenance level, money seems to have little effect on our day to day happiness. Accumulating material possessions has very brief benefit to our mood and we quickly adapt to the presence of a bigger TV, a faster car, or a nicer fridge. That’s why many of us are caught in an endless work-spend-work-spend cycle. We feel unsatisfied despite roomfuls of stuff we got at Wal-Mart or Target and work all the harder to get more in the hope that the next thing will be different. This effect is rendered more understandable by the insight that people tend to be very bad at predicting what will make them happy in the first place.
So if we are driven to accumulate money in order to ‘live the good life’, let’s do it directly by investing in our community, our neighbors, and the natural beauty available to us. Otherwise, we are likely to spend it on more stuff we don’t really need in an endless quest for what we are missing. We are actually doing ourselves a disservice by undervaluing social, spiritual, and natural resources that would make us more happy and healthy. As a group, we can build trails around Warrenton and the other towns we live in and out through the rolling hills and leaf canopied roads of the county, linking small towns, stores and restaurants to welcome the jolly rambler off the road. Such a county of ramblers, I think it can be argued, will be significantly happier and healthier than we are today.
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