Hiking has been my best therapy during the pandemic.  My husband and I do a lot of it locally and whenever we travel. If you know, you know. Climbing, walking, negotiating the switchbacks together and 30 feet apart allows you to dissolve into our own thoughts. Sedona has been on our list for awhile and with another planned international trip off due to pandemic restrictions we looked for somewhere we could drive to easily and  loaded up after Christmas for a 12 hour trek to Arizona’s geological wonderland. 

As a teacher, my husband has had a challenging year of distance learning. It’s not just missing the fun of a classroom environment, he’s worried about the mental health of his students and overall slippage of academic interest.  I’ve felt hallowed out by the constant barrage of breaking news and the cumulative loss of sleep worrying about friends, family and business owners I know that are struggling to breathe financially, spiritually and in some cases physically.  It was time to clear our minds like sweeping an arm across a table of dirty dishes and let the trail heal us in that familiar way it has for our entire 26 years of married life.

Admittedly, the desert has never been my thing. It’s been the coastal trails of the Pacific Northwest where I’ve been most creatively captivated.  Surrounded by the intense palette of green, with a peek of the ocean around every corner is the closest I’ve come to heaven on this earth and is the kind of forest bathing (or “shinrin-yoku” as the Japanese call it), that allows me to tackle a problem internally as I climb or simply let my mind go blank as I listen to my breathing and let my eyes take it in. Green is the color of stress relief. It is hopeful, forgiving, royal, strong, healing, optimistic and sturdy. 

For those of you who’ve been, you know the Arizona high desert is not green.  Even in the middle of winter, it is cold and many shades of red and orange. We drove in at night so I didn’t see much but when we stepped outside our hotel the next day for the short ride to the trailhead I was stunned by the landscape. Sedona is surrounded by red sandstone formations. With the rising or setting sun they glow brilliant orange and red.  A friend had suggested we start with a hike of Bell Rock loop trail. She told me it’s one of the “vortex” hikes. I had read about these vortices as places in nature where the earth is exceptionally alive with energy and I know many people travel to Sedona for spiritual reasons.  We were there just to hike and enjoy a landscape like we’d never seen. 

We got out early and bundled up in the 34 degree weather, hitting the trailhead shortly after sunrise. It started flat and we soon fell into that familiar pacing that set the rhythm of our boots on the rocks (crunch, crunch crunch) and is the usual precursor to our falling silent and dissolving into our internal thoughts.  I watched my shadow long and dark on the trail in front of me and the concept of our “shadow self” came to mind. The psychiatrist Carl Jung was the first to propose the theory of the shadow self. The shadow self is what you perceive to be your weaknesses, the things you deny or keep hidden. It may be sadness, rage, laziness or emotional sensitivity. It may be reacting in ways that seem out of character. It may be things you noticed about yourself this year that you don’t like. I contemplated this as I kept walking and watching the shadow change as we climbed. 

We passed a twisted juniper tree and my thoughts kept coming back to the shadow in front of me…shorter now with the sun higher but still there.  I’m not a new age kind of person but as a lifelong journalist I like to keep my mind open to all kinds of perspectives.  A persistent thought kept gently elbowing its way past my observations of the gorgeous scenery and standing in front of my mind’s eye demanding attention. It said, “Leave your shadow self here”.   I contemplated that as we kept climbing. I mentally dismissed the message because our shadow-self is integral to our personality. It’s part of you…it goes with you.  You can’t just leave it somewhere. I thought about this year and the things about myself I don’t like. Things I’d like to change.  I didn’t get down about it, I just considered those aspects curiously, like you might pick up and examine a rock. The thought kept coming, like a mantra.  “Leave your shadow self here”.

We stopped to sit on a ledge of Bell Rock and watched the trail below as it started to fill with other hikers. Across the canyon the sun was lighting up the hillside which looked like glowing copper but with geological striations marking thousands (millions?) of years. My husband, a science teacher, loves to talk about rock formations. We shared granola bars as he pointed out the tapestry of minerals that surrounded us and how we were hiking through what was an ancient seabed.  For all the gifts of our Pac Nor West coastal hikes this place had its own to offer and I was determined to let its lessons sink in on this trip, no matter how they presented themselves.

As we made our way back to the trail head I pulled up a chair in my mind and sat down with the persistent message, “Leave your shadow self here”.  I interrogated the thought, stared at it with my mind’s eye and tried to deconstruct what it meant.  In a book called, “Romancing The Shadow”, the authors write: “Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad or isolated part that we generally try to ignore”.

I thought about what aspects of my negative character I could amputate.   What could I leave at the base of Bell to be neutralized? My fear? My uncertainty? My judgement or my need for control? The answers came, I’m happy to say, by the time the parking lot was in sight. We cannot shed all negativity.  I know this and the shadow self is part of who we are but I’d like to think mine is smaller after that hike and that I left a portion of it at the base of Bell Rock. For me, it beats a New Years Resolution any day.