By Heather Anderson
Like most hikers, I thrive on logging sunny, summer miles on the trails. Planning for the next summer was the only thing that could get me through the dark, cold, and often snowy months that separated mountain seasons. From October to May each year I spent hours researching and planning for the next summer’s hiking adventures.
Finally, one year I decided to head to the southern hemisphere to avoid winter altogether.
Eternal summer was blissful. I spent six weeks climbing mountains in New Zealand plus a few more lounging on beaches in Hawaii and Fiji. Back home, spring was burgeoning and soon I was enjoying sunny hikes. While I am very glad that I did that trip, I recognized that fleeing winter altogether was not the solution to my mental struggles with the season—learning to value and lean into the darkness was.
“I recognized that fleeing winter altogether was not the solution to my mental struggles with the season—learning to value and lean into the darkness was.”
In mid-September of 2018, I was hiking through remote southern Montana on the CDT. At that point I was nearly ¾ of the way through my Calendar Year Triple Crown—and I’d been hiking since the last winter storms of March. Around me the leaves were turning rich warm colors, the nights were frosty, and the sun no longer held the power it did even a month prior. I sat down on a hillside covered in red-leafed huckleberry and cried. There were many more miles to hike…and I would be heading into the first storms of winter soon.
After I cried, I gazed across the landscape bathed in the late afternoon sun and felt the dread dissipating. Plants in every direction were storing carbohydrates in their roots and letting go of summer growth to rest and wait for spring. Bears were gorging on everything they could find, investing in fat to sustain them while they slept through the hard months ahead. Ground rodents were scurrying to and fro with bits of nourishment for their winter larders so that they could take a break from relentless foraging.
“For the first time I realized the value of what nature was modeling right before my eyes. Everything needs rest.”
For the first time I realized the value of what nature was modeling right before my eyes. Everything needs rest. Light cannot exist without dark. Warmth without cold. Life without death. I’d begun a journey in the dark times and carried on through the period of genesis as life began peeking out from the snow and continued to walk through the season of fullness—now I was witnessing nature’s return to dormancy and death. Since that day I have become keenly aware of the shifting seasons and the adjustments flora and fauna make in response, mimicking them in my own life.
It’s impossible not to marvel at the way that animals prepare for and survive harsh winters, and at the way once vigorous trees and bushes are reduced to bare sticks. Under the burden of cold and snow the forest appears silent—lifeless—though it certainly isn’t. Like the trees, I have learned to draw inward and nourish my body and soul during these months. On a practical level, this ensures that I am not burned out or injured come summer. On a more nuanced level, it has taught me to sit quietly with discomfort and with myself.
Beyond simply a call to dial back the effort and busy-ness of the sunny months, autumn and winter have helped me acknowledge my own mortality and accept its inevitability as part of life itself. To truly see that being alive is dependent on death—beyond the obviousness of the food we consume, but to the very soil itself which is ancestral in origin. That in life, we are formed from death. There is a necessary balance to every aspect of living and dying. Nature models it for us with poignant grace in a continuous cycle. The more we observe, the more we learn.
While I still enjoy traveling to warm places mid-winter to stock up on vitamin D and peel off the many layers of clothes I need to wear for a run, it is no longer denial. I look to autumn as my annual reminder to prepare myself for endings and the restive months ahead. I find ways to cherish the time of rejuvenation and preparation by prioritizing sleep, eating nourishing foods, creating cozy indoor work spaces, designing complimentary workouts to ensure I stay strong without burning out, and reducing my cardio load to a maintenance level. This makes time for hobbies that are neglected in more active months, and creates more space to emphasize emotional and spiritual health practices. As snow falls and winter sets in, I take nature’s cue that it is a time to rest and find ways to honor the season in a fruitful way.