Looking down-canyon at the city made me feel alive. It was the distance from it all, the altitude that enlivened my soul. Tall pines, like sharp teeth, seemed to devour the pollution-choked valley as the trail continued upward and the mountains enveloped me. I didn’t look back after that.
Last summer found me in the Wasatch mountains more days than I can count. Whittling down my top 5 reasons for being there is not easy – they are as vast as the wilderness itself, but here is my best effort.
#5. Fresh Air
Winter living in the valley of the great salt lake is much like suffocating to death in an enclosed bowl of poison gas. Sadly, it is not a metaphor, it is reality. The higher you rise above the death blanket, the clearer you see this thick, gray inversion that is soaking the lungs of the city folk and let’s be honest, it is scary. According to the Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, “unhealthy air kills as many as 2,000 people along the Wasatch Front each year, and shaves two years off a person’s life” (http://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2013/12/120613_protect-during-winter-inversion.php). Furthermore, “studies have linked poor air quality to pneumonia, lung cancer, bronchitis, increased hospital visits, and absences from school or work due to health issues” (http://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2013/12/120613_protect-during-winter-inversion.php)
Summertime is a little easier on the cellular gas exchange, but there is no denying the air is cleaner the higher you go. Get high and make sure you inhale deeply. It is delicious.
#4. No Crowds
As much as I love crowds of people…who am I kidding, I’d rather be alone among the pines. Altitude and crowds have an inverse relationship. An increase in altitude usually corresponds with a decrease in people. There are exceptions of course, the popular hikes that everyone jumps on when Saturday rolls around, but even those trails thin out if you get high enough. Downtown offers plenty of crowded space if that is what you enjoy, but to find solitude, may I suggest getting high in the mountains.
#3. The View
During a job interview a few years ago, I was asked a question that I found silly and useless. “If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?” Perhaps it is because I gave the wrong answer, but I possessed a strong dislike for that question. Recently I learned the correct way to answer it…giraffe. Be a giraffe. Why? Because they see the big picture. It is about perspective and vision. You don’t need a long neck to get a good view. Just get to higher ground. There is a reason that so many artists create depictions of nature in their work. We connect with nature; it stirs our emotions. We ourselves are part of nature and when surrounded by it in it’s wildest form, capturing a view of this big picture from higher ground, we can see more clearly the world around us and more clearly inside ourselves.
What better way to stay healthy than to exercise in the mountains. Running is something I have always enjoyed (except that quad-busting workout yesterday) and recently I told the road that our exclusive relationship was going to change as I needed to see other ground. Trail running and I have hit it off swimmingly. Whether you run it or walk it, the trails eventually take you to the same place – higher altitude. Exercise has long been shown to increase endorphins thereby elevating your mood in addition to the cardiovascular benefits. Keeping yourself fit while enjoying nature on a trail may be easier for some people who are gym-shy or not comfortable running on the street, or running at all for that matter. Hit the trails and get high on elevation and endorphins.
#1. Nature Heals the Soul
Regardless of what is going on in my life at any given moment, I know that I can always escape to the mountains to find peace and clarity. Is there a scientific reason that we as humans feel at peace in nature? Who knows. Fresh air, solitude, the view and perspective, endorphins; perhaps they all play into the healing nature of being in the wild. Maybe it is because nature is a great reminder of new things to come. Old trees die, but there is always new life. Animals are killed, but even in the snow you find big and small footprints rolling over the banks.
For me, it is all 5 of these things and more. It is the inexplicable peace that is found by going outside and gaining altitude. What draws you to the mountains?