Hiking: A World of Good

I was asked to write a short article about what hiking means to me, for the excellent Hike for Mental Health organization and their #hikeOctober campaign. I figured I’d also share my written piece here (below the sketch) in anticipation of my 41-mile birthday-trek across Maryland on the Appalachian Trail with a friend. I am hiking in support of scientific research and trail conservancy. 


copyright Karen Viola


It’s a beautiful day. The freshly-washed kind, a perfect day for hiking. But I am at the library, writing about hiking, and what it means to me. This is no simple feat. It seems the meaning of hiking to me has grown over time like wildflowers in a garden I no longer choose to tame.


I didn’t know what hiking was as a child. What I did know was the feel of wet sand and grass on my bare feet. Bee stings and blackberries. The joy of climbing trees. I loved maps. There were so many roads I wanted to take. On foot. I had a best friend who loved to explore, and we sure did. On foot. I was primed…


After college I met a man who showed me wooded trails around lily-pad lakes. So this is hiking. He brought me to the mountains and showed me how to build a proper campfire. We feasted our eyes on dying embers for hours. Thirty years later… it never gets old.


Hiking with my children meant stopping a lot. To skip stones and send sticks down a cascading stream. It meant mud pies and fireflies, scouting chores and eating s’mores. My kids knew where salamanders hid, they knew the right rocks. Twenty years later… I am still looking.


Life, as it does, brought burdens to carry and boulders to climb and my spirit grew hungry for quiet spaces with gentle sounds. I was lost, out of the woods.


Then I found a new trail, all by myself. Red blazes, every morning before work. Twenty mindful minutes of noticing trees. And all the clinging stumps, their shards of rotting wood pointing and screaming at the sky we’re still full of life! Ten years later… so am I.


Solo hiking brought my sketching practice back. It showed me how to build my own campfire. It taught me how to show my spouse where I needed to go and where to find me when I was ready to come home. It gave me a challenge I couldn’t refuse: section-hiking the Appalachian Trail, that storied, 2000-mile corridor of community and conservation. 575.9 miles woven into my life so far. The learning is endless.


Hiking has connected me with Hike for Mental Health. Because that’s what I do. And I deeply care about the quest to alleviate the suffering and obliterate the stigma associated with mental illness. Walking in wildness with intention is a body-mind workout. It is all types of fun, alone or with friends. For me, it goes beyond recreational privilege. Hiking has grown to be my pilgrimage to presence and possibility. And yes, it is a privilege.


My long, wooded walks inform my creative pursuits. Back and forth. Up and down. Art. Writing. Hiking. Living. It’s all the same struggle and oh so real. Perhaps the best advice I subscribe to is what the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit: It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.


Hiking? It guides me to my better self. It means the world to me because it brings the world to me, with all its mud and rocks, worn-out maps, stealthy salamanders, and embers flickering in the darkness.


8 Responses to “Hiking: A World of Good

  • Julie Orsini
    5 years ago

    Karen you are amazing and talented and beautiful inside and out. Your words and art touch my soul. I’m grateful to know you. Namaste. With Love, Julie

    • aw Julie, slogging through boggy woods right now, feeling pretty beat. But your words made my day!! Thank-you ???

  • Christina Cirillo
    5 years ago

    Ah, Karen, your talents are so boundless! Thank you for this wonderful read!

  • Dave Southam
    5 years ago

    Very beautiful words! I’m glad you’ve found such a cathartic escape.

    • Thanks so much! 🙂 I find hiking actually transforms ‘escape’ into ‘entrance,’ which leads to catharsis, indeed.

  • Peter Southam
    5 years ago

    Simply awesome description — right on point for anyone with a soul!


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