Feeling stressed, fearful? Head outside!

The misty morning view from the Skyline Drive.

Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.

A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!

Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.

Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.

I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.

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Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.

The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.

Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.

I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.

The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.

I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.

I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.

Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.


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When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.

Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.

In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.

I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.

Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.

Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.

The splendor at trail’s end.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020