September 14, 2021

How Far do I have to Hike to Notice my own Happiness?

Hiking remote trails in Virginia was a welcome alternative to the entertainment value of watching Florida Man try to parallel park.

I fled the Jersey Shore on one of the busiest weekends of the tourist season. My neighborhood would be teeming with visitors during Labor Day weekend, and home was not where I wanted to be at this time.

We started at the visitors center at the Peaks of Otter, in southwestern Virginia, one of the sites in Teddy Roosevelt’s ambitious National Parks Service project. The tidy, organized signage reminded me of Massimo Vignelli from a graphic design class. After selecting a trail with a waterfall and a rating of “moderate,” off we went.

The trail had two choices, hikers could either take the shorter but steeper incline to go straight to the waterfall or take the entire loop. The instructions at the visitors center had cautionary advice for this trail that was just a bit under two miles. “This trail drops 260 feet below the Fallingwater Trail Parking Area and hikers should be prepared to climb that elevation on their return.” The steep incline was to be particularly challenging—I hadn’t done anything more strenuous than a vacuuming marathon since the pandemic started.

We daringly decided to take the entire loop, the gravel path from the parking lot led to the full trail. The shady canopy of trees quickly removed us from the rest of the world as we hiked to the ever-louder sound of falling water. I sat on a flat rock to pull out my phone and take some pictures and I had one of those Kurt Vonnegut moments.

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” ~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The quote reminds me of our tendencies to take for granted the wonderfulness around us. I took a breath of the clean forest air and felt the cool breeze through the trees. I also noticed that this path, the longer path, the one that is harder and not completely necessary to get to the waterfall, was missing any signs that people had ever been here. 

It reminded me of George, a guy who painted our house once. He finished, gave instructions on post-painting maintenance, how to do touchups, and he said, “I worked hard on this, don’t sh*t it up.” I can’t explain the joy I felt that this path was too difficult for careless travelers to trek and ruin.

I was thinking of the plants growing beneath the trees, the leaves crunching beneath my feet, and the butterflies that occasionally crossed my path. No one had posted this all over Instagram, driving foot traffic of unaware travelers through the delicate ecosystem. Although it was a marked footpath, it was still pristine, the water clean, the land unlittered.

Before the photos and the videos were taken, I sat and contemplated the wonderfulness of the moment. I wasn’t scoping out something to share, or trying to capture this hike for later. I was experiencing it in the now. I closed my eyes and sat with the enormity of the forest, distilled into a two-mile trail.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

I have Vonnegut moments when I clean up my flower bed, trimming back the plants and remembering that this was a good year for them, with pesto cubes in the freezer to document my harvest. I have a moment when I write up my end-of-year statistics at work, knowing what we accomplished in the community. When I stop to sit—and notice my own happiness, I find that these moments were there the whole time, waiting for me.

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