By Nicole Rivard
Two of my favorite books I’ve read in recent years are “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods.”
In “Wild” Cheryl Strayed, driven to the edge by the loss of her mother, the dissolution of her marriage and self-destructive behavior, makes a decision to halt her downward spiral and put her life back together again. With no outdoors experience, a too-heavy backpack and little else to go on but her will, Cheryl sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—one of the country’s longest and toughest through trails.
In “A Walk in the Woods” Bill Bryson details his grueling five-month journey along the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, rich forests, shimmering lakes. We also get to know the folks he meets along the way–as well as some wildlife.
For me, both books created a sense of longing for the great outdoors, the wildlife who live there and the overall healing power of nature. I found myself researching hiking clubs in Connecticut and New York. In the summer of 2016, I discovered a weekend adult hiking program offered at Mohonk Preserve in New York and signed up for a few adventures. The preserve’s mission is to protect the Shawangunk Mountains region and inspire people to care for, enjoy and explore their natural world.
Since then I find myself seeking out hiking trails to explore not only near where I live in Connecticut but whenever I travel for work or on vacation. I have a deep appreciation for all of these trails, their mystery and beauty, no matter how short or long they are.
That’s why when I learned earlier this month that it is the 50th anniversary of the National Scenic Trails Act, I felt compelled to find out more about the law. The law was passed on Oct. 2, 1968, and authorized a national system of trails to provide additional outdoor recreation opportunities and to promote the preservation of access to the outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation.
Interestingly, the concept of the first interstate recreational trail, now known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, was introduced back in 1921. Then on February 8, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his message to Congress on “Natural Beauty,” called for the nation “to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of our country, and make full use of rights-of-way and other public paths.”
Today, amazingly, the trail system has a presence in all 50 states.
For my birthday this year, which happens to fall on the first day of spring, I decided to spend the day hiking with a friend on trails inside the Pound Ridge Reservation in New York. I wanted to set a happy, healthy tone for my “new year” since I always feel restored after a hike.
I’m not alone. More and more research is piling up showing that hiking in forests has real, quantifiable mental and physical health benefits such as: boosting your immune system; lowering blood pressure; reducing stress; improving mood; increasing focus and increasing energy.
I think naturalist/author John Muir explained it best when he said, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Of course, another benefit to setting out on trails is seeing wild animals flourishing in their own way in their natural habitats. And some trails are designed to help people understand the nation’s movement across the continent and our history.
There’s no time like the present to reap the benefits of our country’s trails system—National Trails Day is Saturday, June 2. (Visit americanhiking.org/national-trails-day for events near you.) It is the only nationally coordinated event designed to unite all trail activities with the goal of connecting more people to trails.
Every trail beckons adventure and has a story to share with any person willing to discover it, and the American Hiking Society believes these trail experiences can improve the lives of every American.
I couldn’t agree more.
Happy trails to you.
Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.