When grief knots me up, I head for nature. Breathing the fresh air of the mountains pulls me out of my funk.
Nature demands nothing of me. It accepts me as I am.
Nature goes about its life and provides openings for me to participate as I want. I can sit beside a river for hours and let the sounds of the undulating water soothe my sorrow. I can wander in the forest's cool shadows when the heat and brightness of the sun become too much. Or I can tromp across a mountain and physically work out my anger and frustrations.
In the evening, I go into the meadow to listen to the birds and watch the red and orange colors of the sunset settle over the land. The beauty of the natural world has continued after the death of someone I loved, which surprised me at first. In the darkness of night, I find solace. I watch the stars as they travel through the cosmos to see what comes next.
When I met Evelyn, I had one other great love -- Yosemite. When she died, I thought I had lost Yosemite, too, because the first time back, six weeks after her death, the trip was a disaster. For twenty years, Yosemite had never failed to inspire me with awe as soon as I entered the valley -- iconic Half Dome, snow-capped mountains, green meadows, and waterfalls flowing down around the valley.
It was natural to return when Evelyn died, but that first time back, I ran into our happy memories of being there together. They burned like bonfires, reminding me who was missing. I ended up leaving early because it was too hard to be there.
On the morning I left, I went down to the river before dawn. The valley was still black. As the rising sun peeked over the mountains, it sent a beam of light into the dark forest in front of me and lit up a grove of green aspen across the river. I could see that it was amazing, but I couldn't feel anything. I knew that I needed to remember this so I took a photograph.
The message I sensed was that I was going to be okay, but I had to be patient and wait in grief's darkness for the light to reach me. This photo would end up on the cover of my book, Mountains of Light, about hiking through nature to deal with grief.
When I returned to Yosemite later in the year, I was nervous. If I still couldn't feel the beauty of the landscape, I would leave and never come back. Yosemite would be dead. But as I drove around the bend by Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan rose up to greet me.
That trip I hiked every day from sunrise to sunset. After the first hour on the trail, the chatter of surface thoughts calmed, and I became aware of feelings I hadn't had time to face. Now I had ten hours on the trail to work through them. Scenic views frequently stopped me in amazement.
Because this was the wilderness, I paid attention to my surroundings. Bears and mountain lions lived here, and occasionally I'd hear something large moving in the forest or see its tracks. I was hiking alone, and the trail often traced the edge of a cliff. Once I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I failed to notice the trail had turned and stepped over the edge. I was able to stop my slide by grabbing on to bushes.
As I watched nature carefully, I saw how it dealt with grief -- nature mourns its deaths for a moment, and then moves on. I also noticed that nature was constantly changing, even mountains made of granite. Rockslides continue to come down and bury trails and animal habitats. Mirror Lake fills in with sediment brought down by the river and becomes a meadow. Each spring the river floods and adjusts its course.
Our lives are always changing, too, because people we love continue to die and take part of us with them. Each loss tears another piece out of the fabric of our universe. Being in nature allowed wonder to come back into my life.
In those early days when I felt battered by grief, hiking to the top of a mountain gave me a jolt of energy. Looking over hundreds of miles of wilderness, I felt connected to something more powerful than death.
No matter what happens to me now, I know that I can always return here and nature will be waiting to welcome me home.