Bear Canyon, near Bozeman, Montana

The Importance of Decompressing

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

We took our time getting out of town, knowing it would be light well into the evening and not wanting to get started on our hike while it was still over 80 degrees outside. I had never backpacked into the wilderness for overnight camping, though I had spent plenty of time hiking through the mountains. Gear is important for trekking into bear country, so we made sure we had a can of bear spray and a loud whistle for each of us, good shoes for hiking and crossing streams, a water pump so we wouldn’t have to carry too much water, and the right food to sustain us.

It was about 5:30 in the evening when we left the car with our packs on our backs and started hiking into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area in Montana. It was a well-worn trail, lots of horses and hikers have explored the area, and many take the three mile hike in for a day trip to visit the famously beautiful Devil’s Glen section of the Dearborn River. It was not too rigorous a hike for our first trip in with heavy packs, and though my pack looked almost as big as I am, it was only around 30 pounds.

It didn’t seem like very long before we hit the three mile mark and saw a handful of tents and campers around fires in the meadow above the Devil’s Glen. We decided to keep hiking and see if we could find a more secluded spot near the river. Another 3/4 of a mile and we headed down a less-worn path toward the river. Bob spotted a perfect campsite on the other side, so we crossed carefully, found a place to pitch the tent, and settled in for two nights.

The river was loud and full of life; as we watched the sunset, we saw a trout splashing in a large pool on the opposite side of the river, heard grasshoppers and birds, and the droning sound of insects all around. After a simple dinner of freeze-dried convenience with decent flavor, we shared a sip of bourbon from the flask and sat by the river to enjoy the view. My head was clear for the moment, taking in the spectacular pink and orange across the sky.

When we climbed into our little tent and put our heads down on make-shift pillows of clothes, I thought I’d fall right to sleep. The temperature was perfect, the air clean and fresh with a slight breeze through the tent, and I was tired from the day. But as my eyes were closing, I became super aware of the sounds of the night around me, remembering that I was in bear country. It took me hours to fall asleep, jolting awake after incorporating the sound of Bob’s snore into a dream about a bear outside the tent. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep and was disappointed to wake up to the early morning light coming into the tent, and my head full of busy-ness.

I thought that within a few hours of being in the wild mountains of Montana, my head would be clear of my every day activities — but it wasn’t. Despite spending hours wandering through the spectacular wilderness, my head was still stuck in overdrive. I woke as I always wake at home, with my head full of thoughts about what would come next, what I forgot to do at work, excitement for our next musical performance, upcoming travel plans, and thoughts of what our boys might be doing at that moment by themselves at the house.

Why couldn’t I clear my head? I closed my eyes, trying hard to think of nothingness, to listen intently to the sounds around me, to smell the air and nearby wild flowers. It must have been more than 20 minutes that I tried to relax back into my sleeping bag, getting more and more frustrated with my inability to simply be there, enjoying the peaceful moment. I finally turned to Bob and suggested we get up, get the food bag from the tree, and get coffee and breakfast.

I’ve been here before; many years ago I was on my yoga pad at the end of a class, trying to get into the ending meditation provided by the instructor. I was filled with frustration. Every time I focused and dropped myself into the meditation, I’d find my mind wandering all over the place, flitting from one topic to the next. That was the moment, after about 10 years of trying, I realized I didn’t like yoga.

That first morning in the woods, focusing on action helped; I was hungry and immediately set off to pump some water for our coffee. I never would have thought flies, especially the biting kind, would be a welcome distraction. But there I was, swiping at the flies landing on my legs and starting up the little burner for coffee, no thoughts buzzing in my head but the need for coffee and oatmeal.

We packed up for a day hike and headed upstream, bushwhacking through the dense, lush forest among wild roses, Indian Paintbrush, elk scat, mushrooms, and dead trees littering the ground. Stopping along the rushing river periodically for Bob to cast his nymph, hoping for a brown trout for dinner, I had the camera poised for my own catch for the weekend. It was mostly quiet, which, in bear country, isn’t really a good thing, so I hummed and sang some of the songs we were working on for our next gig. My head wasn’t clear, but I was relaxed.

By the time we hiked back out to the car after two nights, I was tired but not exhausted. I felt strong, healthy, and comfortable in my skin, even though I smelled like I hadn’t bathed in three days. I unloaded my backpack into the car and opened the cooler we had stashed inside, pulling out my favorite local brew, Lewis and Clark Brewery’s Prickly Pear Pale Ale. My head was finally clear.

Driving back through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, I turned on my phone to let our boys know we were on our way, and to suggest they clean up evidence of junk food binging. It beeped and beeped as the signal came on to retrieve missed calls and text messages. I wanted to ignore it, but the pull of connection was too strong. I read the messages. I really didn’t miss anything. So I put the phone down and didn’t pick it up again until we unloaded the car back at our house.

I had no intention of looking at my computer when I got home, and managed to leave it closed until late into the evening when I had to review a document for a client. She was expecting feedback the next day and I knew it just had to be done.

It took me three days to disconnect from my electronic devices and clear my head. That can’t be a good thing. I made some decisions that evening, after I closed up the laptop.

  • I will set hours of device use from now on: Unless I have a looming deadline, I will not open my laptop between 10pm and 8am.
  • Disconnecting is important, so I will put my phone away when I am in a face-to-face conversation, no matter with whom or for how long.
  • I will schedule disconnected, outdoor time more regularly and find tools to help me clear my head in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of effort.
  • As annoying as mundane chores can be, I find that doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen, and weeding the garden are activities that actually clear my head. I plan to stop fighting those activities and try to take them on with the intent to clear my head, as opposed to doing them with the sole intention of accomplishing the actual task.

A lot has been written about humanity’s disconnect from nature as a result of our addiction to our electronic devices. That disconnect has wreaked havoc on our ability to safely spend time in nature and effectively connect with people around us. There are far too many recent stories of people being injured and killed in our national parks as a result of our naiveté around wild animals and dangerous areas in nature. If we don’t disconnect from screens and reconnect with people, ourselves, and our natural environment, we will lose our ability to connect in any real way with our own humanity.

What will you do to change this trajectory in your life and the lives of your family and community? How will you adjust your patterns to encourage and build a solid connection with the people you love and with the world around you?


Originally published at elkinsconsulting.com.

There are still spots available at the inaugural No Longer Virtual Conference February 23 & 24, 2017 in Atlanta. Here’s Cheryl Snapp Conner’s article in Forbes mentioning NLV as an event not to miss in 2017.

Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

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