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ADVENTURE 4: Plug Into the Land (Forest Bathing) (Shenandoah NP)

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Sunday evening, 24 April 2022, Doyle River cabin

When I first tried matching parks with unique adventures, Shenandoah stumped me. The park touts camping, and hiking, and a very scenic drive - don't they all?

Then I happened on an article about a Japanese practice called shinrin yoku, or forest bathing - call it meditating in the trees. It encourages you to slow your pace and open your senses to the natural world around you. Look at the patterns in the tree bark. Feel the texture of the leaves. Listen to the breeze wafting by. Smell the woods. (A survey commissioned by the EPA found that the average American spends 93% of their time indoors, which means they experience the outdoors for only 100 minutes per day. [It didn't specify whether riding in a car counted as outdoors. Maybe only if the A/C was off and the windows down.] [Sorry, I really need to stop being such and engineer.])

In corresponding with Shenandoah's rangers prior to the trip, I mentioned doing forest bathing in their park. Their response: "I haven't heard of forest bathing before. Whatever you do, please do not add any soap or laundry detergents to the park's waters." I quickly assured them that the process has nothing to do with with soap, and they thanked me for my reply: "I guess I learned something today!"

I had a locale picked out for my grand adventure of cleaning cobwebs from my soul: the Doyle River cabin. Constructed by the CCC back in the 1930s, this primitive cabin (no electricity, gas, or water) is maintained and rented out by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I'd reserved it for the night, looking forward to using it to put the irritations of the day behind me. First, I had to get there.

The directions said to head down the Doyle River trail 0.4 miles, heading left on the side trail immediately after the spring and going uphill a couple hundred yards. After packing my dinner in my day pack, I took off to find it. I easily located the spring and the side trail. A short distance later I saw someone to my right sitting on a log, writing or drawing in a book. "There's supposed to be a cabin around here?" I asked.

"That must be it up on that rock over there," he said, pointing up. I, too, could make out the straight lines of the roof... but I could see no marked trail heading up. If I'd been on my game, I would have realized that regular visitors to the cabin (including children) must have cut a trail to it, but by this time I could only handle reflexive action, and took out bushwhacking, stepping over downed branches, pushing through bushes, and climbing a notch between rocks. Once at cabin level, I found an established trail and followed it the final few yards.

I unlocked the cabin, unloaded my pack, and left to retrieve my sleeping bag. I followed the newly found path... all of a hundred yards to the outhouse, where the trail stopped. As I now bushwhacked down from there, I couldn't even find the spur trail to the cabin, and ended up further down on the Doyle River trail. With my frustration building, I entertained thoughts of giving up and finding a comfy motel. By the time I reached the car, I knew I didn't have that option, considering the gear I'd left at the cabin. I thus grabbed my sleeping bag and headed back.

When I returned to the spot where I had gotten distracted by the artist/writer, I noticed that there indeed WAS a trail, veering off to the left where I had turned to the right. That dispelled my funk, and I returned to the cabin with a lighter step. After getting my bunk set up with mattress (provided) and bag, and setting out my simple dinner, I blanked my mind and went elemental.

Simple observations: Lichens concentrated on one side of a pine tree, but no lichens on its neighbor. The blades of grass have a scratchy quality. Birds flitting from branch to branch, then flying out of sight. A solitary bee, doing his essential duties. Buds smaller than a fingernail popping out on the bushes. An absence of human noise (except for one plane, high overhead).. The scent of pines, not mingled with automobile fumes.

I could feel the stress falling away. For a good hour I ran my hands through the dirt, sniffed the trees, looked at the chaotic patterns the bare tree branches made against the sky. After eating my simple dinner - I had never planned to heat anything up! - I sat on the patio and waited for the sun to set behind the ridge.

Soon the sky darkened, and the first stars appeared. As the darkness deepened, the sky erupted with pinpoints of light. One of my favorite movie quotes soon floated into my mind: In the 60s movie If, the character played by Malcolm McDowell looks up to the sky and says, "When you consider the billions of stars up there, and realize that many of them have planets, it's almost a mathematical certainty that somewhere up there right now, someone is ordering a pepperoni pizza to be delivered."

I must have spent another hour or more gazing at the stars - call in "heavens bathing". I let the evening fall short of a truly wilderness experience, however (that should come Thursday). The cabin was close enough to civilization that my phone could occasionally grab a network signal, so I called Sue to see how she was doing with the new cat she'd adopted today, and then chatted with my brother. It felt jarring, to sit in the forest under a blanket of stars and hear voices from hundreds of miles away.

As it got later, I indulged once more before turning in. Gazing at the heavens, I put in my ear buds, powered up my MP3 player, and added a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack to the star show.

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