Off Trail, On Track | Emily Hightower

Issue #3

This time of year I spend a lot of time in the woods hiking with my bow looking for ungulates. It’s a mock connection to a more primal existence that our Western culture simply calls “sport”. This “sport” does more than occasionally fill our freezer. It helps me navigate the terrain, the animals, and corners of myself that hide most of the year in the well worn trails of society.

Elk and deer do not typically hang out on man-made trails. To find them means to maneuver high-country terrain largely ignored by the general population of chatty hikers and trail runners. We start on human trails to access deeper parts of the wilderness.

On the trail, my mind spins. I don’t need to think about where to put my feet. The soft quiet ribbon of dirt leads the way. Songs circle on repeat in my brain. Thoughts wander from the hunt strategy to remembering we need more butter and did I email back so and so….The mind is free to wander on a well worn path and it takes discipline to stay present.

We take time to stop, listen, check the wind direction, and eventually decide to head ‘off trail’. Now something changes. We start bushwhacking. We are no longer going where the trail takes us. We’re following signs; terrain, sounds, smells, tracks, wind, and scat. The line of soft dirt becomes a nest of broken loud sticks, roots, rocks, thorns, deadfall, and branches. Foot placement becomes essential to stay quiet and stable on uneven ground. Hands work away branches, eyes scan for openings and fresh animal signs. We breathe. We rotate, lunge, squat, reach, and sometimes crawl to follow the path we’re pulled on. Primal Movement without an exercise class. It seems funny, and it’s pretty fun.

Off-trail my brain and body tune into a state that feels like the way we are designed to operate. The mind is occupied with real-time concerns. I’m present, working with a place, without any unnatural rules, and it feels like anything can happen. Because anything can.

In modern life most of us forget that exciting feeling. We lose track of the real-time signs and signals that could help guide our direction. We spend days disconnected from our bodies allowing our minds to wander while we aimlessly follow a path we forgot we chose.

The path we’re on is always a choice. If you’re on a well-worn trail, you’re choosing to follow those who have gone before you. Sometimes that’s really helpful. Stay alive to the truth that even on a paved path, anything can happen, but you’ll miss opportunities if you become dulled by a mindless pattern. The senses are always available to help us track signals in our physiology and environment for where we need to go.

The hunt for me isn’t just about the meat in the freezer; it’s about the risk and fun of getting a little lost to see where the signs lead. Sometimes it puts me right on track.

Get Lost and Happy Trails,

Emily Hightower

P.S. If your path is feeling mindless or disconnected, my Skill of Stress course will help you read the signals in your physiology, regulate your state, and help you trust the way forward.