On December 28th, I was super excited as I drove my car to meet Michele…
Despite the weather forecast, which predicted a two percent chance of rain, there was a slight drizzle as Charissa Hipp, my hiking companion for the 41st week of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail,” and I started off down the trail. Once we got into the woods, the tree canopy both sheltered us from the rain and magnified the peaceful sound of the rain dripping from the leaves overhead.
We paused along the trail multiple times to “forest bathe.” Don’t panic…we didn’t get naked and jump in a stream! Forest Bathing, also known as earthing, nature immersion and forest therapy, may be new to some but not to Charissa! As founder of Girls Who Hike Maryland and Chief Experience Officer of the Nature Prescription, she is passionate about sharing nature’s incredible healing power. I felt fortunate to have a few hours to soak in her words of wisdom as we used our senses to literally soak in the ethereal beauty of the surrounding woods. I can’t tell you everything Charissa said but she explained nature’s power to transform people physically, mentally, and spiritually. According to Charissa, the key to unlocking the power of the forest is to intentionally engage all five senses and, through attention to the present moment, experience “awe.”
Believe me, Charissa knows, both personally and professionally, what she is talking about! Charissa is grateful for her time in nature, which she shared has healed her depression, decreased her blood pressure, and helped her lose weight. Professionally, she leads nature hikes and mindfulness-themed walks for local community colleges and wellness groups, with the goal of connecting others to the natural world and improving their physical health and emotional wellbeing. Motivated by Charissa to learn more on this topic, I did a little research. Did you know that according to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors? No wonder doctors in 34 states are now prescribing time in parks and green spaces to treat a range of conditions! Makes sense, right? Take a hike instead of a pill! Lots of benefits and no negative side effects!
Speaking of using our senses to take in nature, Charissa and I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without seeing yet a different species of fungi. Although fungi are visible in the woods year-round, their peak season is in the fall, and they were especially abundant on our hike due to all the moisture. We saw Turkey Tail mushrooms, which can be used to make tea, and tons of other fungi that we couldn’t identify but definitely appreciated! Every spot seemed to host a different kind of fungi or mushroom. Charissa said, “These fungi are doing a great job of decomposing these old snags which will help keep the forest floor healthy.” My favorite mushroom of the day was a giant reddish-brown and gold frilly-edged mushroom that resembled a hand-carved, highly polished wooden flower! It was spectacular and something I’d never seen before but hope to see again! A close second was a coal-black and bright white fungus on the side of a tree. It may have been two varieties side by side but with Halloween fast approaching, it reminded me of my favorite Halloween candy, a Peppermint Patty! Come to think of it, I probably got more joy snitching them from my children’s trick-or-treat hoards than eating them!
As we hiked, I got to ask Charissa about her family. She’s married and has three children, that range in age from 6 to 19 years old. The oldest, Christian, who is following in his parents’ footsteps, is a sophomore at Garrett College where he is studying Natural Resources and Wildlife Technology. Charissa’s second child, Owen, is a senior at Williamsport High School and enjoys hunting and fishing. Julia, her youngest, is in kindergarten. Charissa describes Julia as bright, focused, independent and a person who knows what she likes and doesn’t like. And she likes hiking…A LOT! Julia, aka “Pigtails”, completed the entire Maryland section of the AT before she turned 5 years old!
Curious, I asked Charissa, “Are you and Julia planning any overnight backpacking adventures?” She replied, “We are looking forward to longer trips on the trail once Julia can overcome some eating challenges.” Julia has had various types of feeding therapies but still has a limited palate and texture sensitivities. Charissa looks forward to Julia broadening the range of foods she’ll eat so she can meet the caloric demands of overnight backpacking. In the meantime, the two continue day hiking on the AT and have completed a 162-mile contiguous section of the trail from Virginia to Pennsylvania.
Heading down the incline toward the lichen-covered wall we were intentionally noting the shape, size and colors of the leaves that were covering the forest floor, when Charissa pointed out animal scat with fur in it. I had no idea what kind of animal it came from but Charissa, who is much more knowledgeable than I, hazarded a guess of coyote. During the hike, I took lots of photos of Charissa, but I really like the one by the lichen-covered wall. To me, she looks like she is “forest bathing”, intentionally enjoying the beauty of the day.
As I always think of Charissa as the “Queen of Hiking”, someone who is indefatigable when it comes to spending time on the trail, I was surprised to learn that for Charissa, our hike was the longest she had attempted in several months. I knew that she had been diagnosed with MRSA last fall but didn’t realize that she was coping with lingering health issues. She is now being treated for an active Epstein-Barr Virus infection and starting to feel some improvement for the first time in a year. Charissa is someone who does her research and is skilled at advocating for her health needs. She learned that years ago when as a young woman when she was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Despite frequent bouts of fatigue and headaches, Charissa remains positive and is thriving at her new job as the visitor center supervisor at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry. With her optimistic outlook, she continues to care for her family, manage Girls Who Hike Maryland and also regularly spend time in her happy place, the natural world! It takes strength and fortitude to navigate multiple health issues. As I watched Charissa strike the “strong woman” pose, I decided that she is more than the Queen of Hiking, she is the “Queen of Perseverance!” I admire her tenacity to seek answers to her health concerns and her willingness to discuss them. It’s important to know that when women share a struggle, it is possible that others who have a similar situation will feel less alone. And when we are vulnerable we give others the opportunity to be supportive.
Down by the stream at Warner Hollow, Charissa pointed out a tall snag that was cracked and dangerously hanging over the trail. Right away, she whipped out her phone, took a photo and said she was going to send it to the PATC, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, so that someone can take it down. Honestly, I noticed when this dead tree started angling over the trail, but I didn’t know what to do about it…Charissa Hipp to the rescue! We took a few photos down by the stream and then started our hike back the way we had come.
On the way back, of course, we took photos of…wait for it…more fungi! We discussed books and shared our recommendations with each other. Charissa likes listening to books and podcasts that explore the health benefits of nature, thru-hiker memoirs and also autobiographies. She recently listened to Obama’s autobiography while commuting to and from work, which was 29 hours long! Last year on her recommendation, I listed to the “The 3-Day Effect”, a fascinating podcast that chronicles people who have experienced healing because of time spent in nature!
As we crossed back over the wildflower field, we stopped to look at all the plants that were showing off their lovely fall fruit. We saw beautiful plants bearing red, yellow, and orange berries that looked even more beautiful than their fake cousins that grace artificial wreaths. Close to our cars, we saw a milkweed plant that was sending out its white flossy silk with the hope of spreading its seeds. It seemed a nice metaphor for the day…share what you know, you don’t know who needs the seed.