Walking every day equipped me with tools to overcome sudden difficulties.

By Karen Auvinen
Updated July 27, 2018
Credit: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

I was built for endurance: My constitution runs solid instead of athletic. This makes me a hardy hiker. Ever since I moved to the mountains along Colorado’s Front Range nearly 25 years ago, I’ve roamed the hills, at first because my way-too-fast husky, Elvis, needed to run off-leash, and later because I needed to feel the earth beneath my feet. Hiking grounds me in the present—in the ocean-wave sound of wind rushing through pines and the changing patterns of light scattered across a meadow. And although I absorb it all, there’s always a moment on steep terrain when my brain kicks in, demanding, “How much farther?” I’ve learned, over the years, to stubbornly focus on those little details—the soft clump of my hiking boots and the loamy scent of mountain air—to ignore my chattering brain and keep walking.

In this way, hiking prepared me to face my biggest challenge: losing everything. Two months before I turned 40, a woodstove fire incinerated my remote cabin. In a matter of hours, my entire life—not only possessions but also decades of writing—was reduced to two feet of ash and tiny bits of charred paper that blew like snow across the mountain. I was too stunned to grieve. My immediate thought was, “Why bother?” Quitting seemed far more logical than starting from scratch. I had no idea how I would begin again.

Luckily, my body knew.

Its instinct, forged on so many trails, was to ignore my faltering thoughts. I began to organize each day around the most immediate tasks: buy underwear and a toothbrush, get supplies for my dog, borrow a laptop for teaching. I moved forward, relying on the same grit I’d once used to safely navigate a violent thunderstorm in a burned part of Yellowstone that brought hail, high winds, and trees that fell like matchsticks all around the 8½-mile loop I was on.

And I hiked. It was early spring and there was still snow on all my favorite mountain trails, so I took Elvis along the dirt road that meandered near our new cabin. After nearly six weeks of repeatedly walking the same loop, I discovered a clump of pasqueflowers—the first wildflowers of the season—stubbornly opening their purple cups to the sun along an icy bank. I began to cry: If they could do it, so could I.

Auvinen is the author of the memoir Rough Beauty.