How to Feel Alive

Yesterday I took the morning off – a luxury I’m very aware that as a self-employed person, I’m lucky enough to enjoy – and went up to the mountains for a walk up a steep hill.

On rare occasions I go up to the mountains on my own like this on a weekday morning – always when I’m feeling a little out of synch with the world, or moody, or something’s up and I can’t quite work out what it is, and I know that a few hours on my own in pure unadulterated nature will set me back on track again. Simply put, being alone in nature with no distractions is immensely healing.

It was just above freezing point, and a strong wind brought the wind-chill factor down by several more degrees. The sun was low in a bright blue sky, and there was snow on the ground. I set off up the hill into a low, leafless oak forest, the wind howling tremendously through the branches of the trees. I followed tracks in the snow – a fox?

I stopped where a break in the trees gave a view out over a valley, and then across a wide plateau to Madrid, far in the distance. Holding on firmly to an oak trunk, the wild wind seemed to pass right through me, the strong, low february sun lit up my face, and as every cell in my body seemed to leap into awareness, a powerful statement jumped to the forefront of my whole body and mind – “I – AM – ALIVE!”

Alive in a way you only every feel with nature all around you, alive in a way we all need to feel as often as possible – so how to feel alive? Disconnect. Get out to the countryside. No phone, not even a camera. Just me and the outside world. Not much can make you feel more truly alive than that, and transport costs aside – it’s free.

Something else happened up in the hills that day that I thought was interesting. When I parked my car in the car park where the trail begins, there was barely anyone else there. Just two other cars. No one around. Then another car turned up, and as I got out of my car, the young man in the other car got out of his. We eyed each other suspiciously…

In Steve Biddulph’s excellent book Manhood (I hugely recommended it to any men who feel a little lost sometimes as to their role/job/place in the world), he mentions how men typically view other men with huge suspicion – for example, if you are sitting on a park bench, and another man comes and sits nearby, our first reaction is often to think, “is this stranger a threat?” – I imagine this is even more the case for women.

I remembered this as me and the other guy in the car park looked at each other as we got our stuff together. We were both about to head off into the same empty wooded mountainside, and in my case I know that the old ‘fear’ habit had jumped right into my mind, a primordial reaction, weighing up a potential threat.

But for some reason I smiled, and called out, “Quite a wind isn’t it!”

“Certainly is!” he replied with a big grin, and said something else that was lost in the wind. Suddenly he looked like just a really friendly guy! We waved, and I set off up the hill. A few minutes later he caught me up, running up the hill in sports gear! He stopped for a moment to ask if I knew which way the trail went.

“I’m not sure, I think it just follows this old wall,” I said.

“Oh well,” he said, smiling again, “a la adventura!” (it’ll be an adventure!) – and he bounded off up the hill.

After my first instinctive smiling comment in the car park, fear of the other had changed to friendliness, and as I carried on up the mountain, I was following his happy footprints now as well as the fox’s. The adventurous runner. Another happy soul healing himself on the windswept mountainside.

Perhaps that helped make me feel so ALIVE that morning as well.

8 thoughts on “How to Feel Alive”

  1. Hey Ben. Could you provide me a short list of your favourite walking/hiking locations in the Madrid area? I feel a hiking trip coming on! Cheers

    1. Hi Andrew,

      My favourite places are The Silla de Flipe II near El Escorial – walk up hill from the bar – it’s not a long walk unless you keep going all the way over the mountain, but I never get that far, and apart from that, we love La Boca del Asno:

      http://www.notesfromspain.com/?p=1971

      I don’t know much more than that, those aren’t really hardcore hikes, just two places that are so wonderful that we don’t look much further yet!

      I’ve heard good things about Camino Schmidt which goes from Puerto de Navacerrada to Cercedilla so is doable with public transport and a bit of planning – bus up to P de Nav, then train home from Cercedilla.

      1. Thanks Ben! I’ve done Camino Schmidt (or parts of it) a couple of times so I’ll check out your other suggestions.

  2. This description makes me want to get out and do as you did. I am not a big hiker. I prefer a cup of coffee and a book in a good cafe. But your post is super inspiring.

  3. I walk, each day, on the North Norfolk Coast, in the pine woods, on the glorious beach or across the windswept marshes with my pair of lively collie dogs. I call it ‘washing my soul’ and experiencing the seasons as they bring about the tiny incremental changes in the natural environment day by day makes me feel alive…….and listening to you and Marina chatting in Spanish expands my horizon and gives me company when I want it….so maybe you don’t realise the positive impact you have on other people’s lives through your ‘proper’ job.
    Paula

    1. Paula, I love your description of ‘washing my soul’ – yes, it’s just like that! Soul, emotions, thoughts, senses, mind – nature washes them all clean.

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