When the sky darkens and wind rattles the bare branches, the best type of walking waits for us. Plus, six easy, peaceful hiking trails for Northern Michigan winter rambles.

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Confession: As much as I have chased an outdoor lifestyle, I can be a fair-weather recreationalist. I am often cold which, paired with a strong hygge streak, can find me melting in the down-wrapped cushions of my couch with a re-heated coffee, contented sigh and only the slightest pinch of self-loathing.

But one thing that will lure me out in any weather—in fact, gets even more compelling the weirder things get outside—is a good walk. For the head clearing, the heart pumping, the red-cheeked wake up … the side effects that I’ve come to love from a good wander in winter.

There are all kinds of walking for me. Dog walks, which are companionable jaunts around the neighborhood with lots of stops for sniffing or saying hello to other dog-walkers. I’ve walked for fitness, or to unwind after a stressed-out day. I’ve walked to heal from surgery, slow and measured as I knit my muscles back together. I’ve walked during periods of grief so deep that walking was the only thing I could do to that felt like I wasn’t drowning, something productive with a beginning, middle and end that could help me move the hands on the clock so I could get through just one more day.

But what I love most about walking is the time to hear my own inner voice, and the desolation of the winter landscape is a quiet companion, a good listener, a white, bright backdrop for the unspooling loop in my mind.

Photo by Cara McDonald

Being alone with the voice in your head can be a bit fraught. It feels like our dirty, complicated affair with our cell phones has spoiled that for us. A 2014 experiment revealed that even 15 minutes alone with our thoughts was too much—30 percent of women and 60 percent of men would rather experience an electric shock than let their minds wander without interruption. As much as the multi-tasker in me thrills to the idea of a delicious podcast while I take to the trails, I’ve fought the impulse to have anything in my ear except my own thoughts. When you add in the moodiness of the winter landscape, sometimes things can get dark.

But I often feel, at the beginning of a walk, that there’s a sort of re-organizing happening—like the thoughts and problems looming in my brain’s waiting room are now elbowing each other for a chance with the microphone, and giving it to them will bring about a little relief.

My walks have a rhythm to them. I typically come out of the trailhead charging, arms swinging, tilting into the wind. I once passed a gentleman walking a fat springer spaniel who called out, “Well, you’re going somewhere, aren’t you?” But once I establish a groove I start to check in not only with myself (chin up; breathe slow; arms quiet) but also the world around me.

In winter, there’s less that competes for your attention, making the little slivers of life you do see all the more sharp and sweet. You notice a few lone chickadees, ice crystals weighting the tips of branches, the rattle of dead leaves in the wind, the lonely, syncopated honking of faraway geese.

Photo by Cara McDonald

Photo by Cara McDonald

Because snowy walks are a little more work (especially on the slippery uphills) it’s nice to stop and stand for a minute, catch my breath and just be quiet. It’s here when I tend to feel the spaciousness in my brain that allows for things to unravel. I replay conversations, try to pin down a runaway train of thoughts reviewing sad or cringe-worthy moments, and maybe jiggle the handle on the door of my mental Room of Brilliant Ideas and see if I can get it open a crack.

St. Augustine has a famous quote: “It is solved by walking.” I find that to be true.
It’s here I do my best thinking and in turn, my best writing; most of my columns come to me on my walks, not in a measured, workshoppy way, but in a strange, rising idea like a bubble of air released underwater that blurps to the surface with a pop. Often, it’s a chance to stop gnawing on something that isn’t working and find a totally fresh bubble that makes its way up, one that feels effortless and authentic and more true.

But my winter walks don’t always have the expectation of eureka moments or problem solving—sometimes, I just take pleasure in my own company. That sounds odd to admit. Being alone and not lonely is a skill that takes practice, like meditation or driving on icy roads or being a good listener. The first step is just showing up.

Enjoying your own company also gives you time to reconnect with your own intentions, thoughts, wants and needs. Being off a schedule and away from demands helps me disconnect from external forces that would totally overwhelm and define me if I let them.

So, I reach for the thicker socks and my warmest boots, knowing that as I layer myself up, I’m also getting ready to unwind and reconnect. It’s not a luxury, or a hobby or a means to getting in my steps. Just a way to be a little more present, a little more at home, grateful for the gusts of wind that stage-whisper beckon me outdoors, the blowing snow that quietly covers my tracks.

Photo by Cara McDonald

6 Wonderful Winter Walks

Easy terrains that are quiet enough to be peaceful, but loved enough to have packed and user-friendly trails.

1. Allan and Virginia McCune Nature Preserve, Petoskey. Three-plus miles of walker-friendly trails through hardwood forest, meadow and cedar forest.

2. Roscommon Red Pine Nature Preserve, Roscommon. Wind through a 34-acre grove of centuries-old virgin red pine.

3. Duncan Bay Nature Preserve, Cheboygan. An easy trail with plenty of boardwalks through Lake Huron shoreline and coastal wetlands.

4. Timbers Recreation Area, Traverse City area. The delicious Fern Lake loop winds you along frozen stretches of Long and Fern lakes and through a majestic cedar forest.

5. Heritage Trail, Mitchell State Park, Cadillac. A 3.5-mile, flat and easy nature trail surrounding a 235-acre preserve is accessed from the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center in Mitchell State Park, following wood chip paths with bridges and boardwalks featuring abundant wildlife and interpretive signage along the way.

6. Lost Lake Trail, Ludington State Park, Ludington. This flat, one-mile one-way trail from Hamlin Lake Beach at Ludington State Park is popular in summer but quiet in winter, passing a cove and boardwalk over the lake for easy but scenic views. You can return the way you came, or add the Island Lake Trail for a pretty loop.

Photo by Cara McDonald

Photo(s) by Cara McDonald