I Went on a Mindful Hike in the Wissahickon, and It Was Glorious
Brandi Aulston's Hike & Heal program adds a mindful twist to monthly hikes.
When I walk up to the women gathered in a circle at the intersection of West Bells Mill Road and Forbidden Drive, I can’t tell which one is the leader.
That changes quickly once Hike & Heal founder Brandi Aulston fills me in on what they’re doing — introducing themselves and sharing an intention for the free hike we’re about to embark on in the Wissahickon. But, for a split second, I bask in the idea that the person running a fitness program can resemble the people who have signed up to participate, which doesn’t often happen. This felt equal, like a regular person wanted to start a mindful hiking group and actually did.
We do some stretches (side lunges, knee lifts), and Aulston, who’s a brand ambassador for Girls Gone Happy (a local wellness collective that makes question and topic card decks around themes ranging from clarity to motherhood), consults one of the company’s topic cards and asks us to think during the hike about the “shoulds” in our lives — what we think we should be doing. Then we start the short but steep trek up to the Andorra Meadow.
I start chatting with the woman next to me on the path. She grew up in Brooklyn but moved to Philly for college and hasn’t left since. She asks me how I like the area and nods knowingly when I admit the transition has been rough. We talk about Colorado, where I’d previously lived, and how much she’d loved the mountains when she visited. As our hiking boots and tennis shoes scratch against the dirt of the trail, it feels like we’ve transported the Colorado vibe east for a while.
We come across a fat orange tabby cat, the Wissahickon’s resident pet, and ooh over his bright color and sagging stomach. Aulston passes around some bug spray; she’d sent a helpful email out through the Eventbrite link 24 hours before and reminding folks to wear long pants to prevent against ticks, but she brought backup just in case.
I fall in with another woman, and we talk about her engagement and the hassle it’s been to satisfy all her family members while planning the wedding. I’m reminded of walking with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, the co-founder of a nationwide walking initiative, about how walking allows people to open up to each other more easily. This stranger might not have told me about the personal struggles she was enduring if she wasn’t in this kind of safe environment.
When we get to the meadow, we gather in a circle again to do some mid-hike stretches, holding onto each other this time. It feels wonderful, like we’re loosening up and supported all at once. After a quick loop around the grassy area, we head back into the forest, picking up the pace because sunset is coming quickly.
I finally end up near Aulston, and she’s excited that I showed up, having tagged Be Well Philly in a photo on Instagram. We talk about my vision for the site and how I think Hike & Heal might fit into that, and she’s thrilled, too, that I’ve understood her inclusive message. She’d launched Hike & Heal’s monthly hikes in May because she felt like not enough people knew about the natural resources within Philadelphia — especially since there’s such a culture of sticking to your own neighborhood. The idea was to share the riches with more people and add a mindful twist with stretching and intention-setting. (Sometimes, she also has guest speakers.) Eventually, she hopes she can turn Hike & Heal into a nonprofit and make it her full-time gig.
When we get back to our starting point, darkness has fallen, but we do some more stretches anyway, using a wooden fence as our prop. As we all rest one leg on the opposite knee and lean back, the group lets out a collective groan of delight, and we all laugh, surprised at our synchronicity.
Aulston asks us to remember our “shoulds” and to comment on how we’re subverting those expectations. Folks share that they’re not buying houses or having children. I think silently about how most of my friends are married, engaged, or close to it while I have no idea if I’ll ever end up with a forever partner. It is easier to open up when it’s difficult to see each other, and the vulnerability breeds even more camaraderie. I have a long drive home, and I know the parking situation will be difficult, but right now, I think about how nice it is to spend your night walking, in nature, surrounded by like-minded people. That’s what I call healing.
This month’s Hike & Heal hike takes place tomorrow at 10 a.m. starting at the Cedars House at the Wissahickon. Register ahead of time here. A bonus event, the Hike & Heal Harvest Hayride ($25) starts at 6 p.m. at Linvilla Orchards.