It was 5 a.m. on a dark, bitterly cold morning in Gorham, New Hampshire, when Cecilia Elwert rolled out of bed and groped for her clothes.
Methodically, the woman who has hiked close to 400 mountains—from the rugged Adirondacks in New York state to the legendary summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania—began pulling on one layer of clothes after another. Liner socks first. Wool socks second. Long-sleeved wool long johns and a hooded wool shirt next. A down vest, outer jacket, wool hoodie—and her favorite Green Mountain hiking club hat.
She didn’t have much time. There were already several feet of snow on the ground, and more predicted. But Cecilia, who is known as “Spunk” on mountain trails throughout the eastern U.S., is a passionate winter hiker. So, unless there were wild winds or a blizzard headed her way, Cecilia would head out with a hiking buddy in an hour to climb Old Speck, a challenging 4,170-foot mountain in Maine.
Sliding her feet into a pair of lightweight winter hiking boots, Cecilia grabbed her backpack and began stuffing it. She’d need about 22 pounds of supplies to make sure she could survive the winter cold in the high winds above Old Speck’s tree line. Extra gloves. Crampons in case of ice. An extra down jacket. Extra pants. Dried fruit and nuts. First-aid gear and a space blanket made of Mylar to help ward off hypothermia in case of an accident.
Tightening the straps on her pack, Cecilia made herself a quick breakfast that would keep her moving on the 11.6 mile hike up the mountain. With a last check of her gear, she was out the door, headed for the mountain’s trailhead.
Make the Leap!
Winter hiking isn’t for everyone. But studies have shown that for those willing to embrace something new—particularly if it has an edge of adventure—the results can be huge.
Laboratory research shows that when you have a new experience, your brain fires a series of neurotransmitters that have specific effects on thinking, mood and memory, says Charan Ranganath, Ph.D., a psychology professor and the director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis’ Center for Neuroscience.
But in that split second when your brain detects a new experience, it doesn’t quite know how to direct your response. So, says Charan, it ignites your curiosity, then gives you a shot of the joy-inducing chemical dopamine to make you feel great and get moving.
Individual genetics influence the process, says Frank Farley, Ph.D., past president of the American Psychological Association and a Temple University professor who has laid the foundation for much of the research on risk. “We’re not sure how much [genes] are involved,” he adds, “but we are sure that taking a risk and encountering something new encourages personal growth—and adds a sense of excitement and discovery to our lives.”
The Sound of Adventure
Fortunately, since most of us might be a tad hesitant to hike a 4,000- or 5,000-foot mountain in winter, there are a lot of other things with a dash of adventure that can energize our lives, make us feel great and even allow us to explore strengths we may not know we have.
For Los Angeles businesswoman Valerie Rodriguez, the adventure was launching a singing career as she heads into midlife.
The hotshot financial recruiter is a nationally recognized wunderkind in her industry. But unbeknownst to her clients, singing is in her blood. A graceful woman with tousled brown hair, a husky voice and a slow, engaging smile, Valerie grew up with music—listening to her dad play piano as her mother sang at parties, and hearing her grandmother humming as she puttered around the kitchen listening to classical music.
In high school, Valerie sang and acted in plays, and in college, when she and her friends weren’t belting out songs in stairwells all over campus, she was singing in Vassar College’s Women’s Chorus and touring with its mixed choir.
“Blending with beautiful voices was a deeply spiritual experience,” Valerie remembers. “I felt I would be in music forever!”
After college, she sang in a few smoky bars in Philadelphia, a couple of commercials, a semiprofessional chorus and with several bands at big parties and events. But singing didn’t pay the bills, and after marriage, two children and a move to Los Angeles, making a living took priority. Now the kids are grown, finances are comfortable and Valerie is reclaiming her love of music.
A couple of years back, she met two guys who were singing at a friend’s wedding. She joined in and something clicked. But with a successful career in the financial world, did she want to risk taking her eye off the ball to sing? Did she really want to put herself out there in front of an audience to see if she could use her voice to weave some magic?
Though it might have sounded a bit scary, the answer was a wholehearted “Yes!” And today, she and the guys are rehearsing, making contacts, getting a few gigs—and having an absolute blast. Music,” says Valerie, “is something I could never live without.”
Out of That Rut!
It’s discoveries like these that encourage us to move out of our well-worn ruts and take a risk, says Florida psychologist Suzanne Zoglio, Ph.D., author of Create a Life That Tickles Your Soul. “It happens at different stages,” Suzanne says, “but particularly at midlife because, by the time we get there, we may have ignored a whole chunk of who we are. We may have been absorbed in making a living, building a career, nurturing children, caring for aging parents or a bunch of other things that took priority.”
The cause really doesn’t matter, she adds. What does is that we haven’t had a chance to stretch ourselves and, as a result, there’s a question—“I wonder if there’s something else I can do?”—that begins to nibble at the edges of our consciousness.
Yet, even though that restlessness and self-questioning can propel us to search for an answer, says Suzanne, it usually takes a specific event that pushes us to take the first step. In Valerie’s case, it was simple: a chance meeting with a couple of guys who could sing.
For Cecilia, it was a bit more complicated. Her passion for hiking began as a young girl in Vermont as she hiked the state’s mountains with her mom. It grew after college when she became a volunteer in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in North Carolina and then worked for the Green Mountain Club, an organization that tends Vermont’s Long Trail—the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S.
Yet hiking had to take a backseat after Cecilia married. She and her husband raised a child together while working from dawn to well past dusk building a farm-to-table business growing vegetables in the rich bottomland of a Vermont creek. The business—a smashing success—had local chefs standing in line for their vegetables. But it left Cecilia exhausted.
“I’d get up, check the phone for orders and messages, work the farm stand until 6 p.m., scrounge around in the kitchen and make dinner, then spend the evening pulling orders for the next day,” Cecilia recalls.
She had little time left for anything else, particularly after her mom developed Alzheimer’s disease and Cecilia became her caretaker. As anyone who’s been around someone with Alzheimer’s disease knows, it is hard. But once her mom died, Cecilia hit the reset button. Her marriage had fallen apart, so she left the farm and said to herself, “OK—now it’s time to take care of me.”
A New Adventure
Building on a degree in social work and her enjoyment of older folks like her mom, Cecilia took a job working with Elderly Services, a day-care facility for seniors in Middlebury, Vermont. There she has the opportunity to do a little of everything. She works on care plans, develops programs, tells stories in front of the fireplace and even drives the Elderly Services van on occasion to pick up and deliver those who need a ride.
“That’s my favorite thing to do,” says Cecilia. “I crank up the music with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton blasting out of the speakers and everyone starts singing at the top of their lungs.” She chuckles. “You haven’t lived until you’ve heard some of these women belting out country music!”
But her job also comes with a fringe benefit that made it a done deal from day one: As long as she puts in 35 hours a week, Cecilia can arrange her schedule as she likes. And that leaves time for three-day hiking adventures every week.
Now, nine years after leaving the farm and heading back to the mountains, Cecilia will soon join a small but elite group of North American hikers who have hiked all 115 mountains over 4,000 feet in the northeast U.S.
Hiking where there are more hawks than people, watching the sun rise over trees glittering with ice and snow, and breathing in the sweet fragrance of one forest after another, Cecilia is alive, focused and one with the woods.
“Hiking is my passion,” she says simply. “I like to step onto the trail into the woods and let everything else melt away, so I can pay attention to the stream that I’m crossing, the rock underfoot and the different ways that ice is formed.”
The Road Not Traveled
Most of us don’t have to climb mountains to launch a new adventure that will ramp up the joy in our lives. In fact, for some, it’s as simple as stepping out the front door and helping others, says Frank. Approaching a homeless person sitting on a subway street grate to give him protein bars and juice boxes, fostering frightened dogs for a rescue organization, helping hurricane victims repair their homes—the list of people who need help is endless. And, since you don’t know how those you help will react, says Frank, every encounter is an adventure that can kick you out of even a well-worn rut and encourage you to take a risk.
How Can You Get Started on Your Adventure?
Here's what Frank suggests:
Start small. “Test the waters,” he says. “Think of trying out a new adventure the way you’d try out a new food. Get out of your comfort zone, but know your limits.”
Make new friends. “Get involved in groups like Meetup,” says Frank. “A lot are adventure-oriented. They go out camping under the stars and often have an adventurous focus. Sharing your risk-taking is a very good thing when you’re just starting out.”
Go to meetup.com, click on “adventure” under “topics,” and you’ll have the opportunity to meet any one of over 12 million men and women worldwide interested in getting together for an adventure—hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area, walking through the U.K., enjoying a night out in Austin, backpacking in Utah, even taking a walk to the highest point in Ireland.
Involve your family.
“If you have kids, get them involved,” says Frank. “When it’s time for summer vacation, don’t go to the same old place. Instead, go out backpacking somewhere.” After all, as Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
Ellen Michaud is a contributing editor for Live Happy magazine. Her last article was 15 Ways to Stay Grounded.
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