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Back to Nature

‘A shortcut to mindfulness’: Finding a way back to the great outdoors

After a winter like no other it’s time to get out and rediscover the healing powers of the natural world.

Illustration of a family camping in the woods by a lake.
Jack Richardson for the boston globe

Vacation, at least to my wife and me, used to mean sleeping in after a night of live music in a new city, and lingering over late lunches while people-watching at a coffee shop. Even after we had a child, we spent as much leisure time in pubs and museums as we did in the woods or on the water. But now? Vacation means waking with the sun, cooking over a fire, and falling asleep to the sultry set list of a bullfrog band.

Forced to reimagine our 2020 vacations to fit pandemic parameters, our family fell in love with camping. Where we used to be energized by the dazzle of city lights, the pandemic has taught us to be enthralled by starry nights. And we’re not going back to vacation as usual any time soon. Why would we? Our nature-loving 8-year-old daughter insists our camping trips last year — which cost us about $40 a night — were “better than Disney World.”

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Camping in the woods seems to distill our chaotic lives down to the most basic elements, with the power to forge memorable moments from the mundane: playing cards inside our tent while waiting out a torrential thunderstorm. Building a fire on a chilly morning to brew a pot of coffee. Sitting still beneath the towering pine trees and a blanket of stars.

We’re not the only ones who embraced the outdoors in 2020 with no intention of letting go. Rosa Monroe says her Boston Hiking Meetup Group swelled by nearly a thousand new members in the past year. In June alone, bicycle sales spiked 63 percent over the previous year, according to the market research firm NPD Group. Sales of kayaks and camping gear shot upward, too, and snowshoe sales spiked 254 percent.

While research validates this instinctive itch to get outdoors, “It’s something that a lot of us might know intuitively,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix. Even after 15 minutes outside, she says, our blood pressure and stress hormones drop. “Our physiology just kind of switches into a calmer state.”

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Part of what makes nature so restorative, Williams says, is the full sensory experience: the immunity-boosting scent of evergreen trees, the fractal patterns that captivate our eyes, the brain-calming quiet of the woods. “If we can get out of the soundtrack of our own problems, quiet our internal minds a little bit and wake up our senses, it’s really, really great for us psychologically,” Williams says. “The Buddhists have known this for a long time, but nature is kind of a shortcut to mindfulness.”

Ironically, Williams says, spending time in nature, even alone, can actually make us feel more connected to other people, too. Craving that kinship, time outdoors took on new urgency for Anthony Thompson during the pandemic. “I’m a huge extrovert, so the quarantine was daunting for me,” he says. But outside, he could socialize safely. After a camping trip with friends in Western Massachusetts, Thompson promptly booked another — his first-ever glamping stay in New Hampshire, where he relished walking in the woods (and testing out the new gadgets he had purchased during quarantine). “Reconnecting with nature has been a blessing,” he says.

Closer to home, Thompson joined group hikes organized by Jerel Ferguson, cofounder of the Urban Outdoors Association. Thompson recalls one guided nature walk where, after an hour and a half, Ferguson self-consciously told the group not to worry because the hike was almost over. “He figured people were tired,” Thompson laughs. “I said, ‘Man, do not worry about us wanting to go home — we’ve been inside for eight months! This is like our first and best breath of fresh air in a long time.’”

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The pandemic pulled Genevieve Yung into the mountains, too. Getting outdoors often seemed to fall by the wayside for the busy single mother of four. But by July, Yung says, “I wanted all of us to disconnect from the electronic world.” So she took the kids on a road trip, to hike Mount Watatic near the New Hampshire border.

Yung didn’t realize it would be such a turning point for her. “It was so exhilarating to be out, with a single goal of reaching the summit,” she says. Hiking has now become such an essential part of her life that she hopes to one day climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks.

Embracing nature can also mean more affordable vacations closer to home. “So many people think that if you want this amazing outdoor experience, it’s Yellowstone or Glacier or Yosemite,” says Jeremy Puglisi, coauthor of the new book Where Should We Camp Next? “[But] it’s also the Adirondacks, and it’s also the White Mountains. ... These are world-class outdoor destinations.” We’re lucky in Boston, he says, to have areas like New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch nearby. “That part of the White Mountains is like nature on steroids.”

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For those who find more solace on the water than in the woods, New England is also blessed with an abundance of waterways and coastlines. “Buying a kayak was the single best thing I did during the pandemic,” says Eric McLoughney, who was living in New York City at the start of the pandemic but moved back home to Quincy — temporarily, he thought. The 24-year-old began to feel an acute loss of independence as the months wore on, living and working full time in his childhood home. But paddling on Quincy Bay offered a much needed change of scenery. “It became this really valuable time for me to clear my head,” he says.

McLoughney came to love the ritual so much, he hesitated to renew his lease in Queens, and found a place in Somerville instead. “I realized being outdoors makes me happier than anything I could do in New York,” he said. He plans to one day take a kayak tour through the Southwest, and has high hopes for a trip to Alaska. “If I got to kayak around orcas, my brain would explode,” he says.

And that’s the incredible thing about nature: It can bring us as much excitement as relaxation. When we think about vacation, it’s often framed as an escape, a detour from our daily lives and their incumbent responsibilities and anxieties. I’ve come to realize that while theme parks and lively cities offer fun, fleeting diversions, the unique vastness of the natural world can provide a more profound, lasting — and healing — respite. Its grandeur puts our worries into perspective. “We feel a little bit smaller,” Williams says. “And our problems also feel a little bit smaller.”

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* Official COVID-19 guidance changes frequently. Check state and local regulations before traveling.

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Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.