Today I visited one of my favorite places on earth: the Peru Creek cross-country skiing trail in Keystone, Colorado. I’m a big fan of cross-country skiing in general (I prefer to ski uphill rather than down), but there is something extraordinary about this trail that makes skiing it a truly spiritual experience. First of all – it is completely deserted. Unlike skiing on a golf course or a Nordic center where I regularly encounter other skiers, on this trail I typically see maybe one other person in a two to three-hour trek. Secondly, the setting is stunning: you start off for the first mile on a narrow snow-covered path ambling gently uphill, flanked on both sides by pine trees.
Other abandoned buildings from the mining era dot the hills along the trail – serving as a stark contrast between the ephemeral works of man and the enduring might of nature. The trail opens up at times to sweeping vistas of snow-covered plains touching to the edge of imposing mountain peaks.
As I’m taking in all of this beauty, I am steadily sliding my skis through the powdery snow – right then left, right then left, the physical exertion keeping me warm despite the freezing temperature and gusting winds.
This is probably the fifth time that I have skied this trail, and each time it has left me with a profound sense of peace and joy. It has become a kind of ritual for me – a kind of pilgrimage. Every time I come to Colorado, I have to reconnect with the part of myself that I find on this trail.
As the day wore on, I began thinking about what makes skiing Peru Creek such a powerful experience, and realized that it is the combination of solitude, natural beauty, repetitive motion, physical exertion and, importantly, familiarity. I actually have a small collection of such rituals that evoke similar feelings: bicycling ‘the loop’ on Block Island (especially the moment when you round the curve and look out over Rodman’s Hollow), and running the Gale Road loop in Williamstown, MA and cresting the third hill and looking down on the Williams College campus in the distance (an invaluable way of gaining perspective during my college years).
These are all rituals that have a healing effect on my soul – they are essentially a form of religious act. Yet, interestingly, when I think about the common activities of organized religion, I can find little that is comparable. Yes, there are religious practices that rely heavily on repetitive motion (for example, the Jewish practice of davening), or on solitude (meditative prayer, or the practices of certain monastic orders). And of course, rituals themselves are powerful in large part because of their familiarity. But I can not think of a single religious practice that involves repetitive physical motion in a natural setting, and certainly none that involve real physical exertion. The closest thing I can think of are some of the ceremonies that are part of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam: two of the main ceremonies involve walking around the Ka’ba seven times and running between two small hills seven times – hardly a major workout, but a lot more active than most Judeo-Christian practices.
In a quick search on the web, the one relevant post I found made an interesting point about how strenuous exercise can lead to a sense of distance from oneself – a sort of catharsis that is crucial to opening oneself up to God. Also, running, biking or skiing in a beautiful setting releases endorphins and also evokes positive responses to natural beauty that are deeply embedded in our human psyche. So given the clear spiritual power of such activities, why is it that mainstream religious practices don’t incorporate them? Why does worship tend to be so enclosed, and so sedentary?