Finding Peace at Peru Creek

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.

As you ascend further, snow-capped peaks emerge above the tree line, and a gentle stream blanketed by pillows of snow joins the trail to the right.

Then after climbing a slightly steeper hill, all of a sudden on your right appears an abandoned mine – ‘The Maid of Orleans” – which operated from 1882 -1888. 

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?

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12 Responses to Finding Peace at Peru Creek

  1. Lizzy Burhenne says:

    this is beautiful Louise!
    thank you for posting 🙂

  2. Anna D. says:

    I wonder if physical experiences like your skiing take on a different meaning when so much of the rest of our lives are sedentary? Whereas for people for whom physical activity was much more constant – that is, people in the societies where various religions were founded (just thinking about how even getting water and building a fire and cooking were fairly intensive labor for much of human history) – the stillness and sedentary-ness of prayer may have been a more meaningful contrast to the rest of their lives than it is for us.

    (From accounts I’ve read of the Hajj, I actually think it is pretty intensely physical. This may not invariably be the case anymore, but I’m pretty sure traditionally pilgrims have walked between Mecca and Mina and Arafat.)

    Glad you had such a great experience!

    • seeingfaith says:

      Anna – that’s such a great point and something I was thinking about too. The whole concept of exercise the way we approach it today is completely a modern phenomenon (I believe it has its roots in the nationalist movements of the 19th century but don’t quote me on that). Anyway – that’s a fascinating point but it also further emphasizes that religious organizations today might benefit from reviewing the way they practice worship, given how daily life has changed so much from what it was when many of these rituals were developed.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Also – thanks for the note about the activity at the Hajj. Yes – I am not totally clear on how physically intense that is…I should have researched that more before posting. Will look into it!

      • Anna D. says:

        Yeah, I’m not 100% sure about that (since the accounts I’ve read of the Hajj, well, pretty much date from the 14th century… but still, given the number of pilgrims, it’s got to be an intensely physical experience very different from sitting in church). But it would be interesting to find out more.

        And I totally agree about reviewing worship practices in light of societal changes (for instance, Biblical prohibitions on women preaching/speaking in church mean one thing in the context of an intensely patriarchal pre-modern society, and something very different in a society that purports to value men/women equally as leaders!).

      • seeingfaith says:

        Funny you bring up that last point – I’m giving the sermon in church in two weeks, during the annual Gifts of Women service (this is a tradition in the Presbyterian Church USA where there is one service every year that is supposed to be completely run by the women of the church). It’ll be nice when the day comes when there are so many women ministers they don’t even need to set aside a special day for that…

  3. None says:

    So interesting. I have found that what I think other people call prayer is what I do when I swim or walk. My mind wanders, compulsions relax, thoughts unwind and I gain peace and perspective. I have found that nothing makes me feel more well-balanced and relaxed than exercise and it does feel spiritual to me. Thanks for sharing.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Absolutely agree – swimming and walking are very much the same kind of thing – it’s that repetitive motion idea. I walk in the woods almost every day with my hound dog and that is often a very peaceful activity as well (except when my dog finds something dead and smelly to roll in). Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Laurie says:

    Louise – this is such a beautiful post . . . I think that so many people find nature itself to be a form or spirituality and approach similar outdoor treks with almost a religious zeal . . . whether this is due to the activity and the physical “high” it produces, or (for those who are more religious) the feeling of being closer to God in the natural world of his creation, I don’t know. But, as usual, your posts always make me think. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Pingback: Catharsis while training for the Spartan Race | Seeing Faith

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