The Secret Forest

One of the best kept secrets of New Jersey is its endless opportunities for exploration in a vast array of well-marked meadows, hills, deciduous and coniferous forests and rocky hillsides. The latter thanks to the immense amount of rock that makes up most of the Sourland Region.
I am going to let you in on another amazing secret: getting back to nature while walking these trails grounds you. And when there are tiny pockets of glistening sunshine that make it down all the way to the forest floor from the dense canopy above…it’s just magic.

On a humid yet breezy Sunday afternoon I had the unique privilege of seeing these magical sun jewels dotting the trail that I hiked with several other women and our leader, Romy Toussaint, of RomYoga in Lawrenceville. A force of nature in her own right, Romy guided us on a forest meditation that began right at the head of the trail. Our connection to earth and the sounds that we could hear right from the beginning followed us throughout the two-hour hike in the Ted Stiles Preserve area of Baldpate Mountain in Titusville, NJ. This hike is one in a series of six hikes presented by Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and their Force of Nature Hike Series for Women and Girls.

The cacophonous symphony of birds around us, and the back and forth communication of a gray tree frog was just the beginning. Gone was the rush of traffic noise or the mindless dings of smartphones or the sounds of anything battery- or electrically-powered. We connected with our deep breaths and recognized our gratitude for the ability to be enveloped in nature’s symphony. We then turned our backs to the parked cars and the high wires above our heads and the far-off sound of a lawn mower to begin our journey. As we walked, the wind was swaying the leaves back and forth and the ominous darker clouds made me wonder: when you are in the forest, do you hear the rain coming down through the leaves before you feel it on your skin?

Thanks to the five prior days of off and on showers and occasional downpours, the trail began as a rocky and sloppy first half mile. So rocky in fact that when you cautiously placed each foot in and around or sometimes directly on a rock, your feet began to reverberate with a nature-induced foot massage. The small tennis-ball sized boulders protruding out of the muck and slop were a welcome feeling to the flat pavement we are so accustomed to feeling. Then, at times there was the melodic sound of rushing water over protruding roots and down small rivets created during the last flooding downpour only days ago. Our leader cautioned us to place our steps with intent and traverse the downhill spots with slanted foot. A straight foot tends to slip more. Noted. Around us, we were surrounded by towering tulip poplar trees and Eastern Towhees chiming in with their notorious “drink-your-teeeea!!!!” call. As the trail narrowed, the canopy above seemed to open more and I saw the first glimmers of bright blue sky that I had seen in five days. It was a stunning blue.

After a steep uphill climb to rejoin the Ridge Trail, we stopped for a moment to catch our breath and admire the force of nature right in front of us: a blowdown from either Sandy or some other monster supercell storm. The uprooted tree created its own form of art right there with the root system still intact looking like something Dorothy would encounter before she finds the Tin Man in the forest. Turning east, we meandered down a drier trail and over and under a few more downed trees. Mostly walking downhill at this point, we found ourselves on the property of an abandoned summer house of an old estate. Sitting on the ledge of a tattered spring house we again took the time for the silence to embrace us. A two-minute meditation was interrupted only by a fish jumping after a large upside down wasp that clearly couldn’t swim. I was amazed that I heard nothing but wind, birds, frogs, and the sounds of deep breaths.

Continuing back around past the old house, we headed back to conclude our Sunday in the forest and hiked back up toward the artistic uprooted tree that clearly should have its own name. Catching a glimpse of the high tension wires through the trees, I began to realize that the trail was nearing its end. Romy ended our forest bathing experience with some stretches and parting good-byes. I encourage everyone to experience the same sounds and feelings. Truly feeling the force of nature right here in New Jersey. It’s our secret.

Note: Force of Nature is a national campaign started by REI to encourage women and girls to get outside and play…putting women front and center, and hosting classes and events nationwide.

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