Cycles of Joy

May 9th, 2022

I have always gone to nature to heal. It’s instinct. Nature is acceptance. Balance. Beauty. When I cycle long distances in wild places, I feel boundless joy. I become a body of joy. 

At first, my bike trips were a means of escape. When I was twenty-one, I walked out of my dead-end strip club job and cycled alone around Iceland. A couple of years later, I left the sex industry for good and cycled 3,500 miles south from Alaska. I cycled through anger, through loss, through feelings I could not articulate. I crossed mountains and found freedom. I became a part of nature and this becoming healed me. 

There is so much joy in motion. When you move the body, you move the self. You grow and you change and it never stops. I understand now that motion is not a type of escape. It’s a type of presence. 

A spider's web between twigs of a bush
1,100 miles on The Florida Trail
Laura Killingbeck

This year I decided to walk 1,100 miles on The Florida Trail. Right now I’m sitting on a wooden bridge over a stream, typing this essay into my phone. Mile 897. My fingers are sooty from last night’s campfire. There’s a cool breeze, the sound of leaves rustling, birdsong. 

A few hundred miles back, I passed a billboard that said in big block letters, “Everyone is dying.” At first I thought it was an artist’s statement — a dazzling reminder of our fleeting existence. Then I walked closer and realized it was a warning about opioid addiction. Everyone is dying, but so many of us are dying while we’re still alive. 

We come from rain and rivers and sky. We come from acceptance.

I kept walking. The trail turned onto a quiet forest path. Trees overhead, the smell of earth and moss. Sun and shadows flitting underfoot. Time to breathe deep. I felt so grateful to have time to breathe deep.

I have always gone to nature because nature has accepted me when I could not accept myself. Water is balance. The body is beauty. I did not learn this from modern society. I learned it from the sky. From rain falling, splashing, running into rivers, rising up again as clouds. The body is made of water. We come from rain and rivers and sky. We come from acceptance.

Laura touches the soft cushion of a bright green fern.
A time to breathe deep
Laura Killingbeck

But we live in a society that was not designed for that. A culture that was not designed for wellness, for healthy motion, for presence, for deep breath. As a species, we have organized ourselves — with remarkable dedication — around a single imperative: to transform the world into energy and waste. We wake up in the morning and go to our jobs. We get in buses and cars and planes. We buy things. We throw things away. We buy more things and throw more things away. This is economic growth. This is our collective purpose. This is what orients us to ourselves and each other. From this orientation, this dedication, this purpose, society emerges. Production. We have produced ourselves as we are now. 

Of course, there’s a problem with the "we" in that sentence — it’s a narrow, tangled, blurry kind of we. A we that defines itself, ironically, by its exclusions. Our dominant culture is one that intentionally subjugates the voices that would, inherently, make us more whole: Indigenous voices, Black voices, women’s voices, LGBTQ+ voices. Voices of diversity, of authenticity, of empathy. 

It doesn’t surprise me anymore that so many people are sick and unhappy. That in my own life, I have felt so sick and unhappy. So much of what we call "mental illness" seems like a predictable symptom of a larger social breakdown. I no longer think of most depression and anxiety as individual abnormalities. They are emotional illnesses. They are what happens to humans in a culture that was not designed to consider or care for emotional selves. If you feel sad in this society, I’d say you’re probably normal. 

Laura holds a pot of pasta and peas over a wood fire
On every long journey, magic happens.
Laura Killingbeck

I’m not a psychologist though. I’m just a person sitting on a bridge in a forest. 

A bird calls from a tree above my head. Singing. I come back to my body, the stream, the sky. I smile. Nature accepts and nature interrupts and nature sings. All at once. And it always will. In a billion years I don’t know what will be here, maybe empty space, maybe dust, but I have this strange feeling that whatever is here, even if it’s nothing, will still be singing.

I’ve never gone on a long journey and thought, "Okay, I have solutions for everything, it all makes sense now." No, that never happens. 

Joy is what the body wants to return to, again and again.

But this is what does happen: the impossible, the inexplicable, the undefinable. On every long journey, magic happens.

Pedaling along the edge of the ocean in arctic twilight, light flickering on the crest of waves, I realize that I am weightless. I rise up out of my body and coast overhead like a bird, soaring.

Climbing a mountain in British Columbia, beads of sweat drip down my face. Fog rolls through the pines. I breathe and so do the trees. I laugh because there is no separation.

A view of the trees and twilight sky through the mesh of the tent top.
I breathe and so do the trees.
Laura Killingbeck

Rounding a bend in Quebec, I understand that time is not linear, that I have access to past and future. I greet and talk to my younger and older selves. These conversations change us.

Lying in my tent in the dark, I realize that I got here. That I am stronger than I thought. That all of us are.

The magic of moving in nature is the magic of being and remembering. 

I remember that joy is natural. It is motion and it is a resting state. Joy is what the body wants to return to, again and again. Gravity pulls us to the earth. The earth aligns us to the center of the self. The center of the self is made of joy. We were meant to feel this. We — the whole we — were made to heal. 

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