Walking for me is a form of prayer, that if neglected leaves the rest of my prayer life anemic. At the monastery, I took long ambling walks all over the monastery's farmland and sometimes along the country roads running through the surrounding country side. These were times of powerful talks with God, frank conversations of hopes and frustrations. But they were also just times of peace and enjoyment, being connected with God's creation.
Some of the best hikes took one down into the area of the monastery's land that most resembled Western North Carolina. You couldn't quite call them mountains, but there were tall and wooded hills, with creeks that ran between them. There were even some swimming holes, and it was pure joy to take a dip in them. These creek beds were also a source of fossils, and I had a great little collection of fossilized sea shells and coral. Up until I left, I was always hopeful that I would find a fossilized fish skeleton, and I spent many hours sorting through much rock in idle hope.
Sometimes my "walks" would be more explorations. There are a lot of old farm buildings at the monastery, many of them with little use, or converted to general storage from the days when the monks earned most of their income from the farm itself. These days, most of the farmland is rented out, so the crops of corn and soy that cover the land don't get touched by monks' hands, which made me a little sad. Anytime a monk would talk about how we could best use the land, I'd always chime in with the suggestion of a return to farming as much of it as possible, and let the rest return to wild growth, but that idea never seemed to gain any ground (except with Br Joseph, who had a PhD in Botanical studies and always had dirt under his fingernails). But the old farm buildings were amazing to poke through, finding relics of a different age when the Trappists did most of their farming primarily by the sweat of their own brow, or with the help of horses. Old tools and rotting leather harnesses, fence posts, glass jugs, old labels for Trappist Farm Eggs, old stoneware mugs and furniture for when there were over a hundred monks: all that and more could be found in the old rotting buildings with enough patience and bravery.
My favorite building was an old cattle feeding barn. Just inside one of the pair of huge barn doors was a ladder that led up into the hay loft, and then went up further still to another "door" at the upper levels of the barn, where I guess they loaded the hay in. These doors had fallen in quite some time ago, leaving a perfect ledge from which to read and pray and sometimes have a little meal. They faced east, and many a morning, when dawn coincided with some free time, I would climb up into the barn and pray the psalms as I watched the sunrise over the corn fields and the apple orchard. It was my most peaceful spot, and I miss it.
Another walk I particular enjoyed was fairly short, just along the drive from the abbey to the garage where Br Daniel fixed all the monastery's vehicles and wrought amazing tools and structures out of metal. Show him a picture of just about anything made from metal, and he could put it together. But I would make that walk and back every morning after Mass and every evening after Vespers. It was a solitary walk, and when I held the good habit of doing it daily, it felt good to watch this little part of the world change under God's hand according to the seasons. I'd take note of what birds were around and when they left--catching geese flying south, and then watching them return as winter ebbed away. There'd be bursts of flowers, or watching the last leaf fall. And in the winter evenings when night had fully covered the land, it was incredible to stand, turning my back to it so all I could see were fields, and look up at the countless scintillating stars, while my breath frosted in the air (or remained safely warm behind an often necessary scarf!). And they were good times to pray, especially after Mass when Christ is in me in the Eucharist, and so I have to go no farther than my own heartbeat to know He's there.
I have taken one amazing walk up into a nearby valley after getting back. There are small family farms that way, and on a bright spring morning, I ambled, much as I had in Iowa, in a vaguely similar landscape (though real mountains, this time). I shared some time with an old horse, who was quite disappointed that I didn't have anything to eat. A little further up, chickens warily kept their distance from the fence when I wandered over to watch these little dinosaurs stalk the pasture. But even the human presence up there was quite lovely, with quaint homes and lovely flower gardens.
But, I need to be walking regularly. Walks for me are special sacred times, and I shouldn't neglect them, when they are obviously a vital source of prayer and connectedness with creation. And it's those kinds of habits that I fostered at the monastery, that I need to remember can be, and should be, a part of my everyday life back in Asheville. So that's something I'm going to work on.