Down a dirt road. Into the forest. Creekside. These are the places I go to make sense of it all, when nothing in life seems to make sense. Sometimes it’s impossible to mentally escape the stress and struggles of the day. When thoughts and worries become so tangled around themselves that I can’t think straight, I have to physically escape to save myself – from myself.

Sure, I could call a friend, or a family member to vent. To gripe about all that is going wrong with my day. Saying it out loud might make me feel better. Why dump all my negativity onto someone else? But I had to get rid of it somewhere.

I grabbed my keys and headed for Custer State Park. As I drove, I noticed little around me. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I don’t think I even noticed if there were other vehicles on the road. Lost Highway (favorite song)  was playing on the radio. How fitting.

Needles Highway is still closed this time of year, but I turned anyway and drove as far as Hole in Wall picnic area. The Jeep tires crunched over bits of ice and snow as I pulled in and parked.  I turned the engine off, rolled down the window and just sat. Silence. No voices, no phone, no email notifications.

Cool air drifted in through the open window and reminded me to breathe. After a few deep breaths, I got out and stood in the sun. Within minutes, the silence dissipated and was replaced by the soft “hush” of the wind moving through the trees, the chirps of birds and the occasional pine cone falling to the forest floor.

Each breath in, made me aware of the world around me. Each breath out loosened the tangle of thoughts that were wrapped around my brain. This is what “just breathe” means to me. Being able to step outside myself just long enough to get untangled and sort through it all. And to embrace the fact that my list of things to be grateful for is far longer than my list of frustrations.

So there I was. Standing all by myself, surrounded by snow, rocks and trees. And a turkey. One lone hen. Maybe she was there to untangle her thoughts and breathe. Doubtful. Turkeys probably don’t have much to think about. Perhaps being a bird brain is a good thing.

I could’ve spent the entire afternoon there, sharing all my troubles with Mother Nature (she’s a good listener) and watching as those negative thoughts were turned into fresh breaths of gratitude and clarity. Philosophical? Nah. Just knowing that a lunch hour spent alone in the park was far more productive than one spent at my desk.

As I drove back to town, I noticed everything I’d missed an hour earlier. The sunlight, the shadows, the snowman built on the ice at Stockade Lake. Sometimes, a heavy dose of fresh air and reflection is all it takes to get back on track.

Mindfulness.  It’s good stuff. But to be mindful, first, you must clear your mind.