My alarm woke me at 3:30 AM on a Saturday morning, which hadn’t been a regular occurrence for over ten years — not since I worked logistics at a big retail chain. I chugged some coffee/energy drink mix from a can, pulled on my hiking clothes, fed the cat, grabbed my gear, and drove to meet my friends.

My friend Trude had invited me to join her and Diane on a bird safari around Lake Apopka. Trude won it at a church auction; I had to back out when the bids rose above $200. Diane would drive and point out interesting specimens; Trude would take pictures; I, with a tremor that makes it difficult to handle a camera, would observe through binoculars.

Nature is way more interesting with knowledgeable friends and a deliberate pace.

I used to think that Florida sucked for hiking. It’s so humid that sweat doesn’t  evaporate, so heat exhaustion is a serious risk. There are no mountains of note — the highest point, Britton Hill, is 345′ above sea level. The closest hills are in the northern part of the peninsula, a long drive from where I live in Tampa Bay.

Florida rivals Australia for deadly wildlife. Alligators are ubiquitous where I live. There’s also a thriving population of exotic reptiles, including large snakes, that dwell in the Everglades, the descendants of pets whose owners couldn’t care for them. Mosquitoes are a fact of life.

My own relationship with the outdoors had been tenuous at best growing up, as it reminded me mostly of long trips in an old pick-up truck and getting carsick. My time at Warren Wilson College, situated in the Blue Ridge mountains, warmed me to the idea of walking through the woods as a recreational activity, but moving to Florida quashed it.

None of my prior notions are wrong. It is hot here, and you do need to be wary, especially near standing water. But lately I’ve been discovering places — parks, trails, reserves — where being outdoors actually becomes a pleasant experience.

And all I had to do was get treatment for anxiety.

I wrote about my anxiety flare-up a few weeks ago.

As part of my focus on self-care, exercise was my first priority: I needed more of it more frequently, but with less intensity. My recent weight gain had made going to Aikido almost impossible, and I’d tear up my knees if I ran at my size.

So I decided to just walk.

The lovely biking trail near my office parallels a river, then wraps around a grass-covered landfill through some marsh. It’s absolutely bucolic, and its proximity makes afternoon walks following work an easy routine. And I’ve only seen two cottonmouths on the paved trail in two years, so the wildlife isn’t too lethal.

I started collecting lists of nearby parks and trails that I could try out on weekends. I replaced by workout clothes, which were tailored to running when I was a smaller man, with clothes that worked better for more leisurely hikes.

When the opportunity to go birding with my two church friends T and D came up, I jumped at the opportunity.

A coworker mentioned one day how much sun I was getting. “You’re getting so many freckles!” they said.

The sun was an enemy for so many years. I don’t tan. More than an hour exposed to sunlight and I start to burn. But I desperately needed it. From my apartment, to work, then back home again, I’d spend maybe 10 minutes exposed to sunlight the entire day. I was experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder during the summer.

Sunblock is still a necessity when I’m out too long, and I’ll have to worry about skin cancer someday. But the benefits outweigh the risks, at least at this moment.

I mentioned in my discussion of anxiety and Princess Mononoke that I had been turning to a more nature-oriented spiritual path. I’ve been quiet about this — far more guarded than my past discussions of God and Buddhism, for sure — because I need time to sort out my beliefs.

But one thing’s for sure: being outdoors has drawn me further down that path.

I feel more connected to the world than I have in years, perhaps since my halcyon days at Warren Wilson, isolated in the hills. I often describe myself as an “indoor cat,” and my own mental image is of a tech-focused city-dweller. Well, tech-focused is still true, but I might reconsider how much I enjoy city life.

At the very least, I should live near the woods.

There’s more hiking planned. At SUUSI, they host nature trips into the Blue Ridge mountains and the Smokies, and I’m signed up for a few. I have smaller, more local plans too. I’d love to visit Payne’s Prairie again, which I glimpsed on a trip with my friend Anna last year.

My mental health remains a priority. Another thing I’ve discovered: there’s no sharp division between mind and body, as 17th-century philosophers would have you think. The truth is closer to a symbiotic relationship. My treatment on SSRIs put an end to that notion, and my time outside confirms it.

If I hadn’t decided to spend more time outside, I wouldn’t have taken that safari with my friends. I wouldn’t have learned the difference between a grackle and a crow, or seen why a glossy ibis is such a beautiful bird. I wouldn’t be getting in touch with things I thought I lost over ten years ago.

I have to say, I don’t mind being more of an outdoor cat.