While I was growing up, my dad worked for Lone Star Beer. During his time with the company, he worked on the crew that grew it regionally with a virtually “unknown” singer-songwriter of that time: Willie Nelson. Small town Texas was the brewery’s strategy—sending a road show to every little dance hall, beer joint, rodeo and horseback trail ride available in Texas. Consequently, my dad could tell you, even at the age of 91, the amazing backroad routes, journeys and “must-see” locations throughout the Lone Star State.
Growing up, those destinations were mandatory; they were part of my dad’s job, and many times our family of four would load up and hit the road along with him. Already country kids with very few neighbors, these were opportunities for us to be around others and see more of Texas. My favorite destinations were those that involved a trail ride where I could bring my horse; a bike ride that would connect the small town “dots on the map” via unpaved county roads; or a river run where we’d pack up the canoe, paddles, tubes and a cooler to shoot it from crossing to crossing.
My family always knew where we were going, but we didn’t know what to expect when we got there. That was the magic—erasing all expectations and having a “child-like spirit” to discover and see what revealed itself. My mom and dad gave us great autonomy on these trips. I was the kid that would finish a trail ride in a small Texas town, and my wanderlust spirit would send me exploring the backroads on my horse while they sat at the local beer joint as dad was “working”—drinking ice cold Lone Star. My horse, Tammy, and I would trot around town, even stopping at stop signs, peaking around store fronts and into side streets, while friendly shop and home owners would give us a happy wave or nod.
The days when a young girl, not yet even a teen, could sit atop her 17-hand palomino horse and roam the streets of another town by herself with no fear or intimidation are long lost in most towns in Texas. However, the seed that was planted in my soul blossomed as a spirit that longs for exploration and adventure. To this day, when I feel burned out, stressed out or tired of the “same ole, same ole,” I know it’s time for me to get out.
Now, I yearn for that same joy and rush of exploration; that freedom of mind, body and spirit to seek, probe and push my boundaries and have a child-like enthusiasm. It’s time to lace up or pack up, whether it’s just steps from my home or within a couple hours’ drive away. It’s like a medicine to me; a dose of it can bring me back up, aid what is bothering me and have a lasting effect that can buffer tough chapters of life. Exploration can bring an amazing sense of bliss and fulfillment to our lives. Especially with the current pandemic, the tightened boundaries of our lifestyles seem to be squeezing the spirit out of some of us. What once seemed like a huge, open world for some has been limited to one’s own neighborhood, community or only those areas that daily routines mandate.
Now more than ever, our mental and emotional wellbeing needs the positive emotions that exploration and adventure can evoke. A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience validates that novelty and experiential diversity is important to stimulate our brains and deliver that “feel good” sensation. The even better news is that it also has a lasting effect into the following days and possibly weeks!
For some, the word “exploration” exudes images of traveling the world, summiting a 14-er, living out of a backpack or only buying one-way tickets for a year. However, simplifying it to a local ambition can elicit the same mental and emotional responses. It can be journaled in minutes or miles; it’s not where or how far—it’s the mark of positivity it leaves.
With the same wide-eyed pursuit that I rode my horse down unknown Texas county roads, I now love to just get out on them and drive—point my headlights west and put the skyline of Austin in my rearview mirror. I can promise you my cortisol plummets and my dopamine sores. Turning right onto my favorite two-lane county road, it drops even more. Start visiting those little dots on the map like Sisterdale, Bandera, Camp Verde and Medina. There’s something about traversing the backroads of Texas; not only does my speed limit drop, but so does my heart rate and stress levels.
Just as my dad planted a love of exploring the backroads of the Texas Hill Country in my soul, he did the same with the Texas rivers. Bordered with timeless cypress trees and “sometime” creeks, their cool, babbling waters have a soothing ripple effect that runs through my veins. Their power pours into me a release of anything and everything that hinders me. It makes some life situations seem not so bad and others shine with even more opportunity. My mind clears and my heart lifts. Whether the rivers are running well or they are waiting low and steady for the next season of rain, they never disappoint and always fulfill.
The study by Nature Neuroscience confirms that human nature thrives on bathing in fresh opportunities in life, those that lend us the moment to pause, observe and absorb. Exploration does not have to come from the pocketbook or passport, but rather from within, to experience, connect and behold.