In Pursuit of Nothing

A unique Rice mindfulness program entices a busy mom to trade workday routines for a respite in the Appalachian Mountains.

Illustration by Gracia Lam
Illustration by Gracia Lam

“You can never have too much sky.”— Sandra Cisneros

We stepped out of the woods into the sunshine and were immediately swarmed by gnats, likely attracted by the collective stench of our merry band of hikers. Finding a place to set up and eat our lunch in peace was going to be a challenge. Our long morning hike sharpened my appetite, and I was ready to take off my outer layers — until the gnats attacked!

One of the guides shouted from somewhere above us. An observation tower offered our group the perfect place to sit and break bread — high above the clouds of gnats and with magnificent views of the forest canopy and mountain ridges. But there was yellow caution tape wrapped around the tower’s base, and it was a steep climb up a narrow steel stairway. My acrophobia reared its head as, one by one, my fellow hikers ducked under the tape and ascended the open stairs. Did I really come this far to let an irrational fear of falling and a little caution tape stop me now?

Just a week earlier, a casual conversation with my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Slator, led to an impulsive decision to book a flight to Asheville, N.C. Elizabeth was leading a group on a retreat named Rediscover Your Wild Side. I swooned at her description of the mindfulness retreat in the wilderness, and she assured me it wasn’t too late to join the group. My brain immediately generated a dozen reasons why I couldn’t go, but a little voice inside was whispering the phrase made famous by Nike, “Just do it.”

Life had been so loud and so fast recently that the prospect of getting away from the noise and escaping the swirl of responsibilities was alluring. As a working mom of three, going away for five days on my own seemed ridiculously selfish and irresponsible. There was no way to rationalize this trip as benefiting work or family. Neither was it a girlfriend trip nor a romantic getaway. It was just me doing something for me. Like a computer with too many windows open and too many programs running, I just wanted to shut it all down and find a hard reset. The “great escape” (as I privately renamed the trip) presented a rare and fleeting opportunity.

Before I could change my mind, I booked a flight to Asheville. I pulled out a suitcase as a visual reminder of an act that felt rebellious. For good measure, I temporarily deleted my work email account from my phone. In the airport terminal, I texted my husband and kids to remind them that I really would be out of pocket and off duty.

From the Asheville airport, we drove a few hours to our campsite, where we were greeted by a row of yurts peeking out from the pristine expanse of the Appalachian Mountains. A refurbished barn served as communal space and shelter. The stream running along one side of the property was swollen and dark from recent rains. No website or travel brochure could have done the place justice.

For five glorious days, my life slowed down. No multitasking, no electronics, no hurried meals while carpooling to lacrosse games and violin lessons. No meetings and no deadlines. My world contracted and expanded at the same time. The only residents of this small world were the eight other Rice colleagues who signed up for the trip — Norma, Cindy, Catherine, George, Anthea, Kris, Rebecca and Elizabeth, our leader.

Every day, we fell into an easy and natural rhythm. Sunlight filtering into my yurt woke me before the alarm. Journaling and meditation before breakfast. Long hikes through the woods and quiet conversations around the campfire. Sipping yerba mate in the morning and playing cards at night. Fireflies dancing in the fields and stars glinting at us from above. A stunning double rainbow bridging the stream after a sudden summer shower. Birdsong every morning and crackling fires before bedtime. Each day was a feast for the senses.

By the third day, I was awakening to the realization that I am so often driven to be a planner, to make decisions, to manage schedules or to direct other people. I am focused and strategic and attempt to squeeze the most out of every day. By escaping from my daily life and routine, I was learning how to be still and to shift from doing to being. How to surrender control and be open to what comes next. It felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It was also liberating.

Without the usual distractions and work and family obligations, I had the energy and the bandwidth to have deeper conversations with people. It has been 25 years since I graduated from Rice, and I still find my Rice friends and colleagues to be the most intellectually interesting people to converse with. They think and care deeply and make me want to be a better version of myself. It seems too obvious to point out, but the lack of electronics and limited electricity created an intimacy and sense of connection that is increasingly elusive in our 24/7 plugged-in world.

On our last day, a planned rafting trip was canceled due to rough waters. We devised a plan B and took a long, beautiful drive along quiet country roads until crossing the state line. The hiking trail took us deep into the woods where the air was cool and reverent. It was as if I had crossed the bridge to Terabithia, into a magical sanctuary of my imagination. After three hours of hiking, we arrived at a shallow brook into which we plunged our tired feet to cool off. We waded into the stream to build cairns with the wide, flat rocks harvested from the riverbed. One by one, the teetering towers arose from the water, memorializing the beauty of God’s creation and reminding us that slowing down to be mindful can bring our lives back into balance.

I love my job at the Doerr Institute, a mission-driven startup committed to developing the next generation of leaders. Each new year brings more students, more opportunities and more work to do. I thrive on challenges and my brain buzzes with adrenaline when I’m getting things done. But like many Rice students, I often get swept along in the fast-moving rapids of productivity, losing sight of priorities and skimming along the surface of relationships.

At first, this great escape felt like a reckless indulgence, but it gave me some much-needed perspective on my work, my relationships, and my daily habits and impulses. It also recharged my battery in a way that no ordinary vacation, packed with relational expectations and logistical needs, could have done.

I often come home from travels with a rock or two in my bag. They end up on my nightstand, next to my office computer, on the edge of the bathtub or in the bottom of my purse. I hold the cool weight and remember where I first saw it, what I was doing when I found it and who I was with when I stooped to pick it up.

A striped metamorphic chunk from a state park we visited now sits on my desk at work. It tells the story of millions of years of collision and compression between continental plates. It symbolizes the complicated and layered beauty that is forged under heat and pressure. It takes me back to that cool forest stream where it first caught my eye. It instills a dose of quiet and calm when the noise and chaos begin to rise around me. And it’s a quiet reminder of the importance of replenishing my own body and spirit so I can continue to give myself to the people and work I love.

Reitmeier is the assistant director of coaching at the Doerr Institute for New Leaders. Elizabeth Slator leads mindfulness stress reduction classes and retreats in her role as the associate director of programs at the Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center. To learn more, go to

— Ruth Oh Reitmeier