Archive for June, 2010

Jun 28 2010

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Wet Woods

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It’s always a surprise to step into the woods on a sunny day only to find the trail all wet and muddy.  Oh yeah, that’s right, the rain came down in buckets yesterday afternoon.  Besides, this month has been much wetter than usual.  And unlike pavement, fields and other open areas, the woods do not dry out quickly.  Sometimes it takes several days, a week or more.

The vegetation loves all this wetness, of course.  Moss, trees, ferns, wildflowers, bushes – everything around me was lush and happy as I hiked up Belvidere Mountain.  And mushrooms sprang up everywhere.  The wild forest loves to be wet.  Water brings it to life.  A red eft crawled underfoot as if to remind me that mud is good.  My dog, Matika, concurred.  A half hour into the hike, she was black from the chest down, and all smiles.

At first I dodged the muddiest places in the trail, hopped over the rivulets running every which way, and stepped onto flat rocks when I could, trying to stay clean.  Then I relaxed.  I let my boots and pants get wet and dirty.  I stopped cursing my fogged-up eyeglasses, and drank extra water to compensate for the sweat that wasn’t evaporating.  I watched the steam rolling off my shirt whenever I took a break, and accepted it as a normal condition.

Near the top of the mountain, a wood thrush called out repeatedly.  That’s always fortuitous.  Wet or dry, the wild woods are the place to be.  I placed my walking stick carefully as I negotiated slick roots and rocks.  Matika leaped ahead of me, surprisingly surefooted.  I reached the summit faster than expected, then marveled at the blue sky contradicting the damp forest.  Matika just smiled.  Yeah, any day in the woods is a good day as far as she’s concerned, no matter what the trail is like.

The descent was a little stressful.  I worried about slipping and falling, but managed to get down without incident.  I cleaned up swamp dog the best I could when we reached the brook, getting myself a little wetter in the process.  But that didn’t matter.  I knew I’d be clean and dry for the next two days, while working indoors.  “Enjoy the wetness while you can,” I mumbled to myself.  Yeah, being wet and wild is a good thing.

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Jun 21 2010

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For the Exercise

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Sometimes I step into the woods to commune with nature and renew my spirit.  Other times I do it for the exercise.  I don’t like to run but I do like to hike.  So when it’s time to give my flabby, fifty-something body a workout, I grab my pack and head for the nearest mountain.

Make no mistake about it.  Hiking up a fair-sized mountain will give you just as much of a workout as a good run.  It takes longer, that’s all.

I don’t know how many times I’ve hiked up Jay Peak.  I climb it at least once a year just to see what kind of shape I’m in. The hike is 1.7 miles one way; a roughly 1600-foot rise from trailhead to summit.  I can usually get up it in an hour and twenty minutes.  My fastest time is an hour and ten.  It took an hour and a half this time around.  Nothing says “You’re out of shape” to me like those simple numbers.

Most people hike mountains for the exercise, the view, and the sense of accomplishment that bagging a peak brings.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like the view as much as the next guy.  And yes, of course, standing on a summit makes my day.  But as I get older, I do it more for the exercise than anything else.  I charge up mountains as if desperately escaping the Grim Reaper.  I figure that I’ll live to be a hundred if I climb enough mountains, all medical surprises notwithstanding.  Okay, maybe 90 or 85.

It’s more a matter of quality of life than quantity, really.  I don’t want to spend my old age bedridden or plugged to a machine if I can avoid it.  And I know I won’t be able to afford all those marvelous pills out there.  At any rate, I figure that hiking now is cheaper than taking pills later on.  Besides, it’s much more fun.

We all make choices.  Too many people choose by default – not looking ahead, not considering the consequences, or simply not dealing with it.  I have an inner tube of fat around my mid-section proving that I too have made many choices by default, opting for a cookie instead of a carrot, an hour in front of the tv or computer instead of an hour sweating.  We all make bad choices at one point or another.  But there comes a moment when physical reality smacks you up the side of the head.  Then you make a choice, consciously or otherwise, to either change your ways or stay the course.

My moment of realization came halfway up Jay a couple days ago, when I was week-legged, sweating profusely, and gasping for air.  Time to lose the inner tube, I told myself.  So there will probably be more mountains in my future.  Either that or I’ll become Jabba the Hut.

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Jun 15 2010

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A Sense of Direction

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It wasn’t easy getting up for a hike as rain gathered on the windshield of my car, but I knew I’d see things differently once I was in the thick of things.  My dog, Matika, didn’t care.  She’s up for a hike anytime, anywhere, in any weather.  So I parked my car, grabbed my rain hat, and stepped into the woods.

At first I thought I’d just follow the overgrown skidder trail a short distance beyond the beaver pond, then turn around.  But my legs wanted more.  Despite the bugs, drizzle and tall, wet grass, I was enjoying the walk.  So I kept going until I reached a small clearing illuminated by gray light.  There the skidder trail fragmented into several sketchy paths shooting different directions.  And there, true to my natural inclinations, I chose the path less traveled and ventured deeper.

I recognized the path.  I had walked it a year earlier until it had completely disappeared into the brush.  Shortly after that, I had been turned around for an hour or so.  With that in mind, I checked the compass dangling around my neck.  Yeah, this time I was ready for the wily ways of French Hill.

I followed the fading path until it crested a ridge.  Then it vanished.  I bushwhacked down the far side of the ridge until I came to a long, narrow wetland.  I was tempted to cross it and almost did out of sheer impulse.  My sense of direction told me to turn right.  My compass told me to turn left.  “That can’t be right,” I mumbled.  My dog waited patiently for me to make a decision.  I followed my compass.

Anyone who has ever been in this situation knows the rest of the story.  The compass was right, of course.  I soon tagged a game trail that veered back towards the beaver pond.  When I passed through a familiar gap in an old stone wall, I knew where I was again.  And I was back to my car fifteen minutes later.  Of course.

A compass isn’t infallible, and a certain amount of skill is necessary to use it properly.  Yet it has served me well on countless occasions when my “sense of direction” would have led me astray.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, no doubt, regarding subjective and objective thinking.  But I’ve said enough already.  I’ll leave it to others to draw whatever conclusions they so desire.

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Jun 07 2010

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Walking the Beach

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Judy and I took our annual trip to the Maine coast last week.  Per usual, we rented a cottage overlooking a salt marsh.  The view out the cottage window is very comfortable for a woodsy guy like me – all wetland and forest.  But there comes a time when it’s best to crawl out of one’s comfort zone and see the world in a different way.  So early one morning I hiked the half mile access road to Goose Rocks Beach then walked along water’s edge, taking it all in.

On a misty, gray-sky day, the ocean horizon is indistinct, suggesting infinity.  Waves break towards shore, wearing down all conventional notions of time.  I walked the beach, all too aware that my boot prints would soon wash away.  Impermanence.  Only the ocean itself remains fixed in place – a vast body of water stretching beyond imagination.  And yet it too is constantly moving, constantly changing it’s mood.

The beach is covered with oceanic debris.  Long rows of aquatic vegetation mark the tide’s high water line.  And mixed into it shells, fragments of shells, the body parts of crabs and lobsters, and countless other organics in various stages of decay.  Much like the forest, the shoreline reeks of decay – repulsive to my landlubber nose at first, then oddly sweet and inviting as I recall from whence I came.  The ocean is the wellspring of all life on this planet.  Nowhere is that more apparent than on the beach when the tide is going out.

Sandpipers and plovers fed along the shoreline.  Sand fleas cued them to the most scrumptious morsels.  I skirted a tidal pool that seemed like a buffet to some of the shorebirds.  A gull carried off something.  Just off shore, ducks and eiders dove for breakfast.  Much like the forest, the shoreline ecology is all about food.

Funny how my gaze always starts on the horizon and ends up in the sand at my feet.  I looked for things of interest among the shoreline deposits without knowing how such things are valued.  I found a sand dollar, picked it up, then found another, then another.  The currency of the ocean wild.  My wife values them, anyhow.  So does my granddaughter.  I picked up a particularly interesting shell and stuffed it in my pocket.  I’m not sure why.  What the ocean coughs up is hard to resist.

The waves continued breaking in my head as I hiked back towards the cottage, away from shore.  Even now, days later, I can still hear it.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the foamy edge of the sea washing over the sand, leaving fresh deposits there.  Nature’s watery hand is never still.  What am I to make of this?  Perhaps it’s best if I make nothing of it at all.  Tabula rasa.  Each new wave wipes the slate clean.

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