I love spending time moving through nature. Before I relocated to Delaware I had the advantage of hiking daily from the front door of my house as well as driving to known hiking trails to join several area Meetup groups whose leaders and regular members were familiar to me. In November of last year, I decided it was not enough to walk around my apartment complex or at the nearby park alone with Duke. First, Duke has his own pace. Duke is part Shepard and part Elkhound. The latter breed is known for their instinct to track and hunt. And so it is with Duke to sniff out the scent of every animal that has gone before us. Thus, with this walk and stop and sniff and pee and repeat pace, I was getting fresh air but not much aerobic exercise. Second, while Duke is friendly and handsome and is, at first-look, a people magnet, while on a leash he feels obligated to bark and act more protective than welcoming. As a result, the odds of meeting potential friends during these outings are greatly diminished.
Last November, I decided it was time to join a local Meetup group. It was a bit of a challenge at first to show up to new locations and without knowing any of the people with whom I would be spending three hours over a six or seven mile course. However, as I quickly remembered, being with others who share a common interest and having the opportunity to chat with multiple folks throughout the experience, feeling comfortable and at ease comes quickly. Six months later, I now hike with a group every Saturday and Sunday (and sometimes on Tuesday), take advantage of social gatherings during the week, and find I form new friendships along the way. Of course, even though I show Duke the mileage I’ve already covered on my health app, he still expects me to join him for our regular outings. Needless to say, I’m doing well in the suggested daily steps category.
In addition to making the commitment to increase my physical activity and to improve my socialization interactions, I’ve been focused on letting go of a lifelong mindset that no longer serves me. Replacing the belief that life (people, weather, pets, etc.) should be fair, with the nonjudgmental acceptance of life as it is, removes (for now, reduces) the triggers for upset, disappointment, and anger. Inspired by Living Untethered, by Michael Singer, I have been making a daily effort to transform my old way of thinking to an approach that not only makes me feel better but also, when I stop to think about it, makes more sense.
A couple of weeks ago, I took Duke to Lums Pond State Park, a nearly 1800-acre site brimming with activities and adventures to be had. The focal point is Lums Pond, which I had been to before. During those times I had kayaked briefly with my family, hiked short distances along either side of the boat dock, and explored each end of the pond. On this day, I decided I would take advantage of the warm temperatures and walk with Duke around the full perimeter. I had an hour before I would need to leave to meet my grandson as he arrived from school and even then, there would be time to spare. As I began the trek, I took note of what parts of the pond I should be able to see from the other side and when. I didn’t bother to look at any maps as this looked rather straightforward and relatively easy compared to the many hiking adventures I had experienced during much larger and more challenging excursions in NY. I also took time to remind myself that we’d be traveling at a “Duke Pace” and I was there to simply relax and enjoy, come what may.
Little did I know that this would be a test day. My one-hour walk turned into a three-hour struggle. Unable to see the full shape of the pond, it turned out that I had underestimated the size and even though I tried some shortcuts (that weren’t), we had exceeded Duke’s capacity to keep walking as his body absorbed the heat of the sun through his yet remaining winter coat. I became confused and not sure of where I was and felt all of my former habits of thinking flooding my mind. Fortunately, I had cell service and was able to let my grandson know that I wouldn’t be there to greet him; something I wasn’t happy about. And while I went through each stage of this ordeal, slowly realizing that I was not in the kind of control I wanted, I began to blame not only myself but poor Duke. At one point late into the afternoon, he ran out of steam. Panting and with no water nearby (we were now well out of sight of the lake-sized pond) he found a shady spot on the trail and lay down. He would go no further without resting. Duke weighs 70 pounds so picking him up and carrying him was clearly, only, a last resort. So, I sat with him. And, slowly, I realized that I was in the woods on a beautiful day with my dog and even if we had to inch our way forward, we’d eventually find our way out, whether I worried, or fretted, or got angry or not. I also began to think more clearly and discovered that where there had been no access to Internet service previously, I could now see where we were on a map on my phone. After about 10 minutes of rest, Duke was willing to push on. Shortly we found a small stream into which he walked, cooling his feet and drinking its refreshing water. Less than an hour later we were back at the car.
It will take me many more such experiences before I no longer default to my old and practiced habits of panic, anger, and blame. And while I expect I’ll fair better and better, especially while doing what I love, which is to spend time walking in nature, I will also have an added advantage. That night, I subscribed to the version of AllTrails, which allows me to download interactive maps! Maybe, I’ll even invite a friend or two to travel along with us.
“All who wander are not lost.”
(the second line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem “The Riddle of Strider”)
I Wonder as I Wander
I have always wanted that adventurous spirit and a constitution to support that. But unfortunately I never was afforded those traits. As a kid I would watch adventure shows on TV and imagine myself as the main character. However, I couldn’t even sleep out in a tent in my backyard at night. I was afraid of everything, especially darkness. So nighttime adventures in the wild (or even in my dark basement) were totally out of the question. I am not clear on why the woods seemed so frightening to me. Perhaps as a city boy, growing up in the urban wilds of Manhattan and then the suburban forests of Flushing, Queens may have contributed to my fears. Streetlights and sirens were more comforting to me than crickets, and far off coyote cries. l had never even heard of peepers til I went upstate to college, which up until that point was the most adventurous step I ever took. By 18 years of age I had to try and shun that part of me that was afraid of my own shadow. Leaving the safety of home seemed like a good way to start shedding the old fears of youth. I actually hid my acceptance letter to City College from my parents hoping that I would be accepted by one of my State School choices. Going to City College was like transplanting my entire high school just in new buildings. I was starving for adventure and had no idea if I was up for the task.
When I was a kid, I had a friend named Adele. She lived up the block from me and was quite adventurous. Her mother was a local realtor and she and Adele would go around the neighborhoods at night and enter into vacant old houses up for sale. Adele always wanted to drag me along and as per usual I was scared but would swallow my fear cause i couldn’t let a little girl show me up. I remember one house in particular just on the next block from my house. It was dark out and probably around 8 pm. Her mom had the keys and wanted to preview the house so in we went. It was dark and cold, empty and scary. There is something eerie and spooky about a cold empty house. My goose bumps were already preparing to pop as we went from room to room on the ground floor of this old Victorian 3 story house. Adele challenged me to race her up the stairs so off we went. I made it to the top step a few seconds before she did. We turned around to head to the front of the house and I let out a scream that made my own blood curdle, Adele also screamed and we ran down as fast as possible. Her mom came running to the stairs to see what was wrong. Adele explained there were people upstairs. Her mom said that was impossible so she headed up with us following carefully behind. She reached the landing before we did and started laughing. It seems the “people” were Adele’s and my reflection in an old mirror on the well. That was the last time I went with them on their adventures.
When I met Hen back in ’65 I admired his adventurous nature, his easy way with trying new things and adjusting to whatever challenge he faced. He was comfortable in the woods and with night animal sounds. I was easy with people, but a cry in the night would make my skin crawl. I enjoyed meeting new people and being in situations where I was forced to introduce myself and to make me and the other person comfortable in a short period of time. Just as an aside, I think it was Henry who introduced me to peepers on the pond behind Capen Hall at New Paltz State. Add to my fear of the woods, I was blessed with the worst sense of direction ever so unlike Henry being lost that day but knowing he would make his way back, I would have been trembling in fear that the bears would find me before the search party would. Even now at almost 77! But like Henry, over the years I have learned to love nature. I love now the call of coyotes at night, peepers are my friends, I even get a thrill when I hear the scary screech of the fisher cat around midnight, but unlike Henry, I enjoy them from the safety of my screened in porch, somewhere where I can escape behind a closed door for safety.
But I digress, I do like to wander, but unlike Hen I enjoy wandering through flea markets, garage sales and antique shops. I love looking at the old brown furniture ( the new term for furniture in a natural wood finish). Brown furniture is no longer in demand as the younger generations are not into it anymore. Slap a coat of milk paint on it and that makes it desirable today. But I like to look in the drawers, open the cabinet doors and imagine the room that it was located in. I take in the smells from the open drawers, sometimes even finding a treasure left behind by the original owner allowing me to wonder who this person was and imagine the circumstances that led to this treasure winding up in an old yard sale. I love finding small personal trinkets that may have been carried around by the owner, a money clip, a locket, something that would help define who this person was. I found a handmade wooden toy train in an antique shop once and rolled up in the cabin of the engine was a short written note from the kid who once owned it saying it belonged to him in 1927-28. I could picture this little kid playing with this beautiful toy made especially for him by his grampa! There is so much history in these places but because it isn’t spelled out clearly, it allows my imagination to spin and invent the whole story of these artifacts. I can spend hours in such places and without the worry of darkness setting in or monsters coming out from behind a tree. So I have grown up a little, not quite as afraid of the dark as I used to be, and open to new challenges, as long as they are safe! As I wander from aisle to aisle, up one and down the next, lifting objects, studying them, imagining how they were used, who they belonged to, I always know my way home. I do admit to one unpleasant feature of these places. Wally and I have talked about this over the years. I stumble upon a bowl or a box of old photographs- wedding pictures, babies, groups of people, their pets and I am saddened that this is where a family wound up, thrown carelessly into a pile to be looked at or ignored by total strangers. That makes me very sad! But though it doesn’t help me with any of my fears or personal struggles, It allows me to wonder as I wander through these museums of the common people.
Roads Go Ever On
Hen’s piece really strikes a chord – it not only got me thinking about the times when I was really tuned into hiking as a pastime, but also as a reminder that I need to rededicate myself to the walking culture. Well, hiking, trekking, walking, strolling — whatever – but moving mindfully through nature is the important feature.
It’s been said that walking is the way we measure our bodies against the earth. That’s a great sound byte, but I think it misses the point. The point is that activity and exploration are the real benefits. Some studies indicate that the complex stimuli of being in the great outdoors are helpful for fostering neuroplasticity in the brain, especially for older individuals. Others simply say that it clears the mind for creative thinking.
The grand European walking culture has benefitted people for generations. Making nature observations, collecting mushrooms, bird watching opportunities, and discussing ideas with walking mates are traditional. Two of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were walking enthusiasts and their writings abound with references to being on the move in the woods. Here’s a quote from George Sayer (a friend and student of Lewis) that is descriptive of their different walking styles:
“You should have seen Jack (C.S. Lewis) trying to walk with J.R.R. Tolkien! Once Jack got started a bomb could not have stopped him and the more he walked, the more energy he had for a good argument. Now Tolkien was just the opposite. If he had something to say, he wanted you to stop so he could look you in the face. So on they would go, Jack charging ahead and Tolkien pulling at him, trying to get him to stop – back and forth, back and forth. What a scene!”
Many a philosopher and scientist worked out seminal thoughts while on the trail. However, I am really impressed by the walking badges affixed to canes and hiking staffs – and the stamps of kilometers walked in special ‘passport’ style books that are encouraged by the European walking culture.
I kept one of my own for years, logging hikes and reminisces for each walk. While I never engaged in long treks, my notes eventually filled up an entire journal. Occasionally, I will consult the pages, but sadly have not added any in quite some time.
An organization dedicated to the continuance of the walking culture is the Internationaler Volkssportverband (the International Federation of Popular Sport). The stated purpose of the group is
- To encourage public health through non-competitive physical activities in a natural setting.
- To provide opportunities for social engagement, voluntarism, and community leadership.
- To contribute toward peace and understanding among people and nations by fostering international friendship.
Sounds like great goals! In order to reach those goals, the organization sponsors ‘volksmarches’ or group wanders – generally in the 10km (6.3 miles) range. Some are family traditions. Recognition is provided through points provided, as well as ribbons, pins and certificates. However, comradery and exercise are the main prizes. Hen’s meet-up group sounds like an entity on the same family tree.
Hen and George both reference the possibility of becoming lost while on a walk in the woods. But a little risk is part of the draw for exploring – it wouldn’t be fun if the route held no surprises. Being lost is not fun, but being resourceful is. Hen has already thought of methods to reduce the probability of issue. Preparation of course is the key – always.
I’ll just say that the times I remember most from walks are
- The smell of pennyroyal on the Shawangunk ridges
- The friendly chirp of a towhee that seems to follow along with you
- Friendly banter along the walk, each friend picking up the other’s energy
- A warm rock to sit on during nice weather or a dry rock during not-so-nice weather
- The taste of mint tea after a tiring walk (interestingly, it’s the only time I like mint tea)
These aren’t spectacular moments – not even breath-taking views. They are just quiet features of a nice walk away from the hustle-bustle.
Hen ended with a quote from Tolkien… and I’ll end with a few selected stanzas from one of his longer poems:
Roads Go Ever On: JRR Tolkien
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.