So my husband and I took our doggie Lois for an afternoon hiking trip in Shenandoah National Park yesterday. A trip way overdue. Imagine. We moved here in April, we’re less than 1/2 an hour from the park’s entrance, and we hadn’t yet gone hiking. Unusual for us.
The day was hot and so muggy you could drink the air. The no-see-ums were going crazy. For some reason, they leave my husband and doggie daughter alone, but they love me. I was slapping myself with a shirt the whole way – like a horse flicks its tail I was slapping my shirt, thwack thwack.
As we started down the hill at the trail’s entrance near South River picnic area, it was so quiet it felt like the whole world was holding its breath. No breeze, no birds. Not even any insects. Every living thing seemed to have sought cooler shelter. At one point a woodpecker began to hammer and it was like a machine gun, sharp and painful.
The trail was so incredible, better than anything we had hiked in the Laurel Highlands when we lived in Pittsburgh. Towering trees spread their arms, carpets of fern wrapped around their feet like Christmas tree skirts. Boulders covered in moss hunkered down in shallow streams that burbled and sang. White toadstools so huge, I half expected that caterpillar with the hookah to appear and offer me a piece. We even saw a copperhead, curled up under a rock, sunning himself on a ledge by a waterfall that raced down the side of a mountain. As we walked I was internally slapping myself for not doing this more often. I grew up in Richmond! Why hadn’t I spent my entire waking life, every minute of every weekend exploring every nook and cranny that this park had to offer? As a child, my sister and I had often hiked up Humpback Rock with our mother’s father, but I remember those hikes with equal measures of dread and misery. It was more of a forced march than a leisurely afternoon. Not quite Bhutan, but close. Get to the top as quickly as possible, snap a photo, then back down equally fast, slapping mosquitos the whole way. I did have a glimmer of nostalgia when I spotted a child with a huge walking stick – I remember Granddaddy talking to us about the virtues of a good one.
This hike was much more my style. I even abandoned my own walking stick after a while. It became just another item to carry. The trees were so lush and cool, and the shade was wet, mossy, and green. While the other two seemed to race ahead, I lagged behind, marveling at how everything seemed to be made of fuzzy emeralds. Covered in a soft grassy carpet. For a moment I imagined myself to be the park ranger in Prodigal Summer, tracking the trails, making sure everything was in its place. In that book she and her lover spent hours just trail hiking, never speaking. As our footsteps softly plodded through the leaves and wet earth I started to understand how you could actually end up doing that. I talk a lot, a whole lot, but here I started to get very quiet inside myself. I didn’t get quiet entirely, but I started to. I could feel it.
I love when I find myself in situations where I can actually feel myself slow down. Actually see my mind’s eye stopping instead of darting in every direction. Just look at the leaves. Just marvel at the size of that mushroom, which looked more like an ostrich egg than anything else. Orange, white, with brown spots underneath.
So often I am racing inside. My thoughts, my mind, my tongue are all in a tither to outrun each other. But here I felt quiet. So when the breeze began, I actually heard it. I really felt it on my skin instead of just saying something inane like, “It’s about time! It’s frikkin hot!”
When we got lost my mind picked up again. It had been napping, but there was that old monster anxiety freaking out because we didn’t know exactly where we were at that very moment. But instead of crying, I took a breath. Then another. This moment really was so sweet after all. How often do I get to walk in this incredible lush paradise of green with just my husband and my dog. It kind of felt like what heaven must be like. Just us three. Walking. Enjoying each other. Enjoying the day.