I love to hike. Scrambling up hill, down dale, fording streams and generally giving Mother Nature a run for her money, I like to think I’m as nimble as a young mountain goat. Turns out I’m not.
In the natural order of things, right about now those of us in the Midwest would be slipping & sliding on ice, shivering & yearning for the first non-parka day of early spring, which won’t arrive for another month yet. Instead we’ve got summer. We had 68 sunny degrees here this weekend, while my kids were shivering in the mid-50s in San Francisco. Bizarre. I’m not complaining mind you, but it is none-the-less bizarre.
I woke early on Sunday planning to pack that gift-of-a-day with activities, including a hike in the Great Outdoors and some recreational shopping. I got to Matthiessen State Park by 10:30 figuring I’d beat the throngs, but it was already too late. I used to have the place to myself before tourists discovered it a few years ago. Now the parking lot was full to bursting and they were repelling boarders. Everyone and their dog had decided to commune with nature.
“Don’t people go to church on Sundays anymore?” I grumbled to myself as I drove through, back out to the highway, and considered plan B. I didn’t even bother with the main parking lot at Starved Rock State Park– it’s even more popular than Matthiessen. Instead I went to a lesser-known trail on the outskirts on the park, and got one of the last open parking spots in the lot.
I wish everyone would get out and experience the joys of nature. In theory. In practice I wish they would wait to experience those joys when I’m not around. People in general are an annoyance when one is seeking solitary contentment and screaming children are, in particular, a menace to peace. Helpful parenting tip here: Why not keep your children at home until they are old enough to behave in polite society? Around age 25 seems about right.
As usual, my first task upon hitting the trail was finding a suitable walking stick. You never know when you’ll need one to help climb steep trails or ward off unfriendly dogs. Or children. Our way-too-early spring thaw drew moisture out of the frozen ground and turned most of the trails to muddy quagmires intersected by spontaneous streams, but I trudged on joyfully, accumulating ½ inch of mud on my shoes every yard, and breathing great, gulping lungsful of the fresh, warm air.
My first major obstacle was a stream that’s a problem in all but the driest times. It is about 15 feet across, it spans the valley and there’s no way to get around it; the only options are up and over or through. I wasn’t turning back this soon so I reconnoitered and found 3 likely spots to cross, each fraught with danger. I chose a jumble of fallen branches and rocks at the far end of the stream up against a canyon wall. I chose badly.
The walking stick came in handy here and I plunged it into foot-deep water to steady myself as I inched slowly across the 10-inch diameter log which formed most of my bridge. But it was round and slick with mud and just as I reached the end and was considering which rock or branch to leap onto, gravity had her way with me.
I went over with an undignified flailing of arms. I’m sure it looked pretty funny, and I would have laughed heartily had it happened to you. I landed on one foot, teetering and tottering on the rocky, branch-strewn creek bed and managed to stay upright by sheer luck. I trudged the remainder of the way through the water, through muddy quicksand aggressively trying to keep my aging sneakers, used a low-growing sapling to scramble inelegantly up the opposite bank of slick clay, and stopped to take stock.
My tennies wore mud overboots and the bottom eight inches of my pants were soaking wet. A quick look around revealed nobody had witnessed my dunking, thankfully, but it’s not as if I could hide the evidence. One look at the tell-tale ombré of my jeans, light blue at the top blending to indigo at the soaked bottoms, would tell all and sundry of my hiker’s shame.
I didn’t give up then, not precisely, but slow and careful seemed rather pointless. This was just the first of the many streams I encountered, and I wound up with about a 30% failure rate. Not impressive. I wasn’t cold or uncomfortable, just a tad self-conscious. I squelched when I walked.
On the way back I stopped at a stream I had safely navigated on the way out, and now found a line of people waiting to pick their way across a bridge improvised out of rocks and fallen limbs not big enough to be called trunks. One young woman, obviously terrified, was moving as tentatively as if she was The Great Santini crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope without a net.
In the immortal words of Janis Joplin, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. “What the hell!” says I to me. I skipped the line and splashed the 10 feet across the stream. The water was a measly schmeasly inch deep.
I didn’t mind about my wet pants after that. That last dunking was my choice, and that choosing cancelled out all the inadvertent wettings, at least in my mind.
As I neared the parking lot a crop of fresh hikers came toward me on the trail. They glanced at me, took in my wet pants and muddied shoes, and hastily averted their eyes. “So what?” I silently rebelled. “At least I put myself out there. If others think I’m a clumsy doofus, well, to hell with them. I’ll bet good money more than one of these people will be similarly soaked on the way back.” I held my head up high as I squelched by the pristine newbies.
I ended up skipping the shopping trip after the hike. It’s not because I was ashamed of my soaked pants – I wore them proudly. They were badges of honor. They bore witness to my determination to get up off the couch, go out in the fresh air and enjoy the natural beauty that is one of God’s greatest accomplishments!
The thing is, I was exhausted. What with the 5 gallons of water that had soaked into my jeans and 10 extra pounds of mud on each shoe, my little nature hike wound up being a total cardio workout.