Sunday, January 24, 2010

High Road, Low, Taking the Winding Path

by Zinta Aistars

Our group of 14 hikers plus 3 pups meets in the parking lot

Jerry takes point initially, but we eventually all find our own pace, our own lead

The Chihuahuas have boundless energy, looping around our group but on occasion stay close to their mistress to check in ...

Downhill is slippy tricky, requires going off the beaten track to stay upright. Look closely: it's the two pups, nearly invisible against the snow, who have once again taken the lead.

 After a week of desk sitting and car commuting, my body is craving movement, my lungs are craving air, my spirit is craving the company of Mama Nature. And, what better way to spend time with a new friend? Pondering a fourth meeting - the first several including walks along Lake Michigan, enjoying a concert of classical music, viewing art, and sharing gourmet meals - we make this one a hike through the woods. I have recently connected with a group called West Michigan Nature Lovers, and our hike for this Saturday afternoon is a new park northeast of Grand Rapids, called Knapp Valley Park. I invite my friend to come along.

A light drizzle peppers my windshield as I drive north to Grand Rapids. The sky is opaque. But it's a warm winter day, edging toward 40 degrees, and that's close enough to perfect for me. My friend is waiting for me in my office parking lot; we ditch one car and head still a bit further north. The group is gathering in the parking lot at the mouth of the trail as we pull in. Three Chihuahua pups are bounding from person to person in uninhibited and joyous greeting. I love how animals wear their hearts on their paws: if they are happy to see you, really happy, oh, they show it.

We head into the woods, a group of 14 plus pups. The trails are narrow, if they exist at all. Point person changes as we each find our own pace. Some of us are more focused on the woods and the tracks in the snow and the sound of woodpeckers tapping barren trees ... while others are enjoying the chatter with hiking companions and walk slowly and in close groups. I find my pace quite naturally matches that of my friend, and we take off in the lead for much of the time, occasionally alongside one or another hiker, at which time I find myself gathering new friends even as I gather moments of rejuvenating nature. These are interesting people, varied in age and type, and those one might expect to lag behind (the elderly woman with a walking stick verses the fresh-faced young couple from South Haven) beat a faster path out front. Experience of the trail beats youth most every time.

And yes, from time to time, we get lost. The trail keeps forking. We muddle together for a moment to decide which path to take: the high or the low, the one along the edge or the one directly into forest? No one seems to mind an occasional misadventure, a "wrong" turn taken, because there is no wrong turn. Some paths are simply longer and take more turns than others.

So I ponder as I walk. That I need to buy new hiking boots, yes, that.  But I ponder, too, the developing twists and turns in my novel-memoir waiting for me back home, and the twists and turns my own life is taking. Directions I thought closed to me are opening up again. Trails I thought led only over a cliff now seem to lead to sunny and open meadow.

I watch the little dogs in their unbounded energy. Tiny things with legs as thin as matchsticks, they seem to almost skid the surface of the snow rather than sink in as we do. Their joy in life has no limit. They race ahead, they race back again, they loop around and through and between us, on occasion checking in with their mistress to be sure she is near and safe and well. That's a good relationship, I think. Free to bound out into the world and explore, but always staying true to home base, one's oasis and heart, that one love that keeps us strong and sure. They get it.

And I ponder those forks in the path. We humans tend to get stuck there. Muddle about in confusion and discussion and decision making. But, often, there really is no wrong turn. Just a different way to get where you are going, and each path with its own varied view, its own uphill and down, one perhaps longer than another, but not without reason to be so. The longer one reveals a pond, frozen over. The shorter one goes downhill quick and slippy, but reaches the main trail in saved time.

I decide not to overthink those forking trails. Just go, as these pups do, stopping to smell the interesting scents and take in the sights along the way. The manuscript that awaits me back home is moving in an unexpected direction, too, but why not follow its lead? The words sometimes have a mind of their own, and I do better when I listen rather than whip into shape.

There may be a happy ending on this trail, after all.

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