Exhausted, I sat down on the ground next to a silver birch, facing the gravel roadway of the Hurricane River Campground. Cars and trucks pulled in, carrying passengers dressed to varying degrees of preparedness for the mosquito-ridden trails; I internally scoffed at the Teva-sandaled buckwheaters stepping lightly to the trail-head, planning to hike the 3 mile walk to the Au Sable Lighthouse. I knew what kind of blisters they would get later. I was hoping that my pathetic posture/attitude would signal to some Good Samaritan that I’d had enough of Nature and needed a ride, but it was clear that Dan and I were too dirty to be respectable hitch-hikers. I had just finished my 35th mile on the North Country Trail, and I wasn’t moving another step.
Leaning back on my pack, parked against the birch, I gazed up at the sky. Both relieved and irritated, I battled perfectionism’s irrational whispers, urging me to take another ibuprofen and march those last 7 miles to our final destination: the Volvo, parked at the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center. I hate disappointing myself, and I was disappointed. My right ankle, never before injured, screamed from strain when I put weight on it; I had straggled the last 11 miles of trail alternately cursing it and praying against a stress-fracture. I sent Dan off to start looking for a ride to the Volvo, while Perfect Katie kept whispering in my ear:
“You are strong and fit and athletic. There is no reason you shouldn’t finish this through-hike. Obviously, if you don’t finish, you are no true strong German wife.”
“This is a beginner’s back-packing trail! You are too athletic to be a beginner–I know this is your first through-hike, but clearly, you’re at least an intermediate backpacker. Your body defies the laws of athletic conditioning.”
“Stress-fracture, shmush-shmasher. Your ankle won’t get more injured if you just hike seven more miles. It could even help! You’re just sore.”
“If you go home now, don’t you dare blog about this.”
“You are a winner; if you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Perfect Katie is unsympathetic to any and all weakness. I can credit her with some really great English papers and my obsessive knowledge of geographic trivia. And I can blame her for absolutely all of my over-training injuries to date.
Dan wandered around the parking lot, halfheartedly asking for a ride; I could tell that he didn’t want to go home just yet. I stared at the blue sky. Clouds drifted overhead as Dan returned, unsuccessful (perhaps purposely); we leaned against the birch and together pointed out clouds that looked like the rabbits that are nesting in our backyard. We dozed and snoozed, lulled by afternoon sun and 9 miles under our belts since breakfast. And as we waited for some brave and understanding soul to risk picking us up, I recalled the last time that I was free to spend an afternoon gazing at a big, blue sky.
Except I couldn’t.
I don’t know when I last watched clouds pass with someone; it must have been in elementary school, when my brother and sister and our neighbors would spend our summer running wild over the Colorado farm. Or it could have been in high school, when I spent the summer mowing the lawn and picking tomatoes. Or it could have even been in college, on a fall Saturday with one of my roommates as we gamboled across campus looking for the next party. But I know for a fact that I had never once sat and stared at the clouds with Dan.
“How could this be?!?” Perfect Katie admonished. “You have never spent a romantic afternoon picnicking and watching the sky with the man you have been dating/married to for 8 years?”
Nope. And I don’t think we are necessarily unusual in having missed that particular relationship milestone, although Perfect Katie has a point. There are a whole lot of things that we haven’t done in our 8 year relationship, including holding stereos above our heads to assuage an argument or competing in a dance-off to win each others’ affection. We just aren’t those kind of people.
But we have, as Wordsworth states “seen into the life of things” on the trail; as we chattered mindlessly through the trees, occasionally something would make us stop and listen. We practiced capturing that perfect moment through the lens, the moment that we realized we are part of the goings-on of this trail, that while we feel like visitors in the forest, we are involved in life here despite ourselves.
And we have watched and heard and felt water rustling from every corner of the park into a Lake that flows as far as we can see, to Canada and beyond. It is clear water, it hides nothing, and we have seen into its depths, from 200 feet in the air.
We have seen the sun play tricks on our eyes on misty trails, as relics decompose.
We have stood on cliffs on which we felt a Whitman-esque YAWP, even if we didn’t actually YAWP–again, we aren’t those kind of people.
We have camped on the shore of a quiet inland lake where the only sounds are the “parp” of bullfrogs (popping up like ill-timed farts) and the whistling pines.
We stared down the moment when fun began to pass us by, when hiking’s simplest task–putting one foot in front of the other–began to feel like work, and we have found the strength to give up and go home, taking our stolen images with us.
And we have popped and bandaged blisters where blisters should not occur, and we have loved each other anyway.
The sweet park researcher who finally picked us up laughed at our relief as we pulled into the lot next to the Volvo; she could see the weariness of three days of questionable nutrition and poorly packed packs on our faces and took pity on us (I actually think it would have been more work for her if I had broken my ankle in the sand dunes on the trail back to Grand Sable, thus requiring a rescue). Returned to our yuppie-mobile, Dan and I peeled off our boots and socks, slipping our yuppie boat shoes gingerly back onto our feet. We ducked into the car, mocking the mosquitoes dive-bombing the windshield, and pulled away, leaving the forest, the water, and the shame of not walking those last 7 miles behind us. We had accomplished enough.
On Leaving the Trail by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at apiedonfoot.wordpress.com.