A couple weeks ago my sister and I saw Patty Griffin perform at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio. We both have long loved Patty Griffin and the ticket was my early birthday present to her. Lucy Wainwright Roche opened for Patty, and we loved her music – and humor – too. We stayed at a cute bed and breakfast right off the square, had burgers and beers before the concert and Sunday morning we walked around my old stomping grounds, Athens, Ohio. We drove past the house I lived in for two years and I asked the guy walking out if the middle bedroom still had pink shag carpet (it does not). My sister and I talked about our kids, our childhood, our jobs, our family – everything. I wish the weekend had lasted longer.
We thought it was going to rain all day Sunday but the weather cleared and I decided I wanted to visit Strouds Run. Strouds Run is home to Dow Lake, which is where I rowed the two quarters I was on OU’s crew team. More than 12,000 years ago melting glaciers helped form Strouds Run’s steep ravines and hills. Miles of twisty trails now exist in this rugged landscape and on this particular Sunday, they called to me.
Katy needed to head home so we hugged goodbye and I drove to the park, where I quickly realized my jeans and Rothy’s wouldn’t do. So I drove back to Athens (a short drive), found a sporting goods store and bought shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops, all on clearance.
In retrospect, the flip-flops was not one of my better ideas. But with nice hiking boots and gym shoes at home I couldn’t justify buying better footwear. Plus, with recent drenching rains I figured the plastic Nikes would be easy to rinse off.
Back at Strouds Run I changed in the back seat of our minivan and threw my phone, a water bottle, my keys, a book and my driver’s license (for body identification if needed – I excel at thinking through worst-case scenarios regularly) in my backpack.
I set forth on Lakeview Trail and once I hit the thicket of trees I realized I had grossly underestimated the amount of mud and standing water. Everything around me was wet, as if this patch of earth were a sponge that had been squeezed just once and now waited, without any great rush, to dry. But now I was invested. I had spent money on this irrational adventure, the day was unexpectedly gorgeous, I was kid-free and already here. So, I hiked.
I immediately hit a slick spot, fell, and slid down a good portion of the trail. I did that very human thing where you look around to see if anyone noticed – I was very much alone. So, I laughed at myself, stood up and tried to take a picture but realized my phone was gone. I started back up the path and found it, covered in mud. I used my t-shirt to clean it as best I could and smiled when it still turned on.
That first fall was a gift. Once covered in mud I no longer took care to avoid it. And having fallen once, I was over the shock of it – the next 14 falls (that’s not an exaggeration) were simply part of the deal.
Remember when Ramona was in kindergarten (Miss Binney’s class) and her beautiful new red boots got stuck in the mud? And Henry rescued them for her and Ramona was so enamored by this act of bravery that she wound a worm around her finger and proclaimed her intent to marry him? I thought of that chapter every time one of my flip-flops got stuck in the mud, which happened about every fifth step.
The key, I learned, was to step quickly when the mud got deep. Any hesitation caused my feet to sink in which case the only way out was to lean down and yank my flip-flop – and foot – up and out. This makes for slow hiking.
About a half mile in I saw another human, dressed appropriately – he had tall hiking boots on, layered clothes and a hat. My cheeks grew red and I felt the need to explain myself.
“I don’t normally hike in flip-flops,” I said. “I’m not from here and the day was unexpectedly beautiful and I decided I wanted to hike.”
“I get that,” he said. “You went the wrong way though. This trail is sopping wet due to all the water hundreds of miles away that makes it way to here. If you had gone left instead of right, there is a drier trail with a rope swing on an old oak tree.”
A swing! I thought. (I know. I am 7.)
I thanked him and continued on.
Eventually the mud became too much. On my last fall I caught myself with my hands, bending my wrist (nothing broke but I decided breaking a limb on this trail would not be the ideal way to end my weekend trip – plus, having to have the hiker guy rescue me would be entirely too embarrassing).
For some reason, the hike back up was more difficult. I had to use small tree trunks to help pull myself up. I walked sideways so as not to slide so much. And then, finally, I did something I probably should have done from the beginning – I took my flip-flops off.
With each step my bare feet sunk into the cool mud and I felt like a kid again. When was the last time I had walked, bare feet, in the woods? It required caution, yes. I looked down more than up, trying to spot sticks and jagged rocks and horse manure (the trail was open to horses as well) in order to avoid any lacerations or other unnecessary unpleasantries. And I did – I avoided all those things. And I know it sounds incredibly cheesy to say something like “I felt one with the earth” but I did feel a sense of connection that I haven’t felt in a long time. I felt reconnected to myself. And it felt good.
Once back up by the dam I walked the other direction, per the hiker’s instructions. It was indeed drier, at first. A dog ran up to me and I offered my palm. The dog sniffed it, wagged its tail and asked to be petted in the way dogs do. So I did. A little more walking and I found the dog’s owner — a fisherman by a beautiful old oak tree with the perfect outstretched limb for a rope swing with a wood seat. But all I saw was cut rope. I (rather annoyingly) like to think of my life as a series of essays, even though most of these essays never get written. So it’s nice when things connect or there’s an easy end. How lovely would this one have been with me, sitting on that swing?
The fisherman stared at me and I remembered I was wearing flip-flops – and covered, head to toe, in mud.
“I don’t normally wear flip-flops to hike,” I said. “I’m not from here. Oh, and it’s muddy.” I was stumbling through my sentences.
“You’re not from here?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But I know the area. I went to college around here, about 20 years ago.”
“You don’t look that old,” he said.
I decided it was time to end this conversation so I patted his dog one last time and continued on my way. The trail quickly turned into mud, like the last one. I had been hiking for several hours now. I was done.
As soon as I passed the fisherman on my way back up the trail, he began packing up his things. I was already annoyed – with the stolen swing, the drying mud forming a cast on my skin, how the society in which we live made me critical of how the fisherman had spoken to me. I picked up my pace, and the dog walked right beside me, tail wagging. I patted the dog’s head and spoke to it softly, wishing the dam to appear.
The fisherman kept his distance, and didn’t say a word. Later, after inviting me to go mushroom hunting (which I declined) he said the fish weren’t biting. So, likely, he was simply done fishing – that’s all. Still, I was a bit gloomy, wondering if a man hiking solo would have had the same thoughts and fears I did, thinking through what-if scenarios that worked up a sweat.
Once back at my van I realized I had no way of cleaning myself up. Although we normally have baby wipes, paper towels and other helpful things stored inside, I couldn’t find anything – except several half-filled water bottles. So for once I thanked my children’s inability to bring their water bottles inside and poured the contents over my arms and legs, washing the mud off as best I could. I made little progress but then I figured the kids would be tickled with their mother arriving home in such a state. And maybe it would be a memory they would act upon in their grown-up years.
As soon as I hit US 50 I saw a portion of the sky I hadn’t been able to see from the dam. There was the storm that had been missing. I got gas as the wind kicked up and everything grew dark. A couple minutes later I pulled over, completely panicked. The rain was so thick I could barely see in front of me. It was blowing sideways and every radio station I tried just screamed emergency sirens at me.
Dear god, I thought. I survived the fisherman only to die in a tornado.
It all calmed quickly. According to the radar, Andy said I was caught up in a storm cell. According to the time and my location, the radar had been purple when I pulled over in a panic.
I dreaded a long, rainy drive home but instead, the sky was gorgeous. I listened to Brandi Carlile (thank you, Megan), picked mud off my skin at red lights and ate McDonald’s, which I haven’t eaten in close to 20 years.
Things haven’t been the easiest, lately. I realized taking a break by going to Target to pick up prescriptions and bread wasn’t really cutting it. When caught up in the minutiae, there’s no space for wonderfully ill-conceived ideas.
When I was at OU, I went skinny dipping at Strouds Run. I don’t remember why. But I was there with my friends – friends I still love and see to this day. I wasn’t drinking because I wasn’t 21 and I was a rule follower. The darkness made me brave. Just a few of us did it. Clothes off we ran into the water and then, laughing and screaming we ran back out. I became less of a rule follower that night. It felt good. And at life’s end I believe skinny dipping is a good page to have in the book of you.
Back to the present, as I drove home I realized my bare feet sinking into the mud was similar to the feeling I had running into a moon-lit Dow Lake all those years ago. All day I insist on brushed teeth, I follow AP Style, I put away dirty dishes, I sign planners, I arrive on time to practices, I turn off lights. Strouds Run, once again, reminded me of the necessity of whimsy.
Andy, by the way, just looked at me and smiled when I walked in our door. We dated in college. We’ve been married a long time. I believe he’s actually drawn to my unpredictability. And maybe that’s what we both need now – more of my unpredictability. “You do you,” he says. And for that, I am grateful.
“Have you ever wandered lonely through the wood?
And everything it feels just as it should
You’re part of the life there, part of something good
If you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods.” —Brandi Carlile