There are moments I am surprised by joy, even on days when I am already happy. It seems to me that these periodic bursts of bliss are tied into nature. Such was the case this morning as we walked the woods below White Horse Ledge along a spider web of trails crisscrossing the Bryce Path.
Although early, a hint of the warmth to come later in the day could be found in the sultry scent of the forest. It’s a musky delight that comes from the earth and trees and the slightest (almost imperceptible) bit of haze in the air. It’s like leaning into a lover and finding the hint of perfume on the nape of her neck. The woods still felt cool, but I could tell it wouldn’t be that way for long.
A gentle breeze stirred loose pine needles and sent them tumbling down to earth around us. Atticus stopped as if to inhale the scent of a wild animal every now and then. The dirt underfoot wasn’t damp, but it wasn’t dry either. The best way I can describe the coming of the day’s heat is the same way I’d describe the coming of a storm in late afternoon. The subtle shift in electrons, the receptors in our skin that allow us to feel atmospheric changes, and, of course, the smell of it all.
To be afoot in a forest to witness this change has a primitive appeal to it. It had me reflecting on Thoreau’s, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.” And this had me thinking how grateful I was to have some of that savage still within me.
As has been his style lately, Atticus tailed behind, unlike the first ten years of our hiking together. It’s his age. He still enjoys the trails but the pace is different. He rarely takes the lead, and that only happens when it’s cool or else he wants to make sure we take a certain trail.
When we came upon the Bryce Path a second time, he surprised me by taking a left turn and heading up toward the saddle that sits humbly between Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges. It’s a short section of trail, but steep enough to make you stop, grab hold of a tree on occasion, and gulp for air, and then gulp down some water as well.
In that saddle, which has a feel of the medieval to it, with its pockmarked sign slightly leaning to the right, one almost feels transported to the days of old when knights were horseback would come trotting by, the air was thicker, but still refreshing enough to be pleasant. We made for the top of Whitehorse Ledge, the taller of the two, and the one that is private because you cannot drive to the top of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Atticus bounce along the climb, looking back over his shoulder for me, stopping every so often to wait for me whenever I rested.
Halfway from the saddle to the summit, we came to a ledge where we have sat many times in the past, often watching a full moon rise above the eastern horizon. Below us was the emerald green of Echo Lake and across the busying valley sat the mountains of the Green Hill Preserve. The air was denser, the temperature rising. But gosh, how it felt grand to be out there in the aging day, following my aging friend.
Once on top we shared the view and some water. Then I paused and thought of my friend Annie who is in Sloan Kettering today, hoping she remains cancer free after seven months off treatment. A few prayers were sprinkled over the valley and sent high above. Then, without any longer delay, Atticus was on his way again, curling round the backside of the ledge, on to the southern boundary, and eventually reaching the forest floor after a rumble through the boulder field.
When we reached the car, we were both happy to have been out there, but also happy to be done. The drive home with windows wide open was a blissful reward. Now to be home writing about it, with the air conditioner going, is another. That’s savage within me is taking a backseat to the civilized man now as I sit at my old writing desk and Atticus snores contentedly nearby.
We stopped peak-bagging several years ago, about the time I decided to count experiences instead of mountaintops. That’s when we set about hiking for the beauty of it, letting our desires take us instead of following the strict orders of one list or another. Now in this summer of no expectations – due to Atti’s age I often say he’s retired – I am surprised by joy more often than ever. Each walk in the woods, whether it is half mile or five miles, comes as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted. We enjoy it all, and luxuriate whenever possible – especially when we come to streams where we wade and Atticus drinks and it feels a bit like heaven after a good walk through a forest which is now greener than I could have imagined it being back in the naked cold of winter.
On days such as this I realize we’ve come to what may be the most appreciated hiking chapter of our time together. It’s the one where so little is expected and so much is appreciated. It’s a time for us, and not others. To walk in the woods because of the love of it, and the passion our feet feel as we walk slowly and deliberately, at times surprised by joy.