It was an accident, a chance union of the forces of opportunity and choice. It started with the decision to make a trip to Huntsville for a quick overnight trip to visit the family, let Evie see her cousins, and retrieve a new (used) car for our automobile stable.
Evie, Doodle and I rode a bus from Nashville to Huntsville on one of those crystal clear Fall days in the South. We played Uno all the way. And I mean all the way.
To be completely honest, I was looking forward to a Huntsville trip for a fourth reason. I needed a break. The type of break that only happens when your wife is not around, your child is happily next door at her cousins, and your shelter and food needs are taken care of by your parents. My hierarchy of needs has been reduced to just one: breath.
Sunday morning found me fed with cereal and my sister’s all-natural whole grain chocolate chip muffins straight out of the oven. A cup of dense, dark coffee had sufficiently raised my consciousness and curiosity so I impulsively decided to take a brisk walk in the fine morning sun.
I had no plan in mind going out the door, but I quickly decided to walk to a nature preserve that I used to run to, back in the days that I used to run. The biggest problem is that I had to traverse a minefield of suburbia to get there, so the first mile or so was filled with sidewalks, driveways, Sunday papers sitting on the grass, and minivans on the way to church. Not incredibly inspiring for a quick jaunt, but the autumn colors gave my eyes enough joy to press on to the nature preserve.
I used this time to suspend my brain from the usual demands of my life, letting go of the urge to set a new walking speed record as I fired up my RunKeeper app. I repeatedly had to beat back the naggings of worry, responsibility, and rush. I took advantage of the fact that I was responsible for only one person on this walk, me. No worrying about how far a 6 year old pair of legs can go or how cold my wife’s hands are. I could just simply be.
I got to the preserve and counted my blessings that the only vehicle in the parking lot still had the driver inside. I wanted this time all to myself.
As I approached one of the ponds, I started using the Indian step-walk I learned way too long ago in Boy Scouts. I’m sure in this politically correct day and age it has another name, but that is what I call it when I walk toe-first to reduce the sound of my footfall. Stealth is important, even vital to observing wildlife, so if I was going to see something special today I was going to have to sneak up on it.
I enjoyed the slow, deliberate pace. My mind was delighted with the sounds of hawks, sparrows, cardinals and woodpeckers as they slowly revealed themselves to me. I was disappointed that I didn’t see a great blue heron or a turtle, two of the usual mainstays of the main pond. However, just when I was convinced there was nothing around me, it happened.
I see movement not fifteen feet in front of me. Small, long and furry, it has to be either an otter or a muskrat. I’ve seen an animal in these waters before, but never could figure out what it was. At this point, I resist every urge to pull out my phone to do a quick image search. The animal goes in and out of the water, cavorting on the shore, trailing bubbles in the water, and just generally ignoring the fact that I’m right there. The moment is magic and as the later-to-be-identified-as-an-otter moves on, I move with it until it disappears into a hole in the bank. The spell is completely broken just a couple minutes later when I hear the voices of kids running down the path. I push aside any malevolent thoughts towards the interlopers of my solitude and decide to push on past the familiar pond.
I know the preserve keeps going, but I’ve never ventured past the cornfields that surround the initial area. I finally succumb to technology to download a map of the preserve on my phone. I pick a path and keep going beyond the familiar, still not sure what my destination is.
About halfway across a field, the idea of returning back the way I came becomes subservient to the goal of pressing on, perhaps with the goal of meeting my family at their church. I’m not sure how far it is or how to get there on foot, but I know the general direction. Suddenly I feel stimulated by a sense I hadn’t felt in a long time – adventure!
I went out the door for a quick walk but am now ensconced in adventure, or what passes for adventure for a 50 year old husband and father of a six year old. The adrenaline courses through my body and I push back all the doubts running through my head, with the main one being concerned about my appearance if I make it to the church. I quickly surmise that even without a shower, I could easily fit in with the usual crowd. I quietly am thankful that I at least brushed my teeth before I left!
The path is not well worn. Covered with freshly fallen leaves, it follows the edge of field with a forest on my right and no-till cornstalks on my left. I see all the evidence of other animals in this boundary, with deer, raccoon and coyote tracks (and scat) showing me that this land is primarily theirs. I see no human footprints, only an occasional can or wrapper carelessly thrown.
I exit the field and find myself following a path through the woods that parallels a river. I occasionally stop and peer into the clear water, hoping to spy a large fish. I do eventually see some about a foot long, but have no idea what type of fish they are. Partly due to visibility and partly due to ignorance.
I’m celebrating life at this point, enjoying my time in the sanctuary of creation. I spontaneously start singing, sometimes old hymns that I’ve forgotten some of the words to, sometimes liturgical tunes and sometimes John Denver. All holy. All in the perfect key of solitude.
I slowly start to hear more traffic and I realize I must be getting to the other end of the preserve. The sudden sight of a billboard shocks my system out of its reverie, and just as I see the parking lot I hear the unmistakable sound of a deer bolting. I quickly swivel my head and get a glimpse of the a white-tailed forest rat, I mean deer, heading further into the woods, wondering about the irony behind seeing the only large mammal so close to civilization.
The remainder of the walk consists of a walk along a four lane highway to another nature area, then a long jaunt on a concrete path, albeit through woods, until I am dispensed at the road leading to the church.
After five and a half miles in God’s creation, I walk into a darkened man-made sanctuary. The loud music and artificial light scalds the softness that had descended on me during my walk, and I fight the urge to flee. Just when I thought I had had enough, my daughter leaves her seat next to her Grandmother and comes to sit in my lap. We trade hugs and squeezes the rest of the service and it reminds me how precious it is to be with family.
The sermon is about money and along with all the usual “love of money” warnings, my mind slowly drifts to the idea that this morning was both free and priceless, a combination of solitary glory and rich family embraces that make you glad to be alive and loved.
Maybe I should walk back?