I walk a lot. Walking is one of the pieces of my Portland lifestyle that I value most, in fact: countless trails, parks, paths, and sidewalks that not only get me where I need to be, but also show me woods and sea and proud old homes and all sorts of loveliness. (I also walk past a lot of not-so-lovely in this town each day, but we'll save that for another post.) Sometimes when I walk through a quiet neighborhood, like the one over here along Clifton Street in Back Cove, I feel envious of single-family homes and yards and kid-friends playing together in the driveway. Other times in these same neighborhoods, I feel grateful for the ample parking and snow removal of our rental home, as well as for landscapers who cut the grass and landlords who come to fix the kitchen lights or replace the dryer when it punks out. When I walk through Evergreen Cemetery, often I feel contemplative, peaceful; its consecrated ground and hundreds of years of history soothes me. Other times I feel sad and anxious about the fragility of our lives.
It's all about perspective, right?
These tracks around town are all familiar routes to me now. My feet know where to go, and I can look around, take in every sight and sound. This morning, for example, my feet navigated up over the curb while I turned by body to locate the robins singing to one another from trees on opposite sides of the street. I took a photo of the sun rising over the low-tide mud-flat of the cove -- a snowy egret has come home for spring, by the way! -- without stumbling or slipping in the soft gravel of the trail. And my feet know where the crags in the bricks are on the sidewalk along Elm Street so I can huff and puff my way up that huge hill without tripping while I fiddle with my podcast playlist. I notice most of the things around me, good, bad, and ugly, while I'm walking because my feet know the way. There are few surprises, the paths are generally flat and even, it's routine.
Hiking is different, though, even on a trail I've hiked before. I'm super-cautious with every step. I watch the trail, I watch my feet, I watch Zippy skip-hopping in front of me and try to anticipate his (sometimes erratic) decisions. I analyze each segment of trail like a robot: "Slick looking mud to the right; step left. Watch out for that root; step up, over, down. Bend your knees more, your ankles are stiffening up. Zippy, stay to the right up there! Branch -- duck! That rock looks more stable, yes, good. Oh, more mud..." Seriously. This is what's happening in my head on a trail. (I've gone hiking to clear my mind, of course. Oh, the irony.)
Sunday afternoon we found a nearby "easy" trail to hike, to celebrate the re-emergence of spring. (It was 55 degrees and sunny and I swear every resident of Portland was outside in shorts and t-shirts singing happy songs in their hearts.) This trail, however, still hadn't seen the sun. Ninety percent of it was covered in slush and ice, the rest was thick black mud. We picked our way along -- Happy and his friend way up front, Honey and Zippy in the middle, slowpoke ol' Mom bringing up the rear -- and as much as I wanted to relax into the warm woodsy air, my mind went into robo-mommy mode (see above) and I started to feel frustrated with my family for zooming off so far ahead of me. Irrational. Anxious. Covered in mud. This is not the hike I'd craved!
Right in the midst of my pity party, my foot slipped off a root and into about 4 inches of squelching, stinky mud. It oozed over the toe of my boot, slurped at my heel. I had to stop completely to pull my foot out. That's when I looked up.
My family was so far ahead of me that I couldn't hear them anymore. I was standing alone in a copse of trees, pine mixed in with skinny birch and poplar, amidst a chorus of songbirds singing their sweet, feathery hearts out. They called back and forth to one another over the sound of a trickling brook of snow-melt. Sunlight streamed between the treetops, and everything looked like I was seeing it through a soft focus filter; the scene looked like Thomas Kinkade had painted it and sounded like the background soundtrack of my meditation app. Peaceful. Calm. Still covered in mud.
I almost missed this. The path was uncertain and full of obstacles, so I'd been walking with my head down. Yet the forest was screaming, look up, you silly girl! Look around! Pay attention to this beautiful moment, even though you're stuck in mud! No...especially because you're stuck in mud.
I guess it's more natural to look up when your feet know the route by memory. But it's so much more necessary to look up, isn't it, when the path is unknown and covered in ice and mud?
Just look up.