There are twenty-six bones and thirty-three joints in the human foot and after ten-thousand steps, every one of mine hurt. It’s hard on the knees walking up and down hills all the time. Some days I find these mountains majestic and beautiful, on others they are just piles of dirt blocking my view. I am a flatlander, open sky hunter–all these trees can be claustrophobic. Then again, maybe if I keep walking I’ll clear my head of all the screen time that’s been rotting my brain. The whole damn country has gone nuts. One step at a time, walking meditation here we go: Stay on the trail, watch for copperheads, what’s that noise, oh it’s just a squirrel , keep your ears open for a rattler, black snakes are okay, unless it’s a chaser, the real threat is probably a tick, or even smaller. Oh shit. Start over.
Yes, we are practicing ” social distancing,” my partner and I, (our two dogs not so much). No, we are not at a state or national park. We’re not breaking the law. We are five miles from our house, and lucky enough to be in the Blue Ridge mountains. We will ” leave no trace.” Well, one of the dogs poops, but we cover it up with leaves and dirt and make sure it is off the trail. There are no protesters, flags , or politicians. Yes, I realize how lucky I am to be a white American woman, to have food and shelter, and my health. The trees and the black bears don’t care that I believe in science and God. These mountains–four-hundred and eighty-million years old, don’t care about a virus knocking off the human race.
An elderly man carrying a walking stick is coming our way. He’s got a red bandana covering his face; his eyes are blue and kind. He balances himself on the incline to let us pass. ” Beautiful day ladies, did you happen to see those three pink lady slippers at the last crossing?” Well of course, I didn’t. He tells us the next time we go that way to really look for them. We stay and talk for a few minutes about mayapples, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, what is native and what is invasive.
We all pause to look down into the valley. And then he says, “When y’uns pass the giant boulder where the trail turns , be sure to look down to see the prickly pear.” He pauses, his eyes seem far away, ” My wife and I used to call this trail ‘Prickly Pear trail’ because there were so many of them.” We thank him, and bid him farewell. For the rest of the walk, we mosey a little slower. Our dog, Lulu, traces a Solomon’s-seal with her nose from stem to leaf to flower, and back down to stem again. Our terrier, Peanut, is starting to limp. We place her in the baby backpack, stop to laugh and snap a picture; she is perfectly content, laying kittywampus in her hammock.
I am slowly decompressing. Re-connecting. That sweet old man shifted my entire mood. Truth is, I’m the one that’s been lonely. I’ve been missing small acts of human kindness. I’ve been missing nature. I’ve been finding the world (and these mountains) too overwhelming. Sometimes, it’s important to focus on the (seemingly small) details. Out here on the trail, the dogs are happy, the people are happy. It truly is a gift to be out here stomping around on these hills, on this here planet.
Sure enough, when we pass the boulder, we find a small colony of prickly pear. It’s strange to see cactus blooming amid a lush forest. But there they are: whiskered green earlobes of dark pink fruit growing between an outcrop of gray granite. And here we are: curious and upright, standing on ancient slivers of ocean floor, looking down in wonder where mountain meets sky, at the beauty of a small, prickly thing.