A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. (Wendell Berry)
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. (Henry David Thoreau)
I’m an enthusiastic walker and believe firmly in walking’s spiritual, psychic, and medicinal benefits. Whenever our kids were feeling puny, they were usually told that a cup of tea, a warm bath, and a brisk walk would put them in order—one of the reasons my family nickname is “Deathmarch.” “We’re DYING,” they’d moan. “You’ll feel better after a walk,” I’d respond. After tugging a drooping daughter on one particularly frustrating foot-dragging outing, we discovered she had mono. But I’m sure the walk did her good.
Both nature and nurture have gone into creating this momster that is me: my mother used to frog-march my three siblings and me up the mountains around the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado, hoping to create the conditions for quiet evenings in the little cabin we stayed in every summer. “It didn’t work,” she admitted. “The four of you never got worn out, but I sure did.” (That’s a somewhat older me walking in Colorado in the photo above.)
So whether it’s genetics or training, I walk, and Madroño has been—and surely will continue to be—a treasure trove of most excellent walks.
When we first started going to Madroño, when our youngest was a wee babe and the other two not much older, sneaking out for walks made me feel both guilty and liberated: for a brief time, at least, I was free to look at, listen to, think about, or not think about whatever I wanted, without interruption. Now that our youngest is leaving for college, I still feel that solitary walks are a guilty pleasure, albeit one about which I’m increasingly less apologetic, but I still feel the sense of release that comes when I head out the door with at least one ecstatic dog who’s noticed I’ve put on my boots and my hat and picked up my binoculars. (Walking with unbelievably brave and stupid dogs will be undoubtedly be my next blog topic.)
For a long time, I went for what my dear friend Ellen calls the yodelaiEEoo pace of walking: trying to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, preferably headed up or down steep inclines. This is a really dumb way to walk in the Texas Hill Country, especially if you’re not on a road and even if you are. First of all, if you’re off-roading and going uphill, there’s not a lot of purchase, given the rocks, leaves, and cedar detritus that cover the heavily wooded hills. There’s even less purchase when you’re coming downhill, which can look a lot like skiing, especially if you’re a really spastic skier. But off-road descents can be easier than on-road ones: once, when our youngest was about five or six, I bullied her into walking down the steepest road on the ranch with me, after we had driven up. She was so little that her relatively slight weight couldn’t overcome the force of incline + scree; the final equation was an extremely sore little heinie from having her feet shoot out from under her every three steps or so.
Aside from the falling down problem, when you’re moving at the yodelaiEEoo pace, it’s very easy to miss all the Interesting Stuff to be found—or to run straight into it when you’d really rather not. I was walking on one of the roads on top one morning in June many years ago at a yodelaiEEoo pace only to find myself entangled in an enormous—no, I mean ENORMOUS—spider web. After shrieking, dancing, frantically patting my head, pulling my clothes off, etc., I slowed down enough to notice these spiders. I still don’t know what kind they were—maybe golden orbs? As I walked along, twitching and squinting with every step I took, I saw their webs everywhere. Some of them spanned fifteen- to twenty-foot gaps. How had they done that? Parachuted? Hailed taxis to drive them across? Not only were the webs huge, but they were invisible until you were two inches away from them. They taught me to slow down AND to limbo.
Once the kids got big enough, we went for what we called scrambles, which involved walking up and/or down one of the many mysterious draws that pepper the ranch. Walking with children, of course, cannot occur at a yodelaiEEoo pace, at least not until they’re bigger and stronger than you and you start calling plaintively: “Guys? Guys? Hey, wait for me!” But while I was still bigger and stronger than they were, we loved to go poke around in the draws, especially with some of our family’s emergency back-up children. (We haven’t actually outgrown this.) The kids were the ones who found all the Interesting Stuff: the rocks that looked like Swiss cheese or hearts, the iron bedsteads alongside a cast-iron Dutch oven, the fossils, the arrowheads and stone tools, the tiny flowers and ferns hiding in the shade, the little caves, the really weird bugs, the secret springs. And the snakes.
I must say a word about walking and snakes. I’ve climbed up, fallen down, and poked through a lot (though not nearly all) of the property, and I’ve concluded that snakes don’t want to see me any more than I want to see them. I try to be sure I can see where I’m putting my hands and feet, and dogs (at least the smart ones, if any such exist) are often helpful, hopping sideways to let you know that you shouldn’t step on that spot. Robert, the intrepid ranch manager, sees them all the time, but he does things like drain and dig around in the bottom of ponds. I’ve been lucky so far, with one notable exception.
One warm November day my then-fifteen-year-old son and I went walking to the back of the property. For some reason, he had brought a shotgun, and as we were walking through a patch of tall grass, he stopped and said calmly but urgently, “Mom. Snake.” And one step ahead of me was the fattest, longest, ugliest water moccasin I had ever seen. As it slithered off, he shot it, securing his place in my heart (and my ankles, where I probably would have been bitten had he not been there) as a hero.
As I’ve become more interested in birds, my yodelaiEEoo pace has become a thing of the past, for a couple of reasons. One is the difficulty of trying to track the little boogers through thick live-oak canopies or heavy underbrush. Another is having to stop and listen to them over the clatter I make. Our beloved old black Lab Phoebe is too blind and creaky to walk with me now, but back in the day she hated these stop-and-listen moments; if I paused for more than a minute or two she commenced with a low and pitiful moaning that wouldn’t let up until we started again. Phoebe liked the yodelaiEEoo pace. But even she was stilled into silence that February day when we turned into a usually still canyon only to hear the voices of what turned out to be literally thousands of robins and cedar waxwings, feasting—and maybe drunk—on cedar berries. The noise level was on par with I don’t know what: maybe a middle school hallway after the last class of the year, but considerably less smelly.
In fact, much to my family’s astonishment, I’ve learned to walk places and then just sit, at least sometimes. Chula the Goggle-Eyed Ricochet Hound walks with me now that Phoebe can’t, and Chula is fine with just sitting. (She has other issues that will be revealed in my walking-with-dogs post.) Did you know that certain grasses snap and crackle when the sun first hits them on cold mornings? I must have spent twenty minutes on my hands and knees one morning trying to figure out what was making that noise. Bugs? The little creatures in my head? Nope, it was just the grass talking. We had a lovely conversation, while Chula looked on, quietly concerned.
Perhaps, finally, it’s time for a new family nickname.
What we’re reading
Heather: Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Martin: Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students (still)