The Trail

I’ve been out practicing getting my feet under me again. Reminded that it takes its own slow time to return to the swing of the trail.

It felt like a lifetime and not mere months ago that I was hiking with ease up mesas in New Mexico and mountains in Acadia National Park. In these months since I’d been out on the trail, how could I have forgotten how to walk?  

In early April, on my first hike of the spring, a friend and I climbed Mount Monadnock. I couldn’t find any swing on the trail that day. All I knew was my old familiar friends of trepidation and fear of falling off what felt like impossibly steep rocks and tripping over far too many roots.  

Monadnock makes the list as one of the top ten most climbed mountains in the world. An estimated 125,000 hikers a year venture out to find its summit as its only a two hour drive from Boston and five  from New York City. Although only 3,165 feet, Monadnock is a New England mountain full of all the rocks, roots and sharp descents that it can squeeze into its stocky stature. It’s not an easy climb – in fact, I don’t know any mountains around here that are including the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills. 

Last Saturday I completed my third hike of the season, and my second hike along the Skyline Trail across the Blue Hills Reservation. The 22 hills in the Blue Hill chain are like Monadnock full of their share of rocks and roots and sharp descents. Yes, they are small – Great Blue Hill tops the list at a mere 635 feet. But when you climb the stone tower there at the peak, what a wonder to see how close you are to the city’s hazy skyline across a sea of deep green forest below.  

I’m so thankful for so many things I’ve discovered here in my present home along the Neponset River this spring, including the Blue Hills Reservation – some 7000 square miles and 125 miles of trails a mere 10 minutes from my apartment. In the past four months I’ve skied, run, walked and now backpacked through many trails and miles. 

It took that hike last Saturday and the few others I’ve been on these past weeks to return me to the  presence of the trail. Of course, presence is there all the time, its just I don’t sometimes appreciate all that I’m present too! How much more I prefer to drop into that present wonder of the woods, of a kind of seeing where I recognize the tree for what tree is and the stream for what stream is. A kind of present stillness where I see the rock not as an enemy or obstacle, a threat or something to fear, but something to see and be aware of and work with. Yes, how often I’m lost in the thoughts and stories in my head! How, yes, I long for the frog’s way of knowing and feeling with their whole body — present, still, waiting, watchful, ready to spring into all that is.

I’ll have moved north to a lake in New Hampshire in a couple of weeks. The final pieces of my ministry here in Brookline complete or soon to be in the next week. But before leaving, I head north early tomorrow morning for a climb up Mount Washington on Friday. I’m grateful for it – one more ascent in this season of descent. It’s this ascending I love, the new beginnings and discoveries, the wonder of vistas opening along the way. 

But its not the ascent that I’m focused on this season, it’s the turn to the descent. I keep saying what a gift it has been to be here this spring and it is true. A gift that came in the surprise of finding trees where I expected only a city, quiet riverside trails where I only anticipated only honking traffic. I will miss being here.  

Yes, it’s always been the descent that I’ve struggled with; it takes its own slow time for me to grow comfortable with it. I often feel in the work of saying goodbye the same kind of awkwardness and out of sorts I felt in descending Monadnock a few months ago in that first hike – stumbling over roots, anxiety about falling. Sitting down and sliding over the rocks rather than risking a big step over them. Unsure of my steps, unfamiliar with my new boots. 

Now with a couple more hikes and practice getting the ground under my feet, I’m learning to breathe my way through this present descent. Getting used to the pacing of the trail, the right pace for me. Pausing every hour to stop for a moment, drink, eat. What a difference it makes. I’m learning to pay attention.  

As I neared the end of the Skyline Trail last week, I had to cross a busy road with long lines of traffic. I hesitated to cross. Why not turn around here? Why not call good enough, enough? But I wasn’t done with the last bit of the trail and I wanted to finish the whole trail not part of. Good enough, not enough.  So when a car slowed and the driver waved, I sprinted across the road. Across the road, off the rocky peaks and rooted trails, the trail flowed gently out into a beautiful trail of pine needles. Except for the hum of the distant highway traffic, so quiet, so still.  I passed just one couple who commented that they too had never been to this far end of the trail and how beautiful it was.  

The trail ends with a small cairn of stones. I’m so glad I made it to the finish. A snack and swig of water to celebrate and I turn back to where I began. 

Miles ahead, as I descend into the parking lot, already new hikers are ready to ascend the trail. Five tall lanky young men stride up the trail towards me.  

“How long to the top Boss?”

“Oh, I have no idea,” I say.

“Not even a guess?”

“Well, maybe an hour? But that’s for me – for you, half an hour!”

We laugh.

“Thanks Boss!”

They’re off.  

I have given myself once again to this trail and all the ups and downs and discoveries on it. I’ve walked with my unsteady anxiety and found my way to ground and breath. I’ve found the swing of the trail again as I’ve practiced learning to walk each day up and down, the staggering ascents, the steep descents, the surprise of long shaded paths of pine.  

The path this morning leads from my table here by the window to the kitchen to refill my coffee. Later, a drive past the Arboretum where each day this long spring I’ve watched it turn from brown to shoots of brilliant green, the once white and pink flowering trees, now lush green.  

Yes, the path ahead is full of unknowing. And yes, in giving myself to the trail I am learning anew to trust in it, and to trust in the wisdom of the body. Practicing the descent out of my head and the endless stories I tell into a body that knows the way and how to make the journey better than my head can figure alone. The body’s way of presence that just knows to place my foot here and place the pole there that will take me up and over the rock to the next curve on the trail. 

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