DULUTH — Now that autumn is in full swing, it is time to partake in one of my favorite activities: The Weekend Autumn Hike. We get only a limited number of these, so it’s important they be done with maximum enjoyment in mind. Let me break down my method for you:
I like to begin the hike wearing my giddiness on my sleeve. I am so happy to be out enjoying nature that I gasp in delight at every small animal that crosses my path, gawk at every vivid red leaf, and wonder out loud, with hands planted on my hips, what kind of tree that one is. Or that one. Ooooh, or that one …
I generally stop to marvel at just about anything. I will take photos of it all. Usually from three different angles, with maybe a few rogue camera settings thrown in for fun.
I will absolutely swoon over a boardwalk. Nothing delights me more, to be walking along a trail and suddenly find a boardwalk winding through the trees in front of me. Any man-made plank will do, really. A neatly lined, clean boardwalk is always pretty, but I also enjoy the ones that were laid decades ago, the wood rotting and falling away, every step I take an uncertainty. A single horizontal board spanning a ravine, clearly laid there for me to walk across, is enough for me to stop and admire it with my undivided attention. More photos will be taken.
Needless to say, I don't get anywhere quickly during the first half mile or so. During this time, I greet everyone passing me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. If it's an out-and-back trail, I note that the returning walkers' responses are usually more subdued than mine.
Eventually, my brain allows me to stop noticing every small detail of the natural world around me. Surprises are everywhere, obviously, and I’d be overwhelmed by beauty if I stopped to look at it all. I turn my attention to the ground in front of me, my eyes no longer straying from the bumpy, meandering trail. I am focused now, driven. I came for a hike, and I will no longer be distracted.
I like out-and-back hikes with destinations, such as the trail that leads to Lost Creek Falls just outside Cornucopia on the South Shore. I love the purpose with which I travel through the woods. But when I get to my destination, I take in my surroundings, mutter the requisite oohs-and-ahhs of the beautiful natural spectacle before me, then proceed to ignore it. I find a comfortable place to sit, ideally a flat rock that allows me to sit perched over the water. In the summer months, the rock will be warm to the touch (sometimes too warm) but in autumn it will feel cool and comfortable on my tired body. I lean back on my hands, close my eyes, and turn my face to the sky.
If it is the perfect autumn day, the rock will feel extra cool against the palm of my hands, while the midday sun feels extra warm on my closed eyelids. I bask in that feeling, listening to the sound of the water. Sometimes, when I open my eyes, I find autumn leaves fluttering down around me like earth-toned confetti.
When the cool rock suddenly turns too hard, too cold, too uncomfortable for me to stay on it any longer — and it regrettably will — I get up and finally explore the waterfall that I came to see, my body rested and my mind in the right mindset to enjoy it. I take more photos, maybe even a selfie. I do not feel embarrassed about the selfie.
All too soon, it is time to head back. I find myself walking in a more subdued manner. The drive of the destination is gone, replaced by a mindless, peaceful plodding. My mind wanders away from the nature around me, toward topics I need to take time to consider, or topics that shouldn't be taking up brain space but I need to consider just so I can say I did and send the thought on its way.
No photos will be taken. No pretty red leaves or meandering boardwalks will be considered. I'm at peace in my brain, considering, reflective, in a quiet little corner of the world.
When I pass the newbies just starting out on their hike, brimming with enthusiasm and giddiness, I will probably just nod in response. My head is not in the same place as theirs. Relief will battle with disappointment when I finally round that last bend in the trail and spot my car.
I will drive home and wonder how many more autumn hikes I’ll enjoy before the chill settles in and changes the dynamics of my hikes. But for now, I am content.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.