Will somebody tell me, please, why it is that in this life the hikers always find the non-hikers, and that True Love is inevitably the result?
Could it be that the non-hiker is particularly charming to the hiker in his/her ignorance, a veritable tabula rasa set down in the wilderness upon which the hiker cannot forbear to leave his/her leafprint? Could it be that the sturdiness and robustness of the hiker's soul appears inordinately charming to the non-hiker, who feels, by contrast, a mound of quivering frailty?
Never mind. Mysteries require speculation only, and not, thank God, resolution. Let it suffice to say that the man I became enamoured of learned, at a tender age, to wander about the woods communing with flora and fauna like some creature of the wild himself. Whereas I -- I have never had to ask, "Life, where is thy sting?" I have always known: It is in the woods.
I was the hapless 9-year-old upon whose unoffending shoulder wasps settled out of blue meanness, necessitating that I march about the trails lopsided for the rest of the day, burdened by a slab of river mud glued to the part of my anatomy fancied by the flying monster. Naturally, as a would-be bride, I was too smart to let on that when I went to camp, spiders congregated to dance on my head and poison ivy fell all over itself to twine about my ankles.
I played up the fact that I had been a Camp Fire Girl to this incomparable Boy Scout I had found, and cheerily went off on soggy canoe trips on the sewery Potomac, blithely stepped over slimy snakes -- I had been assured they were harmless -- in Seneca, and ate dry sandwiches on sweaty afternoons on Roosevelt Island. We even made a habit of going hiking in the Shenandoah on George Washington's birthday.
Having succumbed finally to our affections and married, we found, as I had hoped, that the earnestness of life interfered with hiking on a moment's notice. But alas, my husband the hiker suffered.
When the sap rises in the Spring, he begins to itch for the trail. He longs for rocks under his feet and green over his head. His conversation runs to the Eastern Shore roosting places of Great American Eagles and he yearns for the early-morning call of the rose-breasted, downy-crested, yellow-bellied swamp thresher. At these times, the Nature Center at Rock Creek Park is a pale substitute for the out-of-doors, a picnic at Cabin John is hopelessly inadequate, and the Audubon Society has not enough acres to encompass his longing. When he begins to mutter to himself, there is nothing for it but to give in.
On such a recent afternoon, with the Hiker muttering at full tilt, we set off for a "drive" in the mountains, he protesting we were only going for a ride, I knowing that we must wind up in the woods.
In the first unassuming snatch of state park we came to, wouldn't you know, there appeared a trail sign which I managed to overlook and he homed in on like a pointer going for prey. Bob's Ridge, the sign proclaimed, 1.5 mi. About my speed, I thought. Cat's Call, it went on, 4.5 mi. Good grief, this could be serious. White's Peak. Peak ? 7 mi.
"How about a walk?" my love asked hopefully, and the bride in me surfaced, despite the fact that I feared we would wind up, not at Bob's Ridge, 1.5 mi., but at White Peak, 7 mi. hence. He, of course, would just as soon go 7 any day, so it was superfluous question I decided not to pose, lest I destroy my cheerful credibility.
We set off. Straight up the mountainside. It is very quiet, and nothing is stirring except the rocks kicking out from under the cursed sandals I have worn, because after all, we were going for a drive, not a hike. It is hot and sticky, the woods empty of sensible people; we cannot talk much because I find it hard to answer when I am heaving for breath. The Hiker is rhapsodic, of course, pointing out age spots on rocks, the varieties of mushrooms, and identifying the greenery as we go.
I am noticing the rumble of thunder in the distance, and the fact that somebody has slashed the bark of the trees with white paint so we can find our way out.
In order to seem fetching to the Hiker, I have doused myself with Chanel No. 5, and the word is out among the bees, gnats and mosquitoes, who seem particularly taken with it. I wonder if Catherine Deveuve knows about this. My hair hangs damply on my neck by now, and the sweat has begun to trickle unceremoniously between my shoulder blades.
The Hiker, unscented, unbitten, and undaunted, forges ahead with not a bead on him. We have gone maybe one-half mile, and I have this sinking feeling that White's Peak is not going to be worth it. He trudges along, whistling. I fall back on a flat rock to catch my breath and watch him disappear around a bend without noticing my absence.
I cool a bit, and sitting there quietly in the dense green of the massed trees -- a lone bird call sounding in the stillness -- I remember the profound effects of the forest primeval on a philosophical poet, probably moved himself to bardic profundity by a similar circumstance: The woods are lovely, dark and deep . But I have promises to keep , And miles to go before I sleep , And miles to go before I sleep .
On the other hand, the poor guy was probably married to a hiker.