I have split feelings about calls of the wild. Henry David Thoreau retreated to a hut, yet he'd put his canoe up for sale and regularly slipped into town for something good to eat. I can empathize. Midway through a hike along the Azalea Nature Trail in Greenbelt Park, my woodland epiphanies started fading to thoughts of what might be on the menu at TGI Friday's on nearby Route 193.
There weren't many people around the day I was there, but the hum of traffic echoing deep into the 1,100-acre park was a reminder that city life was right on the border. A storm drain ran under Azalea's path, which was layered with sharp-colored leaves. A creek edging alongside the trail had trickled down to low pools, but the gouged, root-dangling embankment showed evidence of repeated flooding. It was a lament spelled out on the information board at the ranger station. Surrounded by pavement on all sides, the park acted as a basin for the area's sluicing water.
Strips of rotted bark became a familiar sight as I moved on, but for every dead tree there were multiple signs of regeneration. The original forest is long gone, as are the tobacco and corn fields that replaced it, but clusters of holly and oak trees and half-seen squirrels and birds gave me the sense that, despite being 12 miles from downtown Washington, the park has found ways to nourish itself.
I had not hiked in a while. One of the essentials I'd neglected was to bring food to munch on. The bottled water I'd purchased at the District's youth hostel was in the car. I'd gone into town to retrace a memory in which hiking and hostels were linked. At one point long ago I had spent a lot of time--probably too much time--in various hostels. The Berlin Wall was falling and there seemed to be a general state of suspension. As I wandered through the communal rooms in the 11th Street hostel, which sold disposable razors for a quarter and Chef Boyardee lasagna in microwaveable cups, a mood of cheerful, self-sufficient transience returned.
The insides of hostels change little whether you are in Vienna or Sydney or the District. The possibility of taking day trips with backpackers with shaky English is real. But the only traveler there looked hung over or homesick, or both. I didn't bother to ask if he wanted to go to Greenbelt.
For the trip to the park, which is monitored by the Department of the Interior, I'd considered hauling out my Coleman backpack that once contained most of what I owned. But I decided otherwise. The sturdy, square-frame pack has gone far--the previous owner had it portered a long way up Mount Kilimanjaro before altitude-induced vomiting set in, forcing a grim-faced descent--but now it looks like an anachronism. Plus, I had grown out of the urge to convert a walk on a forest path into an event of accessorized self-congratulation. But not by much.
I did not have a pack or water or bags of dried fruit, but Greenbelt summoned aging images of those who would, such as the small group led by an underfed Englishman I met at the hostel in the Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. Their backpacks were wider than they were. Evidently they had been on the road for a few years. The Englishman sported the asymmetrical look of someone who cuts his own hair. He and his friends prepared tiny bowls of food in a communal kitchen that seemed unusually conducive to talks about Hermann Hesse. Copies of "Siddhartha" were not hard to find.
The next morning the Englishman and his group disappeared up the track that gave out near the base of Mount Cook, where Edmund Hillary practiced for his Everest ascent. I never saw them again.
I never made it up that track, for I had shifted to other things. I ate instant noodles and read a paperback war novel in the hostel. Occasionally I would loll in the U-shaped valley created by glacier retreat, more or less oblivious to the ancient mountains rising thousands of feet above. Later I sold my hiking boots to a swami who lived in a commune on the north part of the island. I was more comfortable wearing my Stan Smith tennis sneakers. Perhaps that was what wandering around was meant to reveal: I was likely to spend less time contemplating Mount Cook or K2 than TGI Friday's.
One thing that did concern me was the idea of getting my car locked in Greenbelt's parking lot overnight. The park closes at dark, and there wasn't much light left when I returned to the lot. I had spent the afternoon in the woods but never out of earshot of traffic. I was hungry and felt like talking.
There was a woman sitting on a bench at the playground. Two children, a girl and a boy, darted around a ladder-and-slide. I introduced myself to Lorna Dorland of Berwyn Heights and sat down. I was pleased to find out she was from Maine, where I'd lived before taking off for Auckland, and within a few minutes she gave me the phone number of the football coach who had made me see that leaving college because of homesickness would be a bad idea. I hadn't talked to him in years. She was a close friend of his family.
Ciaran, 3, walked over in bare feet and happily punched my arm. He led with a left but followed with combinations.
"I hit you," he said.
"You should only hit reporters," I said.
His mother smiled and said to Ciaran, "How about a hug?"
Soon it was dark. Dorland gathered Ciaran and Natalya into a family minivan and drove home to make dinner. I thought again of going across Route 193 for a quick meal, but instead went home to fix something on my own.
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get there, take the Beltway to Exit 23. Turn left onto Route 201 South (Kenilworth Avenue) and follow signs to Route 193 East. Park entrance is on the right.
The park is open from dawn to dusk every day except Christmas. There is also a 174-site campground and areas for biking and picnicking. For more information, call 301-344-3948.
CAPTION: Azalea Nature Trail winds through Greenbelt Park, 1,100 acres of federal parkland monitored by the Department of the Interior and located just 12 miles from downtown Washington.