There is something sinfully sweet about a midweek hike in a handsome wood. For best effect, get up early enough to listen to Helicopter Hal describe the five-mile, rush-hour traffic jam you avoided. Take time to drink an extra cup of coffee, rub another coat of mink oil on your hiking boots, and stuff your pockets with fruit and exotic trail mix.
Then sit for at least one full minute in smug self-satisfaction.
"Every right-thinking American, whether Democrat or Republican, left-handed, fair-haired or faint-hearted has a constitutional right and personal responsibility to play hooky on occasion," said Dennis Diamond, my guru on all matters relating to personal morale and wretched excess. "It may mean lying to your boss, deceiving your spouse and missing a mortgage payment. Don't snivel. Make the sacrifice."
It is impossible to effectively slow time on a weekend. Because the days are programmed for leisure, you either go with that flow or resist it. Either way, most of us have an internal scale that keeps a measure of the weekend's pace. Only during the week, when the rest of the world is humming its familiar, preoccupied tune, can the true slack-time connoisseur achieve nirvana.
Parking is a lot easier, too.
"The areas we hike in are less crowded during the week so there's no competition for trails or picnic areas," said Eleanor Sewell, president of the Mountain Club of Maryland, a 50-year-old Baltimore-based hiking club that conducts two Wednesday hikes each week -- one for a "leisure" group that covers three to six miles, another for more energetic hikers, or "Truckers," who might go twice that distance.
Washington has its own midweek hiking opporunities. Every Wednesday morning for the past four years, members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club have gathered for hikes in the metropolitan area. Like the Mountain Club, PATC hikers can choose a light or heavy hike.
"We go winter, summer, rain or shine," said Gaye Tucker of PATC, who missed this week's hike on the Appalachian Trail near Harpers Ferry because of an ankle injury. "We're a very informal group . . . we don't issue any fliers or plan more than a week in advance. We do it just for the fun of it."
Most midweek hikers in Washington and Baltimore are either retired or housewives. But they also include the temporarily unemployed and the occasional hooky player. Marian Bruns joined the Mountain Club with her husband in 1936. But she only began hiking Wednesdays when she retired seven years ago. Now widowed, after raising three children, she looks forward to the hikes for the companionship as much as the exercise.
"We all have a lot of fun together," said Bruns, who leads hikes in the Patapsco area.
There are times when solo hiking may be preferable to a group campaign. It is easier to justify irresponsibility, for example, when there are no witnesses but your own field-trained conscience. And when the need for a mental health day occurs without warning, you have to be ready to blaze your own trail.
Last Wednesday was one of those days. My car was ticketed $25 for missing a license plate. My knee was punished for hitting a door. And my mother, who is more energetic and alert in her 70s than I was at 20, ended a conversation by saying it was time to get her estate in order because "you never can tell."
A mortal chill shivered my timbers.
Fortunately, there is a handsome wood just a few steps beyond my back door. Called Glover Archbold Park, it is 183 acres of mostly undisturbed woodland that runs from the C&O Canal to Van Ness Street. For most of the way, the woods follow a creek called Foundry Branch that lies at the bottom of a steep valley. Here, in the heart of Northwest Washington, there are brambles, beech trees, wildflowers and dozens of bird species, from cardinals to woodpeckers, warblers and wrens.
Last spring, I discovered deer tracks in a wet, remote section beyond a hiking trail. To leave those prints, the deer had to cross both Canal and Reservoir roads. In that same wet place, I found the bleached white skull of an animal, probably a raccoon. I hid the skull, which is perfectly preserved, teeth included, beside a tree trunk. Wednesday, I stopped to look at that skull and wondered why I have found no others in this place so obvious with animals.
For information on Wednesday hikes, call the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club at 638-5306.
For midweek hikes in the Baltimore area, call 301-377-6266 or 301-433-4668.