I've been too long in civilization. Too long smelling of laundry detergent and soap, and too long coddled by conveniences. My muscles and body are soft from relative disuse, and my fingernails are too clean.
Almost everyone I know has places they long for at certain times. When the midwestern winter gray lingers just a hair too long, my brother's thoughts turn to sunsets on Mallory Square and conch chowder by the docks. One friend thinks of Venice; another pines for skiing in the Andes.
This time of year I think of a trail, and carrying the necessaries on my back. I enjoy the exertion, the heat, and the sweat. I take a perverse pleasure in the barely perceptible slide into personal squalor. I feel vaguely grubby the first and second days. After that, I know I smell like a dung heap, but I don't care, because I can't smell myself or my partners, and they cannot smell me. It's a happy arrangement in every way.
I enjoy how a trail unfolds with every step. What's ahead? Where will we camp tonight? Will it be a stream or a lake? Or perhaps by the ocean? I relish the way every muscle hurts after a proper day of hiking, so much that lying down on a sleeping pad on the ground feels like a gift. I love it all. I love the smell of the bagels I pack on each trip, the whish of the nylon as I cinch the stuff sack, and the fuzziness of hiking socks as they hug my feet.
Almost exactly six years ago (before my son was born), my husband, my sister and I were suffering just this kind of post-winter discontent. So we packed up our dogs and drove to Southern Indiana, right up to the border. Indiana is not all flatness -- the southern part of the state boasts some hills. We arrived at the trailhead on a Friday evening, and hiked a mile or so to a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. We camped there at a shelter with a guy and his two kids. We made a fire and enjoyed the kind of easy merriment that occurs when you meet someone on a trail.
We hiked together for the next two days among the blooming redbuds. We did nine miles the second day, and four the day after. We were soft, just emerging from a slothful winter, and so that was enough -- at least with full packs. That weekend we were all able to feed our urge to follow a path with the people we loved best. Tonight is much lonelier. We're all scattered away from each other; Mr. T is half a world away in south China, I am here at my laptop in Portland, and my sister is asleep in Indianapolis. Both the dogs that went on that trip have passed on.
I've never been able to do enough of this -- at least, not with my favorite partner. At first I was kept from it by a demanding job; for the last four years parenting duties have made it difficult to get away together. But the kid is almost five now, and frequently demands to be taken to a "hiking place." It's astonishingly easy here to get out in relatively short, kid-appropriate distances. There's a cobalt blue lake nestled in the shadow of Mt. Rainier that feels like the end of the earth. It is, in fact, a mile and a half off the road up to Paradise -- perfect for a quick overnight trip. After that come multi-day excursions. It's almost here.
I still ache to do the long-distance, six-month journeys. I won't get to do that for many years yet, I know. I wonder whether I'll still be in good enough physical condition when that time comes. My mother is 64 and needs both knees replaced. Will I be able to do a long trip in my early 50s? I don't know.
But for now, all I can do is get short snatches of time on wilderness trails. And I've learned that the truth is simple and immutable: the more I get, the happier I am.