Finding balance in the second half of life

Hot-Footing It on the Trail

In Survival on July 5, 2020 at 6:45 pm

You’d think on a 90-degree day, choosing footwear for a walk in the woods would be easy. There are the Birkenstocks, coolest and comfortable enough for all-day, every-day wear most of the summer. There are Chacos, which strap on a little more securely; a little warmer, but still a sandal. Too often, even on a day like today, I’m lingering over the tall blue wellies, which require socks for comfort and create a mobile sauna for each foot. 

The issue is snakes. I have no issue with snakes intellectually, theoretically. I know they do all the good things in the ecosystem, are part of creation, in my neck of the woods are not in the slightest bit harmful to me. But the perceptual and psychological effect of having a stick or root I”m about to step over (or on) animate and slither away is significant. Same issue with toads, who pose as clumps of dirt or dried leaves until the very last second. Instead of slithering, they pop, at least until later in the season when they tend to be larger and heavier and sort of “blop.”

Wellies are the only option from first thaw until mid-June here in the flatlands. Early in the season it’s more likely frogs, sometimes in multiples, than toads that will leap away as I step. I’ve occasionally seen tadpoles, but in those conditions I’m typically slogging, not striding. All through the spring, because of my wellies I can plash through ankle-deep water and squelch through sucking mud: In wellies, I am unstoppable.

Today I opted for the Birkenstocks, counting on other coping mechanisms. The first tactic is to avoid looking over-much at my feet or the path directly in front of me, instead focusing at least 20 feet down the trail. This is not a bad tactic for life, either: Over-attention to immediate hazards can slow us down, and certainly makes the experience small and fraught. 

Bodhi, the dog who motivates my daily walks, is my other tactic. For his first five years, he required two walks a day to gain sufficient calm to be a worthy household companion. We’re down to one mid-day the last year or so, which seems to suit him, whether or not it’s good for me. Bodhi likes to lead these walks, sometimes by a wide margin. He’ll run back to check on me, though, to be sure I’m still coming, to encourage me along, to be sure I haven’t tripped over a root in my Birkenstocks by focusing on the middle distance. In three or four gallops back and forth on the path, I’m fairly certain, he’s startled away any imposter sticks or clumps. 

Occasionally, he leaves me on my own. Off the trail, I hear a thrashing and gabbling and know he’s flushed a ticked-off turkey into the trees. Other times there’s a crashing and a snapping of branches and then a deer pops across the trail ahead of me; if I’m lucky, I see the back end, tail like a flag on a mailbox, as it disappears again into the underbrush. Fortunately, Bodhi doesn’t chase deer, like other dogs we’ve had; he runs back to me, smiling, tongue lolling, saying, “You saw that, right?” When we’re near the pond, I hear the splashing that means he’s taking a quick dip and, more likely than not, has seen a frog or two that requires investigation.

I’m tempted to judge myself for cowardice when I eye the wellies. But the truth is, there’s not one thing wrong with any of the choices. Well—more accurately, there’s a single thing wrong with each of them: The wellies don’t breathe. The tread on the Chacos can gather a half-cup of mud on each foot. The Birkenstocks can slide off, or I can slide off them, when I hit uneven terrain. There’s nothing that eliminates surprises from our walks or our lives. I’m grateful to be able to gauge—at least when it comes to snakes and toads—my appetite for astonishment each day. 

  1. Love this!

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