There are those who long to spend their lives communing with nature. Those that yearn for the scent of dirt, pine trees, and fresh air, for the soft crunch of grass under a boot and the gentle tickle of a spider's web as it brushes across the face. I am SO not one of those people. First of all, I am allergic to EVERYTHING. And I mean everything. Second, I ABHOR dirt and bugs, and just as vehemently abhor the thought of any part of my body coming in contact with something that might have at one time ever TOUCHED dirt OR bugs. And third . . . I simply just don't like nature. So, because of my altogether rational aversions, one would easily surmise that hiking is not really my gig. One would generally be right. BUT . . . in honor of this blog and in the spirit of summer adventurousness, I decided to give hiking the old college try. For a few hours, anyway.
So, Erin B (the only person in Manhattan that’s less attuned to the wilderness than I) agreed to join me on a day hike through a place called Wawayanda State Park, a huge chunk of full-out forest that's located a short trip from the city (take 23 north in New Jersey, pass 3 fruit stands, a lake or two, the taxidermy/bait shop, a Dairy Queen, and you're there). After a short(ish) drive and a $5 parking fee, we pulled into a lot overlooking a sparkling lake and a small stone "bath house". Good, I thought, we should use the facilities before we get out into the woods - I didn't bring any toilet paper and I am NOT trying to get poison ivy on my nether regions. Erin and I gingerly walked into the stalls and after a few minutes, I heard the tentative words that confirmed that we were truly the blind leading the blind. "Um . . . Michelle? How do you flush these toilets?" "You don't”, I replied. "Oh . . . ew". Yeah . . . we were in trouble.
Really, it’s just trees and dirt, I thought. How bad could it be? We found an innocent-looking trail and began a leisurely stroll through the back country. A few paces in, we encountered a very crunchy older gentleman sporting a dirty Ben and Jerry’s tee shirt and a fanny pack. He chuckled at our apparent confusion over our trail map (or maybe it was Erin’s matching purple tank top and Converse sneakers) and offered to suggest a “nice hike” for us “young ladies”. We chuckled at his apparent lack of fashion sense. “No”, Erin replied definitively, “We want, like, a real hardcore hike”. Yeah . . . we were definitely in trouble. The old guy plotted us a “hardcore” five-mile hike and we trotted down the gravel path into the wild.
I won’t bore you with all of the gory details of the HOURS that we spent hiking on that sunny afternoon, but I will say that it actually wasn’t all that bad. First of all, the woods are quiet. Like, really quiet. Almost peaceful . . . if there weren’t swarms of gnats flying kamikaze missions into my face. I said almost, didn’t I? Second, we had a lovely encounter with a family of frogs that unabashedly jumped over our feet from rain puddle to rain puddle. They were adorable little gymnasts and, I was surprised to see, pretty serious show-offs. One even posed for a picture. In addition to the frogs, I was very happy with my chosen company. Bomboy is always a brilliant conversationalist and an attentive listener; definitely a person worthy of spending the entire day with, I must say. In spite of the fabulous company and the animals from the set of Mary Poppins, there was, somehow, an underlying element of danger on our hike. Maybe it was just my perception, but as we walked, I started to realize that pretty much anything could happen in the woods an nobody would know. It’s like, Deliverance and stuff.
This threat of danger made itself evident on two specific occasions. On the first leg of the hike, we were loudly conversing about pretty much everything under the sun when I heard a rustle in the underbrush beside the trail (I can’t believe I just wrote the phrase “rustle in the underbrush”, but it’s appropriate). We froze, listened, and searched for the cause of the disruption. Nothing. “What if it’s a bear?”, Erin asked. I thought about that. It definitely could be a bear. If it were, and it were hungry, I figured that we would have little to no chance of surviving. And if it DID decide to eat only part of us and it left us on the side of the trail surrounded by our severed limbs and dangling entrails, who would we call to take us to the hospital? We had no cell phone service and we hadn’t seen another soul for miles. “I think we’re supposed to look big and make a lot of noise”, I stammered. Erin’s answer sounded more sensible, “I think that would just piss it off. Can they climb trees? Because I can.” “Yeah . . . I think so. Koalas can climb trees and they’re bears.” We looked at each other. “We’re screwed”. “Yep”. Suddenly, a chipmunk scampered out from under a nearby bush and across the trail. We collectively expelled the air we’d been holding while we searched for the supposed savage man-eating bear. Safe. Interestingly, though, we lowered our conversation to a more respectful volume and continued down the trail a bit more alertly.
Around mile 4 ½ of our “hardcore” 5 mile hike, when we basically felt like our legs were going to fall off, we arrived at the most rocky portion of the trail. (Thanks, Ben and Jerry’s.) Now, if you didn’t know, trails are marked by small colored squares affixed the trunks of trees. Not arrows or mile markers. No. Of course not. Then it would be way too easy to discern the trail from the surrounding not-trail. Stupid crunchy hiking-trail-makers. Why’s it got to be so hard, huh? I digress. So . . . around mile 4 ½ and after climbing over WAY too many fallen tree branches and jagged rocks, we realized that we were no longer on the marked (or not-so-marked) trail. No orange markers anywhere in the vicinity. OMG. Panic started to set in. Really? Are we stuck here in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service and lost in the wilderness with nobody to hear us call for help or air lift us out and we’re going to have to sleep on these jagged rocks with millipedes crawling down our shirts and chipmunks eating our festering exposed sunburned flesh? Will they send a search party to look for us before we starve to death? Or thirst to death? Do you die of hunger or thirst first? Would I be able to eat Bomboy if she died first? Could I go back and drink the rain water and eat the frog legs? If one were to, in the interest of survival, eat another human, what part would you eat first? Or would I die first when the inevitable bear attack would ensue? WHY IN THE WORLD DID WE COME OUT HERE ANYWAY!?!?!? “Here it is”, Erin yelled somewhere behind me. I was jostled out of my day-nightmare. I practically jogged back to where we had lost the trail. There’s no way I’m dying in the wilderness today, I thought. Or ever, for that matter.
When we reemerged at long last in the safe paved parking lot under the wide sky, I wanted to cry. We had made it. In one piece. Every part of my body ached and I was working a mad sunburn on the part of my hair, but somehow, I felt somewhat accomplished. Almost . . . good. Maybe it was the hiking endorphins. Maybe it was the prolonged exposure to sunlight. Nevertheless, my scary, dirty, exhausting day of hiking was oddly rewarding. We dragged our heavy feet into the car and stopped off at the Dairy Queen on the way home without a shred of guilt. After all, hiking burns 700 calories per hour. That’s almost reason enough to go back. Next time, though, I’ll learn how to wrestle a bear first.