You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.
– Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods
With a little vacation away from work and my kiddo off canoeing at day camp, it’s time for a fix of woods. I pull up Hiking Upward to find something near enough to hit in a few hours but far enough for solitude.
This is the goal: solitude. And its accompanying quiet.
Humans are social creatures, sure, and we need to be in proximity to people as much for a sense of connection as for all the stuff — the supermarket and hospital, the auto mechanic and school. To survive, we need to be in community. Even so, too much proximity to too many others can take its toll. The buzz of engines and clang of machines, the soundtrack of urban and suburban life, can jam the signals. When I start to notice myself too focused on the clock and task list, too alert, too aware of every demand and every passing vehicle, I know it’s time to seek out a forest.
Hiking Upward’s interactive maps let a user explore a stretch from southern Pennsylania to northern North Carolina. The descriptions cover each leg of the journey and reviewers add details to keep things up to date. Many of the reviews make note of the presence or absence of “road noise,” which is almost impossible to escape anywhere in the mid-Atlantic. The site rates each hike on five characteristics: difficulty, streams, views, camping, and — yes — solitude.
For a mid-July hike in Virginia, shade would be more important than peaks. Quiet, most important of all. Out west in the Shenandoah and beyond, several hikes hit all the right numbers.
The problem is that lately, I’ve been taking care to drive less. My dual commitments to frugality and environmental stewardship have me hopping on the bus and train when I can, even though this choice extends the commute. Bug and I bike around the neighborhood for fun instead of driving to parks further away. My shopping and entertainment are much closer to home, and I make every effort to combine trips by doing things like picking up groceries during my weekday lunchtime walk then lugging them home on the metro.
This desire for the woods is in direct conflict with the desire for sustainable living. Still, the girl hungers to be out in the quiet. By the time I’ve gone to bed, I’ve settled on a regional park about 16 miles out of town. It seems shaded enough, isolated enough, and close enough that it would meet all the criteria without my little Corolla belching too much carbon monoxide back into the atmosphere.
Thankfully, sleep has a most refreshing effect on my conflicted mind. Blessed is the deep rest that washes clear the path.
I wake to this thought: I want to go somewhere free of road noise, and I’m going to put my car on the road to get there?
The hypocrisy makes me smile. I climb out of bed determined to make a choice that will honor both of my commitments.
With my hiking gear already in the car and my kiddo packing up his sunscreen and bug spray for day camp, I hop back online. Where can I hike without leaving town?
Fairfax County, Virginia is home to environmental leaders whose dedication far surpasses mine. My neighbors have been working for decades to protect the fragile watersheds that sustain our region. In the 1990s, a critical mass of residents and leaders began to plan the 40-mile long Cross-County Trail. Its path moves through vast ribbons of green whose undeveloped foliage act as sponges to filter pollutants from our streams.
This trail weaves in and out of neighborhoods. It follows busy roads to connect sections of woodland. I’ve walked parts of it further east, popular sections next to parking lots and ball-fields. Those areas are wide and groomed, with bikes and families and runners. But miles of the trail wind through areas that are hard to find unless you know where to look.
The truth is, I’ve never thought much of this local trail as a “hike.”
It’s time to change that.
One section of the trail happens to be within a few hundred yards of the bus pick-up spot for Bug’s camp. The Corolla will clock exactly zero additional miles and I can be hiking. So this is what we do, Noodle and me. We drop the kiddo at the bus, I shrug into the backpack, and we start walking.
Around the golf course, behind houses, and into the woods.
Woods! Woods like forest, like Shenandoah, like a wild place. Creek crossings. Lush carpets of ferns. Damp oak leaves drooping across the sky. Solitude, yes — in three hours, only four people pass us. And while the occasional distant leaf blower or lawnmower jars me back to this zip code, the morning is almost entirely quiet.
“Quiet” isn’t the same as “silence.” Truth is, when we need to replenish the spirit, silence is not really what we’re after. Rather, we crave the absence of pressing need, the muting of the incessant clatter that keeps us in a heightened state of reactivity. Quiet is far from quiet. It’s a music, a pulse of wildness that tracks the beat inside us. Quiet is the chittering throb of cicadas, the swooping cry of an unidentified bird. The small crystal shattering of water over stone.
Eight and a half miles we walk through the morning, through our very own town. I see its raw underside, the part that feeds us whether we know it or not. It nourishes us without us drawing down its riches.
It’s here. It’s not just in our backyard, it is our backyard.
It turns out that it is indeed possible to hike close to home. Isn’t a hike just a walk with intention? Even a cross-county trail isn’t a requirement. A hike can cover suburban neighborhoods and city streets. Seeing any stretch of ground as hike-able reveals a whole new terrain.
Of course, it isn’t new at all. It simply asks to be entered as if it contains the possibility of wildness and wonder. It simply requires of us “a willingness to trudge.”
We teach our kids to revel in the natural world in ways that minimize damage to it. We don’t let them deface trees or leave trash. As grownups making our more complicated calculations, it’s critical to remember that the same simple rules apply. If we want to keep finding refuge in the forest, if we want our grandkids to seek sustenance in the unbuilt world, then we need to do our part to sustain it. Sometimes that means choosing not to go at all. Sometimes means opening ourselves to the wild places waiting right outside the door.