I had no choice but to move my windshield wiper selector switch to rampage level. The rain was coming down in king-sized sheets and as much as I hate the crazed swish of wiper blades moving at top speed, I was driving on unfamiliar back roads and needed all the help I could get. I was going camping and as my phone pinged with increasingly dramatic weather alerts, I cursed, felt the whisper of anxiety catch in my chest and started laughing. It was going to rain for as long as it was going to rain and no amount of angsty nail-biting was going to change that.
Maybe it’ll stop, I thought. And it did. By the time I pulled onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, the downpour had turned to a drip. I lost cell service, my phone stopped barking weather alerts and by the time I got to my campsite, wisps of blue sky were starting to appear. I set up my tent, unfolded my camp chair, opened a beer and sat staring at the sky trying to divine the weather forecast and then, because it still wasn’t raining, I pushed the wet ashes in the fire pit out of the way, pulled a few dry logs from the back of my car and started a fire.
I tried to read, but couldn’t. My brain kept skipping backward, rolling back to the first time I camped alone. I was nervous, worrying over everything, afraid I wouldn’t be able to set up my tent or start a fire, that I’d spend the night awake, anxious and scared. I was still in the early stages of learning how to be independent then. I was in the midst of my divorce, battered, moderately broken and trying to find ways to heal the hurt. Everything I did that night seemed like a significant accomplishment and I woke up the next morning feeling audacious and brazen. I was proud of myself; I’d survived. That was five years ago. Now, going alone isn’t an event. It’s just how I go.
The Devil’s Marbleyard is boulder-covered mountainside up the Belfast Trail in Jefferson National Forest. Most people hike it as a 4.5 mile out-and-back, but I opted to make it a 11.5 mile loop by adding scampers on the Gunter Ridge Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Glenwood Horse Trail because I’m insane, apparently, and I wanted to spend the day in the woods, not just a few hours.
I use the word scamper to explain most of my outdoor endeavors, from hikes to camps to scenic drives and all sorts of shenanigans in between. It’s an especially accurate term for what I did at the Devil’s Marbleyard. I scampered, in chipmunk-like fashion, from rock to rock, climbing and hopping up and over and around. It’s work, for sure, but it’s scamper-based work which is the best, most fun kind of work.
Having arrived first to the trailhead that morning, I had the boulder field to myself for around 30 minutes and made good use of the time scampering from rock to rock, exploring and taking pictures. A group was moving up the trail, shouting to one another and delighting in the echos their voices made and annoying the fuck out of me. When one of them popped up beside me, causing me to bark a comic-book like scream of “ahhhhh,” I scampered back to the trail and continued up and away from the Devil’s Marbleyard.
My feet hurt, that’s how it started. I was nine or 10 miles into the hike, wearing still-newish hiking shoes. It was hot and my feet were over it. When I got to Little Hellgate Creek, I stopped. I hadn’t seen another person on the trail for at least an hour, couldn’t hear anyone else and the rocks in the creek looked like they’d be the perfect fit for my butt to sit on while soaking my tired and angry feet in the water. I put my pack down, took my shoes off, peeled the socks from my sweaty, lightly-pruned feet, stepped onto a rock and gingerly dipped a few toes into the water. I dug into my pack for a beer, pulled out a handful of Pringles and sat down on a rock in the middle of the creek, and let my road-weary paws soak.
While my feet cooled, I tried to remember the last time I’d done that, the last time I’d been in the woods and stuck my bare feet into a creek. As I kid, I grew up scampering in the woods and rummaging around the creeks that flowed past a handful of the places I called home. I poked at frogs, dug in the dirt, made mudslides and screamed at water snakes when they spooked me. These stream-based explorations were one of my favorite ways to spend my time as a kid. Sitting on that rock, whole decades after the last time I played in a creek, it occurred to me that I’m still capable of play. I stood up on my rock, looked around, contemplated my options. I hopped from rock to rock, feet still bare. I bent down to look at a school of tiny fishes doing their fish thing and spotted a crawfish slipping under a rock as I squished my toes into the creek-bed beside him. I splashed in the water and flipped over rocks to see what might be lurking underneath and I played.
At 35, I’ve decided adulthood is a lie. I’ve done a lot of adult things. I own a house and a car, have an assortment of pets and houseplants I’m responsible for. I have a career, a mortgage, have gotten married and divorced. But I still don’t feel grown-up. I used to think that one day it would click, that all the pieces would fall neatly into place and I’d be a Certified Grown Up, but that never happened and after my creek play, I’m glad it didn’t. Playing in the creek felt good, better than good. It felt like the bright, promising glory of grade school-era summer morning.
When was the last time you played in a creek?