Sunday, July 28, 2013
I’ve been to Huntsville State Park a few times before. It’s conveniently close to Houston and the land is extremely pleasant, so for a few years it has been my first choice for any short overnight trips. However, I’ve only ever been here before on one or two night weekend trips – usually just one night – so I’ve never had a chance to really experience the whole park. And usually when I’ve been here I have focused on photography, which kept me moving very slowly. In all the times I’ve been here before I had never once hiked any of the trails all the way through – not even the short interpretive trail by the Nature Center!
So for this trip I decided that on the first full day I would leave my camera packed away and just go for a long, long walk, and do nothing but walk along the Chinquapin Trail and enjoy the park itself without any distractions or intended goals. Well, I there was really one intended goal, but it was a small one: completely walk the trail. That’s it. Over the past couple of years my life has been kind of derailed. The dissolution of my marriage and stagnation at work has left me feeling very dispirited and, well, depressed. I feel like I’ve lost everything that was meaningful in my life and nothing seems to make any difference to me any more. I stopped setting any goals for myself and I certainly stopped achieving anything. But this vacation is a chance to try and let go of some of the pain and try to refresh my outlook on life. Setting a small goal – complete the trail – is a tiny way for me to begin to reassert myself and take back control of my life.
I set out around noon and first walked about a mile to the park store. Honestly, at this point I was debating with myself whether or not I should go back to the RV and put this off for a day. I had a sinus infection last week and it was still affecting me a bit. I bought some doodads at the store – a second steel water bottle, some tea to fill it, a couple of energy bars, and some nifty, laminated, folding quick reference guides to the local trees, dragonflies, and alligators. Then I went to the trail head at the Nature Center, took advantage of their air conditioner for a few minutes, and set off on the trail.
The first thing I noticed was the sandiness of the soil. At the Nature Center I had read about the different forest environs, and one of the prominent ones was the sandy pine uplands that I was now walking through. Down lower towards the lake, the ground has more clay and the hardwood tress predominate, but here on the hills the soil has more sand and the pines rule the forest. As I walked along I could barely hear the sound of my own footsteps. And then I realized that I could barely hear anything, actually.
I stopped. There was silence. Not the kind of silence that most people are accustomed to, where there is a constant low level hum of motor vehicles (even when you are in your own home!) or dogs and people in the distance. This was true, utter, unbroken silence. The only thing I could hear was a feint high pitch which was actually just a little tinnitus in my ear. The forest itself was devoid of sound. I stood there for several minutes just listening to nothing and reveling in it. In the city and suburbs I can never escape from the constant bullying sound of people and their machines. I try to get away from it, but the best I can do is put in earplugs – an incomplete and unsatisfying coping mechanism – or drown out the objectionable sound with more pleasant sounds of my own choosing. Music, usually. But here I did not have to fight to find aural peace. It came to me like sudden and unexpected onslaught of joy crashing over my mind in an avalanche of quiet.
And then the sun came out from behind the clouds. A cardinal called out and was answered by another. Cicadas began buzzing and the true silence was replaced by the everyday sounds of life under the trees, which was joyful in it’s own different way. I walked on feeling my burdens somewhat eased.
Though my mood was lifted, my physical feelings were still uneasy. I had with me a wad of toilet paper which I frequently used to blow my nose, and I was still thinking about turning back and doing this some other day. At every rest bench I sat down and took a break to conserve my energy, trying to shepherd my drinks to make them last the whole day. But despite the temptation to return I kept going on. First I passed down towards the lake and walked the trail through the marshes at the headwaters, pausing at one favorite spot along a slowly meandering stream where there are always beautiful black damselflies.
Beyond the marsh, the ground quickly rose into the hills on the other side of the lake and I began to tire seriously. My rest stops became longer and I was tempted again to turn back. But I was now on part of the trail that I had never walked before, and I was approaching the halfway point beyond which it would be easier to go forward than the go back. (The trail is a loop, and ends up back at the Nature Center where it starts.)
With every footstep I was feeling more and more weary, but I also began to conceive of a plan: at the other end of this back stretch of the trail was Lake Raven’s dam and spillway. The spillway is broad and flat and always has a few inches of water running over it, and I decided that it would be the perfect place to rest and cool off by just laying down and letting the running water flow over me. That was something to look forward to!
So I trudged on, step after step, but accompanied now by a large number of cardinals. I’d been hearing them all throughout my walk, but here on the other side of the lake, away from the hubbub of the campgrounds they were so numerous that I began seeing them as I walked around each bend in the path, startling them from their perches. It was another thing that helped keep my motivation up.
Eventually, I reached the near end of the earthen dam and began walking across it with a bit more spring in my step – the cool water of the spillway was just ahead and I would be able to get a much needed break. But when I got there my heart nearly broke – the spillway was dry! The long standing Texas drought had taken it’s toll and the water in the lake was about a foot too low.
Despondently, I started off down the trail again. It did a loop around the mostly dry creek at the base of the dam, and then came back to the other side of the would-be spillway, where there was a bench. I had thought there was also a water fountain there, but even that fleeting hope failed me. So I sat on the bench in a bit of minor despair. I was now back on a part of the trail I had previously visited – from the other direction of course – and it occurred to me that I had now walked all of the backside of the trail that I’d never seen before. That was a pleasant thought, but it also tempted me to cheat. Farther along I knew the trail came to the parking lots, and if I left the trail there instead of continuing on all the way back to the Nature Center, then I could go back to the RV and rest. I was sorely tempted.
And then it started raining.
This was good! I had been very much looking forward to cooling off in the water of the spillway, and without that I was feeling quite overheated. But now the rain was cooling me off, so I gleefully sat on the bench and let it rain. After about 30 minutes, I got up again and began the long walk once more.
At the parking lot turn off, I stopped to look for a water fountain – I was out of water now – but not finding anything I got back on the trail, to stare down the final mile back to the trail head. This was part of the trail I had never before been on, and the map showed that it was all uphill. I could easily have turned aside and followed the road back to my campsite, but at this point I was determined to finish what I had started. So step by tiring step I went down the trail, no longer noticing anything about the forest around me – the birds and the trees were long since forgotten and the only thing that kept me going was the thought of the very next step.
My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My face was glowing with my body’s heat. My rain drenched handkerchief could no longer do anything to get the sweat off my face and I felt like I was overheating badly. It was agony.
But then I heard a car, and knew that the road was nearby again. The road that passed the Nature Center. I came to a parking lot, and then, the trail ended right across from the Center.
I had done it!
But what had I done? Well, according to the trail map, the Chinquapin Trail is 6.8 miles long and takes an average of 3.5 hours to walk. It’s not that great a distance, but I had taken about 5.5 hours. In fact, there was one jogger who passed me not once, but twice along the trail! So by most people’s standards I had not achieved anything great. But for me it was historic. In fact, it is probably the longest distance I have walked in more than 15 years, and as fat and out of shape as I am, actually making it all the way was monumental.
The walk back to the campsite – another half mile or so – was probably the worst part of the day, but of course, I made it, and after a shower and a dinner of tacos, I went straight to bed. (Have I mentioned, by the way, how awesome it is to be able to come back to your actual home after a day of hiking, even though you are still in the park? RV = incredible!)
I began this walk with the goal of actually completing something. Really that was all. I just wanted to set out to do something and actually do it as a way of breaking my months long pattern of defeat and despair. I set a small goal for myself, and I made it. Do I feel batter about my life? Yes, actually, a bit. Is this going to solve anything? I doubt it.
But it doesn’t hurt.
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