Hiking, Dogs, and Fading Angels

“Oh, Lily, someone else is in our park!” I told my bi-black sheltie after a woman attempting to jog on the icy path startled me from my thoughts. Winter’s grip is finally weakening here in northern Ohio, evidenced by emerging populations. Last week I was awakened by the cheer-eeee of a red-winged blackbird announcing his return, causing me to smile before opening my eyes. Later that day, I did not smile at all as I saw ribbons of tiny ants marching on our kitchen countertops and around the trashcan. The Ant Spring Ball occurring inside our dishwasher was abruptly concluded with what must have seemed to the participants like a previously unpredicted tsunami.

10926241_10152923121570660_93094696278365792_oAnd now the humans have returned to our park. My life thus far contains two constants: hiking and dogs. Our side of Akron is nestled into an expansive county park system that rolls into the even larger Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I have several favorite trails I hike a couple of times a year, including those in O’Neil and Hampton Woods, but day in and day out, I hit the same trail in the same park. And for the better part of three months, when the temperatures are well below freezing, I rarely see another person on the trail, which I curmudgeonly feel is my reward for being undeterred by the cold or as the Germans say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” A forest muffled by deep snow where even the animals are quiet is a stark reprieve from the sensory clutter of modern life.

I am not as good at getting my butt on my meditation cushion each day as I am at getting my feet on the trail. In sitting meditation the focus is on the breath, training the mind to stay put, both in the moment and in the room, with the practioner. On the cushion, my mind wanders and bolts like a feral mustang refusing to be captured. And while not exactly a trained Clydesdale when hiking, repeating the same steps on the same path over and over I observe the same plants, the same ravines, the same coves and, thus, notice the slightest changes. Lately, I’ve been working on a list of things to stop beating myself up about. One is my poor attendance on the cushion. Instead of I really should sit everyday for at least 15 minutes I now think I am cultivating my mindfulness training with each step I take on my hikes. Check. And carry on.

As I hike the same path, most days I am preoccupied with things that have happened or things I need to do. Somewhere along the way, however, the chatter in my head often stops, if only briefly. Creatures capture my attention, be they large deer springing up the hillside, their white tails bopping with each leap, worms coating the leaves after a fall rain or those intrepid little spiders on the vast slicks of ice. And for a moment, I am in the moment. And that is all there is.

The first two months of this year, the mercury never rose above freezing. Each of the many deliveries of snow was stacked upon the previous one. I start my hikes by crossing an open field, which was easier when I could find my boot prints from the previous day. But many times either new snow had filled up my prints or the wind had covered them over. Like walking through wet concrete, trailblazing in knee-deep snow is hard work. “Yeah, but you get a better work out,” I’d hear in my head. It was the voice of my eldest son, Claude, a distance runner, who accordingly dismissed my complaints on a hike several winters ago.

Fading AngelsOn the weekends, Max joins me and my hikes are different because we talk. But as the snow grew deeper and deeper, the trail narrowed like a river valley, forcing us to march one-by-one and speak less. In late January, in the middle of the open field, Max stopped, turned and threw himself back onto the soft, fresh snow. Sliding his arms up and down and his legs in and out, he made a snow angel. With temperatures struggling to reach 20 degrees, his snow angel lasted for weeks. Every few days I photographed the outline as it became muted, while the peaks pushed up by his arm movements rounded into what looked like the globes of a soft bosom. When most sections of the angel’s outline finally disappeared, only I recognized the few remaining ripples in the otherwise flat snowscape as lingering evidence of my man’s body.

Yesterday, the fourth day in of our first thaw in months, the snow had compressed down in the daily melt, which then hardened into ice at night. But as I had all winter, before starting my hike, I slipped over the soles of my boots the unfortunately named “crampons.” A slipper’s skeleton made of silicon, crampons suddenly make any shoe or boot like the adult punch at a holiday party: spiked. Helpful all winter, right now they are essential. Without them, going down the ice-slick hills would be dangerous while going up them would be impossible. And yet, ice be damned, spring is certainly coming for the spiders have joined me, as they always do in early spring, on the frozen trail, their dark, spindly bodies high-contrast and out of context on the snow banks. I wonder where they erupt from as the ground is still seemingly sealed in the white snow and grey ice as though restricting for just a little bit longer the advent of mud season, when I will also need my crampons to keep from sliding into ravines.

I used to bring both our shelties, Hoover and Lily, with me on my hikes, but stopped the year we moved into our house. It was a wet summer and the long hair of the dogs, who resemble small collies, would get so muddy I had to bathe them, or at least hose them off, when we got home. Besides, at about an acre, our back yard is big enough that the dogs seemed to get plenty of exercise chasing each other and the squirrels. Then this past November Hoover nearly died from pancreatitis and though, at nearly 14 years old, his recovery was remarkable (thank you Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital), Hoover’s energy has not fully returned. He has instead slid into his old dog days, preferring sleep to all else other than food and affection. While that’s fine for Hoover, Lily is only four and not at all interested in a geriatric lifestyle. And so Lily has joined me and for the better part of the past three months, and on most days she and I have had the park all to ourselves. For Hoover’s sake, I sneak Lily into the car, which is not terribly hard. The silver lining of Hoover’s now near-complete deafness is that he does not hear me call for Lily when we leave, so there are no hard feelings.

Before Lily, there was Greta, a shepherd mix who loved best of all long hikes. Unlike the shelties, Greta hunted on our hikes. When she was young, she could pick off a squirrel or chipmunk running up the side of a tree and shake it dead before I could even holler for her to stop. Even when she was past her prime and no longer a rodent-killing machine, Greta followed along on hikes, darting after creatures then returning to me over and again. As the years passed, our hikes became walks as Greta moved more slowly. At the end of my daily hike is a steep hill and one summer as I slowly made my way up I noticed only Hoover was with me. Turning to call her, I saw that Greta had lain down on the trail a good 25 yards behind me. I called her and she looked at me. She was a smart dog and if you have ever had a truly smart dog, you know they look at you differently than other dogs do; they look at you knowingly. I hiked down to Greta and helped her up. She ambled a few paces before dropping back to the ground. Not as heavy as she’d been in her prime, she was still easily 40 pounds. I picked her up like a calf, my arms around the tops of her four legs, her body on my chest. I walked as far as I could and set her down, she walked as far as she could and then I picked her back up. We repeated our turns until we crested the hill. Though she lived another year that was her last big hike. From then on, Hoover alone went with me. And now he is the old one, staying home on his bed in the kitchen, happy in the warm fray of the family.

While spring, of all seasons, heralds birth and beginnings, death never withdraws. For one thing, as the temperatures rise and the snow melts, all the carcasses created in the winter thaw too, a dog’s delight. Until Greta was so old she no longer darted off, I kept her on leash for weeks after the big thaw began, lest she come back smelling of carrion. People also die and on the second day of spring a few years back when the peepers were in high concert season, I received a text message that a friend had succumbed to cancer the day before. The death of that friend, whose youngest children are twins just three years older than Claude, seems to be the first of many people around my age to die at the hand of the Emperor of All Maladies. Tomorrow my son Jules, who is fourteen, and I will be attending the funeral of a classmate’s mother, the second parent in his small Waldorf class to die of cancer. His classmate is the oldest of five children. As a Buddhist, I have no god to rail against for the existence of cancer and its affliction of people who have so much life left to live. And even if I did, what would that change?