The Quiet Walk


Photo by Adam Noll–Creative Commons

There is more to a hike than a pair of boots, a granola bar, and the trail. There’s technique. At least that’s what they taught in the hiking class I took to satisfy a  college P.E. requirement.

I was slow to come to a love of hiking and didn’t yet have it when my roommate and I drove to the Wisconsin Dells to learn everything we needed to know about hiking. Twenty five years later, of that everything, two stuck.

First–and because we hike in the mountains, most useful–how to hike up a hill: Tackle it like you would a staircase, with small steps, lifting your body with the quads rather than the calves. The quads are stronger. They can take it.

Second, how to establish hiking order: The slowest hiker stays up front and sets the pace so everyone stays together and insures that the slow one won’t get left behind if she has some sort of trouble. I suppose that makes sense in the case of a twisted ankle that occurs with a sudden onset of laryngitis.

It took almost twenty-five years of life on the trail before I actually wanted to be there. I was happy enough out hiking along with my parents and brother, and later my husband, and even later with our children, as long as I wasn’t tired or bored and the trail was reasonably flat. I didn’t understand the need to get off the road, away from the crowds, and into the backcountry.

I get it now. Finally. The hours and effort on the trail will take me somewhere worth going.

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Seven years ago we packed our children, then three, seven, and ten, and drove east instead of west.  On our way to the coast, we drove through new mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains. Along the curved, yellow leaf-lined roads, we saw a sign we’d never seen before: Quiet Walkway.

What in the world is a quiet walkway? 

That was my question as we wound our way through the park, passing sign after puzzling sign. Always curious and unafraid of the unknown, my husband eventually pulled over at one. There was no trail information, just a path into the woods.

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And down that path we started; no map, no guide, and no destination. It was mid-afternoon and I calculated how much this little stop would delay our arrival at our week’s home on the beach. Questions, the grumbling kind, whirled through my mind: Why are we doing this? How far will we go? How will we know when we get there?

A damp carpet of leaves muted our footfalls. Those which clung to their branches filtered the light that dappled the trail. The air hung with a rich tranquility which even playful young voices could not break. It was, indeed, quiet.

We walked and wandered until we discovered the mild rapids of a mountain stream. With boulders to climb, logs to cross, and rocks to throw, it was an unexpected paradise for our little tribe.

When we had set off it had seemed random, but we got to where we belonged along by a route that was deliberate.

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Life in a family can be like that. Why else would we play Don’t Break the Ice or read Thomas the Tank Engine hundreds of times? Those aren’t destinations. They’re the stops along the way, boulders and logs and rocks in the woods; worthwhile stops where we belong for a time. We stop with our little people—and our big ones—because we’re on the journey with them, not because we know where we’ll all end up.

A day with my grandma usually included a looking walk. She had a book about such walks. We would read it together and then we would go live it. Evening’s arrival brought Only a Boy Named David and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the rocking chair by the picture window in her living room. I still see the stars and hear her voice. Though hampered by rheumatoid arthritis and walking was hard for her, she took me on quiet walks long before the National Park Service did. She taught me the value of the quiet moment and the gifts which reside within.

Unlike a hike, there’s no technique for the quiet walk. There’s just a walk, a willingness to let go of destination and embrace–for a little while–the road for the sake of the road. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not.

Just like it’s hard to put the slowest hiker out front, it’s hard to pause while our little people wander the trails of childhood or our big ones–our grownup friends and family–struggle with the switchbacks of adult life. It takes self-control and sacrifice to slow down long enough to wander with someone without knowing where, or why, or how long; but like the years it took to develop an appreciation for time on the trail, the effort is worth it.

And you? What are you more comfortable with–the hike with a specific destination or a quiet walkway?




On Feeling Lost

String Lake Teton National Park

String Lake Teton National Park

Because I inherited my zeal for vacation planning from my dad, it wasn’t long after he invited me to go to the writing class that we began to plot the hikes we would take along the way. He charted our route, one that would take us into Yellowstone through the Tetons where we would revisit the trail to Hidden Falls. We’d hiked it the first time he and mom took my brother and me to Yellowstone back when we were the ages that our own children are today. Six years later, I hiked the same trail with an Old Faithful coworker. Five years ago, I hiked it with my husband and the next year we returned with our children.

I am familiar with the trail to Hidden Falls.

This time our destination was beyond Hidden Falls and past Inspiration Point. We were going to Cascade Canyon,  further in and closer to the craggy Teton summits than I ever imagined I would get.

Inspiration Point Teton National Park

Inspiration Point National Park

Morning people by nature, we were on the road before our 4:00 a.m. alarm sounded.  Dreary but rising interstate intersected with dawn and mountain highway where the sun broke through the clouds, revealing western homesteads nestled in fog-filled valleys. We drove in behind a dust-settling rain that released the pungent aroma of sage, freeing it to reach into the van to cleanse the air.

We were in the Tetons by ten. By eleven we had landed one of three remaining campsites at the heavily wooded Jenny Lake Campground, disappointing a van full of guys who hoped it would be theirs. We made camp, brunched facing Mount Moran, packed our gear and were on the trail by noon. By on the trail I mean on the boat which ferried us across Jenny Lake. We could have hiked around the lake. Usually we do. Today we hoarded our hours and our footsteps for the trail beyond.

I was lost from the moment we stepped off the boat.

I grew up in the middle of Iowa where the land is parceled into neat one mile squares wrapped with ribbons of asphalt and gravel. Even without a working knowledge of the four directions and a weak grasp on right and left, I could find my way. I drove by feel.

It worked. Then we moved. We live right now in Iowa’s southern third, where the gravel wears on for miles without paved interruption. It curves and follows deep rolling hills. No squares. No ribbons. I drive these roads with an unnerving sense of disorientation.

The approach to Hidden Falls from the boat landing is different than from the trailhead. I’d hiked down to the boat, but never up from it. What should have been easy–a climb up familiar stone steps too tall and irregular to meet the civilized code–felt wrong, leaving me to wander behind Dad and the other hikers and worry that were all on the wrong trail. I eyed the landscape for landmarks and mentally superimposed where I thought we were over where we actually were in an attempt to understand the trail.

I didn’t.

When we arrived at Hidden Falls it was, according to the map in my mind,  from the wrong direction. But there was the boulder field that my son had climbed years before. There were the falls,  and the flat spot where we had seen the bear rooting out his lunch as hikers passed within feet of his perch, oblivious to his magnificent and potentially dangerous presence. Finally, I knew where we were.

It was here that the weight of the dangers of my navigational habits descended on me. I don’t just drive by feel. Sometimes it’s how I navigate my life. Every now and then I end up lost, superimposing where I want to be over where I actually am, and searching for landmarks that just aren’t there.

Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus and their great cadre of explorers navigated by the heavens and not by feel for a reason. In the face of mutiny and superstition, malnutrition and sickness, their feelings would have failed them. They would have been lost.

Feelings have their place. That place just isn’t for the navigation of a trail. Or the road. Or a life.

Not until after college did I fully master right and left. Only in the past few years have I learned how to reckon the cardinal directions. Now when I encounter those people who call on them like old friends and expect me to do the same, I can, in my awkward way. If those can be learned, so can a better way to navigate life.

My start is to pay more attention, to the trail, to the road, to my life, and understand where I am so that I can get to where I am supposed to be. I could learn from the explorers of old. Christopher Columbus wrote, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” He knew where he was going and what he was following to get there. So do I. To explore my world, I move forward with my eyes toward He who does not change and leave my inadequate navigational habits behind.

Teton National Park

Teton National Park

28 Days on the Road: Some Things I Learned

Today I’ll be linking up with Emily at Chatting at the Sky, sharing what we’ve learned over the past month, specifically what I learned during twenty-eight days on the road. Eight of those days I spent with my dad and the rest with my husband and children. Dad and I hiked and camped and attended a nature writing class together in Yellowstone. I was home for only one day before getting back on the road, taking I-90 again to Rapid City, where my husband worked for two and a half weeks. The kids and I went along to keep him company.

Arching over everything else I’ve learned is that there is no place like home, even if that place is in the West. It’s been a long month and it’s good to be home. For now. So, I hope for you and for me some time at home in the coming days.  

 Happy trails.

  1. Errant: traveling or given to traveling, especially in search of adventure<an errant knight> Or an errant family.
  2. By law, Black Hills Gold can be crafted only in the Black Hills.
  3. I agree with Aldo Leopold: Some people can live without wilderness. Some cannot. I cannot. Oh, I can live, but not well.
  4. Sage, with its tiny silver leaves, works magic on mountain oxygen. It surrounded our cabin at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch on every side. The morning air hung thick with it when we opened the door, wandered onto the porch and breathed deep. Not all of my classmates were enamored with its magical qualities as I. One morning when our instructor sent us outdoors to practice the art of the day poem there was enough sneezing followed by the lament, “I’m allergic to sage,” to inspire a few humorous poems.

    Lamar Buffalo Ranch  Yellowstone National Park

    Lamar Buffalo Ranch
    Yellowstone National Park

  5. Reading my unfinished work to my classmates was terrifying and it seems that when I am that terrified, I go straight past the ubiquitous shaking of the hands straight to the shaking of the arms. All the way to the shoulders. It was agonizing, but I’m glad I did it.
  6. I will always be thankful for the week I spent with my dad.


  7. Clouds bring rain to the campsite, but they usher in delightful skyscapes and fiery sunsets.

    Lamar Valley Yellowstone National Park

    Lamar Valley
    Yellowstone National Park

  8. Rain doesn’t hurt a camping trip all that much. We ate in the rain and slept in the rain. I was cozy in the van and my dad stayed dry in his tent.
  9. It would probably be good for my marriage to slow down my rate of chatter. I paused more on my westward adventure with my dad. My husband would probably enjoy the same treatment.
  10. There’s a controversy over whether the pens used for the reintroduction of the wolf  to Yellowstone should be preserved because it was a historic event or taken down because the wolves themselves returned Yellowstone to its historic state. The return of the wolf to Yellowstone was a thrilling event. After watching that unfold from afar, hiking to the pens was an exiting journey. Stepping inside? More so.
  11. Duck Dynasty. I watched it for the first time during my 27 days away and I have to admit I enjoyed it a little too much. (Yes, I know it’s been on for years. We kind of live under a rock sometimes.) Phil’s blunt and usually correct wisdom, Jase’s Jaseness, and Willie’s tendency to end up on the ground made me laugh out loud and I don’t do that often enough.
  12. Water slides are not for the faint of heart. Or perhaps they are not for the faint of stomach. Without careful attention, one may find oneself sitting in a damp suit under the manufactured shade of a plastic palm tree typing about pacing oneself in a water park.

How about you? What what did you learn during September?

Bear Bells and Binoculars

The store was closed when we arrived, so we couldn’t buy our little girl a bear bell. The rest of us had bear bells and it was time for her to get one, too. Our plan to remedy that in the morning failed when morning found us up and ready to go before the store opened. We would have to pick one up later in the day.

“But how will we find any bears?” she wailed.

Clearly, she didn’t understand the point of a bear bell, which is to help hikers create noise as they traverse the trail. Bears will supposedly move away to avoid the noise, so bear bells do not attract bears. They repel them.

She wanted to see a bear.

Later that day, before we hiked a spectacular trail with a sad name, the Yellowstone Picnic Area Trail, we had a picnic lunch. J and I made lunch while the kids played and climbed rocks. They told us about their adventures as we ate. Our daughter was particularly excited to tell us about a stick they found that was perfect for fighting bears.

As we set off, we instructed them to stay close because we were in the wilderness and there might be bears. Our daughter looked at us incredulously and informed us in her sing-song voice, “We have our stick.” Meaning, of course, that they would be perfectly safe without us because she could obviously fight a bear off with her stick.

Clearly, she knew nothing about bears and had not read the hiking books which advise against hitting or kicking them.

Bear Bells, Bear Stick, and Binoculars

Bear Bells, Bear Stick, and Binoculars


We managed to get to our destination and back without needing the bear-fighting stick, but we did later pull over into an area that a ranger said might reward us with a glimpse of a bear. And there he was, foraging at the foot of the sharp roadside drop-off. We hadn’t seen many bears before this so we settled in to watch him. My daughter and I sat side by side, legs dangling over the ledge that led down to the meadow where the bear was nosing his way through the grass.

“When are we going down?” she asked. “Down there, to the bear.”

Clearly, she didn’t understand about bears. At all. She was, however, willing to settle for binoculars.

She is our nature girl, our animal girl, and she’s brave. It’s not that she’s never afraid. I’ve seen her scared. She was scared about her proximity to the RV that my dad was turning around in our yard, so she silently reached out for her brother’s hand. She was scared about starting her new preschool when we moved, but accepted an invitation to stay for the morning when she had only planned to stop in for a visit. She’s courageous according to John Wayne’s definition. “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

She’s courageous, but too young to grasp the nature of a bear. I understand her difficulty. Occupying the wild space near bears is hard to deal with mentally. I want bears to be there and I want to see them, but I want to see them where I want to see them, which is from the road, where I am close to the safety of my car.

I want to see bears in the same way I want adventure of all types: my way, my terms,  my timing. Adventure doesn’t operate that way. It will never consider my terms, my calendar, or the location of my car.

“Adventure,” according to adventure travel writer Tim Cahill, “is never an adventure when it’s happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical or emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”

Adventure is life, meant to be lived; watching for the bear, carrying the stick, sometimes looking through binoculars when you’d rather be up close, reaching for the hand of your companions, and staying when it would be so much easier to go.

What’s your perspective on adventure?


It could be anything – a soccer game, a wedding – and if it is to be held outdoors, the weather becomes a plot driving character in the day’s story. Like the girl from the nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it is really, really good, but when it’s bad? It might not be horrid, but it may just be the great havoc wreaker.

My opinions on the weather are extreme and not based in reality. Rain is fine as long as I don’t have to go out. Wind is never desirable. Hail is just not necessary. Snow is welcome. Anytime. So far.

Unfortunately, strong opinions do not insure the weather’s cooperation. Icy wind and driving rain once denied the girls and me the peak of Mount Washburn. Hail pelted the five of us within a half-mile of the trailhead as we returned from what had already been a rainy foray over the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Whitecaps nearly capsized our canoe as an afternoon thunderstorm materialized from a cloudless Teton sky.

Deep down I know that my opinions about the weather are unrealistic and self-serving (I live among farmers and gardeners and people who actually have to drive when it snows), but still I am disappointed when my plan and the weather are not a happy mix. Such was the case one rainy day when we had planned to hike but decided to avoid a soaking by spending our time indoors. I am certain to have grumbled, but as a redirectable sort married to a guy whose nature it is to make the best of things, the Visitor’s Center at Mammoth Hot Springs became our new destination. By the time we pulled up, the rain was gone, the sun was breaking through and there, hanging in a narrow valley, was something I had never before seen: the gentle curve of the topside of a rainbow. I was stunned.

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Where I come from, we look up at rainbows.

Just as the weather wreaks havoc with life outdoors, circumstances wreak havoc in life. We saw the top of the rainbow only because we were driven from where we wanted to be to where we would see it. Only when driven from where I want to be to where I need to be, will I come face to face with what I need to see.

Whether we were able to hike that day is a detail lost in the recesses of my mind. What I remember is the rainbow. It was the journey’s end. The rain was just another part of the road.

What about you? Is something wreaking havoc with your life’s journey, changing your plan and bringing you face to face with something new?

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28