I take my heart for a walk in the woods
and listen to the magic whispers
of the old trees.
It was a gloomy winter day, made even more dull by the absence of any snow during this thus far anomalous winter. The temperatures were chilly, in the upper 40's with the air still damp from overnight rains. Not much of a day to be outside, but I was in a restless mood and I needed some time in the woods.
I had a few hours, so I chose a place relatively close to home. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy controls a patch of land within the larger 12,000 acres of the Bull Run Mountains Special Project Area. Within those 2,500 acres, situated just north of Thoroughfare Gap, are a network of trails. One of them ascends to the top of the ridge, called High Point, a rocky outcrop from where stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the intervening valley can be experienced. That was my target on this day, but the Conservancy had closed that particular trail for an indefinite period of repair. Coming face to face with a wire barrier, I shrugged to myself and decided instead to explore the other trails within the area.
I left the parking area and crossed the Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks and headed into the woods. I passed the stone walls of the Beverley Mill, partially restored. A bit further, I came upon the remains of a structure identified on the map as the "upper mill."
The last time I was here, on a perfect spring day, the site was mainly a pile of weathered boards. Now, it has been cleaned up, the boards neatly stacked. Now the foundation is more visible and it is easier to imagine the structure as it once was. Here, the trail made a hard right turn and headed uphill.
As I headed away from I-66, the sound of the traffic became more muted, and finally silenced. I hiked steadily, dodging frequent mud patches. The trail was damp, but unlike the O'ahu ridges, the dirt made for secure footing.
I stopped at one point to drink a little water. The sound of the water in the bottle seemed surprisingly loud. I stood still and was again amazed at how silent the forest was on this dark winter day. The wind was barely a whisper, barely moving the branches above me. I had taken winter hikes before on windier days, and had to listen to the unsettling groan of the trees as they swayed back and forth. In the spring and summer, the forest is alive with birdsong and the buzzing of insects. Squirrels dart through the leaves and occasionally the distant sound of the passage of something much larger. The only sound today, however was the sad, raucous sound of the occasional crow.
With the leaves down and the trees standing naked beneath the leaden skies, the world was a film noir, almost no color at all; just shades of gray. It was a day for deep thoughts.
There are old structures within the area, silent reminders that one time people had made a life among the silent sentinels. Now, the buildings stand empty, as gravestones to a life that once existed.
I walked further, the only sounds apparent were the ones I made as my boots hit the ground in their regular stride. It felt strange to be here amongst all this silence. Even though I met several hikers on this day, I felt very alone. Some folks find this silence to be disconcerting, if not outright creepy. Bill Bryson, in his epic tome, "A Walk in the Woods," expressed it thus:
“Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic.
Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides.
Woods choke off views & leave you muddled & without bearings.
They make you feel small & confused & vulnerable,
like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.
Stand in a desert or prairie & you know you are in a big space.
Stand in the woods and you only sense it.
They are vast, featureless nowhere.
And they are alive.”
But this is also a place for contemplation; where one can explore the mind and puzzle over difficult questions. There are no distractions here, especially this time of year when most of the animals, especially bears, are sound asleep. The trail was clearly visible, and so I allowed my feet to carry my mind along for the ride.
As I walked along, I asked myself a hundred different questions; why, how, when, and what for. I took the time to think...really think...reveling in the freedom that comes from being away from the stifling confines of the city. I took the time to talk to God. And for a time, He walked with me.
I tell people that I hike because it's healthy for me. At my age, a sound heart is a gift that keeps on giving. But it's not the physical heart that heals on these walks, but the spiritual one. Here I can shed the aches and stresses. Here I can leave the rest of my life in the parking lot, and just...be.
I treasure my time in the woods, among my cousins, the trees. I am refreshed, I am recharged, I am healed.
I turned back to the south and the further I went, the dull sound of the traffic became more apparent. Gradually, I walked my way back to my world. In the last quarter mile, I came upon a stand of tall conifers. That pine scent filled the air, a sharp refreshing sensation after the silence. Underfoot, the fallen needles cushioned my footfalls. The trees here picked up what little wind there was, and whispered their chorus.
And then, suddenly, it was over. I was back on the asphalt surface heading towards my vehicle. But I felt somehow different. Happier, more relaxed. At peace. I had gone for a walk in the woods, not knowing what I was looking for.
But there amongst the silence and solitude, I had found myself.