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Hiking the same trail
more than 100 times
in every imaginable weather
at all times of day and night
and every season,
often leading 40-50 elders,
tourist out for a stroll through the woods,
retired farmers and teachers,
oh, how the layers of stories begin to build.

Imagine hiking the same trail for generations,
for thousands of years,
with stories passed down from father to daughter
and grandmother to grandson.

One moonlit night,
pausing on a small bridge
looking into a still pool in a shallow stream
a lightening bugs lamp
reflected in the water
illuminated a portal to another world.

Another evening,
dusk dark,
an owl's cry,
I interpreted as a mournful youth calling mommy, mommy...
I was scoffed at by fellow hikers
until 20 minutes later at the other end of the loop
we found three baby barred owls crying for their mommy
as she had just kicked them out of the nest.
If they did not learn to fly right now,
they would be devoured by the creatures of the night.
I shushed the crowd,
was surprised by their patience
and silence,
as we watched one baby owl, leaping and flapping, leaping and flapping,
it caught wind and took it's first flight.
The other two owlets, impressed, impersonating their sibling,
all three flew up off the ground to the safety of a tall tree.
They will live
yet another day.

This creek produced a puff ball,
a mushroom the size of a basketball.

That swell is the pawpaw patch
where I have been waiting, watching
for 17 seasons,
and have still not found one ripe fruit.

That long dead white oak
grew enough bright orange and sulfur yellow shelf fungus,
chicken of the woods,
so that I could harvest a handful.
The chef cooked them in the lodge,
as long as I promised to share some with him.

An elder farmer caught my elbow
and quietly pointed out some wild ginseng
just over there.

That ancient red oak,
it fell in a thunder storm
we watched it decay over the past 15 years,
so now there is only a row of small trees
to mark its passing.

A scarlet tanager appeared,
like a miracle,
a heaven sent blessing,
landing in a tree just a few feet above everyone's head,
so everyone could gasp with the same breathe
and the trailside chatter turned to awe.

How many night hikes
guided only by the light of the moon?

A later night,
we reached the bottom of Wildcat Canyon
just as the full moon peaked,
peeking over the edge of the ledge to illuminate silicates in the sandstone cliffs.
The rock face glowed with reflected light.
We sang ancient chants in several languages:
"Earth Maker, holy shall I be, holy!"

Another night,
echoing in the same canyon,
a deep bass bullfrog,
sang the same song
in his language.

Before all of this board walk,
before the guard rails,
when roots and mud were our footpath,
my daughters, then toddlers,
ran off trail to find the trilling toad,
to see them fornicating in a vernal pool and
witness the miracle of procreation.
Collecting eggs, we took them home and
watched the gelatinous pin-dots turn to tadpoles
and tadpoles to toads,
before releasing them into our neighborhood.
(Could the toad we saw this spring,
fifteen years later,
be descended from those eggs?)

I have been known to gather other hikers into our fold
as I guide my group along the trail,
a stray family asking directions
is taken in by our tribe
as we find our way together through the forest,
along the river bluff, skirting the cliff's edge.

A hermit thrush sings at dusk in those shrubs.

Deer are most likely to cross the trail here.

More than a few times we have seen wild turkey foraging on that hill.

The geological epiphany of picking up a stone of solid granite
carried by the glaciers,
made in Canada eight-hundred-million years ago,
and then, in my other hand,
picking up a piece of sandstone,
laid down in a river's delta four-hundred-million years ago,
and saying to my friend,
"Hey check this out!"
as I smashed the two rocks together
and the granite returned the other to sand.
"It was not just water that carved these canyons
it was the force of melting glaciers swirling this much harder schist,
like the pumice of stone-washed jeans,
this torrent cut these swirls in the stone swimming above our heads!"

Three weeks later,
hiking on my day off,
I ran into a geology class
and discussed my epiphany with the professor
who confirmed my experiment,
affirming my belief
that here, in this canyon, geology is no longer abstract,
eons of time are visible, tangible, palpable
in every grain of sand.

Look closely at this white oak,
the oldest tree in this forest,
and you see the many gnarls of lower braches that fell off
as the other younger trees grew up around it
shading out the lower limbs.
See the heal-all, columbine, wood betony, and yellow cone-flowers.
This tree, these flowers,
tell of a time not so long ago
when this forest was a ridge top prairie.
Hiking the same trail so many times
it becomes easier to read the stories of the land and
the tales told by the earth itself
of what was
and might yet be
once again.

The darkest, new-moon night,
as we rounded a bend in the invisible trail,
a buck snort so close we felt its breathe.
It pawed the earth,
rattled its antlers
and challenged us to fight
...or back down,
I smelled the testosterone of the rutt.
All of this heard, not seen,
not imagined?
Then the crashing and clattering through the brush,
before we could think, let alone respond,
heart-stopping, breathless, awe
are no longer merely words.

That same pitch-black night,
our feet found the foot path
step-by-step,
for several miles,
deep into LaSalle and DeTonti Canyons.
For far more footfalls
than I wish to remember
I was not sure if I was on the trail,
or one step from the cliff's edge and...
a thirty or one-hundred and thirty foot drop.
The tension of every step
more than one should bear,
we persevered, un-aware
of the treachery we escaped,

until a few summers later,
when I hiked the same trail in daylight
and even then, feared the fall,
with a slippery rain-slicked sandstone ledge,
and stood as a spotter for the kids
who joined us on a brightly blooming day-lit excursion.

We stepped under the waterfall
and the frigid, pounding, pulsing, massaging water
poured over us,
each in turn,
as we danced under the falling water,
refreshed.

Last night,
the eve of my 48th birthday,
my daughter and I
made a moonless hike
with countless lightning bugs
our only guides.
The darkness was so complete that
it was a trail more of memories...
...touch, smell and texture.
All of these stories pouring out silently
as I walked through the layers of 100 hikes,
my daughter confidently leading the way in the darkness,
I, wondering if her children will know these trails
well-enough to guide her,
as my daughter guided me,
through and into
the oncoming darkness...

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