Finally I saw that worrying came to nothing. And gave up. And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.Mary Oliver
I gather speed as my car swoops down a winding roller-coaster of road. The posted speed is 25, but she lunges forward, whining after I downshift all the way to the bottom until leveling out, then slowing to a creep, back up the other side. I pass a curtain of silvery birch. Snow blankets the slopes to my left, the chairlift is still now. Oak Savannah on my right, is crispy brown and dry.
This is Afton State Park. It shares a name with the quaint village nearby which took its name from Robert Burns, “Sweet Afton.” Fields roll toward vistas, three hundred feet above the Saint Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin’s natural border. Afton is home to gold medal winning crosscountry skier Jessie Diggans, and the grandly named Afton Alps, the largest ski area in the Twin Cities.
We’ve been told by our governor to stay home – but not stay indoors necessarily, urged to get outside while still keeping our six-foot distance. The parking lot is full and people walk in small clumps, crunching through last year’s leaves. An ice island of phantom ski tracks and long-healed thunderbolt-shaped cracks is filled with migratory birds. The crackly noisemaker call of sandhill cranes competes with a neighbor’s revving engine.
It doesn’t take long to lose most people as the trail turns into the forest, snaking up a ridge as ravines fall off on each side. Tiny red buds confetti the edges of limbs reaching toward the warmth. I shed my coat and power up. Footsteps lead into muddy sections then out again, dried indentations leftover from a more damp day.
After two thru-hikes, my pace is slower, more contemplative. I saunter, look around, relax into a place I’ve been hundreds of times. The closest park to my house, I’ve come to Afton to train for an ultramarathon and to walk with my best friend. I’ve been here in times of happiness, and in times of sorrow. Mostly, I’ve come alone, surprised over and over by the uncomplicated sense of permanence, unchanging and reliable. I feel like the child coming home to a parent with outstretched arms who always manages to ground me.
I pop up onto bluff looking down to the river and the wind dies. Crows cackle and fly so close I hear the whistling propeller of their thick black wings. A chatty group encased in a haze of pot passes by and we share a hello from opposite sides of the trail. I need to go to the bathroom so find a stick to open the door, not touching anything inside or out. Someone kept the sanitizer stocked and I’m grateful. When I head back out, a few more people pass, one with a heavy backpack, the other a camera and extra long lens around his neck. Rain arcs in wispy streaks, curling upwards before touching the ground. A woman presses away from me on her side, but smiles when I admire her brown dog’s white socks. Will they stay clean this afternoon? Doubtful.
From here, high on bluffs of restored prairie, I expect to see buffalo grazing amidst the scattered cedar. A cardinal confident and string, sings a coloratura aria in a stand of trees. The trail winds around before dropping me steeply down a ravine towards a creek. The air feels humid. A pileated woodpecker laughs. Snow fingers remain in the shadows of massive oaks. Runners pass – a little too close – one can’t quire keep up.
I think they’re taking risks bunching close together breathing heavily. The news says millions of people could become sick, but I desperately want to stay healthy. Oyster mushrooms, fat and white cling to a tree like bookshelves. Will it ever be the same after Covid19? Billionaires say they want us to get back to work, death be damned. Will that happen or will there finally be a kind of uprising, demanding a fuller safety net. Who knows.
I pass a seep feeding electric green grass and two deer stare at me before bounding into the forest, white tails raised, back hooves high. As I leave the ravine and return to prairie, the sky opens again, a watery inkiness in the gloaming. I reach a stand of pine planted in neat rows, the needle carpet redolent of Christmas before heading steeply down again towards the Saint Croix and back to the parking lot.
Tomorrow there’s supposed to be rain, so I’m happy I carved out this time for Afton. I know I’ll walk anyway tomorrow, but in my own neighborhood. Here, residents of this “neighborhood” are well on their way into spring rituals, creatures finding mates and setting up house, buds pushing up through the ground towards the warmth and bugs ready to burst forth. Life just keeps going seemingly without a care as we humans try to solve the problem of managing the coming weeks, months, years?
I take stock of how lucky I am, really, to still be able to take walks, to have a home and a car, to have food and my health. But for how long? Certainly there’s no silver lining in a pandemic. Except, maybe this, when mortality and the brevity of things hits you in the face, all that really matters, like the people we love, comes into sharp focus.
What we take for granted becomes precious. And what we need most – fresh air and the wonder of nature’s rhythms – is a commodity that will buoy us in this time of uncertainty and fear. No, things may not ever be the same, but the mundane routines of the world unaffected by Covid19 is reassuring and one I will seek out every day.