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on the path

It is unusually warm for this time of year, today being the 27th of September. Experts say the mild temperatures are due to global warming. A thermometer that reads ninety-five degrees this time of year is indeed concerning; at the same time, it feels like a bit of grace.

I choose grace.

I am working with the pessimistic part of me who, when she has a choice, sees the glass half-empty. Today, I claim half-full. No, I claim full and overflowing. Why not? And go against my nature. After all, I am out here in nature putting one foot in front of the other, moving towards something I do not know.

I do know that I am leaving. I am walking away from my past. I am walking inside my past and right on out of it. I am walking to feel strong in this moment, to free myself, to discover something, understand something, retrieve anything at all. I walk because it is the one thing I can do when I cannot run away. This is as close as I can muster.

I walk to accomplish something, to say that I have traveled. You see…I travel regularly, almost daily for my work. I have seen the world! I tell my friends, who have in a different sort of way. I walk to inhabit another land, to remember wellness, to embody wholeness, to walk the way I used to walk long ago in college when everything felt strong. Body memory is real, they say. Muscles remember things they once knew, no matter how long it’s been.

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Out on the Saunders-Monticello Trail, all pain and worries are dwarfed and diminished. How can they be greater than one-hundred year old trees with branches and trunks ten times my height? Somehow pain dissipates a little and seeps into the earth. I don’t have to worry about the land. It is the only time I do not worry about this land. This, the earth can take. It not only takes it, but gives back in a shower of green or gold. Perhaps I am slightly hypnotized by the scenery. It doesn’t really matter how or why the trail absorbs pain, it just does, though it takes time.

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You carry all that you arrive with, at least initially. The path is slow and flat in the beginning. With its soft gray clay and crushed stone, it has just the right amount of cushion for the human body — so much better than the blacktop of a road made for speed and the whir of tires. The Trail can handle the weight of our human bodies. It is forgiving.

As I move on down the path, I begin the gradual climb up the mountain to one of my favorite spots. I follow the winding path as it makes its way into the woods to reach that place among the pine trees. The warm sun on the fallen needles releases their aroma, the aroma of my grandmother’s cottage in Michigan where I spent summers in my youth.

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They say the sense of smell is the fastest way to a memory and elicits it more strongly than any other sense. I stand for a moment to let the scent of the pine soak in, but it is fleeting. The breeze, though I can barely detect it, must have changed direction and the scent dissolves like pieces of a dream. I remain motionless, trying to track the scent again, but it is of no use.

The pine trees stand still beside me. Being not too large and having rather compact limbs, they are quite sturdy. It is one of the reasons that I love them. And because they are within reach. The Trail leads you right up to them, no barriers. The footbridge has yet to separate us from the trees that have grown as tall as skyscrapers deep in the woods.

I walk up the hill past the lake to the point where the trees begin to form a canopy, where the soft clay path becomes a footbridge made of wooden planks suspended over the forest floor. It looks like a track for a rollercoaster ride as it twists and curves through the woods. My shoes make a noise as they hit the first few planks below. I am really here, I say to the trees and squirrels.

The thump from my feet vibrates in my bones as I begin to accelerate. I want to hurry. I want to make up for all that I haven’t seen, places I have not gone. (At least not yet.) I hurry, then relax and slow up my pace again. It is later than you think; I have all the time in the world — I walk between those truths, holding them both. And then I remember, I can go far here. I can see the world. The trees seem to echo, you can go far here, you can see the world. On both sides of the bridge fallen branches line the hills as far as the eye can see.

As I step off the bridge, I suddenly want to touch a tree, but I feel strange in front of passerby’s. Once when I was on Carter Overlook and secretly hugging a tree, a man with a dog burst out of the woods so fast we were both startled. Though he acted as if tree hugging were an everyday occurrence, I, on the other hand, was looking for a place to hide. Today, I lean back on the tree behind me and force myself to stay there and not hide. The hikers rounding the bend bear witness but stop only to say hello.

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Going deeper into the woods now, the path alternates between bridges and crushed stone. On a tired day, it feels like I am forever going uphill (which I am but only at a slight degree); on a rested day, the incline is imperceptible. Yet it is still kind. Gradually, I ascend higher and higher until I am eye level with things usually out of reach — the sun, a hawk, a vine wrapped around the top of a tree, and the squirrels making their nests.

These squirrels are different from the ones in my neighborhood. They seem to fly, darting across the path, then leaping to a nearby branch only to suspend themselves upside down while they munch. They dare you to do the same — to take a leap! Leaves crunch as the squirrels dive almost unseen beneath them. Now they are walking the railing as if it were a balance beam to show off their acrobatic tricks. Come play, they seem to say, as if they alone own the forest.

High above the main road, I look over the railing’s edge and ask the trees what they have to tell me. Research says trees do communicate to each other, so why not me? I am guided to look in a different direction. And then another. A leaf drops from a limb and floats down beside me. I forget my question. It is unanswerable at this time.

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Walking faster now, I finally hit my stride. I stretch out my legs the way they are meant to stride. These legs were made for walking. Or at least moving. My ancestors came from the Netherlands where they skated for miles on canals. I am sure skating too is a body memory, though I have never been on a canal. Still, it must be in my genes. Freedom is in my genes — miles of glistening smooth ice that wind through cities and hillsides and past all daily life, and in spite of it, and travel on undeterred, unrestricted like the squirrels who know no boundaries.

Being on this path is as close to the feeling of skating on a canal as I can imagine. The bridge and path are about six feet wide, just wide enough for two people to pass as they swing their arms, or two bikes to race by each other.

Actually, the Trail is probably narrower than the width of a canal and not nearly as cold, but sometimes it feels just as unsteady as ice over bone-chilling water. The planks of wood on the walking bridge suspended high above the forest feel a bit precarious when they squeak. I look down wondering, hoping, the sound below me is merely someone gathering up branches.

I sit for a moment on a bench before the path calls me on. Remember, this path is made for walking, for moving beyond whatever you bring to it. It calls you beyond what you know and can see, gradually taking you higher, grounding your deeper.

Nearing the tops of the white birch trees, I am almost there — where Thomas Jefferson used to live. No wonder he had vision. He was higher than where I am standing now, on the very top of this mountain.

Sometimes, I turn around before I reach the end of the trail, but that never feels complete. After a mile and a half of forest where the light pierces through in only a few open spaces, I must go to the end and step out into the light before I return home and begin my descent.

Suddenly, the Trail spits me out as if I were just catapulted out of a dream. I am at the end of the forest path at the base of Montalto, around the bend from the entrance to Monticello Visitors Center. I walk up ahead and pause at the beautiful stone bridge before turning home. I pivot to face Mountain that looks almost unreal now, like a mural that has suddenly been pulled down from the sky.

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Before re-entering the forest, I look over and notice the sun has dropped behind the hills when I was not looking. I pick up my pace so as not to get left in the dark. To my right, I can see all of Charlottesville and the golden glaze on the hills. A couple is pointing out some wildlife, no…they are identifying well-known landmarks still visible at dusk.

Though I am descending, I am still high above the city and my body feels as if it could take flight. Right, left, right, left, right…I leave it all behind. I practice letting go, and leave footprints to make it so. The Trail carries me like a current in a stream. The momentum of all the energy I have built up on the climb to the top is overflowing on the downward trek. I cannot move slowly when the clouds race overhead and everything around me is speeding by — light flashes, a car races by on the road below, and a jogger runs past me in silence.

I run past the trees and call out to the black walnuts, the tulip poplars, the evergreens, and all the rest with nametags to give me a sign. Tell me, am I on the path? They nod. This is the path, they seem to say. As I race over another footbridge, a large acorn almost hits me in the head and plunks down at my toes. An unexpected flash of anger surges up. I yell at the trees, You can do better next time, there are many other places to let things go, I say, as if this is my forest.

Flying now, my legs move faster than I remember they ever could, faster than when I ran track, back when I was almost too gangly to run. So much so that I usually walked the run. Now, I run the walk and even sprint at intervals, propelled by gusts of wind. The leaves in the trees sail by me. I run as if I am being chased by neighborhood kids in a childhood game.

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I leap out of the forest near the base of the mountain, always a bit surprised. It seems to arrive abruptly each time. As I slow my pace to a stroll by the pond, I look over to the fallen tree. On days when I use it as a bench for watching geese or awaiting the return of the blue heron, I always ask it for a sign. I ask it to share its strength since it is leaving soon, its bark slowly being taken over by moss. It says it has had a good life. It says, you are on the path.

I want more answers, but the questions fade. The forest is the great witness, the Buddha that bows in silence.

As I descend the hill past the lake I notice the geese are not around. The water is still on the surface. The pink clouds of the sunset remind me of the ones from my mother’s paintings. She used to sit for hours almost motionless, doing cloud studies.

All of a sudden, a breeze sweeps across the surface of the lake as if it were being dusted by a giant feather from above. Maybe that is what a breeze is: The hand of spirits who reach down from time to time to touch this earth, or a breath — one big exhalation from nature, the unseen breath of trees.

I close my eyes and continue along the path, now very familiar with this part of the Trail. It is the part near the pine trees, and the place that reminds me of my youth. I slow my pace to a crawl and walk as far as I can in darkness. I walk breathing in the peace of this forest. I know I am not alone.

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When I open my eyes, I think I see someone coming towards me, their hands outstretched. They are holding up a leaf that shimmers in the light. They are turning, waving. I look again and they become ripples on the pond, the arc of a branch overhead.

~ KB

The Saunders-Monticello Trail in Charlottesville, Virginia is a 1.75 mile, winding loop, that leads from the base of the mountain to the Visitor’s Center at Monticello. Though not technically a loop, one has a sense of going full-circle after traveling deep into the forest, up the winding path, and back down again. In addition to the main trail that has been cleared for hikers, there are several more rustic paths that detour off the main route. The Trail is available for hiking year round; and though the hours vary, it generally opens at sunrise and closes at sunset.

To learn more about the Saunders-Monticello Trail, please visit: