By Caroline Wiseblood Meline
Walking in the woods is always better than walking on sidewalks. Besides the fact that there is no irritating salt and no garbage (both hazards for the dog), nature - whatever stage it's in - is always pleasing to observe. But when the trails are frozen over, then the walk is not only interesting, it is an adventure.
These woodland paths are not straight and even. They trace the land down gullies, up hills, and over boulders. They change surfaces, skirt ledges, cross rivulets and rock-filled pools, and differ from city sidewalks in every way our senses know - sight, sound, smell, feel, and even taste when the berries appear. It is always a challenge, but when conditions are icy, I take a risk in walking, and I do it deliberately. I dress properly (layers of clothes, boots with ice grabbers, hand warmers inside mittens below a certain temperature) because I know I will be moving slowly.
On this day, I wear only one ice grabber because the other has broken, and I will have to watch every step. The surface is slick and choppy, with irregular depressions made by boots and paws. I pick my way carefully. Now a rocky outcropping appears, requiring a small climb. Will my boots hold the ground at this angle? In another spot, the route narrows to the width of my body. Should I move off the path? If I do, there is very little maneuvering space between the bare branches of bushes and trees.
Let me mention that, while I am busy with all of this, the dog is doing fine on his own. He slips a little on occasion, but his pads hold the surface well, and he readily detours from the path. He manages better than I do. When I get behind because of having to prepare for some tricky area, he comes back to see what is keeping me, and he waits. He is a great dog.
Today's trek is on one side of a gorge, and there are places where, if you fall over the edge, you will drop 20 feet. I did that once, but it happened a long time ago.
It might sound like I am in some western wilderness, but that is not the case. I am on the Kitchen's Lane trail of Fairmount Park in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. My path cuts through a section of the park known as the Wissahickon, for the creek that runs along the bottom of the gorge. The trail is one of several that I travel. I come here daily, and I have been doing so for 50 years. I am 73 now.
I was 22 when I moved to this city. I started walking in the woods as soon as I had a dog, which was the next year, and never stopped. That covers a marriage, two kids, a divorce, two graduate degrees, jobs, and the births and growing of four grandchildren. With everything, I went to the woods.
Of course, the dogs have changed. They live only a decade and a half on average, unfortunately, and I have rambled with a whole series of dogs. Sometimes with a couple at once. The character of the outings always depends on the particular dog who travels with me. I could tell stories about each. The dog with me now is Stretch, a pitbull mix who is coming up on 13 years old. I rescued him at 6 months, and he has walked in the Wissahickon almost every day since. He is in terrific shape for his age. I am not in bad shape for my age either.
Places shape our lives, and this preserved forest in the heart of a big city has pressed its features onto mine. In unusual conditions, when nature is wearing this rough garment of ice, the adventure is heightened. There is a satisfaction in operating on full alert and realizing that I am doing it. The feeling is not conditional on being 73. I like the idea that I can still do it, but I think it would be the same satisfaction if I were 53 or 33. It has been - I have done it before.
Certainly I can get inspired doing intellectual work or aesthetic activities. But this tricky navigation of slippery, bumpy terrain gets everything going at once, and it is exhilarating. Plus, the dog is with me.