Foggy Mornings

I woke up to a wall of white outside of my window this morning–dense fog as far as the eye could see (admittedly, not far). And as I walked to my building on campus, the aromas brought out by the moisture of the fog from the trees and shrubs along the sidewalk brought me back to foggy mornings in North Carolina. My father’s dream was to hike the Appalachian Trail (which he did), and so I spent several weeks during the summer hiking parts with him as a teenager. Although my dad had begun at the traditional southern terminus of Springer Mountain in Georgia, I met up with him at Sam’s Gap near Mars Hill, North Carolina, where we spent that first night together huddled with two dogs in a small tent on a ridge during a massive thunderstorm.

My trail name, by the way, was “Copperhead.” Not for the reddish tint of my hair, but rather for the copperhead snake that I nearly stepped on while doing a warm-up hike through a rhododendron forest with my family in South Carolina. I screamed, so my father yelled at me for freaking out and startling him. Then he saw the snake. He had been hiking for several weeks by that point and had yet to see anything other than the occasional garter snake. That day, I found a speckled kingsnake in addition to the copperhead, and the next summer, while hiking in New England, I found a timber rattler coiled up in a patch of sunshine my first morning on the trail.

Rhododendrons are lovely, but their fallen leaves provide the perfect camouflage for copperhead snakes. My heart still races any time I’m in a rhododendron forest–most recently in northern England, which has no poisonous snakes!

That’s my curse–if there’s a snake in the area, I will find it. This was the case in my Wildlife Ecology class in college; I was tearing through a forested area one early spring to get to a bird sanctuary–fearless because my professor had assured me that it was still too cold out for snakes–when I met a narrow reddish fellow, probably a kingsnake, moving lightly across the fallen leaves.

I love hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park because there are no poisonous snakes (due to the elevation). I want to check out Devil’s Backbone, but I’ve heard that rattlesnakes are often seen there. The first time I hiked in Colorado outside of RMNP, guess what? My hiking partner and I found a western rattlesnake–gorgeous and gigantic–along the path. We saw her in plenty of time–she was hanging out at the side of the trail, waiting her turn to cross and trying to blend into the dusty shrubbery, and once she realized we had stopped, she cautiously slid across the trail and on her way. We stood there for a few minutes, watching her move among the vegetation and over rocks. She was lovely, and I’m so glad that we saw her (especially since we saw her without startling her), but I was jittery the rest of the hike.

Yes, I have many, many more anecdotes about encounters with a variety of snakes. I even had a pet garter snake as a child (my poor mother is terrified of snakes, and this particular pet was an adept escape artist) in an attempt to overcome my fear of snakes. It didn’t work.

But that’s not what I started out to write about today. Welcome to my mind–it’s like a pinball machine in here.

Not only did I meet a lot of snakes while hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never been a morning person, and so those early mornings in North Carolina and Tennessee were brutal, even with a belly full of warm oatmeal. It was cold, there were spider webs across the trail, and everything was damp. It had been a rainy spring, and as a result, the trails were overgrown with brambles, reaching out to embrace me with their dewy thorns. So I did not hurry much.

Instead, I explored. And my favorite thing to do? Flip over rocks on the trail to find these little fellows:

An eft, also known as a teenage newt

And they were everywhere that summer in North Carolina and Tennessee. My father used to get so angry with me–he’d get up, eat, pack up his gear, and hit the trail, focused only on getting to the next shelter for the evening–because he would realize that I was not just behind him. He’d stop and wait, and a few times, even backtracked to find me. And here I’d come, strolling along the trail without a care in the world, flipping over a rock here with my foot, bending down to move aside a fallen branch there, always looking for efts. Eventually we established a call-and-response system so that my father would be able to know that I was still behind him–however far–and he trusted that I would get to the next shelter eventually. And I did try to stop looking for efts . . . most of the time.

Now as an adult, I find myself in my father’s shoes. My daughter has the same inquisitive nature that I had as a young girl, and when we go to the mountains for the day, she loves climbing on rocks, picking up sticks, and taking it all in. And I find myself getting annoyed with her. “Come on, just a little bit further, kiddo,” I tell her. “Please, can we just walk for a while?” We clearly have two different agendas on these hikes. I want exercise to offset the time I spend sitting in my office, and she wants to enjoy life. I, like my father, can only see the destination, and she only knows to live in the now. And I need to recapture that. But how?

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