When I signed us up for the First Day Hike, it sounded like an exhilarating way to begin the new year in the peace and quiet of Brown County State Park, but the experience proved to be more challenging and eye-opening than expected.
When Mike and I reached the trailhead where the New Year’s Day trek began, we were surprised to be joined by more than 200 hikers. There were loud hikers. Pushy hikers. Slow hikers. Hikers on cell phones. Hikers with unruly yapping dogs and children. So many children.
I looked at my husband like a deer in the headlights. “This might be the hardest two-mile hike I’ve ever been on,” I whispered unnecessarily, as he knew exactly what I was thinking. We almost bailed on the First Day Hike before it even began, but I felt it might be a test, not of my endurance, but of my tolerance.
I used to have a wealth of patience. When I was a teacher and mom to young children, patience was my superpower. For more than 25 years, I willingly trapped myself in a small square room with more than a hundred middle schoolers a day. Although I’ve always enjoyed time alone, I loved interacting with students, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends, and even strangers.
Now I’m retired and live in the boonies. I go days without talking to anyone save my easy-going husband and the forest critters. If not for the necessary task of grocery shopping, I would happily remain in the woods like a hermit. I’ve admittedly become a tad intolerant of my fellow man.
We fell into line with the army of hikers who snaked single-file through the hills of Brown County at a steady comfortable pace. I noticed how nature worked its magic to cast a spell of courtesy and civility over the group. While navigating the rugged trail covered in wet leaves and squishy mud, we chatted quietly, as hikers often do, about the weather, foliage and fauna, wildlife, and other favorite hiking spots.
I talked at length with a loquacious teenage boy whose mother seemed to welcome the break. I discovered one of the hikers was from the same small Illinois town as my dad. I petted a cute scruffy dog whose owner had come to the event alone with her rescued pup.
Our First Day Hike was over before we knew it. We said goodbye to our new friends and wished each other a happy new year. Hiking is often a chance for solitude in the great outdoors, but our walk in the woods with 200 other nature-lovers gave me a feeling of community and comradery I didn’t realize was missing from my life.
My new year got off on the right foot with a burst of energy, an appreciation for nature, and most surprisingly, a reminder to have a gracious and open heart towards all of the people I meet on my path along the way.