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October 2019 Vol. 15 No. 3

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Joshua Michael Stewart

Nature Lesson

Spring’s been cold and rainy, so on the first cloudless day, I hop in the Corolla, and travel west to the Seven Sisters Mountain Ridge in Hadley, Massachusetts, for a late morning hike. It’ll feel good to be in the mountains again after a long winter of not venturing far from home; with the exceptions of work and the grocery store, I’ve pretty much been in hibernation.

I paw sleep
out of my eye

I stop at a pharmacy, purchase the most expensive, all-natural insect repellent they sell, then quickly get back on the road. I take Route 9 past the Quabbin Reservoir, through Belchertown and Amherst, then park in a dirt lot off of Route 116, across the street from one of the trailheads. I spray myself from boots to buzz-cut with the insect repellent, and strap on my backpack.

all I smell
is cedar

White rectangles painted on tree trunks lead the way. It’s not long before I’m winded and sweating profusely. There are steep rocky pitches where I have to use my hands to scramble up the trail. My backpack contains my journal and a few thin volumes of poetry, but nothing that should make the trek so difficult. Did I choose the hardest path? I stop and rest on a small bluff looking eastward. The modern buildings of UMass, Amherst, look out of place within the landscape of plush hills and quilted farmland. Ice-age glacial sheets helped form these mountains, and a prehistoric lake, Lake Hitchcock, once covered much of the valley. I read a few Gary Snyder poems, and as I scratch in my journal, sweat drips from my brow onto the page. The constant pop, pop, pop, from the gun range below echoes off trees and boulders.

Lake Hitchcock
what was written
now illegible

I climb to the summit. It doesn’t take long, maybe a half-hour. However, it’s not the peak I meant to reach. I thought I was climbing the eastside of Mount Holyoke, which I’ve climbed several times before, but from the west. The Summit House, an old hotel perched on top of Mount Holyoke, can’t be seen from where I’m standing. I’m sure I know how to get there, but that would mean climbing down one mountain to climb up another. The hike up to this point has been exhausting; I’m not going to consider the notion. I find a granite slab to plop down on, it’s warm from the sun, but there’s shade from a pine. I chomp on an apple I had stashed in my pack. I whip the core over a rocky overhang, and think far too late that there might be hikers below.

I can’t see it, but I know the Connecticut River flows between this mountain and the city of Northampton. Because of a few pines and bushes, I see mostly sky, and possibly far off to the northwest, Mount Greylock. Others have taken advantage of the good weather, and snap photos or munch on granola bars or raisins packed in sandwich bags. I exchange pleasantries with a few, but mostly keep to myself. The truth is, I wish I was back home, writing poems or picking my banjo while the cats sleep on the bed and rocking chair as traffic, birds, and rustling leaves lull me from outside the windows. This happens often: I putz around the house feeling antsy, then push myself out the door to go to a coffee shop or bookstore, or mountain, and once I get there, I want nothing more than to race back home.

wrong mountain
a black and yellow butterfly
lands on my pant-leg

A young woman walks down a path on the north side of the mountain. She moves quickly – it looks easier than the way I came up. I head in her direction. I know I’ll need to get to the east side of the mountain, but there must be a trail that branches off of this one. The trail slopes downward, and there are the same white rectangles blazed on the trees. I don’t want to creep the woman out by following too closely, so I take my time getting to my feet, but now she’s nowhere in sight, and the path begins to climb uphill. The terrain’s rugged. At times, you have to go up to get down, but this keeps going up and up, and before I know it, I reach another summit. I don’t know what to do, except I know I don’t want to turn back. There’s a sign with an arrow: To Chmura Road. WARNING: unmarked and confusing trails.

unfamiliar path
a garter snake slithers
through the understory

I’ve never heard of Chmura Road, but it’s a road, which means it’s off the mountain. Much of the trail is deep with mud and ruts. I no longer hear traffic or the gunfire from the shooting range. On at least two occasions I discover mounds of scat too big to be from a dog, and too small to be from a horse. I look over my shoulder for bears.

I empty onto Chmura Road. I look left, I look right. A residential street with expensive homes and manicured lawns. A high school kid rides by on his mountain bike. I ask if he knows how to get to Route 116.

“116!” he exclaims. There’s surprise in his voice and he needs to pull out his phone for a map. “Well, if you head north, you’ll eventually hit Bay Road, that’ll lead to 116.” I know Bay Road. I know how far it’ll be until it connects with Route 116. “Okay, will heading south be shorter?”

“Oh yeah, it should,” he says, “but the thing is, I wouldn’t know which trails to take.”

It’s shorter. I thank him, turn south, and start walking. The road is long and I’m tired. My feet hurt. I don’t own hiking boots; all I have are steel-toe construction boots, and my big toe rubs against the metal plate where the padding inside has worn away. I don’t come across any side streets, and wonder what the kid meant by “trails.” I soon find out when the road comes to a cul-de-sac surrounded by oaks. That is, except for a gap between two trees, a path that leads back into the woods.

sound of a lawnmower
mosquito buzz
in my ear

No trail markers, but there is a fork that heads east. The sound of traffic returns and is somewhere in front of me. It has to be Route 116. I walk for a while; the trail spills out into an open field. The grass is about four feet tall, and there’s a small hill that prevents me from seeing the other side. I start to cut through the field. A dog barks, the barking gets louder, closer. I don’t know if I’m trespassing on private property, and I sure as hell don’t want to get mauled by a dog, so I turn back.

lost in the mountains
smell of cow shit
civilization near

It’s been forty-five minutes since I re-entered the woods from Chmura Road, four hours since I descended the first summit. I take another unmarked path. It ends in someone’s backyard, but I know the house, at least I’ve driven past it before, and I know the road it’s on, Bay Road, just a little farther up from where I would’ve been if I just walked the opposite direction on Chmura Road. I stagger out from behind a garage, and in the driveway, a guy works on his truck engine. I don’t acknowledge him. He glances at me, then turns back to his socket wrench.

green leaves and brown bark
lady slipper

I walk two-and-a-half miles up Bay Road, the sun beats down on my scalp. There are no trees along the road. I’ve got a large Thermos of water I’ve been reserving in my backpack. I stand off to the side of the road, unzip my pack, and take four big ice-cold gulps as family-crammed cars and commercial trucks throw warm wind in my face.

sunbaked road
honking horns
cricket chirps

I make it to Route 116 with about a half-mile to go to where my car is parked. Out of the corner of my eye, on the other side of the guardrail, a rabbit chews on grass. It watches me for a moment, then turns and hops into the underbrush. Besides a garter snake, a few birds, and some insects, this is the only wildlife I’ve seen all day.

rabbit under
proceed with caution sign
beer cans in the weeds

I reach my car, collapse on the driver’s seat, drain what’s left in my water bottle, and drive the thirty minutes home. Inside my apartment, I sink into my swivel chair to peel off my muddy boots. I hesitate, frightened of what condition my feet are in – am I going to have a sock full of blood? I’m sure I’ve got a blister begging to burst. I slip off my damp socks and discover only a small blister under my big toe. I pull off my shirt. There’s a deer tick firmly attached under my left armpit. I pluck it off and flush it down the toilet. Lyme Disease crosses my mind, but I’m too spent to think about it.

Days pass. I don’t see the infamous bulls-eye rash. A week later, I wake up with a headache. I diagnose myself as going through caffeine withdrawal since I haven’t had my coffee yet, but after my third cup, I still have a headache. I must be dehydrated. I drink water, pop a couple of Advil.

Memorial Day. I help a friend plant his garden. We rip weeds out of the ground, aerate the soil before we plant carrots, tomatoes, pole beans, swiss chard, peppers, onions, and herbs like basil, rosemary, and dill. While we work, I tell him about my mishap on the mountain. Later, we drink cold beer on his porch, shake our heads in disgust as we talk about our President, and watch my friend’s two young daughters play in the yard.

empty water gun
two clouds slug
across the sky

The next morning I’m achy, especially in my shoulders and neck. It feels like someone whacked me with a 2x4. I must be getting old, or I moved the wrong way when tilling the garden with a pitchfork. I’m freezing. Another cold spring morning. A hot shower will revitalize me. I walk into the bathroom, and catch myself in the mirror above the sink, see a bulls-eye rash under my arm. My thermostat reads seventy-four degrees. I’m shivering. I’m not cold, I have the chills. I’m not sore from gardening, and the headache had nothing to do with a lack of coffee. It’s Lyme. I call my doctor; the receptionist fits me in for a late morning appointment. I strip off my boxers, and step inside the shower. As the water massages my sore neck and back, I think about all the indoor activities I can do during the summer.

air conditioner
birch leaves rustle
outside the closed windows