By Christine Woodside
When I go there now, two or three times every week, I walk to the end of one road and trudge up a broken old woods road into the state forest. I step over ruts, where puddles linger long and narrow in dirt bike tracks. All around, rock ledges left from the last glacial retreat rise up. Boulders are my favorite aspect of Connecticut. They have sat there for about 25,000 years. They seem to wait for that time when the rounds of storms and temperature will heave them up again.
As soon as the pandemic quarantine started, and it seemed that half of the population had started walking on the woods trails, I began retreating into this tract of forest near my house, avoiding busier paths.
In rural Deep River and Chester, in the lower Connecticut River Valley, the chances were low I’d run into big crowds. Yet I sought a wilder patch of backcountry. I quelled my anxiety over what social distancing could mean, and what the novel coronavirus could do. In mid-March 2020, scientists were just beginning to study the virus. They weren’t sure all the ways we could catch it or give it to each other. The government’s best advice resembled that of the flu pandemic in 1918: stay away from each other, step back if we encountered anyone, and eventually, cover our faces if we did see anyone.
And so I would slip away—retreating into a magic world I found in that oak and beech forest. This expanse is nestled on a piece of Cockaponset State Forest, west and south of Route 9, crossed by dirt roads. I started going regularly to a certain ledge in there. This ridge is by no means an unknown place to the locals. It’s just not talked about.
I walk in the woods for the reasons people announce that they do, but mostly for something else. Let’s look at the common reasons first. I love peace and quiet of the Connecticut woods. Thousands of miles of marked trails meander through the Connecticut River Valley. I like trees. Their canopies give creatures homes and shelter me from real and imagined storms of my own life. I love glimpsing a wild turkey, or a hawk, or a coyote. They are always running away from me, and that’s humbling. My presence bothers them more than they can scare me. I smile at the ubiquitous chipmunks moving in fast-forward time. And robins start their crazy loopy songs almost every time I go out. If I trudge with human companions, I know that out there we will get to the heart of things faster than on a busy road. We will speak honestly instead of chattering.
I hike for other deep motives. I go to figure things out. On the trail I don’t need words to know anything. I need to watch without any expectation of what will emerge. The great Connecticut walking-trail guru Eugene Keyarts once wrote, “At first one must learn the art of seeing, not just looking.” Keyarts wrote a little handbook, 60 Selected Short Nature Walks in Connecticut, long out of print. Each walk got two cryptic pages and a hand-drawn map. Keyarts described how to get there and what the trail looked like. Then, without a break, he let his mind wander to whatever he wanted to tell readers. He might talk about the mighty oak tree and its protein-rich acorns, or describe a dragonfly scooping up an insect on a pond’s surface—only to be eaten by a frog. Or he’d criticize humans for our natural tendencies to litter and rampage. Keyarts and his humble little green-covered paperback guide gave me my first glimpse at the extensive trail networks in this little state, to which I relocated at age 28.
I hike in the woods because sometimes I don’t know what my priorities are, and there I can think without distraction. I want to grasp how I really felt about something someone said or map out the route I’ll take to fulfill an obligation. Maybe I just feel unspecified monsters stirring up in my mind. I hike because my personal landscape emerges on the dead leaves of last year’s growth.
Hiking out my ledge in 2020 mimicked the transformation the pandemic brought to the wider world. I realized that these hikes were not a diversion, just as the coronavirus would be no temporary visitor. In fact, society changed that spring, and it will continue changing. I’m different now; I’ve changed, and my life from now on will be divided into the time before the pandemic and the time after. That spring I crossed a line into the new reality the way I hiked over the rolling dirt tracks to my ledge. And I realized that I could learn to navigate the post-pandemic world and to help those I love do the same.
I am not the only one who goes out there. I see evidence of climbers who inch their way up the front of it, and partiers who sit at the top. We aren’t that many and we don’t overlap, so this place feels personal. It’s big enough to share and still feel alone. Whenever I climb the last few yards to the top and see the skinny, twisted pitch pine branches hovering over the precipice, I feel as if I’m interrupting a meeting of the sprites. It seems as if this place knows and understands me.
Which comforts me no end. There’s a lot about the world of recreation and exploration that will change. With the pandemic, the meaning and purpose of hiking to a destination in the backcountry altered for me. Hiking is no longer pure recreation, but a balm to a soul on edge. For most of my adult life, I have explored the woods of Connecticut to connect and to recharge. Now I chose a place where the connections were all wild. Where no one would speak in language. My ledge does not feature in published hiking books. It’s not on any list of top destinations.
On my ledge, I sort out all of these feelings. Up here, time passes on a different scale, because the way I experience it falls out of expectation or measure. Getting here, I try not to match ground covered to minutes on a GPS. I try not to mark time on the clock out here, either, but I usually fail at that. Returning to a secret place over and over narrows my vision and focuses understanding into one outdoor universe four stories high, higher than any other ledge or building around here. I think it all through: I’m lucky. I am healthy and still have work, and so does my husband. Our two grown daughters, who live in California and Maryland, are holding on well. I trust that they will be OK. I worry about them the way mothers worry, but I mainly just feel love for them and think of ways to express it from a distance.
From up on the ledge, I heard wind in the trees, and birdsong. The highway less than a mile away normally occupies a piece of the background noise, but for ten weeks, I heard no distant car and truck motors. In that silence, I could understand that hundreds of thousands of people in my region could not go to work. That many had lost their jobs. That they were struggling to pay bills and get food. That children and teenagers could not go to school. And that all the normal channels to help them—therapy, churches, synagogues, mosques—had shut. In that silence a heavy weight hung over Connecticut. A new disease had afflicted many tens of thousands of people and by mid-May killed 3,449 of them.
Pitch pines grow up here. They love dry, sunny places like sand plains, and most of the sand plains in Connecticut have disappeared beneath buildings and malls. They grow slowly on ledges that face the sun in just the right way, waiting patiently for what they need, clinging to rocks and sliding their roots around to get a purchase. These trees make up .04 of 1 percent of the Connecticut forest and less than 1 percent of all the pines in the state. They are a relic of another time, when they grew more abundantly and when people cut them down for their resin-filled knots where limbs meet trunk. They were known as candlewood because those knots would start fires so neatly.
Belden C. Lane, a theology professor and backpacker, wrote in his book about the spiritual side of wilderness hiking* that just “plodding an uphill trail” migrates his mind away from panic and impulsive thoughts or actions. Lane knows that moving through the woods “evokes an intuitive way of knowing.…What the mind hardly fathoms, the body already knows.”
Walking into wild places is an act of faith. I don’t feel afraid in here because I’m used to moving through the backcountry. I know that bobcats might be denning somewhere near this ledge: from up here, they can see hares, turkeys, chipmunks, raccoons. In spring, the green and sometimes reddish buckmoth caterpillars will munch on oaks until they emerge into huge black- and red-winged creatures. Maybe I have stepped on brownish slimy caterpillars for a Gerhard’s underwing as they crunched on roots. I don’t know. The grand theater of nature hides in the wings when a human breezes through. I’m just a visitor for a moment. But none of this scares me. I feel glad I can visit this mysterious world for a while.
In spring 2020, the world suffered together through its isolation. Millions of people got sick. No vaccine or medicine could help. Populations shut themselves away or went about business tentatively, looking away from each other or crossing the street. For a few weeks, the ordeal felt temporary, but then I began to understand that this threat and our inability to stop it would not retreat quickly. The pandemic will retreat over many months while humanity learns to detect it, treat it, or avoid it.
At some point during any long ordeal, the truth rises up through all the little irritations and challenges of it, and I know that I will emerge on the other side different than before. The coronavirus has changed me, and it will continue changing me.
The first time I learned that lesson of a long difficult time was the year I walked thousands of miles with my stuff from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, following three companions. We slept on a different floor or ground every night from mid-April through early September. Our feet, backs, knees, and shoulders ached and felt bruised every day. Everything about this trip was just hard. I jumped over and slammed onto rocks, mud, roots, and pavement. My feet bruised, my shoulder blades hurt all the time from 35 to 45 pounds on my back, I smelled bad, and my gear smelled worse. It seemed, then, that we were slogging through hell—and by choice. It would have been funny, except that our feet hurt so much.
In the early days of the pandemic of 2020, I felt a little like that. On those rare days when I had to venture out in my car, if one other vehicle showed up in the rearview mirror, my breath would become shallow and my forehead knit into a ball. In the supermarket, I’d step away from the canned tomatoes, making room for three others who also intended to make spaghetti. “Sorry,” I’d say, adding, “Sorry.” They all felt like strangers. I felt strange. I didn’t know where they’ve been, and they didn’t know where I’d been. Just breathing the same air made all of us want to take a number.
But the story didn’t end with that. On the Appalachian Trail journey all those years ago, I knew somewhere around two and a half months in—say, around early July—that I had changed, permanently. I knew what I was doing. I was used to living that way, homeless and with just the basic necessities. Water from a spring and a simple meal were now all that we needed. My companions and I also knew that we would change more over the next two months until we would go back to society. I never looked at a water spigot the same again after that trip.
That’s where I am in spring 2020. My ledge has helped me change. Daily I think about happy and beautiful things, cling to routine, do work I love, feel thankful for health, work, money, food, family, and friends. We are handling it. But when it comes time to get outside, I go most often to the quiet places and especially that big rock.
Christine Woodside is a writer specializing in environmental history and personal adventure narrative. She also edits the Appalachia journal.
* Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2015).