I was feeling a little peopled out. Emily, the temptress kitty, lay contorted at my side, a big anthropomorphic smile on her face, lulling me into a state of do nothingness. But, I had already determined that I would not let a rare low-humidity summer day go to waste. My feet would set foot in Maryland dirt before the day was done. I had no idea it was about to be a good hike spoiled.
I haven’t been exercising enough lately. I have been fighting a growing depression over the state of my career. I need to be pitching more, I need more clients, I need more energy to spend all the time I do pitching and finding clients to actually do any writing. Despite all efforts to explain the concept of being a freelancer, people running volunteer organizations stop listening after they hear ‘free’ and assume that because I don’t have a punch clock and a 401k, I can be Johnny on the Spot and do anything that’s needed on a moment’s notice. Most of my friends and family seem to be in a constant state of disarray. I’ve been feeling stretched and depressed and a little desperate for things to change for the better. But change wasn’t going to happen this particular Saturday, so Cunningham Falls would fulfill my desire to get on a trail, be near water while not being too far from home, and good, but not too strenuous exercise.
Except… it was 4th of July weekend. And the only day of the weekend that was going to be sunny. And Cunningham Falls State Park actually also has a big lake – an uncommon feature of Central Maryland. And picnic areas. And a BIG parking lot.
Do you know where people in Central Maryland go on 4th of July weekend when it’s a beautiful day? Cunningham Falls State Park. The parking lot was jam-packed. The space down by the lake was a mob scene. There was music blasting. Every picnic table was claimed and a steady stream of flip-flopped, bathing suited beach goers was heading to and from the falls I had been so excited to see. In peace and quiet. Alone. I had thought I might even meditate at them. HA!
I had come all this way – I was going anyway. Right behind the guy smoking the cigarette. On a nature trail. Right ahead of me. Oh look! Something (anything!) to take a picture of! I found something or two to take a picture of to give Smoky a little breathing room. Disappointment was slowly turning to disgust.
Two couples came up behind me. I turned to catch a glance at them as they passed by – just long enough to read the t-shirt of one of the boys: “They hate us, they hate the US.” Smokers, bigots… what could possibly be next on this short 1-mile loop?!
I tried to shake my disdain for this hike. I kept moving forward, thinking it was the perfect opportunity to practice letting go of attachment. We seek out experiences, expecting them to have very specific details and outcomes. We cling to those expectations – if I drink this wine, I’m going to catch a buzz, loosen up and have some fun. But sometimes that wine hits us funny and we find ourselves praying to the porcelain god, wondering what happened, wishing it hadn’t, and dreading the next day or two of hangover symptoms. I go hiking expecting to become one with my environment – to feel the green and sunlight course through my veins, breathed deep into my lungs. I expect to hear things, smell things, get some good exercise. That wasn’t going to happen today, so I worked at letting it go, at not judging the smokers and bigots, at permitting all these people to enjoy the forest too – or… you know, do whatever it was they were doing, since it really was just too crowded and noisy to commune with nature.
Then I reached the falls and all efforts to let go evaporated in the steam coming out of my ears.
The first thing I noticed was the shear number of people. Seriously, I might as well have gone to the mall. The second was this big sign, prominently located to the right of the boardwalk that led to an observation deck where one could safely take in the falls without impacting the fragile ecosystem. The sign specifically said ‘do not cross the stream, trail ends at boardwalk, crossing stream degrades water quality and plant life’. It warned against climbing the rock face that the waterfall was flowing down. I silently grumbled at the number of people who were walking right past the sign, climbing over fallen trees and over rocks, into the stream with their puppies, beelining straight for the rock face. I could only grumble internally when I reached the observation deck at the end of the boardwalk and couldn’t get a good picture of the falls because of the 100 or so people who had climbed up the rock face.
The situational Tourettes inner dialogue fired up… fuck you. Fuck 4th of July. Fuck holiday weekends. Fuck Maryland. Fuck every smoking, bigoted, ignorant motherfucker that was contributing to the degradation of this beautiful treasure. And WHERE WERE THE RANGERS?!?! Not a one in sight to control this. Given the condition of the rock face where the water wasn’t flowing, this crowd was not doing anything unusual. I was the loser for honoring the rules. Fuck this. I’m out of here. I’m going to pick up a 6 pack and go home and curl up and forget this fucktard idea had ever entered my mind.
I’m even going to take the more challenging ‘cliff trail’ since I know most of these out of shape smoking bigots won’t be bothered to do anything strenuous, like take the cliff trail.
And then it happened.
I was able to get up out of the sea of humanity, onto a trail that more serious hikers were taking. You know – the nice people. The ones that you WANT to make eye contact with and say hello to as you pass. The ones who use their ‘forest voice’ when breaking the meditative silence of a hike to say something to each other. I got 42 seconds where the only voices I could hear were of the birds chattering to each other, high in the trees. 42 seconds of bliss. I even got my sense of humor back when I saw the face in the giant boulder!
In those 42 seconds and in the remaining minutes before I returned to the mall parking lot, I really called myself on getting all worked up over my expectations. There was a lot wrong with what I saw and experienced on that hike – legitimately. But my bad attitude and bad mood was about me. It was my choice to cling to a specific set of experiences and get flustered when they didn’t happen. It was my choice to judge everyone around me because they weren’t seasoned hikers who know about saying ‘hi’ and… not smoking when you’re out in nature.
And when I realized I was making all those choices, I changed my perspective. I was out in nature, the one place I can just be – with or without people.