I had a choice to make. The trail ran downhill through the pines, then vanished in the gunsight notch of the creek bank. I could see it pick up again
I had a choice to make. The trail ran downhill through the pines, then vanished in the gunsight notch of the creek bank. I could see it pick up again on the far side of the stream, a faint slash through the forest detritus that marked the passage of mostly beasts and a few off-the-beaten-path hikers. In between, of course, was the creek. A series of softball- and basketball-size rocks led haphazardly across the stream. They were purposefully placed. They looked slick and iffy. And tempting.
• • •
I’ve never been much of a rock-hopper. I’m not a tall guy, so short legs might have something to do with it: I’m at a slight disadvantage when it comes to leaping from stone to stone. Fording a stream by wet-wading across always seemed more appealing, and not just because I didn’t have the inseam length to land on the next rock. Rock-hopping always seemed a little like cheating, and more than cheating the river out of a good laugh. Wading a stream puts you in the middle of the action. You sense the push of the water and the way the creek acts like a living thing as it eddies and swifts along the bottom. And for bonus points, there’s the occasional heart-stopping, holy-crap-I’m-going-down feeling when your feet start to slip. That has to be the cardiovascular equivalent of a couple of laps around the gym track.
Teeter-totter across on a bunch of slick rocks, and all you can feel is the feeling of wanting this over with.
So I know I’m wading wet, but that’s not as simple as it sounds either. Shoes and socks on, or go full monty with a barefoot crossing? This stream-crossing business is complicated. Back in the day, I’d untie the boot laces and give the toes a wiggle on just about any stream, but honestly, back in the day, I didn’t have a bum knee and early-stage hip arthritis. I’ve learned to just rock on with boots on and wring socks of most of the water on the far side. That’s better than eating river cobble for lunch or checking the mail on crutches.
• • •
I check depth and current speed. There are a few large stones to avoid, to keep from twisting an ankle or entrapping my foot. Doesn’t seem to be a water moccasin in the way. Let’s go.
I find the stream bottom with both feet and stand still for just a moment. The first step, even in summer, can give your breath a catch. But that’s the way of all first steps, anywhere and everywhere, no matter where they lead.
• • •
This stream has holes that are just under waist-deep, about as deep a creek as I’d want to cross, given the way the water courses swiftly down the channel. Trout anglers feel most keenly the way streams and rivers express themselves around hips and knees and ankles, and I’m thankful that I’ve got a lot of trout miles to work with. I keep my weight slightly on the front foot. Lean just a bit: It gives you confidence that you’re actually going to make it across the water and keeps your center of gravity distributed so that your feet won’t slip apart in a tumble. Lean forward just a bit, no matter how tough the going. It’s easier to change course when you’re headed on a bearing than to start from a standstill. Which is the case with most crossings in life.
I’ve learned to rock on with boots on and wring socks of most of the water on the far side.
Thinking critically about the crossing of a stream, which is the sort of thing that afflicts mostly poets, writers, and trout fishermen, brings to mind the thought that fording a stream is like an exercise dreamed up by Heraclitus and Saint Augustine. You’ll have to bear with me for a moment on this one. We’re out here in the middle of the creek, after all, together.
It was Heraclitus who considered the complexity of the endeavor: Although you may cross the same stream, the ever-changing waters ensure that the experience will be different every time. Crossing the stream is exactly what I’m doing — and I don’t expect things to be the same. I’m trying to cross the dang thing to the other side, where the trail crosses the bluff and disappears into the beech trees. It looks pretty different over there.
And a concept often attributed to Saint Augustine, solvitur ambulando, is pretty close to apropos as well. It’s one of my favorite dictums. It is solved by walking. A long hike or even a three-mile dog romp around the neighborhood always seems to unstick the sticky problems. There’s something about the metronomic cadence of putting Pat in front of Charlie with Pat coming back up from behind that helps clear the mind and clear a path around an obstacle.
Which is not unlike the crossing of a creek. I pick my way across slowly, leaning into each step, letting my boot soles slide off the top of each slick underwater rock to find purchase in the sandy bottom. I solve the puzzle, step by literal step. I chart a course below the big rocks where the water quickens in the shallows, to take advantage of the downstream eddies. And at times, in the deeper places where I can’t read the stream bottom and I’m not quite sure where next to place my feet, I step anyway, with a faith rooted in the fact that I’ve come this far without a dunking.
Like the proverbial chicken, I get to the other side and scale the bank, slipping on slick mud creased with deer tracks and raccoon prints. I’m not the only one who recognized a good crossing. I wring out my socks, brush off my mud-caked feet, and saddle back up. I don’t know what’s at the end of this trail, but I intend to find it.