Afoot in Connecticut, is a love letter to this often overlooked region of America, an inspirational story that will have you taking to the trails and the greenways, along the beaches and mountaintops, and into a land full of transformation, of beauty, and of strength.
This week we offer an excerpt from Chapter 9: Deliberation and Accident.
Driving in to the trailhead, Chris and I passed the inland beachgoers who were soaking up the sun on the shore of the lake. But we were not here for lazing on the sand, we were here to hike about eight miles into the surprisingly empty quarter between the Connecticut River and New Haven. Immediately, I made a wrong turn in the jumble of temporary paths and lost the proper trail. But Chris forged ahead, unfazed by the lack of blazes. He told me stories of his days with the forest service as we wandered on ancient logging roads and horse trails, one of which finally dead-ended at private land. Backtracking, I marveled at the complexity of this trail system, none of which was on the map. How many more areas like this was I missing by staying on the blazed trails?
An hour and a half later we found the blue trail, which ran parallel to the perfectly good path we had taken out of the Cockaponset labyrinth. Continuing, we discovered a miniature toad near a five-foot high property wall in excellent condition. Just there we met a couple missing a brown Labrador named Buck. “He’s always running off like this, but we can’t find him at all this time,” the tie-dyed man told us. “We’ll keep our eyes open,” Chris assured them. We stopped at a junction marked “6” and realized that we’d only came a few miles on the planned route, though far more than that as the wolf runs. As we sat there, contemplating how we had gone astray, Buck the brown lab came whuffling down a hill and approached us, tail wagging. Chris rigged a leash out of his jacket, fed Buck jerky and water, and whistled for the couple. A family wandered by and miraculously had just found a rope, which promptly replaced the jacket. “How lucky!” the mother of the family exclaimed.
Then, our decision made for us by necessity, we headed back towards the trailhead. Just then the owner ran breathlessly up the trail, having heard our far-away whistling. “Thank you so much,” he gasped. “Keep the rope,” Chris chuckled. As our new friend Buck trotted along next to his master, he looked decidedly smug. He had an adventure, probably better than ours, all by getting himself lost.
I briefly thought about retracing and continuing, attempting to stick to my original plan, but instead we walked contemplatively back along the lakeside. Small fishing boats puttered about in the tiny coves. Suddenly, two children popped out of the brush, one scared little boy eyeing us with apprehension. His older brother reassured him, “They’re just hikers. You’re just hikers, right?” I was tempted to say, “No!” and give them a fun and scary adventure of their own, but didn’t. Who knows if their parents would have taken it as well as they would have. Adults have often forgotten the lure of the unknown that every day of childhood brings. And that is what was lost when I planned out my hikes too carefully…the sense of adventure, the mapping of the unknown, the happy accidents of experience.
With this lesson in mind, I decided to try something new one day at the Larsen Nature Sanctuary. Instead of marking my goal as a distance to be traversed or a finish line to reach, I decided my goal would be to see wildlife, taking a random route through the maze of trails. I was there for a “slow walk,” treading softly, staying silent. I brought no walking stick, wanting both hands free for my binoculars.
A corridor of red maples, eastern hemlock, Norway spruce, and yellow birch led me into a wonderland. Step by step I crept through the September woods, to where a black-tailed young stag browsed. We stared at each other for ten minutes until he moved deeper into the forest.
I tried defocusing my eyes to catch movement, letting my feet see the ground ahead. It worked and I saw a doe chewing twigs and leaves. Her black muzzle pointed to me, but her pink ears swiveled to catch sound from other directions. The trees swayed in the wind and a golden beam of sunlight burnished her with a chestnut-orange hue. I stayed there for longer than I usually would, mind-melding with her, then slow-walked past, looking in another direction to ease her mind.
I practiced not snapping twigs with my usually clumsy feet. I passed one of the two-hundred-year-old stone walls that crisscrossed the property and entered a brilliant sunlit meadow, full of yellow honeysuckle and goldenrod. Insects chattered and hummed. I explored a small side trail and found a horse farm packed with brown and white stallions and mares. Squirrels prattled at me, giant blue dragonflies spun through the air, and a hawk wheeled above the meadow. Details! I always told my students to pay attention to them and now I was learning the same lesson. I sniffed out faint deer trails, bird houses on poles, and thickets full of bird life. They startled and flew out as I passed.
Then, due to a momentary lapse of attention, I missed four deer flanking the path. With a mighty snort the leader commanded the others off into the forest. I had to be more careful. One brave young stag stayed by the path and I watched him for a while. New horns sprouted from the young deer’s skull and he eyed me uncertainly. Then, an entire herd appeared along a long stone wall. I stayed for about half an hour, then continued down a long boardwalk, carefully avoiding dried leaves and twigs.
As I wandered through the sanctuary, I reached a wild pond, covered in a thin layer of green slime. I studied a small red dragonfly, noting yellow at the base of its wings, tiny spots, and a large black head. Wood duck boxes poked out of the pond and a few of their inhabitants dipped wet bills into the marshy weeds. Then, in another meadow, another deer ran past me. These nature sanctuaries weren’t exactly wild places, but they certainly were full of wild life! I headed down a country lane flanked by stone walls and ferns, the remnants of an ancient town road, crossing a pipeline corridor and thinking of how tempting it would be to follow these around the state on an alternate web.
A flicker of movement to my right. I scanned the woods. Six wild turkeys! I studied them with my binoculars until they moved behind a hillock. Earlier, I had decided not to go off-trail in this nature sanctuary, but fate had other plans, allowing the path to disappear like smoke. Something, another deer no doubt, bounded through the cover far to my left. And there were those turkeys! We had taken different routes and met in a huge glade split by one of the omnipresent stone walls. They fled into the brush and I found the trail at the crumbling foundation of a house. Frogs splashed into creeks at my approach, no matter how stealthy I tried to be. Thick beech trees ruled this rare climax forest, the carvings of lovers expanding slowly in their elephantine bark.
I found a stone wall slightly off the path, sat down, and ate a lunch of sardines, chocolate, and apples. Morel mushrooms sprouted around me. I had brought a book to read, but sometimes nature is all you need to study. A chipmunk on the wall, a squirrel in the ferns, a spiderweb high in an oak tree…these were my pages and, better yet, ones I had found by accident.
After these experiences, I made getting lost on purpose one of my rituals. On a late October day I traveled up a road that a century ago was called the “Backbone Route to the North” in New Haven County. I hiked a mile or so in from a quiet suburban development on the Quinnipiac Trail. Hitting a long, grassy pipeline corridor, I turned left and up a short rise. At the top I was greeted with a grassy slope down into Cheshire with the best view of Meriden’s mighty Hanging Hills I’d ever had. Not satisfied with this diversion, I continued on the blue-trail for a bit, then shot off across a swamp, crossed the corridor again, and found a fascinating “tor” much like the ones in the moorlands of England. Twisted and cracked rock formations topped this small hill, and I imagined that hundreds of years ago, when this land was denuded of trees, the settlers felt right at home.
I was not worried about getting too far off-track, knowing that a road or house was probably right around the corner. Getting lost in the wilderness of Alaska can be a deadly experience. But here in Connecticut it is a luxury we can afford. So, I lazed on that rocky prominence and boiled water for hot chocolate with my stove. I cracked open my usual tin of sardines and a hazelnut wafer bar. Wind in the trees was the only sound in this hidden corner of the Connecticut suburbs. Sipping the last of my chocolate, I reached into my pack for a notebook when a shadow moved in the trees below. I froze and stared in the forest. A dog? But dogs made more noise. And that loping trot looked familiar…a coyote. A primal thrill went through me. My first Connecticut coyote. I had seen coyotes out west, but here! Later, I talked to a woman who lived in the nearby development and she confirmed my sighting. “We can hear them howling at night,” she told me.
Excited by the encounter, I moved off, uncertain how to find the blue trail again. I knew a coyote couldn’t hurt me, but I remained jumpy as I searched for the path, picking my way through poison ivy patches and downed tree limbs. Crash! Two deer suddenly burst from a thicket and I started, instincts kicking in, suddenly part of the great theater of the wilderness, brought there by blind accident, but full of bright purpose. Trembling, I moved onwards, searching for the way. Who knows what adventures awaited me, now that I had found the courage to lose myself here in the gaps between the suburbs.
Journeys in Natural History
by Eric D. Lehman
ISBN: 978-1-938846-07-6 | 6 x 9 | 120pgs
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