Walking in the Woods

My husband, The Woodsman, has dragged me on walks in the woods a few times since we acquired this farm property. The first was a few years ago. We went trudging through the woods throughout our property, looking for … I’m not quite sure what. At one point we were visited by a pileated woodpecker, which was dramatic. These birds look straight up tropical and otherworldly with their bright red and blue coloring. They are about the size of an adult forearm and have that distinct cackle, reminiscent of the old Woody Woodpecker cartoons. So, that was cool.

On we trudged that day, this time in the woods behind our house. There, deep in the woods, we came across an ancient garbage dump where we unearthed some random tin boxes and old glass bottles that looked like a traveling salesman of yore had sold someone some elixirs or potions. Who were those people that lived here? What were their maladies? Indigestion? Snoring? Gas? Lactose intolerance? Who knows … those bottles are now vases for my kitchen windowsill and I think of their original owners whenever I fill them with wildflowers.

Another walk in the woods was in the early springtime. The Woodsman was set on finding morel mushrooms. I know exactly nothing about foraging and frankly, the whole thing scares me. I’m terrified of finding what I think are benign mushrooms only to find myself tripping for days or, you know, dead. So, we wisely enlisted the help of our farm neighbor, Johnny Cash, to keep us from danger. (Johnny knows everything about darned near everything about the great outdoors). We pecked and poked our way through the woods that spring day. I was getting more and more exasperated and bored until I noticed the beauty of the woods in springtime. Ferns and mosses pushed optimistically through the warming earth and the ground was coming alive with vernal energy. Johnny instructed us to keep an eye out for morels at the base of trees. “They look like a dog’s pecker,” he shouted through the stillness of the trees. “Oh, God,” I muttered to myself. “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to find these infernal mushrooms now.” 

“I think what we need is a good rain and then they’ll poke up,” he advised. Unfortunate wording.

We never did find morels that day, but a few days later, after a good soaking rain, Johnny reported that the morels did, you know, poke up out of the ground. He sent us a photo of some. They are oddly beautiful … if you push that dog wiener image out of your mind.

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Recently, The Woodsman was hell-bent on going on a ginseng hunt. It seems ginseng season in Ohio starts on September 1st and goes until December 1st. I was vaguely aware that ginseng has some health benefits. A quick Google search revealed that it is believed to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and manage sexual dysfunction in men. And, it’s quite valuable, too. A pound of dried ginseng goes for about $500 to $600. “Ok, you’ve got my attention,” I thought. “Let’s find some ginseng.”

So, off we went, The Woodsman, our daughter, Fauna, home for a break from graduate school and me. “We’re looking for a low plant with five leaves that has a little cluster of red berries in the center,” The Woodsman instructed. Trouble is, that describes a lot of plants on the forest floor, except for those telltale berries. We trounced into the woods, stopping every now and then to survey the ground, arms akimbo, when all of the sudden, about five minutes into our hunt, Fauna turns around and says, “Oh, isn’t this one right here?” There it was, the elusive ginseng plant, exactly matching its description. “Well, this is going to be easier than I thought!” I exclaimed. 

We promptly dug around the perimeter of the plant and gently unearthed it, per our googled instructions, plucking and replanting the red berries into the soil. “Onward!” I shouted. “Let’s find that ginseng. Mama needs a new pair of shoes!”

We trudged on for about an hour, poking and searching … finding nothing. We relocated to another section of the woods and, just like she was born to do this, Fauna found another patch. “She’s the ginseng genius! That grad school is already paying for itself!” I shouted as we gently dug those roots up, too. But by then, the oppressive heat of the day started to get to us, and the intermittent rewards were just not enough to keep us going. “It’s hotter than the Devil’s balls,” I said, quoting our esteemed farm worker and aspiring poet, Wonder Woman. (What is it about the woods that evokes off-color metaphors?)

All in all, we netted four meager ginseng roots. I think that will pay for maybe one cheap shoe for mama. But it was instructive and, when Fauna found the prizes, thrilling for a short while. 

As I write, The Woodsman is receiving two shiny new tree stands to install in the woods for the upcoming deer hunting season. Unlike the pedestrian tree stands he has now, which look like old-fashioned ski lifts, these babies look like tiny houses in the air, featuring a roof, a door, and some windows. I fear The Woodsman may take up permanent residence in one. But, given his tendency for snoring, it might not be all bad. He, his ginseng and morel mushrooms might be very happy together out there.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have morels and ginseng to seek

And miles to trudge in the stifling heat

For other random stuff to eat

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

Ginseng root, found!

Ginseng root, found!

On Walking

I’ve always been a walker. I guess I got it from my dad. He loved to go for a walk after dinner and I would often accompany him when I was little, my shorter legs taking four steps for every one of his long, six-foot-four inch tall strides. I often say I would sooner walk from here to the moon than run from here to the corner. My body just doesn’t like running. For me, walking is exercise, meditation, prayer and therapy all rolled into one.

Part of our routine on the farm is to take long walks there, through the woods, up one hill, down another, passing cornfields, yearling horses, mooing cows, babbling creeks. Winter, spring, summer, fall … it’s a gorgeous gift to be able to take in the air, walk, think, pray. The wife of The Mayor, former owner of the property, was an avid walker like me. I’d see her making her daily seven-mile loop as I would drive in. I could tell she found the same therapy in it that I do. She left us too soon, a little over a year ago. I guess God wanted to show her even better trails, but I think of her every time I walk the property with her sunny smile and friendly wave.

Just after we acquired the farm property I had a chance to take an epic walk of a lifetime: El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I had heard of this centuries old pilgrimage – The Way of St. James – years ago from my college roommate. The entire Camino is some 400 miles and stretches from the southern border of France, over the Pyrenees Mountains and across the top of Spain to Santiago, the supposed burial site of St. James. I love a long walk, so I was intrigued.

Then came a little movie called The Way about The Camino, starring Martin Sheen. The day after I saw the movie, I was in the parking lot of my local grocery store, looking up details on The Camino: Where is it? How long does it take? How can I do this? But I was in a hurry, so I put my phone away and ran into the store, right into my friend, Gidget. “Hey, long time no see! Listen,” she said to me over the cantaloupes. “Do you know what the Camino is?” Me: “Um, yeah, I literally was just in my car…” Her: “Do you want to go on it with me? I’m putting together a group.” Me: “Um, yeah. I’m in.”

Fast-forward four years. I have now been on three different versions of the Camino with a group of women who also love to walk … and drink wine, eat cheese, and most importantly, laugh, laugh, laugh. I could literally write pages on each journey. Suffice it to say that real pilgrims carry all that they need for the month-long journey on their back and sleep in humble alburges or roadside hostels with dozens of other pilgrims along the way. Well, our Camino is a bit more Camino Light and we are The Housewives of the Camino. The first Camino was four years ago and was a journey of the last 100 miles of the Camino. It was amazing beyond belief. I found myself smiling all day every day, in spite of aching feet and tired legs each night. Some of my favorite times were when I was walking alone across the countryside, my Camino sisters either ahead or behind me, and just listening to the breeze through the trees and the sound of a lonesome cowbell. I even had a little miracle when, after a day of silently praying and chatting with my deceased mother and asking her for a sign that all is well, I came across her name, MARGE, scrawled across a bridge I was walking under. It took my breath away, making me laugh and cry at the same time because it was so my mom: not subtle at all. It was awesome.

Camino II was Camino del Norte, a 90 mile walk through Basque Country in northern Spain, ending in the tony village of San Sebastian, home of the most Michelin rated restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. You’re damned straight we visited one of those restaurants (feeling very, very underdressed in our Eddie Bauer travel dresses).  I have a fistful of toothbrushes from the fancy bathroom there to prove we were there (Stay classy, me.) That trip included an impromptu private mass in the home of St. Ignatius of Loyola, just outside of San Sebastian. A couple of Camino Sisters and I went rogue one day and did a side trip to Loyola, arriving at Ignatius’ home about a half hour before closing. We did a quick trip up one, two, three flights and stumbled upon a chapel on the third floor, just as the priest, Gaston, was setting up mass. After we finished singing “No one prays like Gaston, no one stays like Gaston, my what a guy … Gaston!” we settled in for mass, ended up being moved to tears at how lovely, holy and special the occasion was …  and then, at his suggestion, taking selfies in the chapel with Gaston and almost getting locked into the basilica in Loyola.

I just got back from Camino III, El Camino Portugués, a 90-mile seaside hike up the west coast of Portugal and Galicia, Spain. Once again, it was perfection. Miles and miles of breathtaking scenery were enjoyed on roads, walking paths and from my perch in the front of our little bus alongside an equally nauseous Camino Sister (we cannot handle the motion in the back of the bus). The eleven us definitely boosted the wine, cheese and tile economy while there (You’re welcome, Portugal and Spain.)  This walk included walking between, into and through many, many wineries. Our favorite had to be the one in Argo, Spain, where we met The Most Interesting Man in Spain. This guy loves his job, his country, his wine … and definitely loves the ladies. So, he was thrilled to have eleven middle-aged American women for wine Show and Tell. He poured his wine liberally, told us obscenity-laced stories of his father, the founder and gave us plenty of cheese, ham, olives and bread. As we left, we each got a big hug and a kiss from The Most Interesting Man in Spain. I'm pretty sure he slipped some of us his tongue and grabbed some ass. That night was marked by a much-anticipated (and feared) dinner of local eel back at our 17th Century manor. Not enough wine was consumed all day or at dinner to make that eel palatable, but I could see that the cook was offended by our pinched faces, so I choked that sucker back as best I could. I swear, I’m still burping up eel today, two weeks later. Not the souvenir I had planned to bring back with me.

And so, I’m back in my Real Life now. It’s good to go away. It’s good to come home, visions of long walks, tapas and wine dancing in my head. While I was gone, two cousins and a good friend passed away, and there was a cousin wedding and a nephew wedding. Life and Death keep coming. Joys and sorrows continue. All of it only reinforces in me the importance of cherishing my walks, be they around the neighborhood, at the farm, or on far-flung paths. When I’m faced with the inevitable obstacles to happiness, fulfillment and peace, I keep visualizing those walks in my mind and I walk on, searching for my own faith, meaning, inspiration, hope, sanity. All will be well. One step at a time. As they say on the pilgrimage, ¡Buen Camino! Enjoy the journey. 

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

Walk on ...