Today, we want to go hiking, but we need to drop off our recycling and we get a late start, so we want a destination that is less than a 20-minute drive. After a quick Google, the Reflection Riding jumps out as a place to explore. I’m not sure how it got it’s name–I don’t know what a riding is exactly, but I imagine it has to do with horses. Both a Nature Center and an Arboretum have found their homes there. The Nature Center participates in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and breeds them in captivity. Unfortunately, we arrived at noon and the Red Wolves were secluded in a shaded den where we didn’t get to see them. We talk to the wildlife curator when we arrive and she recommends an easy hike for a hot day.
We start out on the gravel road that can also be driven. We are not more than 5 minutes into our hike when a wild turkey appears in the woods. I drop everything to pull out my big lens and set up for a shot. Unfortunately, by the time I get my lens out, the turkey has disappeared into the brush. We walk a ways looking for it, but no luck. I give up before I get my gear set up completely and we keep walking. Of course, we spot 2 does and a fawn minutes later, but by the time I get my monopod attached to the lens, they too have gone the way of the turkey. I curse myself for missing a shot 2X in less than 5 minutes due to lack of preparedness–why would I take 20 pounds of gear on a hike and not be ready for wildlife to appear at any moment?
We walk on to a gazebo by a small pond and sit in the shade for a bit. Pat spots a turtle poking its beak through the surface of the pond who immediately disappears when I set up my camera. I spot a bird that I don’t recognize, excited that it might be a bird I’ve never seen before. I dig the binoculars out of Pat’s day pack and wait for the bird to reappear. When it finally does, it’s a Mourning Dove. I am sorely disappointed. I think I see another interesting bird by the far edge of the pond, but I can’t find it with the binoculars. Several minutes later, it flies away and I realize it was a Green Heron–another shot missed. At this point, I’m wishing I’d left all my camera gear at home!
We walk on, avoiding the poison ivy that grows abundantly by the side of the road, discovering a vegetable garden and grape arbor. The tomatoes are small and green. The grapes the same. I am reminded of friends who have been complaining about a lack of tomatoes back in Columbus and wonder if the summer was just too hot for a productive garden?
Further down the road, we find a patch of bamboo. I’m a bit shocked that an arboretum and nature center would have bamboo growing where it clearly doesn’t belong. The bamboo surrounds one remaining native evergreen, crushing it with shade and crowding it for space; I feel like I’m witnessing a still-life of war. We walk through the bamboo and experience the deep shade it provides. I like bamboo, but having spent a lot of time removing invasive species in the Walhalla Ravine, I wonder if it’s a good idea to introduce plants that don’t belong here.
We wander on, back in the sun, with the heat growing more intense. Small flying insects insist they must fly into my eyes. I am reminded of horses at pasture wearing eye covers and wondering if they make such a thing for humans? We reach the furthest point in the loop road and find a meadow with yellow wildflowers I don’t recognize. The sky is intensely blue. I switch lens and take a few shots even though the light is harsh, creating strong shadows and sharp contrasts. We take a footpath back to another gazebo. Pat finds shade on a rock wall while I climb some steps to sit in deeper shade and discover another wildflower I don’t recognize. I switch lenses again and attempt to shoot the flower while it sways in the breeze, enjoying the cooler air, but wishing the flower would hold still. I spot a Hairy Woodpecker (or maybe it’s a Downey–I can never tell how big a bird is unless I see it in comparison to another bird). Secluded in the shadows, I am unable to get a shot. Another bird sneaks behind a tree and I wonder what it could be. I wait patiently for it to expose itself, but it’s well covered behind brush and shadows. Eventually it perches in the open and I realize I’ve been tracking a robin. The Carolina Chickadees and Wrens compete vocally for my attention. They sing constantly, but I never seen a-one.
We walk on up the trail, climbing up the side of Lookout Mountain a bit. The shade grows deeper–a welcome relief. I make a mental note not to start a hike at noon in August in Chattanooga as we find some relief in the cooler shade only to be attacked by more eye-obsessed insects. The forest floor is covered with myrtle or vinca (I never could tell them apart) in parts, but the poison ivy is so prevalent that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to undertake removing the invasive ground cover. It’s beautiful none-the-less. The advantage of being out on a hot afternoon is that no one else is there. The birdsongs are disrupted only by the sounds of trains passing through the valley. We hear rustling in the leaves and look around, me immediately getting my camera ready this time. Eventually spotting the source of the noise, we are just in time to spot a gray squirrel jumping from the ground to the back of a tree, hidden from view. I wonder again why I am carrying 20 pounds of equipment. Then I remind myself that Pat is now carrying at least 10 of those pounds and probably wondering the same thing; I decide not to complain.
As we walk along, I suddenly experience a sharp, inexplicable pain in my big toe. Having landed badly on my first hill flight at hang gliding school the week before, I’m worried that I’ve re-injured myself. I stop, pull off my shoe, rub my toe trying to determine what’s wrong. After a few minutes, I give up discovering the source of pain, put my shoe back on and we continue on our way, my toe feeling just fine. I’m relieved but puzzled. A short distance later, we approach a clearing that gives us a view of the foothills in the distance. In the clearer part of the path, thick plants grow along the way. When I shuffle my feet, one of the plants wedges its way between two of my toes (in my fivefingers shoes) and I experience the same pain I had in my big toe. Mystery solved, I remove the debris, take a few shots of the scene, including a log cabin tucked between the trees below, and we move on.
We work our way further up the hill, the woods deepening and getting more quiet. I wish that we would have chosen a higher route–the shade and solitude are more enjoyable than the hot hike along the road. As we relax into the cooler, quieter setting, I experience a growing sense of peacefulness that reminds me why I hike and erases the irritations of heat and bugs. However, it turns out that we are nearing the end of our hike. The path turns downhill and we see the loop road ahead. Just then, we spot three wild turkeys. This time, I am ready. I set up my camera and start shooting. One of the turkeys seems curious about the sound of my camera. It pauses behind thin cover and plays peek-a-boo as if it thinks it’s well hidden. I congratulate myself for bringing my telephoto lens, thinking the weight was well worth it.
We return to our apartment hot and tired. I ask Pat what stood out for him from our hike. He says, “I don’t know . . . I just walked. It was hot. I walked and I sweated.” But I reflect upon the riding (yes, it’s a pun) and am glad that we went. While our first experience may not have been under optimal conditions, I know we will return there. But next time, we’ll pick a ridge trail. There is something about the woods that draws me in. Deep in the woods surrounded by the sounds of birdsongs and footsteps, the voice in my head goes silent. The experience of inner silence brings me back to the woods time and time again–after all, not even I want to listen to me all the time.