The Autumn Trail

Illustration by Glenn Wolff

When I need to be alone, I often hike a trail that follows a wooded ridge above Lake Michigan. Usually I go with some purpose in mind. Maybe it’s for exercise, which I can surely use. Or it’s to hunt for mushrooms, to harvest wild leeks, or to see if the autumn warblers are passing through on their way south. Once I went specifically in search of an ovenbird, a species of warbler that I had read favored woods like those along the trail. And sure enough, half an hour into my walk I spotted one kicking leaves aside in search of insects, just as the books described. I happily checked it off my life list.

You could argue that the best reason to hike a trail — to get outdoors in general — is for the physical and psychological benefits. Numerous studies have demonstrated empirically what most of us probably know intuitively: getting outside is good for us. It lowers blood pressure, clears the mind, enhances our sense of well-being. Regularly stepping away from the ruckus of our ordinary lives might be the best prescription for good health.

But being so purposeful all the time can become a burden. Every moment doesn’t have to be designated for self-improvement. We’re even allowed to waste a little time. I think of the words of an ancient Chinese poet discussing his excursion to the country: “I went and returned. It was nothing special.”

You could argue that the best reason to hike a trail — to get outdoors in general — is for the physical and psychological benefits.

Nothing special might be just what the doctor ordered. The pressure’s off. For once you don’t have to check off items on your to-do list. Just let the hours unspool. Let the miles unspool, too. In the process, somehow, without making a big deal about it, you settle into your true self. Whatever that is. Let’s say your unworried self, the one without ambition, anxiety, stress. It’s just you on the trail with your thoughts.

It’s funny, though, how often it happens that when we abandon our expectations, we stumble across something quite wonderful. No doubt it’s because we notice more than we realize. Our perceptions sneak up on us and slip notes into our pockets that we later discover and read. It’s as if the world can tap us on the shoulder to see if we’re paying attention. Most of the time, of course, we’re not. And that’s fine, too.

Those very thoughts were on my mind not long ago as I walked the Ridge Trail. I had just stopped at the overlook, the one spot on the trail with an unobstructed view of East Bay, and was thinking about perception and attention, and probably about work, money, mortality, or some other foolishness, when I was suddenly startled and offended — this was not my intention at all! — as hundreds of starlings, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds burst from the trees around me. The rush of their wings as they took flight sounded exactly like a sudden hard shower of rain. Somehow, I had never noticed that before. ≈

Writer Jerry Dennis and artist Glenn Wolff have been collaborating on books and other projects since the George H.W. Bush administration. Their work can be found in bookstores everywhere and at

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