Generally speaking, I like hiking. It makes me feel like a colonial settler, and that is easily one of my top 10 favorite feelings to have. In the backyard of the house I grew up in, we had a row of lilac trees that my brothers and I called “the jungle.” It doesn’t take much actual wilderness for me to imagine myself as a sort of pale, skinny, petticoat-wearing Bear Grylls of the 1700s. The main problem is that my imagination at 25 years of age is not what it was at eight or 10. Maintaining a historical façade for more than a few minutes at a time becomes uncomfortable pretty quickly these days. “I’m pretending there isn’t electricity yet” no longer holds up when a person’s roommate finds her sitting alone in the dark, lit only by the tiny flame of a brass candleholder.
So it’s only about four minutes into our hike before I realize that—though I may be wielding an excellent walking stick, and acting as though it were enhancing my experience in some way—I’m really just an adult woman wearing crappy tennis shoes, walking through a bunch of ferns for no reason. In 2012. Not even a cool, old year.
It’s also there, at the trailhead, that I was lied to for the second time. The first was at our cabin in Ely, and it was benign: one of the property owners told us a hike around Bass Lake was four miles long, when it is actually a bit over five. He also insinuated that this would be a relatively easy “four” miles, by warning us off another Boundary Waters-area hike he called “slightly treacherous.” I’m too flattered by his perception of my own sliding treacherousness scale to hold these mistaken particulars against him. Rylee, on the other hand, should know better than to tell me that each of the five miles we’d be hiking would take “about twenty minutes.”
IT IS AT THAT moment that I learn the grief cycle can also apply to wilderness outings. Rylee’s estimates as to how long any activity will take are, on average, 50 to 100 percent off the mark. I knew she was wrong, but I wanted her to be right. (Denial.) For one thing, our trail involved several climbs and descents spanning over 1,000 feet in elevation changes—these were not city miles. For another thing, I was going to need snack breaks. (Bargaining.) So though our surroundings were stunning and we had nowhere else to be, I was a little anxious. And when, after about an hour, Rylee announces that we’ve walked “about two miles,” I start to despair. Who thinks she can just instinctively know how many miles she’s walked in some forest she’s never been to? Finding out one of your hiking partners is a deranged lunatic is always at least a little depressing.
Acceptance was not willfully adopted, but rather thrust upon me by the reality of my situation: I may not always enjoy participating in activities with indeterminate conclusions, but I could either keep walking, or I could turn back alone and be eaten by a grizzly bear. (Why would I trust the Big Bear lobby when it says that grizzlies haven’t been within 50 miles of Ely for 5,000-8,000 years? The North American Bear Center is located IN Ely, for God’s sake.) Besides, the hike itself isn’t bad. The area is peacefully quiet, and the scenery dynamic. My friends and I walk through humid, dark, tree-lined paths, over open stretches of flat rock, and cross a narrow bridge over an actual bog. I have always loved a good bog.
It turns out that it’s not just me who calls up American history when surrounded by trees, either. We were walking through a particularly dense patch of oaks when my friend Colleen, upon hearing Rylee say that most of them are at least 50 years old, says, “It’s crazy that these trees have lived through the wars.” I look at her. “The Great Tree Wars of Ely, Minnesota?” I ask. I know she means wars like WWII and Vietnam, probably, but can a person say the trees “lived through” those? “You know what I mean,” she says. “People were different in the '50s—different style.” I’m having a perfectly pleasant time imagining Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson (did you know her last name in that movie was Olsson? What?) meeting not on a beach but in the Boundary Waters, playing not in the ocean but in a bog, when I hear Rylee say an illogical three-word sentence:
“Cool, a snake!”
IT’S NOT VERY BIG, I tell myself, when I peer at it through my fingers. It’s only a garter snake. Still, while my friends pause to take pictures (for reasons I cannot understand), I kind of trot ahead a few paces—just in case it turns out to be one of those large, poisonous snakes that wears a small, harmless-looking snake costume sometimes as a joke.
We walk not 100 yards more before we see a porcupine crossing our path, and while it is very cute and walks incredibly cutely, I can’t help but see him as an omen. The wildlife we’re seeing is getting larger. “I don’t want to see anything bigger on this hike, unless it is a deer,” I announce to my friends and, more generally, the forest’s inhabitants. Fortunately, the only other animal we encounter is a very friendly golden retriever named George.
A little before the halfway point, we sit down on a lakeside cliff (not too near the edge) for a snack, and we hear a sharp, throaty cry. “What the HELL was that?” asked Colleen, and the two native Minnesotans among us (Emily and I) identify it as the call of a loon, our black-and-white, red-eyed state bird. It had never occurred to me to think of that (admittedly haunting) call as something worth fearing. To me, it just sounds like home. I can’t imagine there’s a lesson in that, though.
After we’ve hiked three miles, we see a signpost marking our location on the trail, and because we finally have tangible confirmation that we are closer to the end than to the beginning, we high-five each other. Rylee tries to make a guess as to how long the rest of the hike will take, but I block it out. From here on out, I’ll be assuming that everyone is lying to me about times and distances, and, if I have to, I’ll just keep walking until I’m there.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.