|Beautiful skyward reflections in Ridley Creek.|
The parking lot was full, but the map box on the sign board was empty. I didn't even get out of the car, feeling dejected. I didn't know where other trails in the park started and hadn't downloaded maps using my Pocket Ranger app in advance. I drove out of the lot and back on to Gradyville Road, heading northeast and hoping to find a pull-out parking spot near a bridge that crosses Ridley Creek. Even standing on a bridge looking at the creek sounded wonderful at that point.
As I approached the bridge, I didn't see a spot to stop, but just past the bridge, I found exactly what I was looking for - a cleared area covered in gravel, barely large enough for three or four vehicles. I didn't know it at the time, but I'd found a trailhead for a secluded one-mile ballon-style footpath. Dubbed simply the "orange trail" on the park map, it travels along the creek for 1/2-3/4 of a mile, loops around and climbs a bit, then descends back to the creek for a 1/4 mile back to the parking area.
I wiped exposed skin down with Natrapel 8 Hour Wipes,(which work wonders and smell great), threw on my L.L. Bean Stowaway Day Pack, and started walking. It smelled like autumn. It felt as though my body was breathing one giant sigh of relief with every step. At one point, I stopped in the middle of the trail, closed my eyes, and just listened. The sound of twigs crunching under my feet was silenced while a cool breeze ruffled the leaves above me and little birds called out warnings of my approach. Such a perfect moment. And in that moment, I felt sad.
Sad because when it's so easy to find a moment like that in the woods, even 16 miles away from one of the biggest cities in the country, I don't go in search of them often enough. I wrote an article for Eastern Mountain Sports making the case for normal-sized adventures, and yet sometimes, it still feels as though the only adventures worth sharing need to be bigger than my little walk along Ridley Creek. But, as evidenced by how I felt in that moment, you simply don't have to go to an exotic destination to be restored by nature. Sometimes, I forget that.
Further down the trail, a massive tree had fallen completely across the creek, making a giant, slippery bridge. As I navigated down the bank and on to the tree bridge, I forgot my melancholy and remembered what it was like to find joy in exploring. I hopped along the tree, catching a glimpse of a northern water snake swimming for cover and fish flapping their fins to keep from being swept downstream. I sat down on the creek bed and listened to the water. Crossing back over the tree and on to the orange trail, I made a game of trying to move completely silently to avoid disturbing a fly fisherman in the creek and a photographer on the opposite bank. They were the only people I saw or heard on the trail that afternoon. After an hour of exploring, I turned back toward the car, with senses heightened, sand in my shoes and a feeling of contentment.
I'd been to Ridley Creek before, but the combination of finding the new trail, hiking it alone, and the sweet autumn air made for a uniquely special afternoon. I definitely asked myself the all too familiar, "why don't I do this more often?" question. The answer is usually related to the fact that I still believe, at least a little, that if it's not at least full day hike far from home, it's not worth doing. But that's simply not true. Even small adventures, if I give my mind permission to wander and my imagination permission to do what it does best, 3/4 of a mile of trail is all I need.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? How much time to you need to spend in nature to feel restored? Where is your favorite place to go? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!