Two of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Arkansas Ozarks is to go for trail runs and hikes. Each time I visited in the past I have gone exploring around where my aunts live. But after they discovered a bear was making its home in the forest near their house, my desire to run or hike, especially alone, decreased significantly!!
With an afternoon to kill, my aunt Jo asked if I wanted to go out to the Ozark National Forest and do a little hiking. I figured because of the heavy foot traffic around the trails, the bears would stay away from that area and I could get a hike in, even if it was a short one. Brown bears are supposedly scared of people, although I never want to test that theory while face-to-face with one — alone!
To get to the trail, you have to cross a field, take a short walk through a wooded area, then where it appears the trail ends, you jump in the creek and get across whatever way you see fit, and pick up the trail on the other side. The creek is a good 35 feet wide or more at that spot. When I crossed it for the Sylamore 25k race in 2010, the water was about waist-high, but that was in February. I didn’t think it would be that high at this time of year. But, it was every bit as high, even though it doesn’t appear that way when you first step in because it’s so clear.
When we got to the creek, I was excited to use my barely used Keen sandals I had purchased just a few weeks before. I’ve only worn them to walk to and from the train station to go to work so I was anxious to see how they would do in the water and tough terrain. Well, Aunt Jo got to conduct the first water experiment with them.
Jo, not properly dressed for the hike in terms of footwear, took off her “fancy shoes” that couldn’t get wet to cross the water. She planned to cross barefoot, but soon after she stepped in she started in with the “EEEE!!! OOOHHH!!! AAA!!! My feet can’t take the rocks!!!” I knew my feet could handle it since I had crossed the creek barefoot once before “Huckleberry Finn-style,” as one fellow runner put it during the race. I also have pretty tough feet (read: 5-inch calluses) from running.
I removed my shoes, handed them to Jo, and then held her arms to keep her balanced as she slipped them on. We slowly made our way across and once we arrived on the other side I thought I’d have to wrestle Jo to get the shoes back. She said they felt great in the water.
Once across, the next challenge was getting Jo up the side of the hill on the other side of the creek. She used to walk a lot, but because of the demands of caring for my grandmother full-time, she doesn’t get much exercise anymore, making her bad knees even weaker. There are stone stairs going up the hill, but they were installed 100 years ago, give or take, so they were not only steep, but not very level or stable. We came to the first step and Jo stopped, saying she didn’t think she would make it. I grabbed her arm, told her I’d help her, and up she went. Step by step, slowly but surely, we made up the hill.
The hiking trail is not an easy one by most anyone’s standards. Even though it did level off a bit at the top of the stairs, the trail is littered with tree roots, rocks, mud and other various obstacles. There’s also a lot of up and down. At each challenging obstacle, I grabbed Jo’s arm, helped her through it, and on we went. Since Jo loves nature like I do, I wanted her to make it at least as far as the site of a beautiful waterfall I remembered from the race. It was pretty much entirely frozen over at that time, since it was in February. I figured this time it would be dry but I knew the surrounding bluffs and rock formations would be a beautiful site that she would enjoy, making it worth the effort to get there. And I was right.
The way back got a little frightening as we were taking the same steps by the creek, but heading down this time. At one point Jo slipped and her knee started popping out in the wrong direction. At this section of the trail, one slip the wrong way and you are rolling down the side of the hill. I was holding her arms as she came down but when she said, “Oh! My knee!!” I grabbed her and just started pulling her towards me. Better she fall on me rather than down the mountain, I thought. She quickly stabilized herself but I kept a death grip on her for a few minutes as my heart pounded out of my chest. Throwing my aunt down the side of a mountain wasn’t exactly how I envisioned this hiking trip ending.
She kept apologizing that she ruined my hiking trip and that she felt awful that she wasn’t in the shape to do this stuff and that had she kept up her daily walking she would be in much better shape. It’s never too late, I told her, quoting a fact I have heard several times from various trainers and fitness buffs: anyone can get in shape within six weeks. That doesn’t mean within six weeks you’ll be at your goal weight or dress size or running a triathlon. But things you find difficult today could probably be done with little to no difficulty in six-weeks time.
I have been surprised many times at how quickly my body can become conditioned to do a certain exercise or task. When I started climbing stairs to prepare for my first mountain race, I started with just the nine floors that got me to my office. In the beginning, after those nine flights I was out of breath, heart pounding. Within a week I was doing the nine floors without as much as breaking a sweat.
Jo remember how quickly she adjusted to climbing the hills by her house and how easily she had lost it once she stopped for several weeks. She said she planned to start doing her walks a few times a week to get ready for my next visit. But, she said, she would need my shoes first. Haha … Another Keen convert. The shoes really are great and so versatile. I even ran in them comfortably. And, no, I’m not being paid or given incentives to say that. I would, however, gladly accept if Keen offered to pay me. (Hey, the shoes are great, but they ain’t cheap! 🙂 )
We finished our hike by splashing around in the creek. The water was the perfect temperature for a refreshing dip. As Jo relaxed on a large rock in the creek bed, me and my shoes went upstream to look around a bit. Later in the evening, as Jo iced her knee which was swollen the size of a softball (oops!, guess that incident on the stairs was a little more damaging that we thought!) she apologized again for “ruining” my day. The fact is, she didn’t ruin my day at all. It’s always exciting to see people do things they didn’t think they could do, and it’s an honor to help them do it. It was great to hear her say that despite her swollen knee, she felt strong and very good about what she had accomplished. Note: her swelling went down by the next day, but I told her she earned some street cred. If anyone asked what was wrong, she could tell them a hiking injury. How cool is that?!
By the way, for those keeping count: the tally for this trip is: one aunt sent down the river and another almost falling off the side of the mountain. My work here is done. 🙂 They’re never gonna have me back to visit again!