Elizabeth and I stopped at South Mountain Reservation for a quick hike this morning. We started from a hilltop overlook at 8:30. It was 38 degrees. A fierce wind blew through the trees, sending them swaying with each gust. Wind-blown drizzle threatened to soak anything that wasn’t waterproof. A thick layer of clouds drifted overhead. The trees were dark and wet from the rain.
One of the largest metropolitan areas in the country lay to our east. Newark, Jersey City, and New York City were right in front of us, but we couldn’t see them. We saw only a tree-lined grid of residential streets fading into a dull fog.
We turned into the woods and started hiking. After just a few steps, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my shoes dry. Last night’s steady rain had turned the snow on the ground into two inches of slush. Snow in the depressions had turned into ponds of gray water. My ultralight trail runners recently failed me in the snow, and now they would fail me again. Well, rather than tiptoe around trying not to get my feet wet, I plodded ahead and got them soaked right away. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore.
Elizabeth was wiser. She had wool socks and insulated shoes and kept off the wetter parts of the trail. This tactic would keep her feet dry for nearly an hour.
The only map I had for the park was hand-drawn. I began with no faith in its network of unnamed trails, but my trust in it increased with each intersection I identified. I was even able to hike cross-country from one trail to another.
I don’t know if the forest was old growth, but it was certainly mature. Big, old trees had polished stumps from branches they’d lost long ago. Fallen trees were rotting and had their roots kicked up, leaving pits where they’d grown. Again, as at Hartshorne Woods, I was able to recognize the more familiar tree species by their bark.
We didn’t have much time, since we needed to drive on to Pennsylvania. Before turning around, we stopped next to a pretty stream. We listened to its trickling and the songs of a few chickadees.
Satisfied with my navigating abilities, I chose a different route for our return. Everything went fine until I started seeing intersections I didn’t expect. After ten minutes of this I admitted to myself, as well as Elizabeth, that we were lost. She was having fun in the snow and was genuinely unconcerned by the news. Which way was our car? The forest looked the same in every direction. Which way was north? The sun was in the southeast, but I couldn’t see it through the clouds. I had a compass, too, but I didn’t feel like getting it out.
I considered returning to the last point where I was certain of my location. Then I remembered the ridge on the other side of the reservation, which I’d seen when we started, and which I knew ran north-northwest. Our car was opposite that ridge.
We stayed on the trail. I saw a road through the trees, but it was too busy to be the one on which we’d parked. I checked my map: it was the main road through the park, which meant that our road couldn’t be far. At the next intersection, I was able to figure out where we were. Getting back to the car would be quick and easy. We were done with our hike at 10.
My feet hadn’t bothered me much, but that was because they’d gone numb. In the car, I took off my shoes to replace my wet socks with dry socks. But putting socks on my feet was like putting socks on a cadaver. I couldn’t wiggle my toes. My skin was pale and clammy. I thought this was a compelling argument for waterproof shoes with high tops, but the truth is I wouldn’t hike in these conditions again for at least a year. I drove away and warmed my feet under the car’s heater. That would do for now.