by S. Nadja Zajdman
One early autumn, I joined a hiking club. My intention was to find a way into nature. I don’t own a car. The most I hoped for was to sit quietly on the school bus as it transported our group of active senior citizens into the countryside. I still pay full price for everything, so I don’t know how I’ve come to be considered a senior citizen, but in certain milieu, I am. Perhaps I am a junior senior.
On that first Friday morning I arrived at the meeting point, and a member of the club noticed me hanging back in a corner, clutching my new knapsack. I was more nervous that morning than on my first day of kindergarten “Come on in!” She called. “The water’s fine!” The lady wasn’t lying. On the bus, I discovered that I could comfortably socialize.
On the trails, I was startled to discover how frightened I had become of downward slopes. As I stiffened and inched along, a hand reached from behind, gently nudging the back side of my forearm and guiding my direction. “Why are you afraid?” The warm male voice of one of the fitness trainers who lead these outings asked. Why, indeed? I came to think of these trainers as good shepherds who will not allow a lamb to slip over the side of a hill. Beguiled by the beauty of the views, at first I moved forward tentatively, later with budding assurance. And though I sometimes tripped over the exposed root of an ancient maple, I was always grateful to be out in nature breathing cedar-scented air. Lunchtime would find me stretched out on a rock or a dock or a picnic bench by a rushing gorge or a sun-dappled lake.
When autumn turned to winter, we strapped snowshoes onto our boots, and the lunches we carried in our knapsacks were consumed in huts, by the amber-coloured flames of logs burning in wood stoves. The first time I put on snowshoes, I felt like I would topple over. “Stomp, Sharon, stomp your feet!” The head shepherd instructed. “The reason you feel like you’re falling is because you aren’t stepping forcefully. The snowshoes have clamps. They’ll bite the ground and hold you up. Stomp, Sharon! Stomp!” So I stomped and I clomped, feeling like the Abominable Snowman. Climbing uphill was hard, but not frightening. The effort felt familiar. In a sense, I’ve been climbing uphill all my life.
Sometimes we tramped in open meadows surrounded by taupe-coloured trees, and sometimes we edged our way through narrow paths in a snow-laden glade I dubbed The Land of Sugar-Frosted Pines. Once, we entered a region in the Laurentians called Farhills. These hills were not only far, but steep. On one hill, all my fellow hikers had to be helped down the icy and treacherous trail, so what chance did I have? When my turn came, I gauged the conditions and made my choice. “Screw this.” A fine line separates courage from stupidity, and I was on the verge of crossing it. I plunked down onto the ground, raised my snow-shoe clad feet in the air, tossed my hiking sticks away from me, shoved at the snow with my gloves, and whizzed down the slope, the ice under my bottom turning me into a human toboggan. Two alarmed female shepherds dashed down the hill—they were the only ones capable of doing so. “Sharon! Are you alright?!”
I thrust out my arms and exulted, through crystallized breath, “It’s the only way to travel!”
Having flown down the hill literally by the seat of my pants, I faced another challenge. How to stand up? My feet flailed in the air. They were trapped in the snowshoes. “I need to get these things off.” I assumed. “No you don’t,” the shepherds corrected. “We’ll get you on your feet.”
“You can’t!” I bleated. “I’m too heavy.”
“Oh yes we can!” Shepherd Annette positioned herself on one side of me. Shepherd Annie positioned herself on the other. “As we lift, you push. Push from your knees, Sharon! Push!” So saying, they heaved, I ho-ed, and up I sprang! I grinned at the good shepherds in admiration and awe. Not only was I on my feet; I was also smiling.
By late afternoon we were back in the city. I returned to my apartment, soaked in a warm, sea-salted bath, and in sweet exhaustion fell into bed. My body burned, my muscles ached, and I slept like one of the logs that occasionally blocked our paths on the hiking trails.