Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Walk in the Parks

Life's not always easy, but Saturday afternoon was a walk in the parks.

At college, life can sometimes become stuffy and routine, filled with books and work but little spontaneity and adventure. The same can be said of any occupation, and I know it'll probably get worse when I'm out in "the real world," so I'm trying to start making a habit of staying out of emotional and spiritual ruts.

With gas prices so high, Katy and I were both too poor to afford making the three-hour haul from Athens to Columbus, or vice-versa. That left me with a weekend by myself, which gave me a few options. I could use this alone time to get ahead on schoolwork for finals week. Or I could finish some things I've been wanting to get done for a long time.

Given that I've always had a problem with procrastination, I figured I'd put off the first option in favor of the second one, which mostly entailed getting outside somewhere and doing some writing. I wanted to finish my narrative about a China trip I took more than a year ago, some of which I've written about on this blog.

So I woke up early, made some homemade donuts for breakfast, packed my water bottle and notebooks and textbooks (mostly just to put some weight on my back while hiking) and set off on an adventure.

Aside from the night scene downtown, Athens, Ga. seems like a great place to raise a family. There are parks galore, many of which offer an outdoor experience right in the middle of the city. Gas prices had killed my desire to venture much farther than the city limits, so places like the Appalachian Trail were out of the question. Plus, I didn't want hiking to take up the whole day. I wanted to get some ink down on paper before I had to get back to the grind Monday.

I already had a few parks in mind, but as I searched on the internet, one particularly caught my eye. It's called Ben Burton Park, and I had never even heard of it. The informational blib on a Web site said it had a 1.2 mile trail and a great view of the shoals of the Middle Oconee River. So I decided to check it out.

When I pulled up around noon, there were no other cars in the parking lot, and a gate blocked the road from the parking lot into the park. Luckily, I wasn't planning on taking my truck in.

My truck door slammed shut, scaring a beautiful bluejay into the woods. I walked across a bridge over a rocky stream into an open, grassy area. A gravel path ran on the right side, and I could see the river to my left. The path looked boring, so I decided to walk next to the river until I found the hiking trail.

Near the riverbank, cardinals darted from tree to tree like little red fireballs, and squirrels hopped aimlessly through the grass. Big turtles rested on the rocks protruding from the water. Their ovular shells were about 10-inches in diameter, like miniature green toilet bowl coverings with a head and legs. They would stick their heads out as far as they could as if to take in the most sun possible. Although I wasn't very close, they heard my approach and slowly plopped one by one into the safety of the water.

I found the hiking trail where the green strip ended, and I happily ventured out. Although I wouldn't consider myself to be an avid outdoorsman, being outside makes me come alive. Seeing the turtles and the flitting birds was therapeutic for my heart, whose voice had been muffled by the endless drone of professors and the monotony of making sandwiches at Blimpie.

Next to the river, the trail was just slim enough not to feel too much like a city park but wide enough for an easy hike. Except for the enormous homes built on the west side of the river, an occasional cell phone tower and the hum of cars that could only be heard faintly over the river's steady churn, you'd think you were miles outside of Athens.

I saw the trail split inland, but I stayed by the river as long as possible. I saw more sun-bathing turtles on the rocks, a blue heron doing some spearfishing with its long beak, and some mallards doing their best to imitate the heron. Soon I came upon an embankment constructed by piling large, flat rocks on top of each other. The corners were too defined for this to have occurred naturally, and when I explored a bit more I found crumbled concrete and tangled steel re-bar. The structure had served some kind of human purpose, but I couldn't figure out what.

Now it serves humans in a different way: by offering an elevated view of the river. I climbed up to take a look, but two lovebirds were already there, and I didn't want to interrupt. They must have been the people I'd heard tromp past me on the path as I sat gathering my thoughts.

I took the trail until I found the park's back boundary. Conveniently, a huge tree had fallen on the barbed-wire fence, giving me easy access to a low-lying creek that emptied into the river. As I walked the creek bed, deer and raccoon tracks were everywhere. The bank was moist, and I saw places where deer hooves had slipped trying to get out of the creek bed. The water was low, so I hopped from one sandbar to another without getting my feet wet. Doing so reminded me of the days when my brother Frank and I used to walk with our friends barefooted through Upatoi's Randall Creek, catching crawdads and fleeing angry water moccasins.

After awhile, I started getting into settled territory. I saw apartment complexes through the trees on my right. Then I turned and looked left, where the remnants of a tree stand and the brick wall of a house made me realize that my trespassing had gone a little too far. I hopped down into the creekbed once again, climbing out at a place within the park boundary and next to the trail. I realized that the trail was circling back toward the entrance of the park. I took a short detour, traversing a powerline and trespassing on a cul-de-sac. Then I headed back to the entrance of the trail.

I wasn't quite ready to leave, so I decided I'd go back to the tower and sit for awhile. Maybe the lovebirds would be gone. They were, so I sat down to write down all that I'd been thinking about. A butterfly clothed in iridescent oranges and blues followed me up and kept me company. He seemed to be showing off his spring wings like the hummingbirds on Coiba. Rejoicing in his transformation, he'd flutter for a second to catch my attention, then perch on the rock in front of me as if to say, "Look how awesome these wings are!"

God had blessed me through Ben Burton Park, and Saturday was only half over...


Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds so neat...we have to go soon! Good reading.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was surfing the internet for something new and here I am at your blog. I'm quite impressed , with how you have put it all together.

I'll be coming back again.


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