Monday, August 23, 2010

What's in a Name?

Jim and I hike so much that we’ve started forgetting which trail is which. I’ve promised to put together a log book that includes space for notes to help us remember. And I’ve gotten as far as buying the binder. In the meantime, during a summer in which we’ve made good on our decision to try more new hikes, we struggle to keep them straight.

One of our tricks is to bestow names on some of our favorites: the Rhododendron Hike, the Mount Tammany Hike, the Reservoir Hike. And the one Jim longingly refers to as the Blueberry Hike. There’s no real logic to the names. Some are destinations (the Milford Village Hike.) Some refer to landmarks (the June Cemetery Hike.) But two of our most beloved trails are named for the seasonal natural wonders we encounter along the way. If we’re lucky.

I say that because one of the things we forget is exactly what time of year we need to hike these trails in order to actually see them—literally—in full flower. The Rhododendron Hike, which ranks as one of my top three trails to date, is so named because of the dense groves of wild rhododendrons that form lush canopies over large sections of the trail. They bloom for a few short weeks in the spring, and Jim has done plenty of research (including polling many a hiker whose paths we’ve crossed) to try to determine the ideal time to catch them at their peak. Only once have we hit it just right—and it was truly breathtaking. So you’d think we’d have written it down somewhere, right? Beats me where that might be.

The Blueberry Hike poses a similar challenge. Wild blueberry bushes dot many of the trail systems in northern NJ and southern NY, but nowhere have we found a more dazzling display than on this trail, which winds up and over Seven Lakes Drive near Lake Tiorati. The small, dark berries are far sweeter than their big brothers, and we believe they ripen in late summer—although we can never remember precisely when. So we target the window between late June and early July and hope for the best.

Last Sunday was August 15th and we figured we’d missed the boat. Still, we headed out with visions of scraping together a few handfuls that might have survived this sweltering summer. But how much did it really matter? Not a heck of a lot. Because the reality is that there are endless joys to be found along these trails—surprises and delights that no name can capture. That day’s trek included a surprise deer sighting, a trip through the infamous Lemon Squeeze rock formation. And intermittent rain showers that played a staccato on the leafy tree tops. Yesterday we were just looking for an easy “walk in the woods” on a damp drizzly day—and discovered an amazing well-preserved stone wall, more than a century old, that rivaled anything Andy Goldsworthy has recently engineered.

And yet—calling it The Great Wall Hike will do it such a disservice. Because “what’s in a name?” is never the whole story. “Successful.” “Strange.” “Friend.” “Musician.” “Happy.” “Vegetarian.” “Blogger.” Sure, these labels help us remember. And create a semblance of order in our minds. Maybe even our lives. But oh, how limiting they are! How inadequate. Just like this handful words I’ve scraped together.

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