On Winter, Change, and Loving the Trail

Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park – Columbus, Ohio

December 5, 2021

I spend a lot of time hating on winter. I had a rough adjustment back to Ohio and Kentucky winters after living in Arizona for three and a half years, and I think that first shock has stayed with me. But over the past two years I’ve remembered that winter is a cozy time, a season of waiting and resting. I’ve grown to appreciate its quiet and its healing.

It’s a Sunday evening in early December. I’m at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park southwest of Columbus, and I just finished a short trail run in the waning daylight. The air here is fresh and sharp. Apart from a few other people meandering on the trails, I am alone.

The creek gurgles peacefully a few feet from the path. I see a white (albino?) squirrel climbing a tree branch. I’ve never seen a white squirrel before, and I’m transfixed. I stand and watch it until it scuttles out of sight. As I look on, I pay attention to the forest’s sounds: the squirrels thrashing the leaves around, the birds twittering quietly in the trees. Everything is active, scurrying, preparing to hunker down.

I’m going through a tough time right now—a time of end, change, and transition. My relationship of two years just ended. Now the semester is about to come to a close. And in a month, my lease will be up, and I will move home to Kentucky. Again.

Not a great picture, but it’s the albino squirrel!

As I stand on the path at Battelle Darby, I think about what I have lost and what I have given up. It hurts tonight. It doesn’t always hurt, but tonight it does. The last time I was here I was probably with him. I’m lonely.

I was supposed to go to a concert with one of my friends tonight, but he called me and explained that he was exposed to covid yesterday, so he did the responsible thing and cancelled. I texted two other friends asking if they wanted to hang out, but they were both busy. My emotional reaction surprised me. I was smacked with a wave of depression. I don’t think I was fully aware of how much I was looking forward to the social interaction. I started feeling pathetically lonely and sorry for myself, like there was no one around me and I would never have a friend group again.

But then I pulled myself together. I decided I would take the unexpected free time to come down here to this park by the creek and remember who I am. 

It feels like I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of years in between, waiting, not really feeling like a fully formed human. I feel like I don’t deserve to be 28 and living how I live. I don’t feel as confident in my interactions as I used to, and when I am here in Ohio, smack-dab in the center of normal, middle-class, full-time-job America, I am self-conscious about my life.

It is a very absurd, low-budget, trail-centric life. I save all the money I can and eat like a college student to fuel my adventure fund. I’m teaching an overload at my adjunct job on top of two other positions just to funnel savings towards my PCT and CDT thru-hikes. I’m never fully in one place; I am always thinking about the trail and what I have to do to get there.

Railroad over Big Darby Creek

I feel poor and stupid when I think about it sometimes. I could have a real job with benefits and actual useful health insurance. It seems like all my friends are being real adults, contributing, not scraping by to save up for an adventure. They have solid friend groups, and they like normal things like shopping and going to the gym and dogs and having a long-term life partner.

I wonder what’s wrong with me sometimes. I wonder what this thing is inside me that makes me want to sacrifice so much on the altar of long-distance hiking. I start doubting if this is really the path I want to take, and I consider applying for “real” jobs. The shoulds start flooding in: I should be making more money. I should try harder. I should contribute more to my field. I should go to a conference. I should have more friends. On and on and on. I feel like a piece of trash caught in the wind. (Cue the Katy Perry.)

But then. But then.

All it takes is driving half an hour south of Columbus, getting out of my car, and walking into the woods. All it takes is hearing the gurgle of a creek, watching an albino squirrel climb a tree, feeling the pull of gravity on my quads when I run up a hill. All it takes is one breath of a trail—literally any trail—and it all makes sense again.

When I am outside, in the woods, surrounded by trees and water and the open air, that all goes away and I remember why I want to do this. I remember the simple focused spirit of moving from one place to another, and I think I will never be as hungry for anything—not a friend, not a mate, not a family—as I am for the trail. 

So I will go back to Kentucky, not with my tail between my legs, but with my head held high. Does anyone in the world really care what I do? I doubt it. We are neither as important nor as unimportant as we think we are. I have a plan, and I will be fine. I have a support system, I have a dream, and I am going to hike this trail.

I am going to be okay.

Big Darby Creek

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