Some days last fall and winter, I pulled on my boots, my wool socks and a sturdy hat and walked with a group of fellow fitness-seekers. We are travelers who have in common only our desire to walk; our venerable walking club has been around forever, and there are a multitude of hikes to choose from during any given week.
One result of the variety of options offered is that each walk is likely to be quite different from the previous one. So are the participants, who vary according to personal preference, ability, geography, and schedule.
An interested newcomer, then, might find, as I have, that each hike offers something the others do not. In the end, though, I found that these hikes offered nothing of the experience I hoped for.
Earlier this fall, on what turned out to be my penultimate hike with the group, we marched out through an almost-quaint village, through a housing tract and into a wooded retreat, where the path turned and bent here and there, with slight elevations and declensions. A stream trickled under the trees; it was cold and clear, and, yes, beautiful in the way that a day can be when fallen leaves are still littering the ground, trees are newly barren, and winter is just beginning.
Scenery was not the only thing on the minds of my fellow pilgrims, though. A small drama was unfolding with a nearly literary precision as we walked. I turned, discreetly, to see the widow
Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground;
I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound
Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head.
Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red
Her “kerchiefs” were, of course, modern outdoor gear, but of the more fashionable sort — the modern equivalent of that “full ten pound” — and the ensemble as cunning as that scarlet hose. Speaking with a certain reserve (though leaving nothing untold), our contemporary widow coyly fenced with her partner, setting forth her credentials in (literal) dollars and cents. ($200,000, if you must know; but that was just the condo.) He
. . . had a fiery-red, cherubic face,
For eczema he had; his eyes were narrow
As hot he was, and lecherous, as a sparrow;
With black and scabby brows and scanty beard;
He had a face that little children feared.
There was no mercury, sulphur, or litharge,
No borax, ceruse, tartar, could discharge,
Nor ointment that could cleanse enough, or bite,
To free him of his boils and pimples white,
Nor of the bosses resting on his cheeks.
He mistook her intentions, or, more likely, just didn’t understand.
Well loved he garlic, onions, aye and leeks,
And drinking of strong wine as red as blood.
Then would he talk and shout as madman would.
And when a deal of wine he’d poured within,
Then would. he utter no word save Latin.
Some phrases had he learned, say two or three,
Which he had garnered out of some decree;
No wonder, for he’d heard it all the day;
And all you know right well that even a jay
Can call out Wat as well as can the pope.
His voice was no more useful than a jay’s to meet the silence she offered him once he confessed that he still worked, long past retirement age.
Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue.
She’d been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth
She dropped back a bit, but then came forward; there was no one else to bestow her charms upon. The rest of us, it seemed, were all unfit. Known, or unknown, or the wrong gender, or an even poorer match in age, or perhaps already mated.
We marched, the widow, her erstwhile, hapless suitor, and all the rest of us until we reached a clearing. Afar, in an alcove hewn from the earth, stood a statue of The Virgin Mary, adorned with garlands of garish beads. At her feet stood a small army of tall glasses with wax columns flickering within.
The sight shook me, briefly, from my literary amusements. For a few seconds, cognitive dissonance took a back seat to raw panic, and another sort of drama. I am a Californian: who sets dozens of unattended flames out in the woods? Christians do, it seems. Or, in this case, Anglo Christians, as the flaming vessels lacked the devotional images present on similar devices lit by Hispanic worshipers.
As horror subsided (after all, the leaves were wet, and this is practically another country), I surveyed the grotto. To the right and left the path twisted; the land was pocked with smaller and greater altars, each fitted with one statue, a multitude of flames, and beaded ropes. Was there really a glimmer of Christmas tinsel among the trees as well, or is the memory just a figment of my over-clocked mind?
“How could anyone help but feel the reverence of this place?” someone proclaimed, but archly, like a well-meaning schoolteacher. She stood under the evergreens, between demure Mary and a smaller icon several hundred yards away. The candles flickered like poorly designed electric lights; the cement of the statues stood leaden and solid, unrelieved by the brightness of the day.
The widow and her consort were not so affected. Behind me, she described aloud the difference between her yard service and the lawnmower employed by her eager, impecunious, friend. Her elucidation, though, was done too subtly for him to catch the point — or not, as the point, ultimately, seemed to be to avoid discouraging his attentive mien.
As a whole, we were not a reverent bunch. This sort of exchange proved to be common on these walks. Discordance between the putative motivation for these hikes (‘getting close to nature’) and the actual experience was the operant leitmotif.
Fond as I am of the natural works ascribed to the Christian deity, on this particular hike, I was unable to appreciate the improvements made in this place by man. Likewise, no beauties, natural or enhanced, caught the imagination of either the widow or her companion. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, one and all, we had other things on our minds.
Nonetheless, in common with that band from long ago, we were all searching for something. Not necessarily to fulfill a religious vow, but perhaps for some sense of a larger world, for companionship, admiration, affection, something — anything? — we could not find at home, at work, in our everyday lives. We all hike because everything else is not quite enough, and we suspect that on these pathways, in these trees, in the bright clear air of fall, we will discover something else, something just a little more than we feel in our everyday lives.
It’s unity, of a sort. We are all, in the end, pilgrims on the same journey. But this not the right one for me. I don’t know what to make of these conversations; of this artificial grotto in the woods; of verbal flirtations amongst ill-matched and alarmingly wary suitors. I am discomfited by the resonance between Chaucer’s cast and my companions. Under the circumstances, “le plus ça change” is not a reassuring thought. This is not what I am looking for, out on the trails amongst the greenery.
Chaucer image from Clipart ETC. Literary Characters
Wife illustration from Jane Zatta’s Chaucer
Summoner from Clipart ETC. Literary Characters
Upper statue from Flickr
Candles from Church Candles Online
Lower statue from Flickr
Cross on the wayside from Flickr