For the past few weeks we’ve been basking in 60- and 70-degree days here in North Carolina, wondering what on earth is going on this January. (Two years ago we had a foot of snow on the ground at this time!) But this past weekend, a front blew through and chilled things down to winter-like real fast. So, of course, I went for a hike. It was 37 degrees F when I started out just after noon and 38 degrees F when I finished. Brrrr!! Though the air was chilled, the sun was shining, filling the day with the promise of (if not actual) warmth.
I hiked alone and was thrilled to see only one other vehicle in the parking lot at Brumley Nature Preserve when I arrived. At 613 acres, Brumley is one of the largest preserves close by, and a favorite of mountain bikers, but today I was excited to have the place mostly to myself. Going into the woods alone is a different experience from going with others. It’s just you and the woods, an intimate pairing, and stories shared in silence.
The forest’s swaying trees greeted me, squeaking like the hinges on a rusty, old screen door. A few songbirds chirped and scolded, telling me I was intruding in their lives, but mostly it was quiet. I could hear the ground crunching beneath my boots, half-frozen and decorated with scattered patches of frost heave.
I hiked on the sunny side of the trail, willing the sun to warm my legs and face. When I arrived at a trail intersection, I turned right – the first of many right turns which led me deeper into the preserve than I had ever been before. I relished the absence of traffic noise and that sense of being alone with the forest and its wild inhabitants. The naked winter trees allowed the sun to shine through and bathe the forest in light. Now and then a dry, curled leaf would float down from the canopy, a reminder to look up and notice things above me.
I stood awhile and breathed it all in, grateful for the cold, the sun, the red clay under my feet, the leaf litter, the fresh air, and the opportunity to be here now, in this moment, in this space and in this place. Winter woods feel different from summer woods. They’re open and bright yet stark and empty. They reveal the lay of the land and hide the insects and other small critters that are surely overwintering among their limbs and logs. Winter woods whisper secrets to those who care to listen.
Four miles into my hike, I was meandering along a mountain bike trail devoid of mountain bikes. Walking up and down the drops and around berms I could feel how compacted the soil was on the track. But just a foot off the trail, leaf litter carpeted the forest floor with cranefly orchids peeking out of it – signs of life and secrets (the underside of their leaves are purple).
By mile six, I was meandering across a north-facing slope, chilled in shade and rich in greenery. Here ferns and running cedar thrive, blanketing the forest floor as if to attempt to keep it warm, even as the sun hides behind the slope, leaving the chill of winter to linger longer each day.
I emerged from the shaded slope, switchbacking up to a rocky ridge, and eventually walked out into a sun-filled powerline cut, grateful to feel the the warm sun once again. A dozen or more birds – bluebirds, sparrows, juncos, and more – were perched on low tree limbs, puffed up like toasted marshmallows, absorbing what warmth they could from the sun’s afternoon rays. They know the secrets of the winter woods better than most.
As I approached the parking lot after seven and a half miles of wandering the winter woods, the sun was sinking lower in the sky, and my feet were telling me it was time to head home. The forest whispered one last secret, and I listened, knowing that my heart would keep it safe, and my head would wonder how many more it had to tell.