Outdoors North

Walk in the woods provides relief, respite

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“I’ve come to know there’s life at both ends of that red dirt road.” — Ronnie Dunn/Kix Brooks

As I rolled down the highway to another work day, early morning rain that fell within the hour was lifted into the air by the cars ahead, leaving me and my windshield wipers in an intermittent cycle.

It was only a few days back I had been feeling better. I was walking along a dusty red dirt road, hearing nothing but birds and the wind for a good three hours.

I need that. It slows the world down long enough to catch your breath and, if you’re lucky, have a couple of minutes to think and to just stop everything.

Darker than the salmon-red color of the sand of that road were the dark red heads and thoraxes of ants that squared off against each other amid the tire tracks. They pulled their striped abdomens behind their bodies like black-metal steamer trunks.

Small, smashed chips of weathered pink and clear quartz covered the ground. High above in the sky, a marsh hawk twirled on the warm wind of the late morning, it’s owl-like face pointed forward.

The sky was filled with cotton candy clouds. At a deserted apple orchard in the middle of the countryside, the gray and white stone foundations of an old homestead stuck out through the green grass, cracked and crumbled.

Atop one of those orchard trees, an indigo bunting sang into the wind that bounced the branch he sung from. I reached around the edge of an apple tree to snap a picture, but the bird saw me and quick as that, he was gone.

On the ground, dandelions gone to seed already.

Swallowtail and monarch butterflies hung upside down in all their glorious brilliance, feeding on the buds of a flowering bush I didn’t know the name of.

The sand in the road was lighter colored here, much more white than red, making a handsome Halloween-colored butterfly all that much easier to see.

If I relaxed my eyes, like looking at one of those computer pictures where a new picture jumps out if you stare at it long enough, I can see fanciful images in the black and orange coloration in this creature’s delicate wings.

There’s a cackling jester’s face, the two feet of a four-toed creature sitting side-by-side and a piece of candy corn with a flying bat-shaped mouth and a pair of thick black spectacles.

Next to this beautiful specimen, there are curled dried leaves with fresh clover and new plants shooting up through the dirt. The sand here has larger pebbles amid its make-up, weathered nonetheless, like the other dirt.

Whiter still was the dirt a few miles away, where the road tucked under some spruce trees and a creek tumbled over boulders colored red, black and woodstove blue.

Here, the swallowtails were lying on the ground, sipping moisture from the ground to extract salt and nutrients. They looked as though the entire bunch had been smacked flat by a passing truck.

But as I approached, they tilted and moved against the sand and short, brown, rice-grain spruce needles, pieces of cauliflower-like lichen and knobby branches broken and fallen from the trees above.

When I was a kid we found a big bramble of blackberries near here that must have been a tame variety planted by someone long since gone. The berries were about as big as my thumb.

Turning down another road, the cobbles alongside this dirt road were much bigger and rounded – they shot my mind right back to the rocks beneath the rails we’d walked as kids.

I can still smell the old creosote-soaked bridge ties and see the rusted rail spikes and plates holding the tracks in place on the sleepers. Times and schedules, the old railroad shacks with faded papers and broken glass.

There we’d catch yellow, green, gray and red grasshoppers that blended in with the color of the grass and dirt. We’d put a small rock or two or a penny on the rail and see what the old Soo Line could do.

This road had once been a rail line too. Hardly more than a bend or two in much of the route. A few boulders bigger than a car were pushed up here from a road project a few years ago.

Off the roadway, big clusters of delicate pink, wild columbine were blooming, discovered by bees. Blueberries were blooming too, discovered by the swallowtails.

As I move down this road a little farther, just seeing the type of rocks on this road brings back feelings of contentment, memories of days when I was a kid, exploring these same woods.

It seems strange to have such a visceral reaction to seeing sand, dirt and rocks, but it is undoubtedly there in my bloodstream, a necessary component to my make-up.

I know there are folks who eat dirt — usually for medicinal, cultural or religious purposes. I guess my affiliation doesn’t go to taste, but I can certainly feel the effects of walking down a dirt road, a cobbled railroad line or a forest pathway, constructed from river gravels.

I would say it provides medicinal, cultural and spiritual benefits for me — while it’s solid ground, the experience is atmospheric. It can make me feel like I’m flying inside.

I’m sure it has something to do with where these roads and trails bring me — to fishing holes, beautiful landscapes and secret meadows where the deer lay down in the tall grass in the afternoon heat.

It likely has something to do with the rocks themselves too. I have always liked rocks and minerals and rockhounding. I still have a rock collection from my field geology class in college – trips to the San Andreas Fault, the Pacific Ocean and granite washes from the San Gabriel Mountains.

When I was a kid, I had a rock tumbler and made a pair of earrings for my mom. I think she still has them. Our next-door neighbor had a relation from Minnesota who would bring amazing rock specimens for me to see.

It’s one of those things — did I like rocks because I grew up in a mining town or did I grow up in a mining town because I liked rocks? One of a million questions cast like seeds on the winds. I wonder where they land.

This landscape here is sparse, with old black stumps from decades ago when fires raced through the trees, gutting the forest of its life. Deep valleys and wide prairie open-up on both sides of the road.

Buzzing noises in the low shrubs reveal the hiding place of a clay-colored sparrow or two. They sound like bugs and have subtle, pretty features. This is one of my favorite places.

The dirt here is dug out by badgers and groundhogs. There are bluebirds, cranes and deer — more restful quiet, except for the high-line wires singing straight out of Witchita Lineman.

As I get closer to the office, the dark rain clouds have slipped across the big lake, headed east toward the Pictured Rocks. Sunshine hits the road in front of me. An hour from now it will be raining again.

I’ll be inside, writing this piece and reliving the hours I spent out there where things make sense, where the rocks and gravel make a solid road.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.