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Outdoors North

Backroads of writer’s mind explored

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“And it’s cold on the tollgate with the wagons creeping through.” — Mark Knopfler

Whether graveled, wet, muddied or dry, or covered with snow or leaves, there must be thousands of trails crisscrossing the countryside of my mind.

I recall each one not because of their consistency necessarily, but more because of the places they’ve led me or the things I saw or otherwise experienced along the way.

Probably the very first trails I remember were the traces my parents took me over that led through tall green grasses, and the tag alders along quiet and muddy riverbanks.

These magical little byways through the brush would take us to divine places where we’d drop night crawlers and red worms on fishing hooks into the deep black waters of creeks and streams.

Then we’d sit, waiting for a bite.

It was often cold or rainy. We’d use fishing rods with steel baitcasting reels that held black line almost as thick as the ends of shoelaces.

It was all very simple: a pole, line, hook, bait and a lead weight or “sinker,” but the process was capable of not only bringing home a delicious trout dinner, but would also instill in me a pastime that got deep into my blood.

In the years that followed, these same types of riparian trails have led me to incredible days on the water — days of immersing myself in nature and all her creation — days of lifting my spirits, cleansing my heart, my mind and soul.

My life today would not have the fullness that it does were it not for those early adventures, usually not far off the roadside, with my mom and dad.

I also recall rocky trails covered with dust and dirt in the mountains of Colorado and California. Places where switchbacks carried a hiker up the sides of arid bluffs and cliffs to saddles and peaks prime for viewing, taking deep breaths and dreaming.

There were the desert trails of New Mexico, Arizona and California too. Places where western diamondback rattlesnakes moved between the cactus plants over dirt holding the fine consistency of campfire ash.

These beautiful smoked and underrated places are home to millions of cactus blooms, solemn desert sparrows, tarantulas, tortoises and peccary. Overhead are vast, reaching, often cloudless, blue skies stretching between the horizons.

The air is filled with the chuk-chuk-chukking sound of cactus wrens, the whirring of hummingbird wings near the agave blooms and the muted chuckling of quail in the bush.

There were also millions of tracks I’ve seen in the snow along trails. Tracks of animals to be sure, but footprints of my children that, like those of young deer, were so small and fragile they ware incredible to see.

Seemingly overnight they grew to adult size and then were gone.

At the lake, when I was a young boy, we’d follow muddy trails to the water’s edge. We’d then roll up the cuffs on our blue-jeaned pant legs and slowly wade in – braving the “bloodsuckers” to find garter snakes, painted turtles, big yellow snails and leopard frogs.

Sometimes, walking the hills of these iron ore towns the water gouged, red mud trails disappear, and the hiker walks over thick rock slabs of chalcedony, granite or slate. Eventually these routes reach vistas at knobs overlooking the streets, shops and old mine houses, dead or dying.

The leaf-covered trails of autumn are never far from my memory. They remind me of warm smells of pumpkin and cinnamon, spice and apples. I walk and the crunching leaves talk back to me.

Sometimes, the red and orange colors of the leaves, especially on rainy days, are so brilliant and close they are shocking to see, like a fresh slice across the palm of your hand.

Over hard-packed dirt I’ve walked trails to hidden waterfalls and secluded cataracts where the sound and the shimmering of the beautiful diamond waters cut a gorge of truth through my entire being.

Breathing the charged air sets my mind and soul free to float above the mosquito-clouded creekbanks where yellowed and green grasses bend over and trout lilies and cowslips nod.

No matter how far I walk down these trails, I always want to see what’s up around the next bend. How far have we come? How far can we go? Let’s keep walking and never go home.

There are root-covered, rusty pine-needled trails beneath white pines in my mind too. They have often pointed the way over rocks and roots and along rivers to quiet places to sit and think, to contemplate what’s come before and what might lie ahead, places to dream.

The graveled trails have taken me to countless historical markers, gorgeous vistas and natural wonders like the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon or the lip of the Grand Canyon.

Of course, the iron rails are their own kind of silvery trails that can take a walker down over the crossties to tremendously tall bridges over muddy marshes and rolling rivers.

The bends in the tracks are turns in my mind. I can feel myself riding in an old passenger car, shifting and jostling side to side. When the iron horses come rolling up close, I step aside and tip my hat.

There have been cobblestone paths through rock gardens in my past that have thrilled my senses with the sights and smells of blooming flowers. Bright green sphagnum moss, little grape hyacinth and bold bleeding hearts are all there now.

There’s always a toad here somewhere hiding between the leaves and stones.

Sandy trails in the summertime make their way to the cold shores of the big lake, past beach peas and golden grasses. Swallows bend and dip in the skies above, while kingfishers call.

I’m never the sole traveler on these trails, the tracks I see are proof of that.

I find everything from mice and snakes to rabbits, deer and wolves use the same trails I do. The same is true for the old dirt roads that are used by wolves and bears while ravens and crows follow along through the air.

It is nice to go on these adventures, to leave the highways and the blacktop, the concrete and the cement, to find peace of mind and an unburdened heart – to stop and stand and sit and think, to smell the perfumed wind.

But half the fun of getting there is getting back again. Who knows what I might see this time that I missed before? There’s always something else around, always something more happening out there.

A trail is like an open road, beckoning the adventurer. Almost all that is required to go is a willingness to get up and move on out the door. Sometimes, though, that can be a sizeable challenge, especially when the world seems wobbly and off-course.

But I find if I vault those towering mental walls to get outside, the invisible chains of steel biting into my wrists and the heaviness that held me motionless on the couch or in my chair vanish.

I’m slipping on my jacket and my boots. The sun is warm and glancing off the south side of the house, making snowmelt drip from the eaves. The wind is out there too, but it’s pleasant.

Whether I’ll be gone a few minutes or a couple of hours remains to be seen, but I know this much, I’m going until I’m gone.

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.

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