When I have to get up early for something I look forward to the next day. I am like a kid on Christmas Eve and I don’t sleep. This was Groundhog’s Eve and I was anticipating waking up early and leaving the house before the sunrise on a Saturday! In the winter!
This is unlike me. I hibernate in the winter, but with the warm days we had been having when I signed up for a hike on Groundhog’s day I had no idea it would be that cold when I would venture out early that morning.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a website called “Meetups”.
This is a global-wide social network where you can join several groups of interest and ‘meet up’. It is NOT a singles site, as anyone can join a group of their liking as well as create a group and, many are couples. If I was so inclined to join a group for an event in Nashville, I could do so – or even across the country. What is great though is that I can find local things that I can do at any time convenient for me.
Instead of activity groups who plan to partake in an activity that not everyone may like or have the available time to attend, on Meetups you can pick and choose. I joined the group Tennessee Wild first and then Chattanooga Hiking Meetup. Tennessee Wild had two events during my week off so I signed up for them as well as a meetup with Chattanooga Hiking that offered a trail ride with horses – at the ranch Smokey was at!
This excited me! I work four weeks out of the month and take off during the last week of a five week months. Meetups saved me from going stir crazy. Getting out in the winter is still something I have to make myself do, to break my hibernation rut. I was determined to go to these events.
The first one was a Tennessee Wild Meetup to watch the crane migration. I knew a friend who was going and, as cold as it was, I braved the crisp winds and headed out to Starbucks where the group would meet and drive toward the site. The group leader posted directions of ‘longitude and latitude’ and you know me… I use my GPS just to get me across the neighborhood! I was dependent on riding with someone over there.
I marked it on my calendar with the time of the event - and did not pay attention when the date drew near - that we would be meeting at an earlier time at Starbucks to carpool. I had it in my mind 11 o’clock so I met at Starbucks at 11 sharp! No one was there. I called Jeff Hunter and Caara had answered telling me they had already left but she said if I thought I could find them, there was still time to join them.
Knowing it was fer-ee-eezing and would be cold the next day for my trail ride, I thought I better just go back home and plan one winter event at a time. I didn’t want to be so cold that I would chicken out for the trail ride. I also didn’t want to try to find them without sticking ‘Samantha’ (GPS voice) to my windshield to guide me.
Melissa Bennett was heading up the trail ride. Finding it would be no problem, but I had to have a horse. At least I thought I did. I thought of asking Sherry if I could take Smokey, but since I had moved to Long Island, I had not been taking care of him like I was and I think she had someone else. Even though she has always welcomed me to go out and see him anytime, I had never taken him out of the riding ring. When I moved out to Lookout Valley, it was too far for me to go out there and make those same arrangements in caring for Smokey and making him ‘my’ horse, but I did get to go out for one visit last summer.
I would still always ask before I would ever want to ride him away from the barn. I spoke with Sherry’s husband Doug, and he had said Smokey threw a shoe and his feet were sore. When I told Melissa that, she said they provide their lesson horses at Hidden Hills in Ooltewah. Ulp! Another horse? I love all horses, but I have also learned that horses, like people, have different personalities and you don’t just fit with any horse, but my love for horses outweighed any of my insecurities.
I had asked my new artist friend Hollie Berry (the Dew-dle girl interview) if she would like to sign up for the group. She and I had several similar interests and one is horses. I found that out when I went to her website and saw her paintings of horses (which she can’t keep in stock because they sell fast). Hollie met with us and right away I noticed that this young, beautiful Texas girl would outdo me in anything – if I were the competitive type!
She was decked out in riding pants and riding boots and she chose an English saddle. Simple Jen threw on sloppy clothes that I didn’t mind getting dirty - my denim jacket and my Ariat Ropers that had a small hole where Schnazzy had chewed in the back. Though I may be aware of people’s differences, I applaud them and don’t get intimidated. I was proud of my friend who was a consummate horsewoman.
When I have been on trail rides before, I was used to being out all day with friends - going where we wanted to go and at the speed we wanted. With an organized trail ride at a facility where you must sign a waiver, you have to expect ‘safety precautions’ and rules. I had to wear a helmet. It didn’t bother me as far as a fashion statement. I already proven that I didn’t care about my attire; it was more about the bulkiness and taking away from that freeing feeling when riding.
I did as I was instructed and found a helmet, but I needed help with adjustments. I had never worn one before. The horses were introduced and given a brief summary of their personalities. None of them were perfect-Smokey, but I was determined to bond with a new friend who could be just as perfect once I got on their back. Hollie chose Drifter and Ruger was a dark horse like Smokey who seemed interested in me when I was standing around. I decided that I would like to get to know him and I reached to pet him. Instantly, I knew he was the one I would ride. He took to me and I could trust him and he could trust me.
The trail ride was through the wooded area at Hidden Hills. As we crossed the pastures, Ruger wanted to eat. Melissa instructed me how to pull the reins to the side to keep him from grazing – as my first instinct was to pull ‘up’.
After bonking my head twice on low hanging branches, I was glad for the helmet. Sometimes I rebel against rules but not so much that I can’t listen and learn why they are there.
As we followed in single file at a slow pace, I had thought I wanted more adventure. I wanted to go faster. I wanted to ride where my horse and I wanted to explore… but then I thanked God that I had the opportunity to be on a horse, be with new friends and I enjoyed the experience.
I watched Hollie’s perfect posture as she rode and I smiled. We definitely had different styles but I enjoyed painting in my own mind that picture-perfect scene of my friend on her horse. I had wished my photog friend Mr. Herndon was there to snap the image I was seeing in my head or that Hollie could see it and she could paint it. I didn’t take photos of the trail ride; I am not that talented.
Ruger wasn’t a horse who wanted to be in the back of the line so I let him inch his way up. As we, English-polished and Western-pleasure gals rode side by side and conversed, I decided that even if it was a short, guided ride that I still loved it and would definitely do it again.
Coming back, as we passed the other horse in the pasture, I saw Smokey by the fence watching us. “Smokey Love,” I called to my connected spirit. After turning in our horses, Hollie and I went out to the pasture to see him and gave him carrots I had brought for him. Smokey took to Hollie. He is such a good horse. We then stopped at the arena for Melissa’s hot cider before leaving the ranch. What a great day! Thank you Meetups!
My next adventure was on Groundhog Day - an early morning “urban hike”. What is an urban hike? Instead of reading all the information provided or even using Google to find out, I have to admit that sometimes I ‘just go’ and figure things out later – which provide many laughs for God. That’s okay though because I laugh with Him.
I assumed it meant to ‘walk’ around the city; possibly crossing Walnut Street Bridge and a few areas around town and then we’d stop back at Whole Foods where we were to meet and have coffee and storytelling by Mike Gray. I wore warmup pants, running shoes and a hoodie with a warm coat and leather gloves. The day was very cold and ended up being our surprise snow on Groundhog Day.
This time, for the group outing with Tennessee Wild that Jeff Hunter was leading, I arrived on time but still did not see anyone! I went inside to Whole Foods and was delighted! I was taken back briefly to my days on Long Island! Though I shopped a couple of times at Whole Foods in NY, I loved this little place called Kitchen Cabaret where I would stop and get coffee on the mornings I had to go to work early. The Whole Foods in Chattanooga reminded me of that place – only bigger.
I didn’t see the group, so I walked around in the frigid 24-degree temperature outside and finally saw a group of people. I knew Mike Gray from a profile story I wrote and then I introduced myself to Jeff and the rest of the group. I remembered only a few names and later found a few of these new friends on Facebook. Patrice and I rode to the trail in Mike’s truck and I realized that this was no walk in the city. It was called the Blue Blazes Trail, a 1.5 mile loop part of the Moccasin Bend Archaeological District, which is a unit of the National Park Service.
Everyone else must have read enough about it to put on their hiking boots, but not ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants-Jen’! She hadn’t even had coffee yet, was she supposed to use her brain?
It was an easy hike which made it enjoyable to lag around taking a few photos. Caara Fritz was our sweep and she had her camera too. She took amazing photos and found things to photograph that I didn’t even see. I think my numb fingers kept me from going crazy with the camera. To get those really special shots, you have to go crazy and take a bazillion photos just to get the magic you want to find. I also found that my re-chargeable batteries I had just charged were already dying and probably needed replacing.
As cold as it was under the blanket of snow clouds moving in quickly, I really enjoyed being out early in the morning for a winter hike. I could not even describe properly the alive-feeling in just being out experiencing it.
Yes, it was cold. Yes, it was early - but it was LIVING! How many winters had I curled up in my blanket and only imagined what others were doing!
No, I can’t afford to go skiing in the Alps or rent a cabin somewhere out West, but what I can do right here in Chattanooga is just as great, to me. I had always tucked myself away in the winter and hibernated along with the bears when I really dreamed of getting out. If you are married to a couch potato or you are single and have no one to get out with, Meetups is a great opportunity to do even the smallest of adventures that wakens your senses.
Here it was Groundhog Day and I was hiking in the cold, listening to the crunch of the ice crystals on the dried up grass. I was seeing beauty from a different perspective. No flowering blossoms, no colorful trees, but the beauty was still there. The trees had bared their soul for us and opened their arms wide as if to say, “Look around – see what you can see!”
We saw a red-shouldered hawk flying overhead, (well… we didn’t quite see it, but we heard it and Jeff told us what it was) a track of deer prints trailing from the frozen swamp into a thicket across the path and even unfamiliar ‘hairy poo’.
Jeff was quite a knowledgeable guide who knows a lot about the environment. He is the director of Tennessee Wilderness Campaign at Wild South and leads Tennessee Wild.
They say first impressions are lasting ones and, the very first tid-bit of information Jeff gave the group was to point out the hairy poo.
He said, “Now, I know about poo…” (Jeff used a different word, but I thought I would save my editor from bleeping me). He explained how the poo was hairy; it was Coyote poo. Something with what they eat or how they eat it – makes for hairy waste. Interesting…
As we hiked, I wondered what other poo I would learn about, but Jeff did get much more informative talking about the history of certain bushes, or the habits of birds that are interesting and you would never think to ask about.
We worked as a team to cross over streams or huge puddles but when we came to one that just seemed small enough that I could jump it, I took a running leap with my short legs and *splash!* one foot on dry land the other… not so dry.
Not to worry, somehow my foot stayed dry on the inside of my shoe – no hyperthermia.
We learned about the Pileated Woodpecker who makes rectangular holes in the trees; the importance of finding something left behind such as a bird’s feather, and leaving it for other hikers to enjoy. We came to the river which was crystalized with a thin layer of ice over most of the water and we trekked around swamp areas finding the best footing on the cold icy mud.
Then we came upon the wow-moment - a massive oak tree that was over 150 years old that dates back before the Civil War.
I tried to capture what I saw, but each snap of my camera just could not show the enormous size or even the beauty of this tree. It was when I got up closer and took a photo of Lamar Davis also taking a photo of the top of the tree – that showed the size of the tree a little better with him standing next to it. It is definitely a sight any hiker should see.
What is so special about a large tree? What is so great about a 1.5 mile hike in Chattanooga? Because …when you take the time to go out and meet nature no matter how far or how close, you capture what others miss.
You get the rare privilege of witnessing something extraordinary that only seems boring to those who are missing it - BECAUSE they are missing it. Until you actually get out there and smell a tree with your eyes closed, breathe in the fresh air, listen to the snap of twigs beneath your feet and hop as you did when you were a kid to get across a huge puddle, then you cannot really experience the thrill of something so simple.
At the end of the hike, Mike Gray was going to do some storytelling over coffee at Whole Foods. I was so numb that the only thing on my mind was getting in my car and running the heater full blast and head toward home to get my favorite sage green down throw to snuggle in. I had forgotten that Mike was going to talk and I left getting home just in time as the snow started coming down in huge flakes.
After changing, curling up in my chair and thawing my extremities; I smiled with contentment knowing I wasn’t hibernating through winter. I wasn’t just existing and waiting for spring to arrive. I was living. I was experiencing life!
Still having my moments of curling up and staying warm, I learned that I can also grab life – even in the winter. I don’t have to put things off or wait for a season or for something to happen. Right here, right now… I am living my life each day with my eyes open to the wonderments God has put before me and…
I don’t want to miss a thing.