I adjust the strap of my hiking stick, making sure it sits snugly around my wrist. Turning to Jim I say, “Ready?” We set out together. We’re on the Rock Harbor trail, walking three abreast with Lake Superior rolling onto the rocky shore to our left. I take deep lung fulls of the cool air tinged with the scent of balsam fir. Our boots crunch on the trail as we stride out. Kismet’s harness jingles as she trots along.
We stop dead.
“A loon,” Jim whispers.
“Two of them,” I whisper back. We listen until the pair is silent.
“Cool,” and we continue.
The gravel thins and, soon, instead of crunching on gravel our footsteps thud solidly on rock. The titanium tips of our hiking sticks begin to ting as we plant them on the rocky trail. What started as a casual stroll turns into a hike. My muscles stretch and flex as I begin to reach for footholds. “It’s starting to get narrow,” says Jim. “Want to lead?”
“Sure,” I reply.” I click my tongue, encouraging Kismet. “Come on little dog, hup up.”
I take the lead. The trail rises. Kismet slows as she shows me the rough spots along the way. When she stops completely I probe the trail with my hiking stick to discover what lies ahead. There’s a huge boulder ahead and slightly to the right but to the left it seems clear. “Left?” I tell Kismet with a question in my voice. Yes, it’s clear to the left and we continue.
At one spot I simply can’t figure out the best way to proceed. I stop.
“Down to the left,” Jim says. “Then up. A big up.”
Experience tells me ‘a big up’ probably means that I’ll need to let Kismet go.
“Hup,” I say. She scrambles up the rock face. As soon as I feel the leash begin to tighten I let it go so I don’t impede her progress. “Good girl, now wait for me.” Letting my hiking stick dangle from my wrist I scramble up after my dog. She whines softly until I join her. As I stand she moves smartly behind me finishing at my left side. My hand drops right onto the harness handle and I take it up once again. With things back in their proper places I say, “Okay, hup up.”
We continue, our breathing becoming slightly labored. We use our special shorthand.
“Don’t fall to your left,” says Jim.
“She correct?” I ask.
“A big down,” he says.
“Got it,” I murmur as I feel the trail level out beneath my feet.
Then the trail rises. We stop at a wide open place high above the water. The wind blows, the waves crash.
“I see a pair of loons out there,” Jim says, “Well, there was a pair, one of them just dove under.” I smile. “Want me to lead now?” Jim asks.
Nodding in agreement I say, “Yep, your turn. Go ahead.”
With Jim in the lead we continue.
“Another big down,” says Jim. “Hmm, how are we going to do this one?” After a couple of minutes he says, “I’ll go first. Might want to let her go.”
I unsnap Kismets leash and drape it over my shoulder so it won’t get in the way. “Okay, Kiz, hup.” She bounds down the rocks, landing with a humph at the bottom.
“Humph,” says Jim, laughing.
“Which way?” I ask.
“Straight,” he says.
“Here?” I ask.
“Yep, then right.”
“Okay . . . .”
“Got it,” and Kismet leaps up to greet me as though we’ve been separated for days. “Okay, settle down you.” And we continue.
We’re moving more quickly now, the trail has smoothed out for a bit. “Yikes!” A very pissed off red squirrel has just made his displeasure at our presence known. “Be still my heart,” I add, hand over heart, pretending to faint.
Looking back, Jim says, “I know, it’s like they plan it. They’re quiet for just long enough that you forget they’re there. Then they scare the bejesus out of you.”
Two hours and a little over three miles later we reach the turn to the Mount Franklin trail. “Let’s rest,” says Jim. Sitting down gratefully I unzip the backpack and extract a water bottle and Kismet’s bowl. After she’s had a drink Kismet dashes off to investigate something or other.
“Kismet!” I call. “Come back here.”
“Kismet, phooey on that, come!”
She dashes back, bounces off my chest and runs away again. When I get her back this time I tell her to lie down. She does, embellishing the act with a dramatic groan.
“Sheesh,” I say, “Where’s she getting this energy?” “Dunno,” Jim replies. “But she better hang on to it, she’s gonna need it for this next part.”
After we’re rested Jim, who has been carrying the backpack until now hands it over, saying, “Want to lead?”
“Yep, Kismet, hup up,” and we begin the two mile ascent to Mount Franklin.
“Doesn’t seem too bad,” I say.
“Not yet, looks kinda gradual for a while,” Jim says. “Okay, Good girl Kizzy, steady, atta girl.” I had been walking, harness in hand, with a dog guiding me for over twenty-five years. All those years ago, when my first orientation and mobility instructor back in Birmingham, Jeff Elliott, taught me to use a cane and carry myself with grace, that had been the beginning. How could I have known those lessons would lead to the graceful unconscious ballet I was doing right now, right here with my beloved dog.
“Watch it on your left,” says Jim.
“Got it,” I say.
And the man who walks beside me. When he pulled down that branch of black cherry for me to identify in the Michigan forest, who knew that act was the beginning of a quarter century of joy, love, trials, resolve, reconciliation.
Where had the courage, the determination come from when I could only see the road through a glass darkly. Wherever it had come from, come it had. My mother told me that she had dared to believe I would be okay. On that day long ago in that hospital room she dared to believe. She didn’t know, how could she, that I would once again climb mountains.
Pulling me back into the present Jim says, “We’ve got another one of those bridges.” We had encountered them before, two wide planks of wood, side by side, across wet lands. We continue.
After a while Jim stops. “This is going to be interesting,” he begins. “It narrows to one plank as far as I can see. How do you want to do this?”
I step forward and investigate with my hiking stick.
“Oh, joy,” I mutter. I hesitate but not for long. Standing still has never gotten me anywhere. “Guess I’ll just drop the harness, put her on long leash, and try to stay right behind her. I can trail the right side of the bridge with my hiking stick and just take it slow.”
It works for a while. Then, for no apparent reason Kismet falls off the left side of the bridge. “Whoa!” I cry. Jim pivots, just in time to see her fall into the marsh. Thankfully she scrambles back onto the bridge by herself because with our precarious footing we can’t offer her much help.
“Sheesh Little dog,” I say “You’re the one with the functional eyeballs. What are you doing falling off?”
Looking at Jim I say, “I don’t even want to know how muddy she is.”
Laughing we continue. Then my right foot misses the plank, and I, in my turn, fall into the marsh. I feel my left foot sink into the mud. I scramble back onto the bridge as quickly as I can but not before the mud closes over the top of my boot.
“Oh, good grief,” I mutter in disgust.
Looking us over, Jim says, “Now you’re a matched set.”
Glaring at him I say, “Watch it or I’ll boot your butt off this here bridge.”
Finally arriving at the end of the marshy part, I heave a sigh of relief at having both feet, albeit one covered in mud, back on terra firma. We continue.
Noticing a change in the aromas from Balsam Fir and heath, the trail rising more steeply now, I say, “What’s changed? What kind of trees are we in now?”
Pausing, Jim looks around and says, “Yeah, we’re in a stand of Quaking Aspen with some White Birch thrown in for good measure. How’d you know?”
“For one thing, the smell changed. It puts me in mind of fall in a deciduous forest. The sound did too. Listen.”
We listen together. Kismet whines. She pulls gently on her leash.
“See what you mean,” Jim replies. “Sounds almost like rain.”
We listen to the wind in the trees, the sound of a stream trickling over rocks, a raven overhead.
“Ready?” And we continue.
“Going up,” Jim intones in the manner of elevator operators of yore.
“Whoa,” I say, as my foot slips off a rock and I catch myself with my hiking stick. The wind picks up. I stop for a minute, letting it cool my sweaty face. I continue, now breathing hard. Following Kismet as she turns to the right I step up onto a rock with my left foot. Kismet pokes her head under my leg and looks back at Jim. I burst out laughing.
“What?” questions Jim.
“Think she wants to wait for you,” I reply. After I catch my breath we continue.
Mud splattered, sweaty, and winded I stride out onto the Greenstone Ridge.
Then the magic happens.
My spirit soars out, out into the vastness that lies before me. The three of us stand together, the dog who has guided me to this place and the man who has made the journey with me. We stand together beneath the blue vault of the sky, above the blue water of the lake, the only sound, that of the wind. I couldn’t have done it alone. And how much richer to have done it together, together with the dog and the man who stand beside me.
I don’t know what lies ahead.
Ecce Quam Bonum.
I believe it will be good, whatever it is.