Exploring the state parks in Wisconsin has taken up more and more of my time over the past several years. Throughout the state, there are a series of well-maintained but underutilized trails known as the Ice-Age Trail. This is made up of a series of trails that extend from the northwest of Wisconsin, heads south almost to the Illinois border and then turns north again ending around Green Bay. All in all, it is nearly 1200 miles of trails crossing a majority of the counties in the state.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, hiking wasn’t really something that was done, and usually required a full day of driving to get to any area worth exploring. My interest in hiking began with trips to Colorado and Wyoming where I got to explore mountains and other dramatic landscapes. These experiences drove me to get outdoors and appreciate the natural splendor that surrounds us. Living in Madison made this easy, as there are many beautiful areas within the city itself, and many more within a 30-45 min drive. These aren’t exhausting or even stressful hikes, mainly consisting of easily traversed paths with very little altitude change. While there is a physical/exertional aspect to these walks, it is much more about breaking out of the day-to-day pattern of life and allowing the mind to wander while appreciating the feeling of your body working. One of the things I learned early on in residency is not to take the time we have for granted. My geriatrics training provided me with the knowledge that long life comes at a cost too, and that inevitably those activities you took for granted become more difficult and painful. Knowing that these challenges will invariably(hopefully) come makes me appreciate the sensation of covering ground at a speed that leaves you working slightly hard to breathe and a mild ache in your legs after walking several miles. I celebrate the ease that I can do these things now, because I know this can be taken away in a moment, or more slowly erode with the passage of time and loss of cartilage.
As hard as it is to find a silver lining in the COVID crisis; since this began, I have seen a huge increase in people on the trails I frequent. Though we tend to only have quick exchanges it is obvious this is relatively new to many of them. It is sad that it took something this destructive to drive people to search for something that will allow them to escape from the constant barrage of information and stimuli, finally deciding that a few hours in the silence of nature might allow them to center themselves. The people I am happiest to see are the older couples out enjoying the forest and proving that they can still take part in these activities, although maybe a little slower than they used to. They give me hope and drive me to continue on just a bit further, reinforcing the importance of maintaining our bodies and minds. Regardless of the reason, I am happy to see so many people taking advantage of these resources and celebrating the beauty that the state of Wisconsin has to offer.
Since we got our dog, I have had a new companion to explore these trails with, and he provides constant pressure to get out regardless of the weather or my energy level. Because of these more frequent outings, I have expanded the areas I hike, as it is always fun to watch him explore these new areas. He initially had issues with motion sickness, but by starting close and slowly expanding our driving time, he is now a pro at sticking his head out the window to get a blast of whatever smells we happen to be going by that day. He is the first dog I have ever had that stayed close without training or need for admonishment. He always wanders ahead, but rarely out of site. Once in a while I will turn a corner and find him sitting, waiting patiently for me, with a look of excitement on his face, like he can’t wait to show me what he found; but because he has dog ADHD, he immediately forgets about whatever it was and runs forward to see what important discovery exists just a little further on down the trail. I have to wear a backpack when I hike now to carry more water, poop-bags, and occasional snacks, but this seems more than a fair trade to know that face is waiting for me just ahead, egging me on to keep going so he gets to see what’s around that next corner.