The Enchanted Hike

I am very good at being alone in the world. This is something that I built up to gradually over time, starting with trips to the movies, progressing having meals alone at restaurants that were not fast food chains, and then finally I finding the guts to go on vacation by myself. This past September was my second solo trip. I think at this point I can say that I am more or less entirely comfortable being many hours from home on my own and really enjoy it very much, although this is perhaps because the destination of these vacations so far has been Cape May, a place that I went to often as a child.

There are multiple positives to traveling alone, but the main one for me is that I get to make all of the decisions. This isn’t my favorite because I’m some asshole control freak, but because when I’m out with my friends I worry a lot about their happiness, especially if I’m the one who planned the outing. “Will all of my friends be able to find something to eat at this restaurant despite their various niche food preferences?” “Do my friends actually want to do this activity or are they just going along with it for the sake of not disrupting the group even though they’re going to be miserable the whole time we’re doing it?” You know, just normal concerns. But when I’m alone, if I want to take an extended hike on a trail of unknown length I’m beholden to no one. And on my Cape May trip in 2019 a hike was one of my major priorities.

Cape May Point State Park is home to the lighthouse that is the root of my fascination with lighthouses. I’d climbed it many times as a child and also on the Cape May trips I’d made as an adult in 2015 and 2017. But the state park is also home to a set of trails and on this trip I chose to ignore the lighthouse entirely in favor of making those trails a major focus. In fact, paying them a visit was one of the very first things I did when I got into town, before I was even able to check into my hotel.

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The trails are split up into red, yellow, and blue. They all start at the same entrance and then diverge. I would say that none of the hiking is very difficult since it’s all on mostly flat land and a large portion of it is on walkways made of plastic boardwalks that are elevated maybe a foot or two off of the ground, likely in an effort to damage the environment as little as possible. These walkways wind through the woody marshlands that border the state park’s beach, and the paths actually lead out to the sand in some places.

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You’re probably thinking that the red trail is the most difficult one because that’s often the way of things, but I’d say it’s the easiest. It’s entirely on the plastic planks and while it branches off into a series of little paths and loops, it basically brings you back to the parking lot without having to double back. It’s also very tree-y, providing long stretches of shade, which is important when it’s hot and humid, like pretty much my whole vacation was. Additionally, because it is entirely on the plastic boards, I would argue that the red trail is handicap accessible! I’m no accessibility expert, but I imagine there are many nature areas and trails that cannot say the same.

On the other hand, the yellow/blue trails (which run concurrently for nearly their entire length) is much longer than the red trail and it doesn’t loop – if you walk out there, you will be retracing your footsteps to get back to the car. I recall there was less shade overall than the red trail. There were also portions way down the trail where the path became dirt which was occasionally disturbed by tree roots. This was not a difficult section for me to walk through, but it may be for others.

I did the red trail first. I had done it in 2017 and it’s a pleasant little walk. There are multiple areas with benches to stop and rest, some of which overlook ponds that provide good opportunities for bird watching. I kept running into the same nice woman who noticed my camera and kept giving me a heads up to good photography opportunities that I’d be passing, like the group of ducks at the pond in the lighthouse photo above. When I finished the loop I still had a lot of time to kill before I could check into my hotel room, so I decided to make a go of the yellow/blue trail. I expected it would be largely like the red trail, but I was very wrong.

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Maybe this will sound overly dramatic or cheesy to you, but I think that sometimes in life a moment comes along that feels literally enchanted, just steeped in magic to the core, and my time on the yellow/blue trail is something I would describe that way. It felt like it was there just for me on that sunny September day, a feeling that likely came over me due to the nearly complete lack of other people compared to the several pairs and small groups of other tourists that I saw on the red trail.

I first traveled over plastic plank paths surrounded by tall grasses and some trees. It wasn’t so unlike the red trail, but then suddenly I came upon something new. The plastic path suddenly ended and after a bit of following a slightly sandy dirt path through trees, the trail opened up wide and I passed into a strange little grove. It felt sort of like a clearing despite all of the trees. The trail curved around a set of trees that were widely spaced enough that I could have just cut through if I hadn’t cared about disturbing the underbrush.

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The canopy was a little thicker here, so it was cooler than the previous sections of the trail and the light coming through had a kind of green-gold tinge. The wind was gently shaking the trees and I felt quiet peace come over me. I’m not terribly religious, but I felt a sort of reverence that I can only remember feeling when I visited old churches on a family trip to Germany. Somehow this area felt like one of the the most special, most enchanted, places I’d ever been even though it was just an area of trees and a curved path. I thought I had taken better pictures, but I didn’t, or maybe it’s the kind of magic that’s impossible to capture on camera, so you’ll just have to trust me.

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After leaving the grove the next thing of note that I came across was a long straight stretch of plastic boardwalk. It cut across a huge open field of grasses. As I mentioned earlier, a beach is not far from these trails and wind from the water rustled the grasses into a symphony as bugs chirped musically all around me. I walked across, my sneakered footsteps clunking on the boards, and when I reached the other side I found dirt under me again.

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The next section of path ahead of me was really only wide enough for one person to walk and it was fenced in by foliage that was taller than I am.

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Soon after that I came to another area of trees. There was a wooden bench and roots were poking up through the ground in places. Late afternoon light streamed through the branches, dappling the area in golden spots. I stopped to rest, drink water, and wrangle with the remote for my camera to take a picture of myself while hoping no one would come along and see me doing so because that would be awkward. (The greatest downside to traveling alone is, obviously, there is no one to help you take pictures.)

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After my rest I walked further down the trail and after a little longer the path split into separate yellow and blue trails. One of them, I don’t remember which color it was, soon came to a dead end. The other led me out of the trees to a bridge over a little river. From my vantage point on the bridge, I could see that the path would soon split in two again and curve away around separate corners, but the grasses where high again and I couldn’t see what was ahead. The ground looked like it was turning more to sand and I thought maybe the trail was curving around to the beach. I was intensely curious about what lay around the bend, but after a moment of debate I regretfully turned back, mainly motivated by not wanting to ruin my good walking shoes with sand on the first day of my trip and the fear that I probably needed to reapply my sunscreen (which I’d left in the car) or risk burning. So I made my way back out, past the bench, down the narrow path, through the grove.

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I enjoyed the rest of my vacation, but the part I still think back on the most is my hike alone on the yellow/blue trail.

When I returned to work after my trip, I showed my coworkers photos that I’d taken and when I mentioned that I had been alone one of them, a middle aged woman with sons around my age, said, “You’re crazy!” And maybe, probably, I am a little.

I’m not completely without sense. It did cross my mind that if I hurt myself while hiking I at least could use my cellphone to call for help. At one point on the yellow/blue trail I passed an older man and felt momentarily nervous, but he was too engrossed in a phone call to pay me any mind. I am not unaware of the risks that face any solo traveler, particularly a woman alone. But somehow Cape May feels so comfortable and familiar to me that I found myself doing things that I would never do at home, like taking extended walks through the quiet post-Labor Day town after dark. Hell, I even went to the beach one night at 10 pm to watch the nearly full moon paint the waves and that was another enchanted moment in itself.

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And somehow, despite the little voice in my head saying “you were being foolishly risky” I can’t help but long to do it all again.

I want to go back to that enchanted green-gold grove.

I want to find out what lies around that bend.

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I’ll be honest, I can’t remember where on the yellow/blue path this was so I left it out of the tale above, but it’s an actual! wooden! boardwalk! in an area of plastic ones and is therefore a very enchanted place all on its own and deserves to be part of this post.

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