Not even five minutes into my Sunday morning hike and already my shoes are soaked from the dew. I have to make a split second decision as I feel cool, wet water seeping through my socks; turn back or keep going. There might be blisters at the end, surely some chafing from my hiking shoes, but it’s a glorious August morning and the sun is glaring down on me. I can’t go back. Ignoring my wet feet, I move on.
I’m in Otter Lake Regional Park and this is my glory place, my church of the great outdoors. Plopped in the middle of White Bear Township, it’s a tiny little park, with a very nice nature center and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re miles from the outer world. It’s where I cross country ski in the winter time, and for the other three seasons, I roam it’s trails and discover more and more every day to love about it. On this particularly beautiful morning, in the high season of summer, I take to the trails, dew and all to seek out something I can’t find among the concrete.
My favorite path is cut short by standing water; it’s unusually low in that area, and during the Spring thaw, the trail is often impassable, but it always dries out. But this summer, with it’s abundant rainfall, it’s a no-mans land. I keep on the path that leads me around the back of the newly constructed natural classroom and head in to the swamp. This trail will lead me to the northwest section of the park where the hardest challenge of my hike lies. In there, the path cuts through a sanctuary of birch and towering oak trees, dipping down sharply, then rising just as fast to offer a heart-pounding, blood racing interval that I love. I can’t even consider going on this trail in the wintertime, on my skis. It’s challenging enough on foot, but I can’t stay away. The majestic oak trees line the path, like sentries that silently watch me pass, breathing deep, as the smaller of the two lakes in the park wink it’s shimmer of blue through the tree line. I try to challenge myself to run hard up a few of these short but steep hills. I’m ignoring my damp shoes.
Coming out on the other end, I’ve broken a sweat and wish I had my water bottle. The sun has rose high enough now to pound on my skin, and the wind swirls around me. It’s not strong enough to keep the flies at bay, and I impatiently swat away at them, mentally reminding myself to bring bug spray the next time I come here. This section of the path, through the heart of the park is high and open. No trees hide the sun out here and as I push on, beads of sweat slip down my temples.
The best part of being out here isn’t the nature. It isn’t hearing the hum of the highway along the western edge of the park, or the sound of the trains in the distance, blasting their whistles as they through the crossing. It isn’t the flash of deer, startled from their morning graze, leaping through the trees with white tails whipping, nor the fox, visible only by it’s bright red bushy tail twisting as it runs. It isn’t the small brown snake that lifts it’s head as I approach, watching me closely. “I’m no threat.” I murmur, slowing down to gaze at it’s tiny eyes. It doesn’t even flinch as I carefully step over it, and turning back as I move on, I see it’s watching me.
It isn’t any of these things, nor the rustle of the grass, or the continual droning hum of the insects. It isn’t the fluttering butterflies that skip along the path ahead of me, all shapes, sizes and colors. It’s isn’t any of it, and it’s all of it. Because out here, with the open skies and clean air, coupled with my footsteps and steady, hard breathing, it’s all of it at once that tames the voices inside, the swirl of life in my head that becomes a cadence of regular disruption. I come out here and it all disappears. My head clears, while the constant motion in it stops and I can breathe, relax, feel my blood pound and just let go. I am in sync with myself on this path, instead of at war with trying to figure out what’s next.
Then the trail dips down to the larger lake, and winds around to the north. It’s really uneven here, and now I am fully aware of my hiking shoe rubbing on my right ankle. The arthritis in my feet is apparent, but it will never stop me; it’s just more noticeable where the path is the least stable. The grass is tall and it tickles my legs. I swat the flies, wipe the sweat and keep going because soon, there will be the boardwalk leading me around the side of the lake, and at the other end is the thickest, densest trees and a hard packed dirt path that will take me back to the place I began. I’m on the last leg and those woods, with the tall maples and cool shadows will feel really, really good after the heat and sunshine. I feel the temperature drop as I enter here, and the slight chill rejuvenates me. Sunlight is dripping through the high tree canopy. And it’s glorious with bird song.
But the mosquitos in here are terrible. I can’t stop, or even slow down. I want to grab a few photographs to chronicle this morning, but I am swarmed with nibblers if I try to catch my breath. My feet feel better, but the rubbing on my ankle is a chronic annoyance. Because it’s cool in here though, the sweat slows down and I don’t have to wipe my face so much. My heart and lungs are on full power now; I’ve been hiking hard for 45 minutes by the time this trail leads me back out to the blacktop path that I started on. The nature center is in sight, and the parking lot, where my car and my water bottle await, is beyond that. My head feels soothed and I take a deep breath, once again. I’m back to the car, stripping off my soaking wet shoes and socks, wiping down my feet with the wipes I keep in my car and toweling off the sweat. My water bottle is half empty already. I stretch out the tension, drop in to a few yoga positions to re-focus and eventually climb in to my car to head home. In less than an hour I hiked nearly 4 miles.
And I’m so hungry now.
At home is waiting the simplest of simple summer salads, perfect for these heady days of heat and sun. The farmers markets are absolutely bursting with a mind-boggling bounty of fresh food and I am crazy in love with sweet corn, fresh tomato, zucchini for the grill, tiny purple eggplants and dark, dark greens. Every meal tastes like sunshine, each bite bursts with flavor. I snip handfuls of herbs from the garden to crush and sprinkle over everything and even after washing my hands I can still smell the thyme, the parsley and basil, the volunteer oregano that sprung up from last years plants.
And this salad…. this salad awaits my gnawing stomach, the hunger driven out of a vigorous hike, deep gulps of clean morning air and the need to still my mind. It’s simple, quick and so delightful; the snap of fresh tomato, fresh zucchini chunks, crunchy corn kernels that still taste like a farm field and lots and lots of tiny thyme leaves. A few scattered pieces of lemony goat cheese makes it complete.
My shoes are drying in the hot sun, outside on the patio and I need a shower. My ankle didn’t blister, thank goodness, and while my body is energized from it’s workout, my mind is at rest. This is a good place to be. Like August, with it’s wellspring of fresh vegetables.
What’s on your summer table these days??
(Notice anything new down below here?? There’s a print button for my recipes now!!)
Herbed Sweet Corn and Tomato Salad
4 ears sweet corn, shucked, cooked and stripped of kernels
4 medium tomatoes, or 1 pint fresh cherry tomatoes, as ripe as you can find
2 small zucchini, diced
1/2 c. fresh chopped herbs, such as basil, thyme, parsley and oregano (use rosemary if you like it)
2 T. good quality olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper and sea salt
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow to stand for 5-10 minutes to combine flavors. Serve topped with goat cheese, if desired.
My Notes: I used half a pint of purple cherry tomato, and one good sized orange heirloom tomato for my version of this dish. I also diced up a fresh heirloom pepper that I had on hand. I think one of the best parts about this dish is how colorful it can be with the variations available now. As the salad stands, it will release plentiful juices which are delicious if you dip fresh toasted bread into them, then sprinkle a bit of sea salt over before eating.