Companions for the Journey

The arduous work of bringing a book to market is done and I am just now looking up from the mire to begin a new writing direction.  The piles of drafts and editors’ notes are organized and filed away. The desk surface is neatened up. New ideas are percolating and I am working with the good writing team around me to identify the perfect next project. In the interim, I’ll get a few blogs off and hope that they find you all happy, healthy and doing good things.

Someone recently asked me how writers start a new project? Do they just sit down at the keyboard and start writing? It’s different for everyone, but for me, getting outside on a trail shakes out the cobwebs. Creative thoughts are always there, but there is often a lid holding them in the pot.  The lid consists of all of the necessary daily details that keep us too busy to open up our best thoughts and find insight.  John Muir said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.” Being in nature relaxes my mind and loosens up my creativity.

This morning, I headed over to a local hiking trail with my four-legged hiking buddy  Journey. We headed into the woods to explore a new trail for a couple of hours. On this blue-sky day,  she and I walked beside the marsh that is coming alive with birds just arriving from their migration. The spring birds are coming back to Georgia now and it is musical in the woods.  They are very busy gathering twigs and grasses for nests and calling to prospective mates. Spring here generally runs from March to May, but the first stirrings of spring are in February.  This morning we saw a few gnatcatchers and vireos.  Louisiana waterthrushes are also arriving early and were singing along the water’s edge. A long red-winged blackbird added a spot of color and we could hear a woodpecker in the distance. The American robins are back and building their nests and mourning doves are working on their spindly stick nests.

Journey is fine company today as we walk along together. We start out doing mindful walking (1) and she selflessly slows her pace to match mine. I am seeking insights that cannot come with a hurried pace. Does this sentient being also gain insight too when she slows with me to make careful observations? I think so.

I love the challenge of mindful walking with this dog. Journey comes from a long line of herding dogs who are born and bred to work at a tireless pace. Entlebucher Mountain Dogs are muscled, intelligent cow dogs who need a job to be happy. Her brain is wired to move boundlessly and take control, so it does amaze me that she has the capacity to think insightfully and adjust her pace to the old lady that she ended up with as her life partner.  Since she has no herd, Journey’s job is taking care of her people and she takes it seriously. She and I work together to balance her play and work energy with a variety of introspective endeavors so that she can do that job well. Yes, I teach mindfulness to my dog. Or, rather, we practice it together.

This morning, we practice mindful walking on the trail. We take a few moments before heading out to touch the earth and feel our bodies. Starting out, she lies down, belly in the dirt and I bend down, placing my hand on the ground beside her. It is still chilled from the February night. Next, we both stand, relaxing into that simple posture.

“We have nothing to do and nowhere we have to go, Journey. We are just here.”

As we move forward, we notice the sensation of our feet and legs moving, the pressure on our soles and the stretch and bending of our toes. I pause, bend down and touch her feet, picking them up one at a time. “Those are your beautiful toes.” She looks up at me and back at her feet showing me the soulful whites of her eyes. She seems to understand that I am asking her to pause and notice something.  We walk forward again with our four paws and two boots in constant and steady contact with the earth as I recite a walking mantra, a thought worth repeating, to her.

“Be still, Journey, easy be. Gently go, gently go. Be still Journey, easy be.  Gently go, gently go. Be still Journey, easy be. Gently go, gently go ” 

Later in the hike, we walk more briskly and I talk with her as I dictate notes to use to write with later. Capturing observations on the smartphone allows me to preserve the essence of the moment for later reflection and writing. Having a process streamlines the endeavor and eliminates any concerns about whether or not I’ll remember it later. Speaking those observations out loud keeps Journey tuned in to the fact that we are walking together and not having a separate experience.

When Journey and I walk together, we meet each other in the middle. She accommodates my arthritic knees that regulate our hiking pace and I acknowledge that she has a young dog’s need to sniff, explore and play.

We take turns being as one in the woods,  entwined as human and dog in an age-old bond.

It is a dance of accommodation, of mutual give and take on this walk today. She moves a measured distance ahead, turns and then trots back to allow me to hold her harness up the rocky hill. She leans into the harness and pulls hard to assist me with the momentum needed to climb up for the view.  Descending the other side, she walks slowly beside me, steadying me on the slippery gravel underfoot. My companion and I are tethered less by the harness and more by the relationship we have.

The gravel crunches under my hiking boots while she walks on silent pads. She’s stealthy, but try as I might, I make too much noise in the woods. Sometimes we stop and sit to hear the voices of the forest. I take her cue and sniff the air too. What is the musty mushroom smell? Is it the lichen that is greening up everywhere that has an earthy odor. There is a hint of a skunk who was startled in the night. The woods feed our senses.

We help each other. I am the human with the driver’s license, so I drive us to the trailhead. I plan some favorite snacks and water to take along and she helps me to slackpack by carrying the weight in her backpack. I help her avoid the fallen prickly seed pods on the trail and we both watch for snakes.

Journey keeps a keen eye out for the cooperheads that are waking from their winter’s rest. They are still sluggish, but awake and cranky enough to object to being disturbed. We live on a creek and Journey has encountered snakes often enough to be on alert. Her nose goes constantly, and her eyes scan the trail ahead. Her alert is unmistakable. She stops, freezes and fixates at a point on the trail where I can see nothing at all. She steps in front of me, blocking my path until I can locate what she is pointing out. And there it is, just off the side of the path ahead, in a sun-soaking curled copper circle. I reassure her and we move carefully in a wide berth around this fellow-creature who was there first and means us no harm as long as we pay proper respect.

Today is precious. The sunshine sinks into our winter skin, a welcome interlude before the rain that will come surely tomorrow. If not literally, the sunshine will fade into another of life’s challenges and we will be better equipped to cope by having made this walk today, We are refreshed, renewed.  In a moment of trail kindness, another hiker offers to take our pictures together and this one moment will someday be a precious memory of a  young dog and an old woman who were companions for the Journey.






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