Walking Unfamiliar Woods

There’s a fairly long stretch along Route 6 — basically from the light at Marconi until the turn to Nauset Light — where there are no roads running east to the Atlantic. On last Friday’s early morning commute to Rhode Island School of Design, watching the sun rise through the eastern forest, I realized I know very little about this stretch of the National Seashore. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to begin exploring. 

I correctly guessed it would be possible to find trails that connect Marconi and Nauset beaches. Beyond just familiarizing myself with the terrain, I’m a little obsessed with Marconi Station’s history and I find the evolving design of Nauset Light to be equally fascinating. They’re both places my parents took me as a kid. Marconi continues to be one of my haunts, but the limited public access at Nauset makes visits less frequent — especially when the throngs are here in the summer. The walk is about 9 miles round trip, and a mix of coastal vistas, wooded trails, fire roads, and dirt road. It took me about two hours to get from Marconi to Nauset and about an hour to return. To be honest, the return walk was no-nonsense and I only once stopped to take photos and admire the view. I also knew my way through the trails, so I wasn’t making stops to navigate and estimate distances.

Marconi is named for Guglielmo Marconi, the man whose company enabled the first public two-way wireless communication between Europe and the United States on January 18, 1903. His South Wellfleet Station operated for about fifteen years until rapid erosion made maintaining the station impossible. The Park Service has a good page describing the history of the site in more detail.

Since 1838 a succession of light houses have occupied the terrain near the current site of Nauset Light. Erosion of the cliff has necessitated frequent movement and rebuilding of the lights, and the Nauset Light Preservation Society has a good history of the site on its web page.

As with every hike near the Atlantic this winter, the lede is erosion. The edge took a hit with the succession of three hard winter storms. I know it’s part of a 10k year process, but it’s still jarring to see the dramatic changes. At Nauset Light, it’s especially pronounced with the closing of the coastal road.

I wish I could say that I’m a contemplative hiker or that I’m one of those people who can be mindful while in the woods. Even more, I wish I had the ability to be a bit more attentive to the non-human world as I move through it. The truth is that walking shakes free feelings in me, and my walks tend to be mentally chaotic — planning, working through ideas, composing lectures, arguing positions, and too frequently processing grief. I think I spent some mental energy on all of those things today. It’s already been a difficult 2022.

I’ve also come to recognize that when I don’t hike, there are consequences. For the past month I’ve awoken every Wednesday with a stress headache. I recognized today that Wednesday marks the day when I’ve hit my wall. I’m over committed this season — teaching three university courses, participating in two workshops, helping with the leadership of a non-profit, trying to keep my painting career lively, selling a house, and working on a manuscript. After six 14-hour work days, my body demands processing time. Luckily walking helps shake out the stress. It’s now the next morning and I’m a bit physically exhausted, but also intellectually refreshed.

I’ve been listening to a lecture by Adrienne Maree Brown this morning, in preparation for teaching. As it turns out, her thinking is relevant to the content of all three courses this week. She frequently makes the point that we’re creatures of socialization — that is, we’re trained to think and behave according to the norms of our local culture. It takes revelation — and the ability to be present to revelation — to understand when that training is harmful. Self-defeating, or in service to another’s power. Recognition of the inadequacy of what we’ve been taught allows us to consider other ways of being in the world. 

When I’m honest with myself, I know what’s working in my life and I know what’s broken. Gathering the courage and strength to make change is much harder than recognizing the need for change. I suspect this season, the first quarter of 2022, has been a time of gathering my resources and preparing for the next leap.

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