Friday, January 10, 2014

Tuesdays with Pop

(my father, Irv Boyle, at the Hennig Preserve)

I have hiked with my father since childhood, but, recently, we have had a fall schedule. Fall Tuesdays are the days my mother takes a class at Skidmore.  In the past couple of years, my father's Alzheimer's has progressed to the point where she is afraid to leave him home alone for long.

When each fall season begins, I am ambivalent about  being locked into a rigid commitment, but as the weeks progress, I realize that I am getting the best of this deal.  Not only do I get quality time with my father whose lucidity increases on the trail, but I am out there, in the woods, on gorgeous fall days. I also know, more than ever, that our hiking days are limited.

I began this season with a trip to the Hennig Preserve. In the town of Providence, between Saratoga Springs and Galway, the Hennig Preserve is not far from my parents' home.  This past summer, Saratoga P.L.A.N. (Preserving Land and Nature) opened new trails on the south side of the 800-acre preserve.  I knew my father would love the variety offered by this area.                  

(trails are beautifully created and maintained by Saratoga P.L.A.N.)
We passed stone walls deep in the woods, and the remains of an old mill on the creek.

My father said, "This was a good idea, Virginia."  And in the next breath, he asked, "Does El know where we are?  When she comes home, will she know I'm out with you?"  I assured him that my mother knew where we were.

I was concerned that the trail went slightly down hill and that we would have to return on an upgrade, but my father told me that he thought it would be fine.  "Coming here was a good idea, Virginia.  What made you think of this?"  I told him that I had led an ADK (Adirondack Mountain Club) hike here a couple of months before and had checked out the trail.  I knew he would like it.  "Does El know where we are?  Does she know I'm out with you?" he asked.

Even though the south side was new to him, my father remembered having been on the north side trails.  "I skied here many times."  Then we talked about the Hennigs and how they had accumulated this acreage and had chosen to donate it as a land trust. "Coming here today was a good idea, Virginia."

(my father and I thought the tall fir trees made a nice backdrop to this autumnal scene)

It was a good idea.  With the fall foliage coming on, temperatures in the 50s, and a clear blue sky, I couldn't think of any place I'd rather be.

After about a mile and a half, we picked a "turn-around" spot across from a large beaver pond.  We sat on a fallen log under a huge pine tree.  The aroma of evergreens filled the air and the sounds of trickling water going over the beaver dam broke the silence.

"This has looked just like this for hundreds of years," my father mused.  "Think of all the people who would have seen this place just like we are...Indians, early settlers...and all the things that have happened in the world since, and this is still the same."

(beavers worked hard to make this dam and pond)

In fact, we had just passed old house and mill foundations, the remains of a cistern, and stone walls.  A hundred or more years ago, this was a very active settled area.  We talked again about the Hennigs donating the land, then turned, and headed back.

Driving slowly along the dirt road, we noticed a few vehicles parked on the opposite side.  "It's Tuesday," I said, "that's the day they work on the trails."  A petite older woman, head bent down, strolled along the roadside.

"That's, that's--," my father exclaimed, his face bright.  "Barbara Hennig," I said, finishing his sentence.  I turned the car around and pulled up near her.  This was surely the icing on the cake.  We both got out of the car and my father and Barbara had a joyful reunion, while I explained where we had just hiked. My father thanked her over and over for her part in donating this land.

According to my mother, he talked about this outing for days.

The next week was drizzly.  I needed a plan and decided to take my father out to the new Mountainman store at Stafford's Bridge on Fish Creek near Saratoga Lake.  He was in awe of all the kayaks and gear.  "What an inventory!" he exclaimed.  A young man, working in the shop, told us that this was the last day they would be open until Spring.  "Well, I'll be back in the Spring," my father said.  "I need a lighter kayak.  I'm having trouble getting my kayak on the car."

The rain stopped.  We had sandwiches with us that my mother had made, in case we were able to hike and have a "trail lunch."  I drove us to the Spa where we ate them in the parking lot.

My father has a route that he likes to walk at the Spa (Saratoga Spa State Park).  His walk usually takes him about 40 minutes along the road, down the hill to Kayaderosseras Creek and the geyser, and back up by the Roosevelt Baths to the car.  When I walk it with him, we always stop on the bridge over the creek, and have the same conversation every time.

"I've kayaked this many times," he says, and then he will tell me of all the different people he has been here with. "Those are good memories," he adds.  I have found that the more his memory leaves him, the more he tells me how important it is to remember.

This time, though, he said, "The last time I came here, I was by myself and I walked along the boundary fence on that far side for quite a ways.  I wanted to see how far the fence went.  I must have gone a mile or more and then turned around.  I began to think that if anything happened, El would never find me."

(the Kayaderosseras Creek runs through the park)

This scared me a little.  He was absolutely right.  My mother would never know where to look for him.  I tucked this location in the back of my mind, in case my mother ever calls, saying in a panic, "He went for his walk at the Spa and it's been two hours. Where do you think he might be?"  I reinforced the idea that walking by himself, bushwhacking through the trees, was not a good idea.

We took a trail away from the road.  "When I come here, and walk this trail," my father said, "I can almost imagine that I'm somewhere else, maybe up north or somewhere."  Ahh, a man after my own heart, I thought.  I often fantasize that I'm actually in the mountains or in deep woods, when I'm really close to home.

(It's easy to pretend that we are farther away from home than we actually are)

I told my father that I think water always makes a place more interesting.  "Yes," he agreed.  "We're lucky to live where we do.  And I've kayaked this many times."  He proceeded to tell me again of all the people he had been here with over the years.

One week when I left Saratoga, I took a detour to check out Woods Hollow Nature Preserve on the border of Milton and Ballston Spa. The next week, I took my father there.

Woods Hollow is a small preserve riddled with old roads, surrounding a tiny reservoir and a marsh. I had printed a trail map off the computer.  At the many intersections, I showed him where we were on the map.  I was a little concerned that he might feel insecure in a place that was unfamiliar, but he showed no apprehension, just saying, now and then, as if it were a new thought each time, "Now, does El know where we are?  Does she know I'm out with you?"  I was glad that he was certain my mother would not be concerned about his whereabouts if she knew he was with me.

We talked about skiing.  The trails were mostly flat with rolling hills.  "This would be nice place to ski, Virginia," he said.  Then we came to the big sledding hill.  We walked over to the top.  "I wouldn't ski that.  Maybe when I was younger, but not now."  I pointed out that there was also a more gradual downhill trail nearby. 

(this bench, facing a marsh, is one of many located in the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve)

We admired the little reservoir and took a narrow path along its edge. When we came to another intersection, I sat on a bench and encouraged him to do the same.  On the bench were two acorn caps on one stem.  "That's El and me," he said with a smile, as he put the acorns in his pocket.  "I'll show them to her and tell her that."

We stopped at Stewart's for ice cream on our way home, a tradition we have always had.  My father said, "That was a good hike, Virginia.  I guess I'm doing pretty well for being nearly 90."  I agreed and told him how great it was that we were still out there hiking together.

When we got back to the house, I reminded him that he had the stem of acorn caps in his pocket.  Later, when I talked to my mother on the phone, she said, "He remembered to tell me all about the acorns.  I've put them on the little kitchen shelf."

The following Tuesday began gray and chilly.  I had told my mother that I wasn't exactly sure where we would go.  Maybe we would go to the Spa again, or maybe to Moreau State Park.  Because I was vague, she did not have gear out for him.

When I decided that we would take one of the trails off Spier Falls Road at Moreau to a pond, I considered his footwear and thought his sneakers with sturdy ribbed soles looked fine.  He got out his coat, hat, and gloves, and was impressed that I knew it was hunting season and had brought blaze-orange vests for us. 

(we like to find interesting natural elements, such as this tree root that resembles a yoga pose)

The trip began with a chat with a hunter in the parking area.  As a long time hunter himself, my father regaled the man with his own tales of hunting at Indian Lake.  Our outing went down hill from there, both literally and figuratively.

Leaves were about five inches deep on the trail as we headed on a steady down grade towards the pond. "I should have brought my walking stick," my father said.  "You should have told me I would need a walking stick."  I admitted to him that I never thought of the walking stick, and that I would surely have told him to bring it, but the idea just had not crossed my mind.  A few minutes later, he said, "I should have my walking stick.  You should have told me to bring it."

(fallen foliage lies deep on the trail through a young beech forest)

Then, "You should have told me to wear hiking boots.  My balance isn't as good as it used to be, you know.  And I should have a walking stick."  The trail began a significant descent, and I suggested we turn around.  "Yes, we should," he said.

We got back to the car and drove along the road. We could see the pond, that I had wanted to hike to, through the trees.  It was covered with geese. "Look at all those geese!" he exclaimed. I knew he would have loved going to this pond that felt remote but was not far from the road. "And look at those colored leaves."  The "color season," as he calls it, is his favorite.

We decided that walking would be much better in the main area of the park on the paved campground roads. We headed out on a trail alongside a pond near the lake area. Strangely, there was not a single goose here.

(the sun shone briefly on this paved path near the camping area)

"My fingers are cold," he said.  I looked at his gloves.  He had brought the gloves he wore for yard work.  There was a hole in the tip of one finger.  "I should have brought my winter gloves," he said.  We talked about how the cold weather had come on suddenly and we just hadn't thought yet about needing warmer clothes.  I knew that my mother would have thought of it though.  If I had told her that we were going to go to Moreau, she would have had his hiking boots, hiking pole, and a knit hat and gloves laid out for him.

("No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds - November!" by Thomas Hood)

Time to give this one up, I thought.  We walked back to the car.  In minutes he was warm and comfortable, and happy with the obligatory stop at Stewart's.  I reminded him of the good parts of our walk: the pond through the trees with the geese, the brilliant patch of colored leaves we had seen along the roadside, and the ice cream.

This time, my mother was at the house when we returned. I secretly told her about all the things that had gone wrong.  Later, she called me and said, "I know you were disappointed in the hike today, so I had to call to tell you that all I am hearing about are the colored leaves, and the interesting trail and ponds. In his mind, it was a success."

My father remembering the day as a success was all that mattered.  It was a good day for me then, too.