“A Walk in the Park"

Memoir by Laurie Gurney Newburger

My boyfriend and I once hiked the Appalachian Trail in Maine, a 10-minute walk that began and ended with him sprinting back to the car pursued by a swarm of man-eating mosquitoes. 

I trailed behind, convulsed with laughter, as he crashed and shouted his way back through the lush wilderness, flushing out all wildlife in a half-mile radius. Did I stop laughing when the pink welts blossomed, and he scratched himself raw? I confess, I did not.

He married me anyway.

Thirty years and two kids later we decided to take an anniversary trip. My husband and I are both in relatively good shape for the over-50 crowd, jogging on the beach, biking, walking — anything to stave off the inevitability of old age. But occasionally his back acts up, and I struggle with bursitis in one hip. We are no longer those college students running through the woods in Maine. 

The Appalachian Trail was obviously out of the question — traumatic memories. But if we couldn’t do a middle-aged walk in the woods a la Bill Bryson, maybe we could still do a walk in the park before we got too old. 

Wyoming — the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park. Eight to 10-mile hikes every day during the last week of September. Too cold for mosquitoes and fewer pesky tourists. His back was good, my bursitis a mere twinge. The timing was right for our 30th wedding anniversary trip.

No perfect plan is ever complete without at least one hitch. Ours happened before we even left the ground. Instead of two days of careful packing and preparation, we ended up jamming whatever we thought we might need into the trunk of our VW and driving all night to Ithaca N.Y., where our 19-year-old daughter had been hospitalized. We traveled on pure adrenaline, in complete silence, too worried to even speak. 

It turned out to be appendicitis. With the miracle of laparoscopic surgery, a skilled surgeon, and no complications, she was discharged four hours later and told to rest for two days. We drove her back to college, unearthed her bed, cleaned her room, and bought supplies. But when her friends flocked in to help, we were obviously in the way. She kicked us out of her room and out of Ithaca, insisting we not cancel our trip. 

A toxic blend of guilt and black coffee fueled our second all-night drive. What kind of parents abandon their stitched and bandaged child to go on vacation? Our kind apparently. We washed down our shame with poisonous brew from every rest stop between Ithaca and JFK. 

For previously dedicated parents and non-coffee drinkers, it was like popping fistfuls of Adderall. My husband white-knuckled the steering wheel and hugged the white lines of the breakdown lanes. I talked nonstop, probing all the usual anxiety triggers: kids, finances, health, work, retirement, aging parents, global warming — anything to keep him awake. 

Seven hours later we arrived at long-term parking, our car and our marriage seriously tested but still intact. We even had time to repack, sorting through what each had thought essential, and discovering what was missing. All the usual accessories of a typical anniversary trip were obviously lacking: no lingerie, no evening clothes, no perfume or scented candles, no chocolates or Champagne, not even enough changes of clean underwear and socks to last half the week. We did have hiking boots. 

The Grand Tetons were glorious, even through bloodshot eyes. Jagged, gray, snow-capped peaks of granite named by a French-Canadian trapper who long ago took one look and said, “O.M.G. them mountains look like some big titties!” Of course he said it in French, a language so beautiful that anything sounds good — as long as you don’t speak French. The connecting plains became Gros Ventre, or fat stomach. 

We wended our way across the large-busted, big-bellied earth woman, wearily joining a parade of rental cars, busloads of Chinese tourists, and large RVs maneuvered by small retirees. When we reached the hotel, my husband and I spent the first night of our special anniversary trip in bed — blissfully asleep for 14 hours. 

Then we started walking. 

When you’ve been married for 30 years, compromise is necessary. You try to accommodate the other person’s interests and abilities as much as possible without giving up your own individuality to the sometimes onerous “we.” This is especially true for middle-aged couples undertaking strenuous exercise.

In our case, my husband is the one with the most energy. I keep up for a while, but eventually flag. If we have an eight-mile hike planned, he has to go for a run and a swim first, while I lounge in bed, storing up every ounce of energy. If the eight miles weren’t enough for him, he will take an after-dinner walk as well, while I remain in prone position until it is dark enough outside to go to bed without shame. I’m usually out cold by 8 p.m., leaving little time for romance. This walk in the park would be no different except that for the first time in 34 years, I would set the pace on the narrow trails while he followed.

Now I’m not sure why after an entire marriage of me following him, he insisted on this new formation. I’ve skied behind him — actually he skied then waited for me to flounder my way down a medium-sized Alp, wiping out small children and old people in my wild but rapid descent. 

We’ve scuba dived together using the buddy system, but when one buddy swims faster than the other — well, you get the picture. He’s always been the leader on past hikes and bike rides, too, waiting at the top of mountains and hills for me to huff and puff my way up, waiting at the bottom of ravines for me to creep down. He’s even waited while I descended the 365 steps at Chichen Itza on my bottom, one step at a time, fighting vertigo and the realization that there are some things you shouldn’t do when seven months pregnant.

I think the change in leaders had to do with the bears.

Both the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are plastered with warnings not to approach wildlife, especially bears. Fall is apparently the time of frenzied feeding as the brown bears and their bigger cousins the grizzlies prepare for winter’s hibernation. 

Not that they are particularly intent on eating tourists, though I avoided the hotel’s huckleberry-scented soap and shampoo just in case. They just have enough contact with people to associate us with food — our picnics, our campfires, our trash. The park rangers recommended walking in large, loud groups, wearing bells and whistles, carrying bear spray, and storing food in bear-proof containers. 

The two of us with our clunky hiking boots made plenty of noise on the trail, and I didn’t think it necessary to join a larger, louder group. We actively avoided the busloads of tourists with their histrionic picture taking, hiking on the paths less traveled. (It made all the difference). And bells and whistles have never been my style. True, the belled tourists sounded rather festive, like oversized kittens, or Christmas in September, and they successfully scared off all bears (and anything else with ears). But I wanted to hear the sounds of the park, and see some of the wildlife, yes, including a bear or two — at a safe distance. 

Anyway I’m sure half the people in the park were armed with deadlier weapons than bells and whistles. It was Wyoming after all. The hotel owners certainly thought so, plastering “No Firearms Allowed” signs on every door. The visitors were probably more dangerous and unpredictable than the wildlife. I considered investing in bear spray, but not for the bears. The only way pepper spray would help me with bears was if the attacking bear kindly waited for me to dig it out of my pack, put on my reading glasses, aim the nozzle in the right direction, and then get close enough to spray him in the eyes. I couldn’t envision standing my ground and brandishing a can of pepper spray at even the most patient of grizzlies. I’m more the shriek and run type.

Finally there was the issue of food. A backpack obviously isn’t a very bear-proof container, but hiking all day is hard to do on an empty stomach. I figured if we encountered a hungry bear we could just throw our backpacks at him and run, donating our lunch instead of our limbs.

With thoughts of bears dancing in her head, a more cynical wife of 30 years might think that she was elected walk-in-the-park leader because the leader of the expedition would most likely be the first to encounter hostile wildlife on or beside the trails, giving the follower, her husband, a chance to escape intact. An even more suspicious wife would ask herself if this could be a plan to commit the perfect murder: freedom by grizzly. No costly divorce with child support and alimony, plus widespread sympathy. “Wife Slain by Giant Grizzly. Husband Devastated” headlining every paper.

Not being that sort of wife, my theory was my husband didn’t want me to lag too far behind and get snagged by a bison, or fall into a ravine, or a geyser, or wander off the trail and get lost. With me always in the lead he could keep me in sight, staying right behind me, ready for anything. So I set the pace. The beat of his boots clomped behind mine, synchronous, and then asynchronous, but always there, always close.

And most significant of all, he insisted on carrying all the food in his backpack, eight miles a day, for seven days. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, dried fruit, and nuts — ideal bear bait. My husband may run from mosquitoes, but he’ll always deal with the bears.

A long marriage is not just a walk in the park, but sometimes a long walk is very illuminating.

 


Laurie Gurney Newburger lives in Amagansett.