I visited: Hot Springs National Park. Its original inhabitants were the Caddo, among others. This was my 9th National Park.
Once or twice a year I road trip from Chicago to visit family in Houston, often driving through Memphis just past Hot Springs, but I’ve never made time to stop by. This year I’ve had little opportunity for travel, even post-vaccine, but last week I wound up driving to Abilene, Texas unexpectedly. The break from my routine, including many hours on the road in solitude, made ongoing feelings of burnout harder to ignore, and an emotional few days with family sapped my lingering energy reserves. So I splurged on my return trip to Chicago, booking two nights in a Hot Springs hotel to give myself a day in the park and to delay returning to my routine, vaguely hoping that the warm water’s reputation as a healing balm might extend to me.
Temperatures in the 90s made it easier to sleep in and plan an unambitious hiking day. (The heat also softened the disappointment of finding no available appointments at the historic spas, evidently the only way to submerge fully in the spring water. I did at least dip my hand in the Display Spring, and lo, the water was hot.) On my walk from the hotel to the mountain I stopped for a haircut with a barber who (thankfully) seemed to discern that I wasn’t feeling chatty. Terminator was playing on the television, and the customer in the chair next to me cracked loud jokes about the movie with his barber. During slower scenes, he began to describe recent struggles with depression and lamented having hours cut at his delivery job, and neither of the barbers nor I had much to offer by way of consolation. I wasn’t at my best. I don’t know anyone who is right now.
Per a ranger’s recommendation, I hiked a long loop around Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain: up Peak Trail, to Hot Springs Mountain trail, to Gulpha Gorge Trail, to Goat Rock Trail, to Upper Dogwood Trail, to Lower, then Floral and Honeysuckle Trails back to the ground, about 3 miles total. The trees were dense enough that views were hard to come by, but a few overlooks offered striking panoramas.
All day I waited halfheartedly for some kind of insight, or perspective, or even a jolt of energy. The heat was stifling, and during my hike I felt numb and emotionless. I found the closest thing to an epiphany on a bench somewhere along the Upper Dogwood Trail, where the question came to me: “What do you see?” What I saw was trees, and my mind supplied the rest of the platitude: that I was missing the forest. “So what is the forest?” I asked, and an answer emerged from that liminal space between my subconscious and God and the wilderness: “The forest is the love of God. It surrounds you as you walk. You cannot walk out of it.”
Between one-and-a-half jobs this summer, I’ve felt stretched thin. And like many, the sudden transition from a year of slow isolation to a summer packed with activity has drained me. It reminds me a little of a summer I spent in Papua New Guinea, including a month or so in the bush. On our return trip, my fellow travelers and I had a one-day layover in Australia, so we planned our evening around a trip to the theater to see the newly-released Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We had spent most of the summer away from devices and television, and watching a full-length film on a big screen assaulted our senses. We needed time to readjust to the pace and volume of a blockbuster, and in the meantime it overwhelmed us.
After my hike I wandered the historic bathhouse row, stopping in a brewery to buy beer made from the spring water before heading back to my hotel to recover. On the way I ran into my barber, who was leaving the shop at the end of his shift, and he asked me about my day’s adventures in the area. The next morning I rose early to drive the rest of the way to Chicago with little more to show for the day than a few mosquito bites. I didn’t feel any more rested. I didn’t feel particularly healed. But I did at least feel sustained—by the intimacy of a stranger’s hands grooming my hair, by two bottles of water drawn from a spring faucet in the park, by the love of God surrounding me on the open road no less than it had in the dense forest.