Finding My Feet
by S. Nadja Zajdman
One early autumn, I joined a hiking club in my native Montreal. My intention was to find a way into nature. I don’t own a car. The most I hoped for was to sit quietly on the school bus, without being bothered, as it transported our group of active senior citizens into the countryside I yearned to become a part of again. I still pay full price for everything, so I don’t know how I’ve come to be considered a senior citizen, but in certain milieux, I am. Perhaps I am a junior senior.
On that first Friday morning, I arrived at the meeting point, and a member of the club noticed me hanging back in a corner, clutching my new knapsack. I was more nervous that morning than on my first day of kindergarten. “Come on in!” she called. “The water’s fine!” The lady wasn’t lying. On the bus, I discovered that I could comfortably socialize.
On the trails, I was startled to discover how frightened I had become of downward slopes. As I stiffened and inched along, a hand reached from behind, gently nudging the back side of my forearm and guiding my direction. “Why are you afraid?” the warm male voice of one of the fitness trainers who lead these outings asked. Why, indeed? I came to think of these trainers as good shepherds who will not allow a lamb to slip over the side of a hill. Beguiled by the beauty of the views, I at first moved forward tentatively, later with budding assurance. And though I sometimes tripped over the exposed root of an ancient maple, always grateful to be breathing cedar-scented air. Lunchtime would find me stretched out on a rock or a dock or a picnic bench by a rushing gorge or a sun-dappled lake.
When autumn turned to winter, we strapped snowshoes onto our boots, and the lunches we carried in our knapsacks were consumed in huts, by the amber-colored flames of logs burning in wood stoves. The first time I put on snowshoes, I felt like I would topple over. “Stomp, Sharon, stomp your feet!” the head shepherd instructed. “The reason you feel like you’re falling is because you aren’t stepping forcefully. The snowshoes have clamps. They’ll bite the ground and hold you up. Stomp, Sharon! Stomp!” So I stomped and I clomped, feeling like the Abominable Snowman. Climbing uphill was hard, but not frightening.
Sometimes we tramped in open meadows surrounded by taupe-coloured trees, and sometimes we edged our way through narrow paths in a snow-laden glade I dubbed the Land of Sugar-Frosted Pines. Once, we entered a region in the Laurentian Mountains called Farhills. These hills were not only far, they were steep. On one hill, all my fellow hikers had to be helped down the icy and treacherous trail. What chance did I have? I thought. When my turn came, I gauged the conditions and made my choice. “Screw this.” A fine line separates courage from stupidity, and I was on the verge of crossing it. I plunked down onto the ground, raised my snowshoe-clad feet in the air, tossed my hiking sticks away from me, shoved at the snow with my gloves, and whizzed down the slope, the ice under my behind turning me into a human toboggan. Two alarmed female shepherds dashed down the hill—they were the only ones capable of doing so. “Sharon! Are you alright?!”
I thrust out my arms and exulted, through crystallized breath, “It’s the only way to travel!”
Having flown down the hill literally by the seat of my pants, I faced another challenge. How to stand up? My feet flailed in the air. I was trapped in the snowshoes. “I need to get these things off,” I assumed. “No you don’t,” the shepherds corrected. We’ll get you on your feet.”
“You can’t,” I bleated. “I’m too heavy.”
“Oh yes we can!” Shepherd Annette positioned herself on one side of me. Shepherd Annie positioned herself on the other. “As we lift, you push. Push from your knees, Sharon! Push!” So saying, they heaved, I ho-ed, and up I sprang! I grinned at the good shepherds in admiration and awe. Not only was I on my feet, I was also smiling.
By late afternoon we were back in the city. I returned to my apartment, soaked in a warm, sea-salted bath, and in sweet exhaustion fell into bed. My body burned, my muscles ached, and I slept like one of the logs that occasionally blocked our paths on the hiking trails.
Photo credits: pixabay, wikipedia.org and map by Google Maps.
S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. Her first short story collection, Bent Branches, was published in 2012. Zajdman’s non-fiction, as well as her fiction, has been featured in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and anthologies across North America, in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Zajdman has completed work on a second short story collection as well as a memoir of her mother, the pioneering Holocaust educator and activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman, who passed away near the end of 2013.