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THIS AND THAT: Have you gone for a walk in the woods?

May 5, 2018

Sometimes near is just too far away.

Ask folks who live in Washington, D.C., if they have visited the Capitol, home of our nation’s House of Representatives and Senate. Many will sheepishly say they’ve never been beneath the dome of that symbol of American democracy. But it’s nearby and they can go whenever they want.

And query people who have lived in Charleston for decades to see if they have been to Fort Sumter, visible from many spots around the city’s harbor and the recipient of the opening salvos of the Civil War. All too many will say they’ve never taken the boat ride to that historic site. But there’s no need to worry, they can go any time they like.

Here in Aiken, ask around and find out if people who are residents of this city have entered the sprawling, tree-shrouded acreage of Hitchcock Woods. The 2,100-acre gift to the people of this community is passed by, skirted around and viewed from paved roads, but most of the time not entered.

It’s so close, yet so far from our minds as a destination for an outdoor activity.

I live just blocks away from that urban forest, but have rarely gone into the woods to stroll along the many paths that gently climb and fall through a tree-filled landscape that includes pines and hardwoods.

Last Saturday, a beautiful spring day with mild temperatures and a soft breeze, my wife suggested we take our two dogs to the woods for a walk. Woods in general are a special place for us, since we met at a church camp in the Upstate whose wooded trails are similar to those of Hitchcock Woods.

With Mary Lou testing out a new brace covering her faltering knee, we decided to drive to the Clark Road entrance. Piper and PJ were excited to encounter new terrain, stopping to sniff the fragrances left by numerous canines before them and marking areas for other dogs to ponder in the future.

We walked past towering pines, oaks and sweetgums and enjoyed the fragrance of honeysuckle and a few other blooms in small trees that we were unable to identify. The dogs tugged at their leashes with PJ, our Tibetan spaniel, trying to go off-road at times. When that was not allowed, he managed to find a deep puddle in the path to wade through, the water covering his short legs and almost touching his chest.

The surprise of the afternoon came not long into our hike when we saw the first of many kalmia shrubs in full bloom.

The plants were on a hillside off to our left and only a difference in the color scheme of the terrain alerted me to the blossoms. Even then, I had to look intently through a screen of newly foliated branches to make sure that I saw what I thought I saw.

Pleased with the sighting and sharing it with my wife (the dogs were too interested in their incessant sniffing to look up at something so trivial as plants in bloom), I was satisfied with the stand of kalmia we had spotted.

We saw a few more of the plants as our walk took us deeper into the woods and to unfamiliar territory. At a fork in the path we had a choice of going to the left and descending or going straight along the trail that had a bend 100 yards ahead. With sunlight filtering through the branches, it was hard to be sure of what was ahead, but it appeared that perhaps more blooming kalmia was at that curve in front of us, so I suggested we continue on that route.

A couple of minutes later we found ourselves standing before bushes on both sides of the trail covered with the pink and white blossoms of kalmia. For us it was an amazing sight on a spring afternoon on what was intended to be just a stroll in the woods with the dogs.

We had hoped to avoid mosquitoes and other gnawing insects (we did), to test out the new knee brace (she did) and to get Piper and PJ some exercise in a new setting (they did). What we got was a whole lot more.

Kalmia won’t stay in bloom for much longer, but we are looking forward to our next venture into Hitchcock Woods. PJ will surely be on the lookout for a puddle to wade through, Piper will inhale all of the fragrances that dogs love so much, and my wife and I will marvel at the natural treasures that are not far from our front door.

Sometimes near is just close enough.

NOTE: Information about Hitchcock Woods can be found online at hitchcockwoods.org where anyone interested in this natural feature of Aiken can download a map and discover one of the city’s most visible treasures.

Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.