Last year, I missed the cherry blossoms. I didn’t think it would matter to me. The cherry blossoms are an awesome phenomenon that I’d seen four years in a row – missing one year was just a part of life.
But I did care.
There was just something so sad about not taking part in DC’s official “hello” to spring. Looking at pictures while I was visiting my family in Florida didn’t do the experience justice. For about two weeks, the District transforms into this mystical place that exists under a cloud of white blossoms. Petals float gently through the air every time the wind blows. It feels magical — there’s nothing else like it.
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The weekend of February 20, I didn’t have much time for an outing, so I did a small section of a loop outlined in the book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Washington, DC. That small taste wasn’t enough. The tiny bit of the route that I saw was so enticing, I spent the next week thinking about it. What did the rest look like? Where did it lead? Would the finish match the awesome beginning?
I only had to wait seven days to find out. The weekend called for warmer temperatures and clear skies, making it perfect for a Saturday trek. Sireen drove out to DC bright and early to join me for the loop, and after a brief warm up on the side of the road, we headed to the Zoo.
Early morning view of Rock Creek from inside the Zoo.
I almost didn’t set out on an outing this past weekend. I had way too many plans and I didn’t want to end up being too tired from hiking to enjoy them. But my favorite weatherman kept telling me that the temperature was going to be out of the park on Saturday — an unseasonable 63 degrees! It would have been a crime not to try to squeeze some time in for urban hiking before the rain and the cold took over again.
I left bright and early on Saturday morning. Since I didn’t want to overexert myself, I picked a short route and was focusing more on taking photos and pretending to understand my GoPro than going far. Lingering on the bridge between Beach Road and the Zoo, I took shot after shot until I got tired of the stares from the Zoo worker manning the entrance.
The District is a surprising mix of scenic and city.
When I decided to leave Massachusetts, it wasn’t with the thought that DC was going to become my forever home. I just knew I was tired of being cold all the time and I desperately missed the sun. I really thought, especially in those first few weeks holed up in my studio apartment, that DC would be a year or two stop on my way to eventually settling in a more southern state.
I hated DC in my first few months here. I was hyper-paranoid after hearing way too many horror stories dating back to DC’s reign as the nation’s murder capital. I was frustrated with the poorly-lit, unreliable metro system. I didn’t have any friends. Everyone was dressed way too formally. I was unhappy being back in school. My list of negatives went on and on forever.
And then…something changed. I started meeting people, establishing friendships that are so important to me now that I can’t believe I didn’t know any of these people six years ago. I discovered a city that loves local news so much that Channel 4 has 12 hours of it a day (yay!). I learned about the neighborhoods and their character. I uncovered an endless number of delicious restaurants to try out and obsess over foodie style. And best of all, I found nature.
I knew DC had a park system before I moved here. Of course, there’s the National Mall, but I’d also heard about Rock Creek Park. Unfortunately, I knew about it for all the wrong reasons. Before I saw it for the first time, I imagined it was like Central Park or the Boston Common – a giant green space laid out in the middle of the city. I had it all wrong. Rock Creek is located below the city, around the city, through the city. If you know what to look for, there are entry points to the park all over the northwest quadrant of DC.
Five days trapped inside due to Snowzilla. Two snow days off work. One day of jury duty. All of this strange, indoor, boring time left me claustrophobic and tense. So when Tippa messaged me on Wednesday to ask, “When are we hiking again?” My response was, “Now.”
Of course, “now” wasn’t actually possible. It was still the middle of the week, and we had a few more work days standing between us and Saturday. For me, that also meant being a responsible citizen and heading to the DC Courthouse for jury duty. Thankfully, I thought ahead and brought 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Washington, DC (this is an affiliate link, learn more) with me to stave off the boredom and find inspiration for our next trip.
By the time I moved to DC in August 2010, I was done with winter. It’s funny, the winter of 2009–2010, one that brought Snowmaggedon to the DC metro area, wasn’t even that bad in Massachusetts. But after six years of New England winter, I couldn’t take another nine-month stretch of cold weather.
In retrospect, I grew up in an endless summer. I thought we had seasons in North Florida, but I had a limited reference point for understanding real seasonal changes. I knew moving to Massachusetts for college would give me a winter experience like I literally never had before. But I’m from a family of Floridians, I had no idea what that meant. I was pretty helpless those first few months up north. I had no idea that I didn’t own enough socks. I had no understanding of correct layering techniques. I didn’t even fully grasp that snow was wet.
My first real snowstorm of my first real winter was this one. It started fast and furious on January 22, a very memorable date since it also happened to be my 19th birthday. I remember being nervous and scared as the cloud ceiling dropped so low that I could almost touch it – and then the first snowflakes began to fall. We planned ahead and managed to get Chinese takeout before the snow and one of my more enterprising friends scored giant tubs of ice cream from Usdan’s cafeteria. My friends and I hunkered down together in the Cable 2 lounge and when more than a foot of snow had fallen, we ventured outside for a snowball fight and my first snow angel.
Thirty-six hours after this was taken, I was in urgent care getting diagnosed with a staph infection.
A few months ago, I had an unfortunate and unforeseen accident while hiking. To make matters worse, I also broke one of the cardinal rules of being an outdoors lady: I went on a hike unprepared.
When you choose to hike you also choose to take on the responsibility of being prepared for anything that might happen while you’re out on the trail. Sure, some circumstances might be beyond your control, but there are steps that you can take to mitigate those risks. And I didn’t take any of them.
No one in my group had a first aid kit.
None of us were ready for a worst case scenario.
Sometimes, I wonder what the first settlers of what’s now Gainesville, Florida, thought when they stumbled across Devil’s Millhopper. I imagine they were strolling through the woods, minding their own business when suddenly – bam! The nice, flat land gave way to this gaping maw in the ground stretching 500 feet across and 120 feet deep. It must have been startling. One minute there was serene woods and the next a giant hole leading into the netherworld.
The setting for Devil’s Millhopper is beautiful and lush. There are ferns, pine trees, needle palms, and oaks. There’s the constant sound of birds chirping and the echo of water flowing from the rim to the bottom of the sink. And in the midst of all this peaceful beauty, there’s this feeling that you’ve stepped into something otherworldly.
Over the decade plus that I’ve lived outside of Florida, I’ve learned that most people associate my home state with sunshine and beaches, Disney and golf. Few and far between are people who know anything about the northernmost parts of the state and even fewer who have visited the city I call home.
When I think of Florida, I think of Gainesville. I think of Florida football, the 34th street wall, the Hippodrome, the spring arts festival, Paige Beck, Publix, the music scene, and nature.
So much nature.
In the city, sometimes I feel untouchable. Not always. There are moments, especially with our latest crime wave, when I think, “wow, what if I become an unlucky bystander?” But in general, with the dozens of law enforcement agencies operating in DC, I feel safe.
…and then this week’s horrible events in Beirut and Paris unfolded, and I’m reminded that in any city, even in this beautiful one I call home, we’re vulnerable.
My natural coping mechanism when bad things happen in the world, in addition to being sad and praying for peace, is to obsessively watch and read the news. It’s a pretty terrible way to deal with things and usually results in some quality time hanging out in the fetal position. Whether I was willing to say it out loud or not, I needed to be away from the city, and, thankfully, I already had a hiking trip planned with some of my friends.