The Columbia Trail, a former rail line now converted to a horizontal or vertical park (I forget which), runs within several hundred feet of my house and is a favorite place for me to take my daily walk.
It passes through woodlands, swamps, meadows and along the river so it offers as much variety of ecology and wildlife as one can expect in New Jersey. Along the ten miles or so of it that I traverse regularly, I have encountered bear, beaver, otter, fox, racoons and a host of different bird species from eagles to wrens.
This morning it is raining and I have donned my yellow slicker. Actually, it is my wife's slicker but she never wears it because it is too big. It fits me perfectly, but I can't get used to the zipper being on the "wrong" side. I was in the garment business for some years, and never heard a sensible explanation for why the zipper is on the left for women's apparel and on the right for men's.
As I start out, I wonder if I run into a bear how it will react to my yellow slicker. Maybe yellow is a color that drives bears crazy, like red to the proverbial bull. "Roar! Oh my God, he's wearing yellow! That is SO last season! Roar!!," I can hear the bear bellow as he tears me from yellow clad limb to yellow clad limb.
It could also make me a target for snipers if there are any lurking in the woods. I decide to go online and find a camouflage slicker. However, I reject that idea because it may cause any survivalist I might encounter to consider me a kindred soul.
Of course, I could use my umbrella, but there is something wimpy about carrying an umbrella while walking on the trail.
There is nobody around: the trout fisherman are home awaiting stocking day tomorrow, and the weekend bikers and hikers are either at work or home, so the chances of a wildlife encounter are pretty good. I have a confession to make about run-ins with my fellow creatures: I talk to them. My wife says that this is a symptom of mental illness only if I think they talk back. I have a confession to make about that too: I think they do.
Right away, I am confronted by a cat bird who pops out of the brush to sit on a branch at trailside to shoot the breeze. The cat birds only returned from where ever they go in the winter, a week or two ago. It is strange because one day there are no cat birds, and the next there is one in every bush unpacking and airing the summer place out. It's like they all take the same red-eye in from their winter quarters; and they are hungry for news, popping up everywhere to jabber and catch up with the neighbors.
This one, judging by the way it is fluffing itself up and shaking its feathers, is making comment on the weather. Or, perhaps it is saying something catty about my slicker. I compliment her on her good fortune at having such fine feathers and continue on my way.
It's really great having no one around. However, it occurs to me that I have forgotten my cell phone. Perhaps, "forgotten" is the wrong word, because not having it with me is more my normal state of affairs. My wife insists she is going to have "too bad he didn't have his cell phone" carved on my tombstone.
If I go down for some reason, like a sprained ankle or cardiac arrest, it might be some time before anyone comes to my assistance. Which is something else I don't understand: why if I really need someone to come along, they never do, but if I sneak off trail to make an emergency download, there will be a girl scout behind every bush.
I do encounter another walker: a middle aged male in a slouch hat and a blue poncho who doesn't return my greeting. He is one of a group I call "weird walkers," people who look neither right nor left, often have a goofy, far away expression, and never make eye contact. Who these people are and why they are out here, I have no clue, but they seem to be harmless.
I am sure some people put me in this category, because I always wear my beat up Yankee hat and have my binoculars at all times. I often run into people in other places, Home Depot or the super market, who say "I know you. You are the guy with the binoculars I see on the trail all the time. What do you use them for? Looking in people's windows?"
At least the weird walkers are quiet. I hate the bikers, joggers, and walkers who carry on conversations at the top of their lungs. If you want to talk, sit on the porch; if you want to walk, look around and enjoy what's going on. And why yell? I guess to hear themselves over their IPods. The woods in the wake of these groups are like Rachel Carson's worst nightmare: dead silent, as all the birds and animals have gathered up their young and fled for their lives.
My binoculars have come in handy today. As the trail emerges from the wood into a mown meadow, I can see what looks like a dog romping in the field. I can see no sign of his owner, so take a closer look with my binoculars and discover it is a red fox.
It runs, leaps in the air, and pounces in a zig-zag fashion around the field. At first I am concerned that it is displaying signs of rabies, but soon figure out that it is in pursuit of some small animal like chipmunk or vole. I watch it do this until its quarry escapes. As it walks out onto the trail, it turns and looks right at me.
"Hey buddy," I say. "Better luck next time."