Crossed arms. Lots of crossed arms.
Crossed arms and quiet. Uncertainty. Maybe a bit of fear, and maybe a bit of boredom: It was hard to tell.
Behind me, Wade Mountain and its deciduous forest stood some 700 feet above us. In front of me stood some 50 feet, each pair belonging to about 20 Girl Scouts and a handful of their leaders.
And they were quiet, with arms crossed and anxious energy on their faces. Really quiet.
“Okay,” I started. I always start my sentences with “okay” when I’m nervous, which I was, but for a reason entirely different from that of my young charges.
“Okay, who’s never been in the woods before? I mean, this is your first time up a trail like this,” I asked, gesturing to the path leading in through the trees. Five or six hands raised slowly, half of them belonging to adults. A murmur spread through the group, but it was too low for me to understand, so I went on.
“Okay, thanks. Okay, now, how many of you have been in the woods a lot? Like, you’d be comfortable going alone,” I asked. I was happy to see three or four hands shoot up, most of them belonging to the middle-school-aged girls. That was encouraging.
As the hands went down, the group settled back down into silence. And crossed arms. Then again, that hadn’t really stopped.
It was just after 2:30 in the afternoon, and I had an hour and a half to introduce this troop to hiking and then lead them on a short trip into the preserve. The trail we were to hike was relatively flat and easy, since I knew this was a beginner group.
I gave some information on the area and then began to go over some basic trail safety when a hand that was dying to go up couldn’t hold itself down any longer.
“Are there snakes? Are we going to see any snakes?”
Normally, I answer that question with, “If we’re lucky,” but that clearly wasn’t the correct answer for today.
“Almost certainly not,” I replied. Pointing to the parking lot behind them, I continued with, “Do you see all of those cars? With that many people on the trail, any animal we might see is definitely hiding.”
She continued, her anxiety spilling out. “What about other wildlife? What lives up there?”
“Well, there are some deer, raccoons, ‘possums, squirrels, and chipmunks. Maybe some snakes and a few lizards, but, again, the chances of us seeing anything are pretty slim.” The “snakes and a few lizards” part of my list came out quieter than the furry part of the list. That seemed to work.
I’d talked enough, and it was time to go. I turned to head up the trail, and with just the slightest bit of trepidation that comes with responsibility, the troop leader followed me into the open forest, her group trailing behind.
North Alabama is beautiful in early November. The trees still held enough leaves to give the woods a golden hue, and the trail was clear and wide. The hike itself was wonderful, and confidence levels grew as the hour passed.
Somewhere around the turnaround point, one of the older girls near the front decided that “Step up!” was the appropriate thing to say as every rock and root was traversed, which was often. Her natural leadership ability was starting to come to the surface, so I rolled with her enthusiasm despite my love of the quiet woods.
As we rounded the final curve in the trail and the light reflecting off cars became visible, the words that I knew were coming rang out.
“We survived! We survived! We survived Wade Mountain!”
Yes, you did, and hopefully you’ll all give yourselves the chance to do it again sometime soon.