It was our third nature hike of the day—my husband's idea. I was a city girl, leaving my cement urban oasis for a week's dose of fresh country air, often complaining that citronella candles didn't keep the mosquitos away. At home, my nature walks involved strolling five cement blocks to Whole Foods for overpriced organic produce.
First, we were let loose in an endless field of grass and wildflowers, where giant sculptures had landed, surely from another world; metal and wood and neon painted colors juxtaposed with the natural landscape. Next, a tour of a historical artist's house and the grounds he designed when horses and buggies navigated the land and Mark Twain would visit. Our last foray was late in the afternoon, trekking to the tallest waterfall in the entire county.
My husband and I had a choice of the Green, Red or Blue trail. He'd spent summers at sleepaway camp, claiming that canoeing across mountain lakes made him the grown man he was. My preparation for adulthood was playing Ringolevio in the street, pausing our games whenever a car needed to pass.
On the Green trail, I followed my Boy Scout husband, past signs warning of Lyme disease. Earlier in the week, we'd met friends at a different preserve. On a warm sunny day, Bob was overdressed in long pants, flannel shirt, high socks, hiking boots and a hat with a brim and flaps over his ears down to his shoulders. I felt naked in shorts and a T-shirt.
"I've had Lyme once," Bob warned, and encouraged me to change into long pants in the front seat of my car. Then his wife sprayed my sneakers with Deet (so the little buggers wouldn't crawl up my legs) and squirted a mysterious natural repellent from a purple bottle over my arms.
"Do a tick check later," she warned, informing us she had one in her freezer to take to a doctor for identification.
"Make sure to check your penis," Bob advised, speaking from experience.
Warily, I followed my Hazmat-suited friend into the wild. Nature was dangerous.
On our waterfall hike, I nearly tripped on a tree root, but at least there weren't any snakes or alligators. Yes, I know alligators don't get to this neck of the woods, but if ticks could find penises, anything was possible.
I took a video of the waterfall on my iPhone to post on Instagram and I lounged on a rock, worried about checking for ticks, fearing I'd never differentiate them from all my moles, which my grandmother used to call "beauty marks."
A couple in their early 20s, bravely clad in bathing suits and sandals in this dangerous nature territory, interrupted our quietude.
"We want to swim!" the young woman said.
"How do we get down there?" her boyfriend asked.
My husband pointed to a steep unmarked descent. Way off the Green, Red or Blue trails, it could have been called "All Abandon Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"—a Dante quote my teenage brother had once posted on his bedroom door. They took off like light-footed sprites, disappearing toward the base of the falls.
"Let's go," my husband suggested.
He was not a risk-taker. An introvert who observed the world through a camera lens, he was the quiet rule-follower. But he knew more about nature, capable of navigating uncharted territory.
I began to follow him, but quickly reconsidered after a few small missteps. "I'll wait for you back on my rock," I said. "I don't care if I have mezzanine seats. Getting down to the orchestra is too scary."
Off he went. I relaxed into the hypnotic sound of the falls, knowing that water had a calming effect. Even when perched up high.
Ten minutes later, my husband reappeared, blood dripping from his right arm and leg. "I slipped," he confessed, part embarrassed and part concerned as I used my water bottle to cleanse his wounds. "I must've slid 25 feet."
As I pressed tissues into dripping blood from his arm, he checked his camera lens. "I don't think I hurt it," he said, relieved.
He limped back to the safety of the parking lot. Our fourth nature hike of the day was finding a CVS, where we stocked up on Neosporin, cotton balls and bandages. While he showered, I googled first aid tips for scrapes, bruises, and believing that a grown man can trot down an unmarked trail like 20-year-olds.
"I hope I didn't break a rib," my bandaged husband moaned, waiting for the Advil to kick in.
"What caused you to make such a stupid decision?" I asked.
"I guess I thought I was still invincible."
He wasn't. Neither was I. With age comes certain sensible limitations, while still exploring and broadening our world. My hiking style could be described by another Dante quote: "Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground."
The older I get, the more my eyes are on the ground. On my waterfall hike, I didn't look up, afraid of tripping and falling. There's more to fear than nature: feeling more vulnerable as we age. I've learned to hold onto the railing as I descend the subway stairs I once pranced freely down, rushing to meet a train. I've seen friends break bones in the woods or by merely stepping into a city pothole. In the country and in the city, I will still search for and embrace new experiences and sights. With a little more caution, knowing we all get there eventually.
My husband's bruises took weeks to heal, long after my mosquito bites stopped itching. I'm grateful to run out and buy more Band-Aids than to see him hobble in a cast or with a cane. I remind myself to look up when I feel firmly footed, enjoying puffy clouds dotting a perfectly blue sky. And I remind him that he's not the Boy Scout he once was.
"Be careful. Take it easy," my father used to warn us, when he was 70 and we were that young couple daring to swim in unchartered territory. It was a message I used to ignore, but now truly understand.