VERNON COUNTY -Walking steadily uphill, our toes pointing almost toward the sky, our breathing quickens and feels heavier. The trees stand bare, ready for the cold, ice, and snow. The ground is ankle deep in dry leaves. Each slow step first pushes through the leaves with a swoosh, followed by a crunch when the foot hits the ground. At this lazy pace, we are able to observe all the secrets of the woods.
It also gives each of us time to reflect on our own.
Swoosh, crunch, swoosh, crunch, like a song on continuous play, we plod upward, lifting our feet over fallen trees, occasionally rolling our ankles or stumbling on rocks, acorns, and walnuts hidden under the heaps of leaves and autumn debris. As the hill starts to narrow, our hearts widen with the anticipation of walking on a hogback, our favorite type of land formation in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve: the spine of the hill, where the ground drops off steeply on both sides.
We’re both feeling lucky to be back hiking on it.
The dogs are running back and forth, but stop short of venturing down the slopes. Even with four legs, they seem to sense that they could go tumbling down. If we look one way we can see over Highway 131 and enjoy a panoramic view of the countryside outlined with hills, barns, and rock outcroppings. If we turn our heads the other way, we are looking into endless trees, most standing bare, some with leaves, and others lying on the forest floor like a giant game of pick-up sticks.
Holding hands, we walk to the tip of the spine. The trail ends where a huge tree towers upward. Dane hangs on to its trunk with one hand while looking over the abyss. As if on cue, the dogs have also stopped at the drop-off. They sit while Dane and I start reminiscing about last year’s hike on the Jug Creek Trail.
Only a year ago and the scene was quite different.
I was leading twice weekly exercise classes at the time and Dane was attending them. Although not the toughest of workouts, it was tough enough, and we were both committed to going on short hikes with my pups most days of the week. On weekends it wasn’t unusual for us to walk the trails in the KVR for a few hours and many miles.
While we were ascending the Jug Creek Trail, before even getting to the hogback, I noticed Dane was no longer walking next to me. Surprised, I walked back to where he stood and asked what was wrong.
“My chest hurts.”
“What do you mean it hurts?” I asked, my voice rising with concern.
Dane started walking again and I kept questioning him. Soon I saw him place his hand on his chest. He stopped again. Dane claimed it was nothing, but I knew it was something. Never in all our years of hiking together had Dane ever had to stop and rest.
After the hike, I kept badgering Dane to call his doctor, and he did, but not until the next day. After seeing his doctor and having a stress test and cardiogram it was determined that one of his valves going into his heart was 100 percent blocked, and another nearly blocked.
The dogs are getting anxious to start moving again, and we turn around to follow the spine back to where it widens into a loop through the woods before descending back down the hill. The sun is shining through the trees, and we hold hands until the trail tapers off, forcing us to walk single file. The dogs bound ahead of us as we kick through the leaves, swoosh, crunch, swoosh, crunch.
We both understand that Dane could have had a heart attack on last year’s hike, which could have resulted in damage to his heart or possibly even his death. Yet, we haven’t talked about it until today. Dane never mentions it, but I think of it often.
I could have been walking the hogback without him today.
The day after his test, Dane was admitted to Gundersen Lutheran, where he underwent outpatient surgery and had two stents put in. I had to teach that day so we agreed his brother would drive him to the hospital and I’d pick him up after class. When a few of the gals in the class asked where Dane was, I told them the truth. I don’t think they believed me, especially when he came to the next class two days later! Because Dane recognized the symptoms of a potential heart attack and went to the doctor quickly, he was able to get the help he needed and get right back into his work and life.
When we reach the car, we load up our tired dogs, and as we drive away we decide to christen the trail with a new name: Heart Attack Hill!
If the woods could talk would they share our secrets? Do they know how grateful we both have felt to be walking together today in their presence?