VERNON COUNTY - My legs feel like bricks, my heart is thumping out of my chest, my mind ping-pongs out of control, and a darkness begins to creep over me from within. It’s subtle at first, but it builds in intensity, like an opera singer stretching for that last dramatic high note.
I’ve come searching for bluebells and fiddleheads in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve with Dane and the pups. Due to several large, late snowfalls, followed by huge rainstorms, spring has been delayed, making this year one of the latest I’ve recorded for finding these simple treasures. I’ve worried that certain seasonal flowers might drown in the pools of stagnant floodwater along the river.
After the long months of bringing in firewood, emptying ash pans, and scraping car windows every morning, spring is welcome in Wisconsin. But amid the anticipation of coat-free days, the greening of the landscape, and dinners on the back deck, I can feel something pressing on me. Even worse than my worry arising from the abnormal storms of April and May is my growing dread of critters so tiny many people don’t even notice them.
Turning down Highway P, we drive past the ‘Road closed due to high water’ sign, but park well before what now appears to be a lake covering the road. I’m in awe, once again, of how the peaceful Kickapoo River can transform into a raging, damaging, torrent. It’s still shocking, even after witnessing numerous 100-year floods in less than 10 years.
We choose the Old Highway 131 Trail, where you’re guaranteed to be walking among thousands of bluebells in various stages, their green leaves setting off various shades of violet. The bonus is walking along the river where you’re sure to find bright green fiddleheads, some still curled tightly and others already unfurled.
The trail is dry, and soon we discover a hillside full of Dutchman's breeches. To photograph them I need to climb up the hill through mud, tall grasses, and brambles.
“Hello, ticks!” I call out. “It’s me, your old friend.” I joke, but inside the fear is real. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have had Lyme disease or any of its many co-infections you’ll understand. But maybe you were lucky and had a telling bull’s eye, or Bell’s palsy, and received effective treatment right away.
I take my shots of the breeches, but see there are more of them beyond, deeper in than I want to go. I deliberately shrug off my tick-induced hesitation, walk farther in, and crouch down to snap about 20 more pictures. Dane waits for me on the path.
We haven't gone far enough yet to find the bluebells and fiddleheads, and as we continue hiking, flashbacks bombard me:
I can’t remember which pedal is the brake and which is the gas. Driving to work in the dark, I keep turning off my lights instead of turning on the wipers. The confusion overwhelms me.
I'm telling my class that I broke my thumb but have no clue how. The x-rays later show only minor arthritis. Weeks after, my thumb having caused me considerable pain, I declare, “Oh, it must have been out of its socket, it doesn’t hurt anymore!”
After I lose my bank card three times and have to order new ones, a friend gives me a small black credit card pouch. On the plastic sleeve, with brightly colored markers she has written ‘Jane's Magic Keeper of Bank Cards, Protect from Loss,’ and in smaller print, ‘Can't guarantee against memory loss...sorry.’
I'm at the Viroqua Food Coop, frazzled, panicky, looking for my car keys. Thoughtful friends and customers are trying to assist. Jan, the store manager, helps me retrace my every move until finally she finds them, deep in one of the garbage cans, wadded up in my discarded sandwich wrapper.
On and on the memories come hurtling at me like bullets, too fast to dodge, making me want to run. But I keep going.
Soon, we notice the river is out of its banks, flooding the trail, with no way for us to move ahead on our search but through the murky water.
The dogs run right in, loving the cool wetness of the water. I look down at my waterproof hiking shoes, and join the dogs in crossing. Dane sits down to remove his boots and socks until I yell back, “Don’t bother. It’s worse up here, too deep, and there’s a strong current. We won't be able to get through safely.”
As we make our way back to the car, it occurs to me that when I see a storm brewing I no longer feel the excitement I once did. My property, only an acre to begin with, is gradually being eaten away by flooding. Rains have taken away a beloved pine tree, ripped out my fences, and carried away my trough and parts of my outbuildings too many times. I worry about the safety of my animals, my friends’ homes, and people trying to get home.
It’s the same now for me with ticks. If I forget someone’s name, have a splitting headache for no apparent reason, or wake up suddenly with overwhelming fatigue and joints so creaky I can barely navigate my way down the stairs, that blanket of darkness starts to engulf me.
Like that opera singer reaching for her last note, I look upward, throw open my arms, and surrender to the silent scream that has been building up inside me. The fears of getting a tick-borne illness and of floods wreaking even more havoc with my land are real. They aren’t my imagination.
But, I refuse to stop exploring the woods and fields. I refuse to stop lying on my belly to take photos of flowers, plants, and mushrooms. I refuse to be ungrateful for a God-given gentle rain that the thirsty earth needs.
I want to live while I’m living. So, I’ll continue to defy the darkness, one day at a time.