Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mighty Oaks!

Hi Folks! Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a great holiday season! Unfortunately, now we have to get back to things like work and reality and the daily drudge! Ugh!

You may recall hearing about the June 5 tornado on the news, that massive tornado that ripped through several Ohio communities, killing a number of people and decimating Lake High School. As it happens, Lake High School is a mile from my home, as the crow flies. I heard that tornado coming as I paced frantically in my bathroom.

I had managed to catch two of my four cats and bring them into the bathroom with me. The other two were on their own; I had no idea where they were hiding. I just hoped that we would all survive that horrible roaring sound I heard outside. Thankfully, the Gods answered my prayers that night, and myself, my cats, and my house were completely unscathed by the storm. At least, that's what I thought at the time.

A week or so after the tornado, fiance John and I toured the affected areas on his motorcycle. The scenes of devastation were even more unimaginable than the ones shown on t.v. I remember seeing a girl's pink bike jammed into the second-story corner of a house. I remember seeing a house that survived intact but for a fallen brick wall out front, while the house right next door was completely demolished. And I remember how odd the trees looked, denuded, entirely stripped of leaves.

Curiously, the tornado had taken a path roughly diagonal to the horse barn where I volunteer. Due to a number of downed electrical cables, I had to drive a different route than usual to the barn. On the way, on one side of the road I saw a garage that had been lifted off its foundation and turned by several degrees, then set back down otherwise intact. On the other side of the road, high up in what remained of a tall tree, I saw someone's area rug hanging. It was an eerie sight.

I heard on the news that the tornado had also ripped through the middle of my favorite metropark, Mighty Oaks, but I didn't give it much thought at the time. Mighty Oaks is a huge park out where things are still rural. I've never ridden the seventeen miles of horse trails there, but I'd sure like to! There are a number of natural features at Mighty Oaks, such as oak savannas, pine forests, sand dunes, and couple of scenic lakes. In all the years I've been going to Mighty Oaks, I've never managed to walk all the miles of all the trails, but I've definitely given it an honest try!

Some time in August, John and I rode his bike out to Mighty Oaks. It's a nice scenic drive in its own right, and it gave us a chance to survey whatever damage there might be. He slowly cruised the few roads through the park, explaining that you could tell the tornado had been there by how the trees were twisted: it was as though a giant hand simply grasped the trunks and gave them a big twist. It was easy enough to see the path of destruction, too, by the trail of felled trees in the distance. It was a sobering sight.

We didn't explore Mighty Oaks in any detail that day. It was enough to know that the tornado had been there and done some damage. We rode off in search of a root beer stand, and it never occurred to me at the time that there might be more to it than a few dozen downed trees.

I should probably give you some background on my connection to Mighty Oaks. I started going there as a teenager. My favorite aunt and uncle lived nearby, and often walked the trails with their black lab, Schooner. I soon discovered what a peaceful haven it was, and from my twenties on, began spending a fair amount of time there by myself.

There's a favorite path I've always loved. Directional markers are posted along the trail, but it was such a rare occasion to come across another walker that I began to wonder if anybody really knew it existed. It was a wondrous trail in all four seasons, and each held its own appeal. In spring, the gullies were filled with ferns. In summer, wild flowers bloomed, and the canopy of the trees overhead protected me from the sun as I walked. In fall, the oak leaves crunched beneath my feet as deer scampered into the distance. And in winter, there was nothing so beautiful as the hushed silence of a new-fallen snow. The quiet fairly rang in my ears, and I'd often pretend that I was the only person left on earth.

I knew that path like the back of my hand. Knew where the ground dipped just before the old wooden bridge crossed one of the many gullies. Knew where the horse trail paralleled my path. Knew where the stands of pine trees were, where the wind made a lonely whooshing sound as it passed through their needles. Knew where the patch of ground got swampy every time it rained. And I can still recall the bottom of the sand hill, where I found that old box turtle lumbering along.

I have so many wonderful memories of Mighty Oaks park that I wanted to show the place to John in depth. On a fine September afternoon, we returned to the park prepared to walk my favorite trail. I'd never shared this special place with anyone in my life, so this was a big deal to me. Mighty Oaks had been my haven, my peace and quiet in an otherwise tumultuous life. I hoped John would come to love it as much as I did. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to enjoy my trail: almost immediately, it became apparent that that June 5 tornado had destroyed more than just a few dozen trees; it had destroyed most of my path, as well.

I couldn't even find where the trail began. I paced back and forth, my eyes flicking here and there, knowing that somewhere in this mess of downed trees was the start of the path. I never did find it. I walked a few yards up a parallel trail, looking for access. Plunging through some old undergrowth, I finally picked up the path. There was debris everywhere. It was as if someone had filled a giant garbage can full of twigs and bits and pieces and then dumped it all over the park.

We had to pick our way around numerous piles of deadfall. The trail hadn't been used since before June 5, which rendered it overgrown in many areas. In some places, just the tops of tall pine trees had been snapped off, and in others, entire trees had been sucked up out of the ground and then flung down again in big messy piles. At first it was disheartening. But as we made our way deeper into the woods - that woods I had known intimately for decades - it became depressing. Disturbing. This was my haven, and my haven was gone.

We finally reached a pile of deadfall so extensive it occurred to me that if we couldn't make our way around it, if we couldn't pick up the trail on the other side (and who knew how many more piles of deadfall we'd encounter?), there was a distinct possibility that the park rangers would have trouble finding us. In spite of all those years of loving attention to the beauty Mighty Oaks had to offer, I was lost; I no longer recognized the landmarks I had always known. Emotionally numb, I told John it was time to turn back. I would've been in tears but I had none to shed. I was in shock.

When you come from a horribly dysfunctional childhood, as I did, there tends to be a lot of noise in your head. Indeed, the noise is so unrelenting that I take certain prescription medications each night in order to quiet the noise long enough to get to sleep. I've done decades of therapy, and worked very hard at obtaining a measure of sanity, but in spite of all that, the noise level is still unbearable. Which is why, when I find something that creates peace in me, I grab onto it with both hands. Mighty Oaks was just that sort of refuge.

For decades, at any time of year, I could go lose myself in its quiet. I would walk the trail in one direction, then, at its end, I would turn around and walk it again the other way. I'd inhale deeply of the smell of pine sap, listen intently to that whooshing sound as the wind traveled through the woods, take note of the moss and ferns, and the hemlock trees the boy scouts had so helpfully labeled years ago. Even if I arrived at the park in turmoil, I invariably left it relaxed, certain that I could, indeed, surmount my problems.

I told none of this to John. I merely stumbled along the overgrown trail repeating things like, "How could this happen?" over and over again. Somewhere along the way I realized that the path - my special path - would never be the same. Would I?

I've since learned that Mighty Oaks park has made the commitment to clear the paths destroyed by the June 5 tornado. I understand that they plan to work through the winter to accomplish this task. Given how much damage there was, I have no idea how long it will take to clean it all up. I'm wondering how they will re-establish the paths, given that they're all no doubt extremely overgrown by now.

I imagine that as long as Mighty Oaks is in disarray, I will feel somewhat adrift. I have so few solid anchors in my life to begin with that it's very painful to lose one. I worry, too, that this blog will sound unsympathetic to those who suffered worse losses on June 5. In truth, I feel huge gratitude to the Gods that they spared myself and my home. My heart goes out to all the folks in Fulton County, in Lake Township, in Millbury, whose splintered homes and splintered lives I made it a point to take an unflinching look at, that I might add my voice to those of other witnesses.

Even after seeing what must be hundreds of news reports of tornado damage over the years, I can tell you that those reports don't do the devastation justice. How on earth does one start over with absolutely nothing? Where do you eat, sleep, and shower, while you're waiting for the insurance company to issue a check? How do you know who to call to clean up the pile that used to be your house, when the tornado took your phone book with it? How do you change clothes when there are none left? It's unimaginable.

So to all of those who lost something in the June 5 tornado, I wish you all strength, and peace, and resolution. May we all find a refuge from the storms of life. And for all of those who helped, I hope you noticed the hand-painted sign thrown over a chain-link fence running alongside Route 795: "thank you for your help!" The sign is still there now.

That's all for now, folks. Here's hoping that 2011 brings love and friendship, prosperity and kindness. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!