I can’t recall exactly when I last tried to slog my way through mud so deep that it sucked the shoe completely off my foot, but it’s filed in my head as a miserable experience.
It may be filed wrong.
A few days ago I watched a dozen or so girls and boys happily sloshing back and forth across the muddiest land I’ve seen since my family stopped raising pigs, and it got me thinking that I’ve simply let myself get too old to enjoy mud. Not old in years — that can’t be helped — but definitely in attitude.
To the right mindset, evidently, shoe-sucking mud can be such great fun that you let it keep your shoe and just keep stomping along in one shoe and one increasingly filthy sock without even breaking stride.
That’s exactly what one of the younger kids must have done on the campout I helped supervise last weekend, judging by the lone shoe someone pried out of the ground as we packed up to leave on the last day.
I’d been trying to avoid the worst of the mud, and I couldn’t understand what must have been going through that boy’s head when he ran through the deepest patch. But when I walked into my office the morning after the campout, a quote I’ve long had stuck to my bulletin board reminded me.
It’s from Sierra Club founder and champion of Yosemite John Muir, a man who, it seems, never lost sight of how much fun lies waiting in untamed land of any sort.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” he wrote back in 1912, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
You draw out that soul-strengthening power simply by choosing to play in a place, no matter how desolate it looks.
Even a hole in the ground will do.
In fact, a hole in the ground is what had brought us to that muddy hill in the first place. And it’s what kept us from turning back for home as we sloshed over the dark land, looking for the least sloshy spot to pitch our tents.
A few parents had driven our kids and their friends there so we could tour a cavern of dripping stalactites and swimming salamanders.
Now, if you’re not in the mood to enjoy a cavern, winding your way through one must be a nightmare of grotesque bollards, dangerous ceiling protrusions and moist walls.
But our group had paid good money to be there. We were looking for fun in the dark maw of that hillside, so we found it in the wild shapes, glistening earth and twists that beckoned us into the pitch black.
Hours earlier, I’d stepped out of my tent into chilly morning fog shrouding bare trees. I started out in a hurry to fill my coffee mug so I could warm up, but I was stilled by the stark beauty around me.
In the wrong mood, I’d have called it a cold and miserable morning. But that day I was tuned to the landscape, and it strengthened my soul the way Muir’s wilderness strengthened his.
Many hours later, as evening crept in and that carefree boy’s shoe was starting to freeze forgotten in the mud, I saw that humans aren’t God’s only creatures who pause to play in the beauty of what might be seen as miserable conditions.
A couple of dozen big birds I didn’t recognize swept overhead — huge things with white narrow bodies and dark long wings they held still on a long glide. They were being pushed by a strong wind that later would rip several of our tent stakes out of the ground.
It must have been roaring in their ears, and bitter cold.
But rather than just let the wind carry them quickly to wherever they meant to roost, the birds all turned into it at once, floated still for a moment, and let it push them backward a bit. Then they regained control and repeated the trick once more before soaring away.
I have no doubt they had stopped simply to play up there in the gale, and that playing gave their avian souls an extra jolt of strength.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.