Kathy and I just returned from a most enjoyable trudge up and down the hills through the Bluffs Nature Area, off Sunset on the Northwest side or Ann Arbor right by St. Thomas Catholic cemetery not far from the sewage treatment plant, highest place in town at 1,015 feet above sea level. Only 1.8 miles from our house, for we longtime Ann Arborites – me most of the past 50 years and Kathy 39 years straight – it was our first visit to the Bluffs. Kathy’s iWatch credited her with 11,006 steps and 28 flights of stairs. Our visits to Whole Foods and Meijer after might have inflated those numbers a bit, but not the stairs.
We love going on walks, and are disappointed when a day goes by where circumstances prevent us from doing so. Kathy’s been a walker for a long time, with her 4.2 mile long round trip to her 555 S. Forest office a routine. The rare times I or a friend drove her even part way, she’d feel cheated out of an experience she thought “kept her butt down and her mind clear”. Paying $1,884/year for a gold parking pass, you can bet I aimed to get my money’s worth, so I was driving to North Ingalls Building and Taubman, missing out on all that exercise. I think the first year I had a gold pass, figuring I could finally afford it, I gained about 10 pounds.
When I retired 16 months ago, I decided to join Kathy on her commute. I had to wait for September for the school year to start up. It got me out of bed and out of the house, and I discovered a number of routes that kept me off pavement and in nature. I even showed Kathy a better trip in as we descended our hill through the trees of Cedar Bend Park, through Island Park, right by where I’d lived as a fellow, hugging the river through the woods until we had to cross Fuller, then across the railroad tracks and up the 150 steps from the pit to hospital level, strolling past the dorms to her office. She was always reluctant to take the woods walking by herself. After a glass of cold sparkling water in her office, she’d bid me farewell as I’d wander to pick a way home. If I felt like mingling with students, I could go through campus, step on the M in the middle of the Diag, then head past Hill and the fountain down Thayer to pass by Sun Terrace, the box where I lived as a junior then again for a summer sublet as a grad student (with Laurie!). My boyhood best friend Eric’s son Joe lived there with his girlfriend one year. But usually, I’d prefer something more bucolic. There are 2 entrances to the Arboretum, each path with different charms. The Arb trails end at the river. I found ways to punctuate the pavement, including one particularly charming path through woods at North Campus which ended up at the site where the new Dance School building was going up, eventually taking away passage. After the music school, there was a path through the woods between the Music School and the Bursley dorm. Enduring sidewalk to the hospital, there were 2 paths, one retracing my steps and and the other going past my hero the late Armin Good’s place on old Cedar Bend, climbing up the hill (which I once attacked on a mountain bike) to the parking lots of Baits Housing on North Campus. A little more nature beckoned in the trail through the little woods next to the North Campus Co-ops, where I lived my last 2 years at Michigan, in Zapata House.
With COVID, our daily commute to South Forest became problematic. Kathy was allowed to spend less and less time in her office as more and more of her teaching went virtual. She’d designed her class to be “blended” but found the in-person classroom teaching to be vital to establishing relationships with her students. She’s been totally virtual since Friday before last (11/16), and it doesn’t look good for Winter team, which she says will be her last (we’ll see). But we’ve developed a routine. She does most of her teaching in the morning, almost entirely one-on-ones with her students, then handles e-mails and corrects some “papers”. Then the rest of the afternoon is free for walkies! We have some wonderful places to walk right around here. In addition to the to and from we’d been doing, there’s the walk to Argo Park, along the river in the woods to an area for which I don’t know the name, over to the labyrinth of Black Pond Woods then over Traver up the hill to us. A little drive takes us to Barton Nature area, Bird Hills park and Kuebler Langford Nature area, through which all manner of twisted trails can be traversed. We’ve found trails through the woods at the end of Upland, across Plymouth from us, behind the apartments on the way to Traver golf course. Down Plymouth east to Dixboro, there’s a pretty deep woods. If either of us feel lazy and just want a short walk, the church at the end of our street has developed a trail through the woods behind them to Plymouth, which we can traverse, walk along Plymouth back west, crawl up the short steep hill after jumping up on the wall, then taking the rest of the hill on Leaird, boarded up to traffic years ago but not before I got a ticket for driving up it the wrong way. The walk can be extended by going down Jones and back up Broadway, with its illegal 370 incline.
I was hooked after not very long. For me, walkies were keeping my waistline down and spirits up. For someone who spent so many years pounding my knees running, I was amazed how much good feeling and actual physical benefit could come from such a gentler activity. But maybe the benefit wasn’t coming entirely from just the physical activity. I came across writings about “Forest Bathing”, which the Japanese, who are credited with developing it in the 80s, call “Shinrin-yoku (shinrin: forest, yoku: bathing). Per the reference URL (1) “Forest bathing in nature allows the stressed portions of your brain to relax. Positive hormones are released in the body. You feel less sad, angry and anxious. It helps to avoid stress and burnout, and aids in fighting depression and anxiety. A forest bath is known to boost immunity and leads to lesser days of illness as well as faster recovery from injury or surgery. Nature has a positive effect on our mind as well as body. It improves heart and lung health, and is known to increases focus, concentration and memory.” All that from a walk in the woods. No wonder my grandpa liked to take them. And it’s not just the touchy-feely stuff. There are chemicals involved! “Certain trees like conifers also emit oils and compounds to safeguard themselves from microbes and pathogens. These molecules known as Phytoncides are good for our immunity too. Breathing in the forest air boosts the level of natural killer (NK) cells in our blood. NK cells are used in our body to fight infections, cancers, and tumors. So spending time with these trees is a special form of tree bathing.” I know it’s given Kathy and me a chance to develop our appreciation for subtle changes that occur with passage of the seasons. We didn’t get started with walkies outside our local area till a bit after fall peak. While we enjoyed the golden colors around us, we lamented the show we had missed, vowing not to do so next year. But even as we’ve transitioned toward winter, we’ve found features to appreciate. The views through trees entirely bereft of leaves can be stunning, and unlike anything that might be see in the other seasons, when leaves would get in the way. Looking down when walking, it’s amazing how many different shades of brown Mother Nature has used. We decided to extend our burgeoning hobby beyond our local area. We knew there was supposed to be some pretty good hiking not far away and had even been out there, I think to Waterloo, a time or two. I bought a couple of books, one from Jim DeFresne (whose books about Michigan I’ve always loved) 50 Hikes in Michigan (2) and another by Greg Tasker focusing closer to home Five Star Trails: Ann Arbor and Detroit (3). From these I compiled a notebook of walking trails, including a spreadsheet including for each trail such data as URL for the map, distance and time to travel from 1611 Harbal, with and without highways (we like to take our top down ’06 Jeep Wrangler, which tends to shimmy a bit at highway speeds), and, critically, bars withing a convenient distance from the trailhead. I’ve pasted the spreadsheet in at the end of this piece. Trail maps also go into the notebook. When the recent lockdown took away the celebrations after part, we chose to look inward again. We’d turned up some gems earlier right around here, like Miller Nature area, Dicken Woods, Olsen Park, Scarlett Mitchell nature area, Stinchfield Woods (home of Peach Mountain observatory), and Draper-Houston Meadows preserve. I decided to go systematic, and what did I get myself into? I went to the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation webpage (https://www.a2gov.org/departments/Parks-Recreation) to look up their parks. Our parks, I guess (don’t ask me about my property tax bill). There is listed 168 named pieces of ground saved for nature on which the citizens of AA may frolic. To determine which might be suitable for walkies, I’ve gone through the PDFs of their maps, which almost all have, even if they only show a small patch of green with a single brown line penetrating to designate some sort of trail. But it was this exercise which found Bluff, which we kinda always knew was there. I’ve found 29 candidates in addition to the ones I’d already entered on the trails table. I hadn’t entered several, as they were already so familiar (the Arb, Argo, Bandemer, Bird Hills, Black Pond Woods, Cedar Bend, Furstenburg, Gallup, and Kuebler Langford). The exercise has given identities to places we’ve frequented, but never bothered to learn the name, like Leslie Woods, off Upland near our house and Marshall Nature Area off Dixboro, out Plymouth a ways. That leaves 18 we haven’t tried. Finding some great hikes we knew about missing from that list, I remembered that Stinchfield Woods was U of M property. There are 6 “Field Properties” under control of the School for the Environment and Sustainability (which was Natural Resources in my day). Three are operated for research purposes only, but 3 are open to the public. Add those. That’s a lot of choices. Then came the thought: what about the county parks? Sure enough, Washtenaw county features 11 stops on the Border-to-border trail (mainly for cyclists), 22 natural areas, and 13 parks (https://www.washtenaw.org/288/Parks-Recreation). I’d captured a few already but if I take the time to investigate them all and put the winners on the table I’m creating, I won’t have time to fix Thanksgiving dinner, let alone get this post in by the end of the day. The perfect can be the enemy of the good, so I’m making Washtenaw county a project for another day. Like I need more choices. Maybe we’ll write the names of each hike on a piece of paper and put ‘em in a jar, go hike the one we pull out. I don’t know if there’ll be a gem there like Bluffs in that bunch. We were very familiar with the area, even if we didn’t know at the time there was a stellar hiking trail nearby. Biking up the hill up Sunset past that cemetery was always a grueling component of our rides through that area. But we had way more fun hiking through Bluffs than we ever had on that hill, unless you call stopping for a drink at the top of a hill you’ve almost died to get up some kind of pleasure.
So we proceed, not on a quest for the perfect hike, tho’ we could encounter it where we least expect it. We look forward to our daily (or as close as possible) forest baths, even if the trees are just those in front of the old houses on Broadway.
1. Healing Forest. Forest Bathing – What? How? Where? A Beginner’s Guide. https://healingforest.org/2020/01/27/forest-bathing-guide/
2. DuFresne J. 50 Hikes in Michigan. New York: The Countryman Press, 2019
3. Tasker G. Five Star Trails: Ann Arbor and Detroit. Your Guide to the Area’s Most Beautiful Hikes. Birmingham AL: Menasha Ridge Press, 2011
Local area walkies