Favorite Roads Of a Daybreak Ambler

I DON'T lead a sedentary life in retirement. Although I spend many waking hours at my desk or in the garden, I walk a mile every morning. A little shaking up after a night's sleep does wonders in clearing the mind of cobwebs. And for me, walking has always seemed as natural as breathing.

I agree with Thoreau, who says that you can't stay inside a whole day without "acquiring some rust," and that "every walk is a crusade." Walking has even been described by one dictionary as "a remedial enterprise undertaken with zeal and enthusiasm." This definition applies neatly to the 2-1/2-mile walk I took to school in boyhood, because this outing exposed me to nature's miracles in all seasons. I had a choice of two routes: leaving the big road and crossing a mesquite pasture, or taking a rarely trav eled lane, which I preferred.

The isolated byway, surviving changes since pioneer times, was like an arboretum minus man's supervision and culture. Practically every example of flora and fauna native to central Texas was represented. What a bounty of trees, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers poured out of nature every spring and fall.

In late February, crystals of frost on prairie lace, a fern-like plant with tiny white flowers, and purple oxalis sent up a poignant aroma foretelling the advent of spring. Immediately I planned a wildflower garden (which I renewed each year). The season's glory period, displaying sweet williams, buttercups, and bluebells, tapered off to autumn with goldenrod and aster.

Those gems, as well as trees and other shady foliage harboring the little green frog, the robin, and the cottontail rabbit, sometimes checked my march toward math and grammar. Every now and then I would arrive to school late - a 10-o'clock scholar. But the fact that I brought the essence of nature to the classroom deserved, in my opinion, mitigation on the teacher's part. Unfortunately, she was more concerned about gerunds and square roots than my effort to catch a baby cottontail.

My other route to school, through a pasture, was not without recompense. A large stock tank with a wrinkled surface, which was sometimes blown into cresting waves, was surrounded by willows that served as a stopover for ducks and geese on transitory flights north and south. Crouched behind a tree trunk, I would risk being tardy by studying a colorful mallard with a white neck ring. I often sat on clumps of willow roots to watch doves alight with a whistling sound at the water's edge on the far side of th e tank. Grazing farm animals, prickly pears, and dappled shade made by feathery mesquites kept wildflowers at a minimum. I was lucky to find a sprinkling of violets. And I didn't have to see wild onions to know that I had walked on them.

Regardless of the route taken, there were always pleasant distractions that jeopardized my punctuality. These school-day walks continued until I moved into town for high school.

After two years of university education, I began a teaching career. My first school was located on a ranch 12 miles from home. I boarded during school days but spent Saturdays and Sundays with my parents. Each Monday morning at daybreak, I walked to the schoolhouse, and each Friday afternoon I walked back home. If I cut across the thickly wooded ranch, I might frighten an armadillo, a creature I'd never known on the prairie. I kept a close watch for rattlesnakes. Generally I preferred the open road.

One walk home on a rainy Friday proved to be almost as mystical as Thoreau's walk when he was bathed in a "golden flood" of light that gleamed "like the boundary of Elysium." On that Friday, only three or four pupils braved the inclement weather. We finished our lessons early, and I dismissed them at noon since parents had come for them.

Having worn boots and a slicker, I was ready for the challenge of walking in the rain. When I left the building, the heavens opened up in earnest. I sloshed along the gravel road thinking about a weekend at home. Several miles farther up the road, the woody ranch land receded, and gentle rain fell in silver streaks. Beyond this gleaming screen, distant trees and hills formed an impressionistic view that recalled Thoreau's experience. Entering the clear countryside, I was refreshed in body and spirit.

I remember little about walks on campuses during my 44 years as a teacher, but this is hardly true of walks made since my retirement. When I first retired, I was a resident of a town that had been my home for 20 years. People on my street - retirees, teachers, office workers - were all acquaintances. They, rather than aspects of nature, frequently dominated my jaunts.

Occasionally a resident would come out for the morning paper and a bit of small talk. Depending on the season, comments might range from "It's going to be another hot one today," to "Could be a hard freeze tonight." A number of times I made dead stops because of a neighbor's urgent request. Once I was hailed with the plea, "Will you please take time out long enough to lend me your posthole digger? My daughter wants to set a four-by-four in the ground to hold her mailbox."

Like most walkers, I dislike breaking the rhythm of a pace, but it goes without saying that a neighborly act deserves priority.

Having recently moved to a new home in a small town, I presently enjoy an added facet of walking: becoming acquainted with friendly strangers. It is a joy to be offered a hand of welcome and shown kindly interest. I miss the long-ago walks, but here the air is good, the morning sun bright.

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