The first time I met Bennington Lake was the late summer of 2008. At the time I still lived in the Midwest, and I was visiting my sister. It was the first week of September and so the trails were covered in what I have come to recognize as the ‘usual, late summer, dusty haze.’ At the time I had no way of knowing how often I would see this trail that way, nor how familiar it’s seasons would become to me.
A decade later, this corner of earth has become one of my most frequently traveled walks. I have witnessed it’s trails in snow, rain, dust, and spring glory — I’ve marveled at its golden autumns and bundled up for its frozen winters. I’ve birthed countless sunburns here and incubated hundreds of freckles. But most of all, I have delighted again and again in the changing seasons of this familiar place. In fact as I scanned back over my photos from the last few years, I was hard pressed to find a single month since September 2011 (when I moved to Walla Walla) where I didn’t have at least one picture of the Bennington Lake/Mill Creek trails.
The Mill Creek and Bennington Lake Recreation Area is owned and managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It’s primary purpose is actually a flood risk management facility (as Bennington Lake provides an off-stream storage reservoir for water.) While I definitely appreciate this practical goal, it’s secondary purpose is my primary use –that is to say the countless outdoor recreation opportunities it provides. The area includes Mill creek Dam, Bennington Lake, and Rooks Park, and offers loads of trails and outdoor opportunities including biking, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and horseback riding. Over the last few summers I’ve noticed a lot of people SUPing on the lake, and this winter when the snow stuck around long enough… I saw more than one person attempting to cross country ski.
In late summer of 2011, I packed up my car and moved to Walla Walla, WA. I was 28 years old, and ready for a change. My spirit was excited about the prospect of living in the northwest, and my inner Missouri-girl overwhelmed with the novelty of living only a short drive from actual mountains. However it didn’t take long for a few reality checks to come into place.
- The mountains that are close to Walla Walla are not always the most accessible for novice hikers — finding trails to hike in the Walla Walla Valley can be daunting to those not used to narrow, gravel, forest roads. After living here for almost 8 years I’ve accumulated a short list of easily reached trails, but this took time and practice (and quite a few “failed expeditions.”)
- The mountains with more established trails are mostly on the other side of the state. I’m still substantially closer to the mountains than I was when I lived in MO, but I’m still a three and a half hour drive from Mount Rainiers Ohanapecosh park entrance (which is by all definitions, officially, a grown-up mountain.)
- I moved to Walla Walla during a chapter in my life when I was struggling with a lot of anxiety. In fact, during the first few months after I moved, I was experiencing deep bouts agoraphobia. (At the time, I didn’t know this phobia had a name, but agoraphobia is generally an anxiety surrounding leaving the house, or going out in the community. This was slightly ironic given I had just moved across the country 2000 miles–yet once I arrived in Walla Walla, for the next few months I found myself struggling to even drive across town, much less go for a hike in the unknown.)
The first time I hiked solo at Bennington Lake, was shortly after I moved. I can still remember driving down to the lake parking lot, filled with the apprehension of not being sure where the trail would lead me. This is now a feeling I’ve grown to cherish — a new trail, with unknown discoveries. But for a girl with anxiety, who only dreamed of being a girl of the outdoors, it was equal parts exciting and terrifying. I remember that in order to summon my courage during the hike, I used my old flip phone to call a friend as I wandered around the first half of the lake. As I confessed my concern about not knowing exactly where I was going, or what I was doing, my friend said (noting the obvious) “well, you’re on a trail going around a lake, right?” which I affirmed, and my friend wisely reminded me, “well, you’ll come out where you started eventually.” We should never undervalue the blessing of a friend who will speak the truth to you. And sure enough, I talked my way far enough around the lake that I was committed to the trail, and then I finished it up on my own–speckled in freckles, and smiling stupidly, both inside and out. And yes, pro-tip for the anxious at heart: lake trails are loop trails… which means you will come around back to where you started… eventually.
I grew up in the sloping, domestic, pasture lands, of the Midwest. There is a beauty to Missouri with its frequent caves, rolling grasslands, and many deciduous forest. Both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers arrive in the state, slowing to a lazy meander. By the time they show up on the border of the state, they’ve taken on a muddy hue, having wandered through miles of great planes, fields, and farms, in order to get there. It’s not an exotic beauty–it’s a familiar beauty. It’s as simple as Tolkien’s Shire. And I admit, I’ve sometimes been caught off guard when telling someone that I grew-up in Missouri and having them reply, “Missouri is so beautiful.”
Why is it often so difficult for us to recognize the beauty in the familiar? The familiar is often reduced to the mundane, instead of being delighted in for it’s sake. This is something I have sought to remedy in myself the last few years. There are few landscapes in the earth that are not interesting for the curious heart. And even those places where we wander frequently– be it the oak and locust forest of the Midwest, or a water reservoir in the middle of wheat fields, there is still much beauty to be discovered, and delighted in. For this reason I have been pleased to establish Walla Walla as my Base Camp. Yes, there are still stunning northwest vistas that I am delighted to be a mere four hour drive from… and I enthusiastically explore them whenever I can. But there are also the many ordinary beauties of the everyday — and I don’t want to miss those either.
I think perhaps a benefit of seeing a place as an outsider, is we are able to see a place with childlike eyes, and more readily recognize the wonder. But I think that those childlike eyes can be trained. I believe that wonder and delight are practices that we can cultivate with awareness. Over the last year I have been doing the 52 hike challenge, and I have spent more than one hike at Bennington Lake. While part of the appeal of the challenge was having a motivating goal to get me out of my comfort zone, and exploring new and perhaps more exotic hikes, it has remained practical to keep some hikes closer to home. Of the 36 hikes in the challenge that I’ve completed so far, at least 10 of them have been at Bennington.
I have varied these hikes; sometimes I take the Kingfisher trail, which wanders along Mill Creek, headed towards Rooks Park. Other times, I’ve begin my hike on the Meadowlark trail, which loops closely around the lake. The Whitetail trail goes around the parameter, edging up to the margins of vast wheat fields, while another paved trail meanders through bushy evergreens. Each of these trails has become familiar to me now, which makes them the perfect stage for moving meditations, reflections, and prayers.
This winter provided more snow than I had ever experienced at Bennington, and this alteration painted the place once again in a fresh light. I was thrilled that my Christmas presents had included a new, and sturdy, pair of Duck boots–particularly as the snow melted, and I was basically left wading through muddy trails. Whatever the season, I have so many memories wrapped up in this little corner of earth. I continue to look forward to finding delight in these familiar trails, and I’m thankful for the gift of a familiar place. Even after a decade of hikes, the familiar is still springing surprises and delights, and I look forward to making many more memories here.