Have you walked in the woods lately? There are many reasons why we do it.
Solitude. Health. Friendships. Nature.
Fortunately in Birmingham there are a number of natural areas and paths you can take. In the coming weeks, I will be exploring those special places and telling the stories of the people I meet along the trail.
Let’s start with a pop quiz. What city in the U.S. has two nature preserves, each larger than New York City’s Central Park?
The answer: Birmingham.
For my first “Walk in the Woods” story, I had to begin with the Magic City’s first nature preserve – Ruffner Mountain.
A hidden gem in the South East Lake neighborhood, Ruffner Mountain was established in 1977 by the local neighborhood. The original preserve was only 24 acres. Shortly after its founding, with help from Trust for Public Land and the Forever Wild Land Trust, the tiny residential natural area grew into one of the South’s most highly acclaimed and ecological significant urban nature preserves at 1040 acres.
To learn why Ruffner Mountain is treasured by so many people here in Birmingham, I took an early morning June hike in the forest with the Birmingham Mountain High Hikers.
Saturdays at 7:00AM
If you ever visit Ruffner Mountain in the morning, the one thing you notice is the chorus of songs from the birds. Their day has begun.
In the midst of that musical backdrop, I met Nathaniel Rutledge, one of the founders of the Birmingham Mountain High Hikers. He greeted me like a long lost friend. While everyone was gathering and waiting to hike Ruffner’s Overlook Trail, Nathaniel and I got to sneak in a quick interview
How the Group Began
My first question – How did you start this group? Nathaniel responded:
“Back in 2014 a friend of mine, Chris Lewis, and I both had some concerns about our health. We were looking at some pictures – we realized we’re getting older and aged and we need to be more active and mobile.”
Darryl Washington, who was already a member at that time of Ruffner, told us Ruffner was one of the places he loved to hike. So he asked us to come over and take a hike with him.
I said we’ll go with you one day and see what that’s like. We did. And ever since we’ve been hooked.
Now I must admit that the first hike was one of the worst we’ve ever had. We sat on every single bench in the woods, I kid you not it was a major struggle. Since then we started meeting every Saturday, regardless of numbers we just showed up. What started off as three – our membership now is up there maybe a couple of hundred. So we never know on Saturday what our crew is going to look like, if it’s going to be a handful or a couple of dozen, It’s turned into an awesome fellowship and we’ve found through the conversations and hiking and the different people who come in that it’s actually even therapeutic.
It’s such a blessing to share one with one another. If we go to the overlook we do our little sermon on the mountain sometimes. It’s pretty cool. We love it. People of different physical abilities come. We hike at the pace of the slowest hiker, that way we make sure we don’t leave anybody behind. We all get our exercise in, it’s quite a spiritual thing.”
Walking the Trail
Once the last hiker arrived at about 7:10AM, the group started its journey to the Overlook. It was one of those misty Alabama summer mornings. Very comfortable weather.
I lagged behind the group, listening to conversations. Walking in the back, I loved seeing the hikers enter the woods, with trees thirty to forty feet high and wildflowers on both sides. The forest looked like an honor guard welcoming the hikers as its guests.
Darryl Washington, who is a Ruffner Mountain Board member best described why he enjoys strolling Ruffner’s trails.
“The thing about Ruffner that I like is the fact it is right in the middle of an urban area.
You literally feel like you’re miles away. When I started hiking at Ruffner, I posted pictures and my friends from all over the U.S. said man you go out of town every week.”
Darryl laughed – I’m right here in Birmingham!
“Why does he hike Ruffner?” I asked.
“It’s a trilogy for me,” said Darryl. “It’s spiritual. It’s physical. It’s mental. When I’m hiking by myself I do some of my best journaling. I listen to audio books or sometimes I just listen to sounds.”
Ruffner provides an escape from the office or in the age of the coronavirus — your house.
Jamaine Stanton, a fellow hiker on the trails said, “I kind of got pushed out here due to COVID. Working from home for like 2.5 months I just got stir crazy.
I was looking for something I could do outside and feel safe, not be around a lot of people. I first went to Oak Mountain then I came out here and I really liked it. Then I picked up a habit, it’s something I’ll carry with me after this dies down. I reconnected with nature and I really enjoy it.”
A Walk in the Woods – End of the Trail
After posing for a group picture in front of the overlook, we turned around and hiked back..
There is nothing like walking in the woods in the morning. Our journey only took two hours. We got back at 9:00AM.
Even though it was a short hike, one word best described how I felt afterwards.
Grateful for Ruffner Mountain.
Grateful for my health and nature.
And perhaps more importantly, grateful for new friendships forged on the trail.
Next Walk in the Woods – Red Mountain Park