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Bledsoe Creek State Park, TN


As soon as my dad, Danielle and I step onto the mostly vacant parking lot at Bledsoe Creek State Park near Gallatin, Tennessee, we know we've screwed up. Hadn't any of us checked the weather before we came? We spent the weekend double-checking the temps and seeing a clear, brisk forecast for Christmas Eve, but we didn't bother confirming, and now we stride into the cloud-covered forest wearing outfits intended for the sun.

I stuff my fingers in my Patagonia vest, a cozy near-replica of the one Danielle has at home, and brace for the cold. We're more than an hour from home, and "giving up" or "waiting for warmth" are two distinct wastes of time. Plus, I don't want to complain--too much--in the presence of my dad. He only gets to hike with us a few times a year, and I so enjoy the time we spend together in his favorite place. In the woods, he transforms from his hardworking, rigidly scheduled, mostly serious disposition into a freer self, a man who forges new paths and pushes down almost-fallen dead trees. Here, no one tells him to smile for a photo; instead, I keep my camera on standby, capturing him before he has a chance to grumble.

The High Ridge Trail we're walking is only about a mile long with moderate elevation, but we see wildlife unparalleled to many of our recent hikes. A female deer beds down in fallen leaves, observing us with a relaxed curiosity that neither rejects nor welcomes our presence, but considers us, too, a part of the trees. A few minutes later, we kneel down to observe a log decorated with foliose lichen, a rootless bunch of tubular, leafy growth like faded coral. Tiny brown mushrooms-- resembling a deceiver or scurfy twiglet?-- pop up from the ground, their caps appearing as brittle as the dry leaves that hide their stems. And then, in the distance, two beautiful pileated woodpeckers drill for insects on each side of a tree. I grab my camera, but not quickly enough. The red-headed birds--the largest, non-extinct woodpeckers in the nation-- scatter and fly into the woods, and we spend the next 15 minutes watching as one of them moves between branches, restless, calling to the sky with its distinctive voice, like it's drilling the air.

When we descend from the forest to lower elevation, I tuck away all my camera equipment and brace for the slippery steps. Despite the dropping temps and the fact that I can now see my own breath, I do not regret all of my outfit. The weekend's rain turned sections of the trail into mudslides, and I'm maybe a little too eager to hear the squish under my new LL Bean boots.

Halfway down the steps, just as we approach the lower path that hugs Old Hickory Lake, I spot a Great Blue Heron, a very common sight in Tennessee and one of my favorite birds. We've all learned to listen for the heron's cries and watch where it lands on the long lakeshore. But when I pull out my zoom lens, it's not for this bird, but a white one that disappears in the shadowy brush. The bird could be a Great or Snowy Egret--both of which visit Tennessee in warmer months and rarely stay for winter--or a white Great Blue Heron, which would be even rarer considering these birds prefer to stay in South Florida. My zoom lens is little help; the bird disappears again before I can attempt a more thorough ID.

Closer to the water, the sun finally decides to pull apart the clouds, illuminating the water droplets on trees. I run to a sunny spot and soak in the warmth, which barely thaws my frozen fingers. My dad tells me there's another woodpecker around, but I don't see it. Danielle calls to me that there's another heron on the shore, but he's too hidden for the Portrait of a Heron I desire.

During the last part of the High Ridge Trail, we finally pass other hikers, the smarter ones, who waited for the sun. I'm so relieved to arrive at an open parking lot where we sit and snack on chocolate chip cookies and mandarins and bask in the warmth.

Directly ahead of us, across the lake and perched on a buoy, is a Great Blue Heron, its long breeding plumes waving in the wind. Gorgeous. I take out all of my photography equipment again, but my amateur photography skills get in the way, and I pack up my things, frustrated, before we start on the Shoreline Trail, a short, wooded path lining the lake back to our car.

On the way home, we blast the heat and strip our layers. Christmas Eve night, as the creatures of Bledsoe Creek stir, we sip dad's spicy Hunter's Stew.

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