Finding Delight in the Familiar

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, 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 its seasons would become to me.

A decade later, this corner of earth has become one of my most frequently traveled. I have witnessed its 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.

The Mill Creek and Bennington Lake Recreation Area is owned and managed by the U.S. 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.) The area includes Mill Creek Dam, Bennington Lake, and Rooks Park, and it 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 using stand-up paddleboards on the lake. This winter, I saw a few people on cross country skis.

In late summer of 2011, I packed up my car and moved to Walla Walla. 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 was 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.”)

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. 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 2,000 miles across the country – yet once I arrived in Walla Walla, 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. 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.

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 begun my hike on the Meadowlark Trail, which loops closely around the lake. The Whitetail Trail goes around the perimeter, 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.

Elle Berry is a Walla Walla nutritionist, storyteller, and businesswoman who believes passionately in the power of real food to nourish and better lives. You can learn more about her by following her on Instagram at @a_wellness_story and visiting her website, A Wellness Story.