Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Time to Listen to the Signs

My face-to-face conversations with friends now take place in the woods.

I started walking outside at the start of the pandemic. Eventually, it replaced every other social activity. I usually try to recruit one or two friends to join me, but most often, it’s just me and my 14-pound ball of white fluff, Frankie. We’ve hiked in more than 30 parks around Missouri in well over a hundred visits, I’d guess.

I tend to go all-in on my pursuits -- some might say overboard.

It turns out hiking helps keep anxiety in check. And I hadn’t realized how stunning the scenery is around St. Louis.

The forest became my refuge.

This past weekend, it was in the low 30s, and I was trekking through a rocky trail. A native Texan, I was wearing several layers, heated gloves, heavy insulated boots and a large furry hat. I would not have recognized myself a year ago.

I was walking with a friend I hadn’t seen in months. Both of us will be empty nesters in a couple of years, and the conversation came around to where we might end up when no longer tied to our kids’ schools.

My husband and I have toyed with the idea of moving out of the suburbs and into the city, I said, but reports of rising crime have given me pause lately. Who wants to deal with nuisances like petty theft, or worry about more serious threats?

The next day, Frankie and I headed out for our afternoon stroll in Castlewood State Park. Last year, I fell on one of the more challenging trails here, and have since switched to a flat path along the river. But on this particular day, that path was flooded, so we ended up walking on a deserted, paved road that cuts through the park.

I noticed how quiet it was, and how utterly alone we were. I wondered what Frankie would do if a wild animal or unruly human encroached on our space. I’ve seen him get scared by a large suitcase, so I would probably have to do any protecting required.

We got back to the car about a half-hour later, and I noticed a pile of something green and sparkly on the passenger side. Then I noticed the window was missing.

Oh, and my backpack that I use as a purse -- with my wallet in it -- was gone, too.

Well, this was awkward.

I flagged down a nearby patrol car. I held Frankie to calm him down, since he had started shivering while the police officer filled out the report. Frankie’s not the smartest or most courageous dog, but he is pretty intuitive. He may have sensed that our safe outing no longer felt so safe.

On the way home, I tried to avoid thinking of several recent conversations, the first one being the one with my friend about the dangers of city living. I also tried to block out the number of times over the past two decades my husband has warned me about leaving a purse visible inside a car. God love him, he refrained from rubbing it in when I told him what happened. My dad, however, did call later to say this is why he has always told me not to walk outside alone. My husband smiled to himself when he heard me on that call.

The thieves went on a shopping spree with a few credit cards before I canceled them. I spent a couple of days getting a new driver’s license, alerting bank accounts, calling the insurance company to get the car fixed and thinking about the sentimental mementos in my purse I’d never see again.

I wondered if the universe was trying to give me a sign: First I broke my hand hiking, now this. Maybe I needed to stop trying to make Outdoorsy Aisha happen.

Then, a tweet appeared on my feed from the St. Charles County police: “Numerous vehicles broken into at hotels across the county ... Suspects smashed windows.”

It seems the same trouble hit another suburban county -- and in a hotel parking lot, not a deserted state park.

Maybe hiking wasn’t the problem, after all. Our perception of safety may have something to do with our own awareness, preparation and luck.

I’m willing to give the park another chance.

This time, I’ll leave my purse in the trunk.