In a blog post earlier this year, I claimed not to be much of a souvenir shopper. While it's true that I don't cart home a lot of tchotchkes from our travels, I must confess to a weakness for one particular kind of memento.
I'm a sucker for embroidered patches from state and national parks.
My patch-collecting habit began back in my motorcycling days. Bikers love to load up their leather vests with pins and patches—some documenting attendance at rallies, others bearing pithy slogans, and still others memorializing fallen comrades. I was no exception: my vest became so loaded with loot, I could hardly remain vertical when I put it on.
Still, I collected. When Ray and I traveled by motorcycle and stopped at parks, preserves, and other points of interest, patches were the perfect keepsakes: lightweight and easily stowed in a saddlebag. As I look through my collection, I see patches from Toltec Mounds in Arkansas, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and Land Between the Lakes on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, all collected on one especially memorable motorcycle trip to and from a class reunion in Oklahoma.
Once I got started, I couldn't stop, even when we traveled by car or motorhome and had more room for stuff. I could easily pass up shot glasses and key chains in gift shops, but patches? Never! So the collection grew, with additions from Niagara Falls, Pictured Rocks, Pompey's Pillar, Denali National Park, Grand Canyon, and another couple dozen or more locations.
Soon, I realized my travel patches needed their own home. Not only was my motorcycle vest loaded up, but a patch from Walden Pond just didn't look right next to one declaring "Die Yuppie Scum!" (Okay, I didn't actually wear that one on my vest.)
As I was poking through my closet one day, it dawned on me that I already owned the ideal travel patch display garment: a safari-style vest I had bought for a trip to Australia in 1986 and had little occasion to wear since then. I dug it out and started decorating it with some of my favorite patches. One of the first: Sleeping Bear Dunes—our annual fall color tour destination—followed by Tahquamenon Falls, Acadia National Park, and Yellowstone.
My patch-laden vest became a thing of beauty. From time to time, I'd slip it off its hanger and admire it. I'd lay out all the patches I hadn't yet attached and figure out which ones to add next and where to put them. But the one thing I never did was actually wear the thing. Because, well, it may be a thing of beauty, but it's a very dorky thing of beauty.
I took to calling it my Junior Ranger vest and treating it like a joke. Still, I kept collecting patches, vowing that someday I'd get up my nerve and wear the vest somewhere.
When I joined the Wander Women, a local women's hiking club, I thought the perfect opportunity had arrived. The Wander Women are an accepting, encouraging group. They dress for comfort and protection, even if that means wearing funny-looking hats and tucking pant legs into sock tops.
The Wander Women wouldn't make fun of my vest. Would they?
When I returned from our latest trip to the Southwest with a whole new stash of patches, I added them to my vest, determined to debut it on the next Wander Women hike. But that day it was too cold for just a vest over my shirt. So was the next hiking day. Then the weather turned warm, and—oops, too warm for anything more than a tank top.
So as of yet, no "big reveal" for the vest. But the next patch I hope to add is going to be so special, I doubt I'll be able to keep it under wraps.
Here's why: The Wander Women have set a goal of hiking--segment by segment--all 65 miles of the portion of North Country Trail that runs through Newaygo County (or at least the 50 off-road miles, as the trail follows roads in a few sections). And it happens that the North Country Trail Association has a Hike 50 campaign underway, encouraging people to hike 50 miles of the trail over the course of the year. (There's a Hike 100 campaign, too, but first things first.)
Anyone who completes the whole 50 miles gets—you guessed it—a patch.
I've been logging my miles on the North Country Trail since March, and I'm up to 23 miles now (plus more miles on other trails, but those don't count toward the patch). With the Wander Women's target to motivate me, I've got that patch in my sights. Once I get it, you can be sure I'll wear my vest with pride.
Really. I will. Unless it's too hot. Or too cold. Or too . . . you know, whatever.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.