I looked down the at the tattered sheet of paper laying beside the path. Despite having been shredded by shotgun pellets, it was still legible. “Trail Begins Again Here”, it said. A few feet farther along, Nadia and I emerged from the trees to see the natural bridge of the Clifty Creek Natural Area just across the creek bed. A beautiful formation in a beautiful and high-quality natural preserve, the bridge arched over a tributary of the creek heading off at right angles to the one we crossed to reach it. We stopped to admire and take some pictures, then prepared to move on. But where? There was a small trail going to the left right next to the base of the bridge, but there was no sign or markings, and it didn’t look much used. Was it farther down the tributary? I went off to scout, walking a ways and scanning the banks for any sign of the path. No good. We realized that the vandal who had shot up the first sign had probably gotten the one on this side, too. Thanks, friend.
We knew from the signs at the trailhead that we had come just less than a mile—the short part of the loop to the bridge, leaving us about a mile and a half to go to get back to the parking area. Not much of a hike, really, especially with plenty of daylight left. Unless, that is, you’re going the wrong direction. So, what to do? We could take a chance on the path to the left and hope for the best. That would be a somewhat adventurous and fun thing to do. We could keep going down the side-creek and look harder for any trail that might be there, doing a little true exploration. Or we could back-track—–the safest and most boring solution to getting home.
It was only a mile and a half, so what was the big deal? Mainly the deal was that we were thinking of another hike, just a few weeks earlier.
We were making our final, sweaty ascent up the last hill before the road to the parking lot and some welcome rest after several hours of hiking in Three Creeks Conservation Area. The bags of trash we had picked up weren’t making the walking any easier, and I was starting to regret emptying out the several full cans of beer we had found discarded along the trail. Even a warm beer, even a warm light beer, would have tasted good about now. So the gravel road at the top of the hill was a welcome sight as we emerged off the path, turned left and headed for the car.
Problem was, someone had built a house while we were in the woods. At least it hadn’t been there when we started. The road looked kind of funny, too. We walked a ways, far enough to be certain that we weren’t going the right way, then marched back in the other direction until the road stopped at a locked pasture gate. A few cattle stared blankly at us. We stared blankly at each other, in that strange bafflement that results when the world suddenly shifts and suddenly you’re not seeing what your brain says should be there.
I scanned the rudimentary map in the area brochure, but could not find any place that could possibly be our present location. What could have happened? All the way, I had been following tracks left in the damp trail surface by two off-road bicyclists we had met on their way back to same parking area we had started from. We had passed landmarks we knew well, even though we hadn’t hiked this particular area in several years.
It was getting near five o’clock, and we weren’t about to retrace our steps and risk getting stuck in the woods after dark with no flashlight. At any rate, we had no clue where we had gone wrong. We had no idea where the car was, and there were no people in sight. Unless….
Bowing to the inevitable we slogged back to the house and knocked on the door. The woman that came out eyed us in a friendly enough way, and, after apologizing for bothering her, I asked where we were and showed her our little map. “You’re right here”, she said, pointing to a place I would never have thought we could be. “Where did you start from?” I pointed to our trailhead. “My word!”, she exclaimed. “You’re at least five miles from your car!” My blank look must have made her want to make me feel better. “Must be the day for this sort of thing,” she said. “A few hours ago, a couple of bikers knocked on our door. They were completely turned around, too.”
“Oh”, I mumbled. “Is that right?” I think Nadia’s eyebrow arched up just a little bit as she looked at me.
Our benefactress must have decided we were sincere and harmless enough, because after a well-deserved and gentle lecture about being more prepared next time, like maybe carrying a cell phone so we could call for help, for example?, she bundled us in her van, and, at no little inconvenience to herself, hauled us back to our car. She would accept nothing in return except our relieved thanks, not even gas money.
We started off down the trail to the left, a little apprehensive about not knowing if we were getting closer to our destination or heading farther into the woods. If we guessed wrong, I figured, the worst part would be a longer back-track to get to the car, but the farther we went, the more distinct the path became. At one point, some rocks had been used to make steps to aid hikers up a small bank. Soon we passed a tree with a plastic label announcing that it was a Blackjack Oak, with a remarkably unflappable lizard clinging to its bark, and saw where branches had been trimmed back from the trail and some invading trees had been cut out.
We started to relax, and finally, after about the right amount of time considering pace and distance, we came to the turn-off to the parking area and our car. We were relieved, even though there was certainly no real “danger” at any time. Only the uncertainty had been a little unnerving.
Time was when the prospect of taking an unknown turn wouldn’t have caused apprehension. The idea of an unplanned night in the forest would have even been exciting, but with age seems to come caution and a sense of possible unpleasant consequences, and at some point they begin to compete for our attention with the thrill of adventure. That back-track seems kind of attractive. The unknown trail, maybe not so much.
We have both taken many unknown paths in our lives: me heading out from Illinois to a summer job in California in ’79 with some camping gear and just a few dollars in my pocket; Nadia leaving her family to travel alone to a new country to study where she knew no one and nobody knew her; me quitting my job and selling most of my things to hop a bus south across the border, to come back when and if I wanted. Both of us taking the cosmic leap of faith of trusting each other with the rest of our lives. Into the unknown….
Exploring nature in our backyard doesn’t have the thrill and risk that taking a strange fork in the road does, but it has its own quiet advantages. It offers a certain depth to replace the sense of adventure, allowing us to watch details evolve as our little patch and its citizens make their way around the years, acting and interacting with each other and us. We learn to welcome the return of old friends at more or less expected times, and we say so long to others until the wheel turns again. This is as safe, I suppose, as life ever gets, and that can be pretty comforting, if you learn to let it.
I suspect, though, that there are still unexpected and murky turns ahead, areas that we can’t find on our inadequate maps, and that’s okay. We can still welcome that, the tingle of heightened senses scoping out unknown terrain, the adrenaline rush of “Uh-oh. What now?” There are more moments like that coming, I hope.
In fact, I’d bet money on it.