In the first five minutes of our hike, we saw a dead mole, a tiny wet organ that looked like a roasted red pepper and a tree with He’s Watching scrawled across its trunk. If I hadn’t been so excited about the tuna fish sandwiches and snacks we’d brought, I would have seen them for what they were: signs. The universe was practically hissing Go back.
The idea for the sandwiches and hike came to me while putting away groceries and licking the wound that I couldn’t get out for a run because of childcare duties. My seven-year-old daughter likes running in theory and for about the first two minutes, but she definitely loves exploring trails.
I discovered this earlier in fall when we went to a paved trail to walk-run, but like any good kid she wanted to take the “shortcut”, which wound around a stream and forced us across a rickety slat bridge. We hit a fork in the path – one way went back to the paved trail and the other led to adventure with about an hour to dusk, and it was so easy to choose the latter that it felt planned.
The trail system in our township is a labor of love. They’re extensive and well forged and color marked reliably on trees along the way. Hansel and Gretel could have made it out in plenty of time to report their parents to authorities. All you have to do is stay on the trail and get out well before dusk.
I believe we were on a black trail that day, though it might have been blue or green. The colors intersect at various points across a 5-mile tract of land cutting across an eastern branch of the Brandywine River and wetlands. Mostly it’s hilly woods walled with crags of Pennsylvania bluestone.
My daughter and I talked about the importance of staying on the trail and watching for cyclists since it’s also a bike trail, though talk about a challenge. The path is narrow with sudden twists, not to mention root-ridden and steep. We heard lots of rustles in the side brush and theorized what kind of animal it might be. I explained to both of us that probably a chipmunk could make that racket in a panic on a dried bed of leaves.
The trail we followed that day took the shape of a really long U before slanting up, and we eventually found ourselves near the peak. My girl saw a casual path off the trail and found a bench at the very top, which we agreed would be a nice spot to come back and sit when there was more light and also cookies.
The sun was starting to dip low enough to activate low pulses of maternal panic. I still had this idea that the trail we were on looped back around to the paved part, and that we must be really close. I have a great sense of direction when coming out of a store in the mall, but not so much in the woods.
We were saved that day by a group of boys and a dad and a sweet boxer pup named Penny. They bounded up from the other direction through a cut of bluestone and we had the chance to ask each other where the other had come from. Turns out they came from a lot I didn’t even know connected, the same one where we’d once released a pissed off, smelly groundhog that had moved in under our porch. The lot and memory were far enough away to jolt me into common sense. We would have to turn around and go back the way we came and try again another day. My daughter was disappointed.
And here we were, one month later with the perfect vacuum of free time and unfilled promise. The day was perfect for a leisurely hike…crisp, breezy, near-peak foliage, nothing on the schedule but a birthday party hours later. I made a couple of tuna fish sandwiches and packed apples, cookies, trail mix and water. We parked at the groundhog abandonment lot with the goal of finding the bluestone pass where we’d met Penny and her people.
We were barely out of the parking lot when we were forced to choose. Green or blue trail? Blue seemed to point in the wrong direction plus was cloaked in an ominous overhang of branches, so we chose Green. Green started out grassy and wide and flat, all Dora the Explorer, though quickly narrowed to poorly lit, old Scooby Doos. This is where we saw the delicately gored mole, easily mistaken for a leaf or a stone, but the wrong texture. My girl fussed over its velvety gray coat and said it made her so sad. Maybe a hawk dropped it, I said. Hawks have to eat too.
A good fifty paces up, we saw small splatters of blood and an organ that looked like a roasted red pepper and seemed too big to come from a mole. She was more fascinated than upset by a disembodied, non-velvety organ and we decided the woods must be crawling with creatures. They all have to eat.
All this talk of eating made us think of our tuna fish sandwiches. This is the exact spot where we saw the He’s Watching tree and I realized I’d left both sandwiches in a tidy stack in the fridge. At least I remembered the snacks and water.
We each took an apple and continued, sticking to Green based on a questionable sense of direction and whim. We tripped countless times on leaf covered roots, lurching forward each time in comical fashion. The woods were like those apple trees from Oz, I joked. Maybe they don’t want us here. Clusters of fallen branches looked like crouched bears from the corner of our widened eyes. We tread a bit slower.
Eventually, we saw a fluorescent swatch of pink track suit zipping through a thicket of trees and realized we were right by the paved trail. The arch of my right foot was starting to throb, and I started thinking about the two races I had coming up and how an injury wouldn’t do. My girl pointed out the wooded slat bridge we’d crossed on our previous hike and my heart sank. We’d already been hiking an hour, and we’d come to the wrong part. We would have to turn around soon in order to save my foot and make that birthday party and possibly a nap first if we were lucky.
My girl spotted the path leading up a steep hill. It wasn’t marked trail, and I knew better to take it, but it called out in the way some good bad decisions do. Even when the path dissolved back into steep woods, we kept climbing up. It had more to do with momentum and a healthy fear of heights. I leaned forward and scurried up with my hands because there wasn’t anything to hold onto. We hit a flatter clearing halfway up and stopped. I looked around and had the chance to see how ridiculously far up we’d climbed, and also how nothing looked at all familiar. No sign of a trail, just trees. I couldn’t even be sure where we’d come from. I pictured the sun setting and the birthday party with a slice of cake at an empty seat at the table.
Bubbles of panic started to rise, though I was pretty sure we could make our way back down the trail. I wasn’t at all sure how we’d do that without tumbling down like bowling balls. Still, panic is useless and best ripped off quickly like a band-aid. I turned around to start the slow, long sideways creep back down the hill.
My girl, decidedly unpanicked, pointed ahead to a tree that looked like, well, any tree and said “I feel like this looks familiar.” If you’re ever lost in the woods, this is the phrase you ache to hear. I imagine it only sounds good the first five times, but this was still the first. I wanted to believe that it was familiar. Mostly, I didn’t want to roll down a very steep hill like a bowling ball, so we continued climbing up the hill, clawing at big rocks and grabbing onto roots that no longer seemed like they were trying to trip us and may have even been reaching out to help.
When we finally reached the top of the mountain – and I feel okay calling it a mountain – we were in the tree tops. Sunlight lit red and yellow leaves ablaze, and the wind made them dance. It was almost as breathtaking as the sight of the trail at the very top. My girl and I high-fived.
She’d found a shortcut to the trail we’d been on the first time the month before. We followed it to the crest where we’d seen Penny the boxer and high-fived again. Several times we were faced with trail color choices – did we want Black, Blue or Green? – and each time it was a gut instinct guess. Each time I felt a knot of rising panic tighten as a reminder that we literally weren’t out of the woods yet.
The second time we saw the creepy He’s Watching tree, we almost gave it a hug because it meant we were not lost.
It was here that we ate the rest of our snacks and finished the water and talked about instinct and how important it is to listen to that little voice inside that tells you to go this way. Except when it tells you to go the wrong way, but still better to listen because it’s good practice. Or better yet, listen to the little voice of someone little you trust. Sometimes they know the best way to go, even if they’re more than three decades younger and can’t even drive. Together you might stand a fighting chance.
Near the end of the trail, my girl noticed an old bike tire hanging from a tree branch. She wondered how it got there, and her eyes darted around the forest floor for other signs of wreckage. Maybe she expected to find a rusted out bike cage or a skeleton in spandex. The woods can be a dangerous place and let’s never forget that, but mostly let ‘s remember the sandwiches next time.
I am a 41-year-old married mother of two, and for fun I like to read and write and run and watch that TV show where the guy travels around the country building treehouses. I am the keeper of byebyebeer, a blog about sobriety and the good stuff that comes along with it. Sobriety has opened up a brighter, richer world, and I couldn’t imagine trading it for anything.
Don’t I have the coolest, most talented friends ever? Kristen is another one of my personal favorites because she writes from a space of honesty and adventure. My favorite stories are those that she shares from within her family, places she’s lived, and trails she’s traversed. If you haven’t yet, check her out. Kristen blogs at ByeByeBeer. Don’t know where to start? Try Murky Waters, The Drop Ceiling Letters, or 100 Years–and then read everything else, too.
Thank you, Kristen, for letting us get lost…and found…with you 🙂
Life is a Highway: Where is the most awesome place you’ve ever visited or lived?
In what ways has your life’s journey not gone according to plan? Where are your roots? Have how you handled the following: crossroads, stop signs, one-way streets, wrong turns, hidden treasure. Tell us where you’ve been or where you want to go.