Off Trail

This steep side hill, full of craggy boulders plucked from the bedrock above me by glaciers thousands of years ago, is a solid challenge for my legs on this cold March day. The slope, generally greater than 60 degrees and in some places containing sheer drop- offs, is south facing and now devoid of ice unlike the north facing slopes on the other side of this mountain. I find myself here as a result of wandering these woods in search of nothing other than a morning of reacquainting myself with this oft ignored piece of forest. I suppose it is overlooked because the terrain is so difficult but it is these untraveled areas that give us the best glimpse of life in the wild. The tell tale four foot diameter red oak and sugar maple trees reveals that this area is relatively intact; far too steep to be altered by humans removing trees for either pasture or timber harvesting.

There are dark shadows provided by over hanging bedrock knobs that provide shelter for animals during inclement weather. The tops of these remarkable natural architectural features are used as sunning spots by bobcats, snakes, porcupines, and fisher. There are narrow paths at several different vertical intervals, perhaps only two feet in width, that are used by all of the above animal species but also used by deer, bear, and coyotes. These pathways have precipitous drops, some 40 to 50 feet in height, and one missed step could prove to be more than disabling. I can’t resist these areas and I still find them invigorating and full of wonder.

Unlike many who enjoy our native landscapes I am not a trail type of person. At least not trials created by human traffic. Following the tracks of a myriad of people before me is just not my cup of tea. Areas of repeated travel, even if infrequent, lack the full embodiment of unadulterated wild. And keeping that in mind I seldom even repeat my own wanderings twice.

I find a quiet perch, a flat schist boulder that is just above knee high, where I can rest my weary legs. It occurs to me that I won’t always be able to come here or to another spot like it. Eventually time catches up to all of us. I’ve seen the signs. A chronic back issue has already limited my activity on some days. It is simply part of life. But today, at this moment, I can feel the exuberance through the cool fresh air I breath, the sun laden view of the forest as far as I can see, and all of the signs of wildlife that adorn this precipice. I am nothing more and nothing less than a piece of the puzzle, a link in the chain, an artifact of this forest at this exact moment in time.

Sitting here I remember a place in the woods from long ago. I was alone and 7 years old, more or less, and I found a magical spot; a huge piece of bedrock, striped with quartz, over hanging a cool and wild mountain stream. I could see only the complete, wild forest. I could hear only hear water rushing over rocks and birds singing from the tree tops. I could smell only the raw, musty, earth of those woods. My thoughts were nothing specific; their only focus being to absorb the world around me. The general feeling enveloped me. I somehow felt free and yet protected. It was my first full realization that nature was my salvation.

By some sort of incredible coincidence I witnessed my first river otter while sitting there. The otter effortlessly glided among the wet boulders in the stream in search of brook trout. The way it slipped into the water and emerged out of the water without making a splash was spell binding. It was this experience that cemented my emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world. It was the first time that I had ever felt secure in any environment.

Looking back, this watershed moment, charted a course for much of my days on this green earth. In most walks of life I chose the path less traveled or not traveled at all. The beauty of life was clear when I looked at it through my own eyes, from my own perspective, and without influence from others. Eventually I would learn that I could learn form others’ mistakes but that took quite a while. And so, I stumbled quite a few times, only to get up and take a different route which always proved to be enlightening in one way or another.

But right now, in this skin and held by this deep forest, I am willing to still explore my own personal uncharted territory. I am but a child among ancient trees. A babe in the woods so to speak. Every plant, fungi, animal, horizon of soil, and piece of rock has a lesson to teach, a story to tell, and a mystery to be unraveled.

And with luck, I’ll be out here somewhere, off the beaten path, for some time to come in search of what it is that this world holds for all of us. And that is nothing short of miraculous.


Originally written for the Heath Herald in March of 2016.

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