Why is it that we enjoy walking in the woods? I ask and it is not a rhetorical question. I wonder.
I walk in and out of shadows , the Oregon forest hugging me to my left, Timothy Lake reaching out blue to my right. I’m walking around the lake, the same lake I’ve circled before, but I haven’t ventured far off the beaten path or far away from the crowds in my journeys; in fact, this is a well-traveled path I’ve chosen, thousands having walked it before me, taking many of the same steps, I’m betting, and thousands will travel it after me. We’re all heading somewhere —walking—and the lake that I’ve chosen as my center is a popular choice.
As I walk, I’m aware that I share the wilderness path with many others. Still, at times I think, or maybe in truth I imagine, that I am walking and forging my own path, finding my own way through the trees; at other times, I know for sure I am simply following where others have led. I grow complacent, walking along, step after step, not really thinking about future or past; and then, from around a bend a dog races at me — white and compact — a bullet screaming down the path straight at me! I know his masters are close behind. I hear them calling. “Spike. Spike Spike!” I jump out of the way as Spike speeds by me. Dodged that bullet! His owners and I finally approach each other, nod hello, smile, as we pass, me going west, they east. They take up the call again, “Spike! Spike! Spike.”
We each have our own bit of wilderness space and there’s etiquette to the sharing. A family spreads out its blankets, chairs, tent, on a campsite by the lake. They create a bright red spot in this forest of a thousand greens and browns. The red tent, with its orange rainfly, attracts my eye, but I don’t stare as I pass. I glance quickly, noting the large tent, the smaller one close by, the dad putting sunscreen on a brown-haired toddler. I’m pushing the edge of the etiquette envelope, aren’t I? Staring at others in the wilderness, as if it belongs to me, as if they are interlopers, which of course, I know they are not. None of us is. We share this journey.
I walk on.
A trio on horseback passes – 2 women, one man. And I step off the path to let them by. This is part etiquette, mostly common sense, and I can’t help but admire the muscle and power of the horses beneath the people. The women and the man are giants as they ride the path.
And then I have the path to myself. I should be contemplating the meaning of life, I chide myself as I meander along the woods, enjoying the quiet around me, the rustling in the treetops becoming all breeze, all forest, no people. Just me. But I don’t contemplate life. I breathe the fragrance of the pine, the cedar, the known and unknown ferns I pass as I walk. Alone. It’s quiet, did I mention that? Midday quiet, when all the birds are resting, the animals napping and there’s just that swishing of leaves and the occasional bug buzzing along on its own tiny life’s journey. My footsteps clomp against the ground on my journey. I’m the noisiest creature in my wilderness.
I walk on, a mile, then a mile further, and see no one. I begin to wonder, have I wandered off my path? Did I miss a turn? A sign? A clue? I study the trail. It’s well-travelled, that I can see, though not so busy today. I remind myself that one can’t get hurt when they’ve chosen a safe and well-known path, when they’ve avoided adventure and chosen to hike a simple path —a well-travelled path — around a lake. How can you lose your way if you are circling a lake and you never veer from the path? But I find that my path appears to meander, hugging the lake one moment, veering off for another, taking me up, further into the woods, more and more a path of my own, not so travelled, not so beaten, as paths do get.
And I wonder, am I where I should be? Am I going where I intended to go? Am I just circling a lake, as life slides by, visions of forest and aromas of pine, nothing new, nothing adventured. Is it better to follow along on this path, stick to the trail, since I’ve begun in this direction, or is it better, maybe wiser, to stop. Ponder. Possibly bushwhack my way to another path, create my own path, possibly even around a different lake? I continue to follow the path, but I question every step of the way. I learned in history class that President Truman slept well the night after he made the decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima, which he knew would kill thousands, which did in fact kill 70,000 immediately, 70,000 more soon after, though exact numbers vary. The decision was made, he said, done, and so he slept.
But I am not like Truman. I question my decisions every day, every step. The path takes me farther and farther from the lake. Was the lake my destination? Or was it just something pretty to look at as I make my journey? I am pondering cutting a new trail when I see the lake to my right again.
A lake! Yes! My lake.
I’m relieved, happy, joyful that I have found my lake, that I know again that this is my path, my own intended path. Certainly, thousands have traveled it before me, it’s not a hidden or secret path, but it is mine. I wonder now why I didn’t trust the path. I pass a young couple pondering a side trail, peering at a map, and I take a breath to say something to them, to tell them how the path runs, where it comes from and where it goes, and where it does not. But I exhale instead and say nothing.
I smile and nod and let them discover their own piece of life’s wilderness and decide on their own path.