Stopping By Woods on Autumn Afternoon…

Is that an oncoming ATV or the blustering wind in the treetops high above? You may think I need my hearing checked not to be able to tell the difference, but imagine, if you will, me wearing multiple layers of coats (topped with a flourescent vest that makes me look like a crossing guard but keeps me safe from deer hunters), a snug polartec hat pulled down way over my hair and ears, and the swish swish of my hiking boots stomping through mounds of fallen leaves.

For a long time I’ve avoided going off the paved road in the State Forest near our house. Honestly, walking alone seems like, perhaps, a bad idea. I’ve grown accustomed to being a little wary as a woman walking alone. The forest is, however, a pretty safe area, really. I always bring my cell phone and always let my husband know where I plan to walk. The Forest can be unpleasant sometimes, though. I don’t like it, for instance, when people let their big dogs run off leash, and they come barking and bounding up to me. I also get rather annoyed at ATVers who are NOT allowed, no NOT NOT NOT, on this state land but who come barreling along anyway with their noisy machines, tearing up the trails and frightening the wildlife.

Yesterday I went on an hour and a half trek through this forest on a new route, despite my earlier reticence, emboldened by the new trail maps the state now offers at the entrygate. I was surprised to discover a change in my attitude yesterday about the ATVs. As it turns out, I’ve come to see a small benefit to this illegal traffic: I came to a place on the trail where I was looking for the path less traveled but couldn’t find it. Then, scanning the forest floor in an arc ahead of me, I saw the tire marks and a muddy rut. “Ah, here’s the trail,” I said. Perhaps they have some useful qualities after all, these lawbreakers!

What I found along that trail was an amazingly diverse bunch of mini-ecosystems that I hiked through with a sense of glee I haven’t felt much since I was a child — not when I’m walking alone at least. I kept imagining stories to go with the “settings” that I was seeing. Round the bend a dark grove greeted me. I entered this secret place. Turn right at the end of the pond and after a jig-jagging path with a makeshift branch bridge across a creek, and I found myself in a wide dirt avenue lined with stately trees. That last part reminded me of some walks I’ve taken on English estate grounds, visited when I studied abroad junior year of college.

My son called me on my cell phone just when this new route hit the tried and true paved road cutting through the forest. “Mommy, where are you? We just got home from our bike ride. You’re not back yet??” I assured him I was only 25 minutes from home and reminded him what route I was taking that day. Then I hung up and went back to my reverie.

I was a woman who knew where she was going — I was taking new paths, with no fear and open eyes, breathing deeply and smiling.

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