A couple of sixteen-year-old sweethearts out for a late-evening walk around the lake. They had all the summer ahead of them, and no time to keep. They stopped for a long kiss on the boardwalk. Maybe it was a very long kiss, because somehow night fell, just then, and as they carried on along the trail, the forest closed around them and they were enveloped in darkness. He reached for her hand and she felt responsible – after all, this island was her home, and she should know the way back even with her eyes closed. Which they may as well have been, for all that she could see. She slowed the pace. She felt her boyfriend's arm on one side, the springy root trail beneath her, and to her left, a small log.
Oh! Wait! The trail builders had recently put these logs here, and she was sure they were all on the uphill side of the trail! She must have led him to the wrong side of the log! Thankful for the night concealing her blush of embarrassment, she said, “Just step over this little log, here...” and she did – into mid-air. Well, the mid-air part was a fraction of a second long, before she crumpled down past roots and stones and salal, came to rest on the ground and clambered quickly to stand again – this time aware of his knee in front of her face, as he stood there on the path, confused.
“Um. Actually not that way.” He helped her back up, never laughing at her, and thankfully never noticing the scrapes on her legs that she felt swelling up as they walked, this time much more slowly, along the trail. She closed her eyes. Given the fresh opportunity to be lost in her own environment, she used her free hand to navigate, feeling about at the warm summer air, the leaves, branches, and trunks as they went by. She discovered that she recognized some of the trees. She discovered that she knew by the change in slope that they were closer to the road, and by the smell of water that they were nearing the gravel spit. She became attuned to her senses in a way to which she wasn't accustomed, and delighted in the sound of her boyfriend's feet on the ground, the feeling of the breeze passing between their arms, and the glimpses of light as they neared the open alder forest. She loved the smell of the forest floor.
That was me, twenty-three years ago. I remember this often, and now try to make a habit of falling – at least metaphorically – off the beaten path. After all, falling lacks purpose, so the places I find myself are so much more surprising.
Last week, walking on the south side of the island, I picked my way carefully between thigh-deep snarls of blackberries toward the parched and crumbling moss deserts of the dry hillside. Even the blackberries were drying up, their vines like desperate brittle arms, reaching out to grab my clothing. I was so focused on the area immediately around my ankles, that I came unexpectedly upon a stand of cattails – a little marsh tucked into the rocks. What? I looked around: Pines, Douglas Fir, yellowing grass, moss and bracken, some cedars approaching death as their roots sought water in the dusty ground; insects resting on the brown-stemmed flowers. And the little stand of cattail. Their roots found some hidden source of water in the fold of the bedrock.
I looked up and discovered I was so far off the trail as to have to follow my senses back through the blazing white sun. So I stood and listened. Crowned sparrows called from various perches and the wind whipped the foxgloves so that they flopped against each other now and then. The grass whispered and my feet crunched the dried plants on my way home. I felt the stinging heat of the sun. Each of these experiences was a gift, like falling off a trail on a dark night. It is a gift just to give ourselves opportunities to discover.