The new trail behind Olympia Park snakes through the wooded landscape in switchbacks, over suddenly erupting water runs, and along blackberry brambles and elderberry bushes which are seeing full sunlight for the first time ever. We take trails for granted, but I have walked the same landscape before and after the trail has been built, and I can tell you that it alters the mood of the place completely.
Last weekend I walked the new trail, which is still under construction, up to the point where the graded and benched surface ended. Ahead were only the small orange flags in the landscape which marked where the trail crew would continue their work. It had been a great walk so far: dappled sunlight, sweet birdsong, easy walking, blackberries that were reddish green and still unripe, but which would be ready in the coming weeks. I could see a few flags ahead, like the crumbs of Hansel and Gretel’s bread, and decided to follow them. I knew this landscape, and had been in this area before, so I was sure I could find my way. Somewhere close by must be the little cliff with the open area below which my students and I had cleared of trash and debris, and from there led a deer path to a fallen tree where I hid a geocache four years ago. How difficult could it be to find my way?
At first the trail meandered along the hillside, but soon I found myself in overgrown territory. I bushwhacked through knotweed that was taller than my head. My shirt got caught by thorny brambles and I had to stop frequently to untangle myself. I deliberated if I should turn around, but my feet carried me further and further. How far could it be? I was in the middle of an American city, after all. I pushed forward. The next flag was up the hill and behind arm-thick hanging vines. I pulled myself up by holding on to small trees and shoving the kudzu out of the way. The terrain was suddenly very steep and the valley to my right fell down into a ravine. Where was I? Somewhere in front of me was the ball field at Olympia Park, but how far away was it? My view ahead was blocked by a tangle of fallen trees, and the deer path seemed to snake alongside it. I suddenly realized that there were no more flags, neither ahead nor behind. When and where did I lose the flags?
Twenty yards in front of me lay the huge, silvery trunk of a fallen tree across my path. Wasn’t this the place where I had hidden the geocache when the giant dead tree stood as a sentinel in the landscape, and hid it again later after its fall? I tried to climb over the dead trunk, but it was more than four feet in diameter and on the slope, and I could not push myself up on its slippery wood. Pulling myself alongside it I slid over the roots and a very unfriendly poison ivy patch and down the other side. There was no geocache anywhere, and now I really had no idea where I was. Looking back over the trunk I could no longer tell where I had come from and was not sure I could find my way back to the trail. This was not a sweet, hiker friendly tamed landscape. The brambles and the poison ivy were doing their own thing, the robins were eying me suspiciously, and big trees came down without anybody witnessing their death. As a human I had no part in this. The thorns scratched my arms bloody without care; the poison ivy had probably left its insidious, toxic molecules on my naked skin for a later painful warning. I panicked slightly, but thought that going on would eventually get me back to civilization. Pushing forward I slipped in the mud and my foot sank into a runnel which suddenly seemed to spring up from the ground. My leg was covered in cold, dark brown slime up to the knee. Why didn’t I bring my cell phone? What if I wandered around the folds of this forest forever and could not find my way home? Who would come looking for me here? What if I got injured? How many hours before dark?
Then I remembered that all hillsides in Emerald View Park have a top with houses built right up to the edge. If I went up the hill, and not forward, I should find a street eventually. And sure enough: climbing up the slope and pushing myself through the thicket I glimpsed the neon yellow of a caution tape which the trail crew had strung around an abandoned foundation. Above it was the paper street I had crossed before. I was so surprised to come out in this location: space seems to have followed a different geometry in the trackless woods, and time bends itself around winding runnels and fallen trees when there is no clear path.
Dirty, scratched up, tired, and chastened I left the forest behind. I thought of the opening lines of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno:
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Indeed: what is the savage forest, and how is it changed by the straightforward path we build through it?