Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Patrick Flynn and Ronald Tipton, 2016.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Almost Thought I Got My Death Wish

They say Homo Sapiens are creatures of habit; perhaps we are. Habit can be good. It is good to brush your teeth after every meal. Habit can be bad. It's bad to stain your teeth from tobacco smoke after each meal. Habit can also be bad if it makes every aspect of life routine.

Every morning when I report for work at the mall I see the walkers. I recognize the faces now, some wave or greet me. The same faces every morning, every day, every week walking in the same direction in the same place. It is good, this habit of exercise, it is bad this bland sameness.

Habitually, I too am a walker. I am not fond of confinement or routine. Malls have no appeal to me and I hope they aren't my fate. I say this because most of the walkers, not all by a long shot, but most are elderly; can we say old without the P.C. police ticketing me? I'm old myself and my legs get creakier every day. The mall is a comfy environment. It is dry with constant temperature, security and smooth surfaces under foot. Perhaps this safeness that is the lure is also the problem. I look at these people with a realization that the majority are about my age, many a bit younger. Come on, folks, live a little, go walk around the outside of the mall once in a while at least. What's the worse that can happen? You get run over by a shopper on a cell phone? You step in a puddle?

I don't do malls, I walk outside. I don't walk one route. I go here, I go there and although most my walks recently have been into the woods, I also walk through city streets and suburban neighborhoods. I like the variety of scene and challenge of change or the change of challenge, and so I keep seeking new paths to wander down.  

Last week, now that the seasonal fees have ended for the winter months (I've purchased an annual pass for 2011), I drove out to the Brandywine Creek State Park. This is the park with the handicap parking space at the beginning of the hiking trail. I have been in this park muchas venes in my life, often with The little Woman and when they were still crumb crunchers, our three kids.

The main trail (part of the Delaware Northern Greenway as well) is a two and half mile walk on a wide packed gravel path. It is categorized as easy. It runs alongside the creek that gives the park its name. My young kids liked to peruse the riverbank looking for fish in the water and bugs in the dirt, attempting to catch some in buckets. They never succeeded, but my son lost his shoe in the mud alongside the river bank one time, but that is what boys do.

However I now know this main section of the park far too well.

Thus I wanted to get away from the overly familiar. I knew there were some different paths I never went or seldom had, so I went up the main trek until I came to a side trail next to a small stream and decided to walk it. It was narrow and rough, which had some advantages, bicycles were forbidden -- allegedly.

That is what the little red sign indicates. It shows a bicycle crossed out by a thick red diagonal line. Why it couldn't just say, "No bicycles", I don't know. Stop encouraging illiteracy; make people read!


It was not I had never been up this path before. Many moons ago, when we were considerably younger, very considerably, the Little Woman and I had wandered up here. The main trail was well visited that day, but it was lonely up this path. It followed the stream and twisted about like a flung rope, taking us far from worldly view until we popped out in an open field of golden high grass. It was an isolated island of soft, lush ground lit by the warm summer sun, whose beams flowed like butter through gaps in the trees. It was very romantic and we being so very considerably younger at the time, alone in this sylvan setting in the heat of the season did what romance called for...

A bit later, walking again we came to a steep rise in the path as it went back into the woods. We went on. It was a difficult climb because the grade was steep with not much toehold. We pulled ourselves up by grasping saplings and branches. Once up on higher, but more level ground, we paused. The Little Woman had grow reluctant about going further, so we turned back. She was more scared going down the embankment than she had been climbing. It was not only steep, the under footing was loose and slippery. Obviously we survived, but getting down was an adventure.

Now I was here again and I came to the open field this time alone. It was December now and the field was drab brown and not golden and the trees were bare of leaf. It was chill and not romantic, but still private and secluded. The path had narrowed to something not much more than an indentation in the ground. In the field it formed a Y, two paths to choose from. The one to the right turned toward the wooded hill. This probably led to the steep climb The Little Woman and I had "enjoyed" many years ago. The other fork turned back toward the stream and through the grass. I choose it.

It crossed the grass and entered the woods again. I followed for a while until deciding that having no idea where this went it might be wise to turn around.  When I got home I Googled up the park website and found a map of the trails and found out where this path should take me.

My secluded path had a name, Rocky Run and it had a distance, 1.9 miles. It began on one side of the little stream, also named Rocky Run, and exited on the other after making a large sweeping loop through the forest. (It is the blue line on the upper right side of the map above the Brandywine Creek).

Hey, new territory to explore and it seemed a piece of cake; after all, at my average pace I can walk two miles in a half hour. So I made my plan that next time out I would walk the length of Rocky Run Trail.

It was a cold and bitter morn when I set out for this walk, and there was a wind stirring the leaves as I walked toward Rocky Run up the main trail. The temperature was at 23 degrees and some snowflakes floated about my head. These State Parks open at eight o'clock in the morning and it was precisely at 8:00 AM when I stepped out of my vehicle in the parking lot to start my presumably two mile half hour walk. It was precisely 10:00 AM when I arrived back at my vehicle after nearly two hours lost in the woods.

Recently in my post Mercatores Erepta Morti I spoke of the Elephant Graveyard to which old pachyderms go knowing they are about to die. No one knows if this is myth or fact, but I do know something about cats. The Little Woman and I have rescued cats for quite some time, feral kittens laid at our doorstep, but more recently old cats from shelters who deserve a real home in their final years.  As a consequence I am familiar with several feline deaths. What I have observed over the years is that an old cat seems to know when death is due. If they have become slow because of age or illness, they may become perky again, eat well and even play for a day and then they will seek some spot away from all. They will go to the place and lay as if in comfort, perhaps seeking peace in the last moments and die. (Photo: Kendell in final rest.)

If cats do this, then maybe elephants do it also just like the legend says.

And I thought that would be my ideal. If I knew I was on the cusp of death between my finite body and my eternal soul, what better than to wander off into a deep woods where no one would find me for decades and go to repose there. It would be an escape from the hands of man, from the funeral directors and all that folderol. Just disappear forever into the folds of the forest.

There came a point in this jaunt when I thought I was getting my death wish.

It seemed so simple and clear on the map. Just follow the trail to where it leads and where it leads is back to where it started. So I went into the woods, at first following the creek closely. I could look across and see the returning path on its other side through the barren branches of the almost winter trees. I could tell the path was steadily rising in elevation, but it was a very gradual, almost   imperceptible, slope at this point. I moved further into the woods and the stream here had patches turned to ice. There were even frozen muddy portions of the trail that crackled and crinkled under foot.

The way was growing rougher. There were fallen trees and branches that had to be climbed and more and more the trail, because of fallen leaves, blended into the forest floor. I had no fear of becoming lost because, after all, I could always follow the stream.

The stream was receding away from me and the return path was growing more distant. At the last point where I could still see that path I saw three men jogging up it. Youthful men, college age, running across the horizon. My running days are past me now.

I prodded on and lost sight of the runners and of the return path and of the creek. Even the path I was on at times shrank to nothing or disappear beneath the leaf blanket. There was an open space, a low depression off to the side, that shown white with its own ice, where I lost the trail for a while and had to search it out again.

The risen sun was blotted out here and the light was  dim. The day showed no mercy  to my old bones and instead grew more chill.

I came to a Y in the path, one arm turning down a slight rise back toward where the creek should be, the other going steeply up. I choose the downward trail to follow.

I thought I would be led back to the water, but after some time my path dissolved away and I was left with nowhere to go but back, unless I were to be so foolish to simply plunge ahead across unmarked territory like a modern Daniel Boone.

I'm not that foolish and I don't own a coonskin cap. If I should fall for whatever reason back in there, who would find me? I knew I wasn't dying, it wasn't time for that final trek to the elephant boneyard yet.

I had to go back and find that Y and then make a choice. Do I return to the main trail or do I take the upper road?

I was determined to find that loop around that would cross the stream. I went up.

This became a pattern, climb a trail up and up and then level out for a way, perhaps even angle down for a while, but then up and up.

The ups never reached the top.

The trail just got rockier and steeper.

At one point, very near the top, where the path was nothing but rocks upon rocks, an allegedly forbidden bicyclist came down. I know he was banned from this trail, but he rode it just the same. He came down and passed me on the narrow rough surface. He and his conveyance pointed sharply down the slope in a defiance of the Law of Gravity.

"You're a braver man, than me," I said as he passed.


He chuckled and bounced on his way, soon disappearing around some bend below.  He was the first person I had met out here and he was quickly gone like a phantom on wheels.

The path stopped short of the summit and turned sharply to my left. The bicyclist had not come along this trail, he had simply appeared over the lip of the summit above and come swooping down upon me. Now the summit too was swallowed up by trees and it grew darker as I went deeper.

I paused and it was silent.


I truly expected that any moment I would begin the circle back to the creek and a point of crossing, perhaps a little bridge, that would put me on the return leg of this journey.

But no, the path just kept going and the land grew more desolate.

I don't wear a watch and had no sense of how much time had passed. I knew I had been walking long, much longer than a mere two miles should demand.

Still the path did not loop. Still no sound or sight of water was seen or heard.

At times the path slipped away to nothing and I had to stop and search for where it went. And then instead of going in the direction I hoped, the path veered the opposite way and went up again toward a rocky ridge.

Like before the summit eluded me. I climbed and climbed and then the path switched direction once again and went level in parallel of the horizon.

I felt no panic, you understand. I knew I could turn around and follow this trail back, but this was a quest now, like Ponce de Leon seeking the Fountain of Youth. I had to find what I had come for, I had to continue.

Then suddenly the path turned downward and twisty. It was a light impression through the hinterland.

It was almost invisible.

Yet it seemed to be going in the direction I desired.

As I started down this particular section a man came jogging, yes jogging, toward me.

"Hi, " I said. "Say do you know if this path will loop around the creek up ahead?"

He jogged in place. "I don't know," he said, "I've never been on the other side. This path is good for my needs." And with this he jogged off.

"Lot of ups and downs," I called after him.

He waved back and was gone.

Well, that was totally uninformative, but he came from somewhere ahead, so on I trod.

I see a big black rock. Hmnm, I think, maybe I can take a photo of myself out in this wilderness, sort of memorialize this pioneer for my Blog readers.

I go off the trail and find a ridge upon the rock that will hold my camera in place. I set the auto timer, push the shutter button and strike a suitable rugged mountain man pose.

I wait the appropriate time and then check the shot, except there is no shot. Strange, so I try again, once, twice and no success.

Surely my batteries are fine, I put fresh in before I left.

Is the cold effecting my camera?
I mean, the cold effects me. This cold weather plays havoc with my psoriasis. It flares up when the temperature falls through to the freezing floor and my skin begins to burn like a bad sunburn. I probably am subjecting myself to more of such torture by being out in this weather, but I'll tough it out to walk.

I pause and take a photo and my camera automatically shuts down. This usually means the batteries are dying.

But why are my batteries dying. The only thing I figure is my son had replaced a battery in a portable CD player last night. He probably used one of the good batteries I had sitting with the player and perhaps left the bad behind and I used one weak battery in my camera. Anyway I am not going to get a picture of myself in the woods.

As I am fooling with my camera a woman appears ahead. She is jogging with her dog. I step to one side and wait her passage. I feel uncomfortable sometimes meeting lone woman in the deep woods. I look like such a bum in my old tattered and torn winter coat. Do I look homeless? Do I look threatening?

I speak to her, trying not to sound like a pervert or serial killer.

"Do you know if this path curves around and goes down the other side of the creek," I ask.

"I think it does," she says.

"Oh, is it much further ahead?"

"I don't know," she says, "but there's the hotel and  it should do it there."

Hotel?

I glance up and sure enough there are large buildings showing above the trees.

I have walked all the way to the hotels along the Concord Pike and when I come nearer toward them the path curves about and I come to a stream again. There is no bridge. I cross it on some rocks.

Once I have forded I think I have it made.

Not quite.

I follow this stream back in the direction that should take me all the way to the main trail. Yet after a while this new path has also taken me away from the stream and goes up. I keep going up and the trail dead ends at a cliff high above the stream bed with no apparent way down.

Again I am backtracking until I find a switchback that by grabbing trees upon the steep grade allows me to descend back down to the valley.

The problem is I now seem to be back on the wrong side of the creek. I can see a trail across the water, but no way to get to it.

I also see no way back up that steep hillside either.

Besides I have no desire to retrace my steps, to go back the long way I came. I remember all those steep hills I climbed and know going down is worse than going up. Gravity pulls against you and it is easy to fall on the down slope and I can see me lying crumbled and broken in some ravine or behind a fallen log, forlorn and forgotten, finding my elephant graveyard at last.

No, I must cross this stream somehow. There is no path here. Instead I follow the curving creek bank and find another group of stones I can cross. These are wider apart and a few are wet. I balance my way gingerly to the other side.


Needless to say, I suppose, despite more obstacles ahead, I found the exit trail.  This took me to the top of the slippery slope The Little Woman and I had struggled down oh so many years before.

I struggled down it again and soon was in that open field where the walking got easier.

Would I walk this trail again?  Of course, I know how it goes now.

And I didn't die.

But my camera did.

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