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.
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.
However I now know this main section of the park far too well.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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'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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
"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 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 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.
"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."
I glance up and sure enough there are large buildings showing above the trees.
Once I have forded I think I have it made.
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.
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.
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.