Published January 1, 2013. From Cook's Illustrated.
Six years ago, I went hiking in the Pyrenees and, on the last day, chose a 23-kilometer walk on the border between Spain and France headed down to Banyuls-sur-Mer. I had a map (the kind printed on paper), no compass, and no GPS. I did have water, an apple, a jambon sandwich, a raincoat, and a plastic flashlight. The one thing I did not have was common sense. Instead of following the rickety slatted fence line straight east to the Mediterranean and my destination, I took a sharp left north based on a series of particularly small but bad decisions that overwhelmed a rather simple fact: I was supposed to be traveling east, not north. Late in the afternoon, after traveling for miles through the rough, dark Massane Forest on wild boar paths and backtracking around steep river gorges, I finally hitchhiked to a small town that, thankfully, had an open café. Three beers later, I called a cab that had to drive for half an hour to Banyuls—I wasn’t even on the front side of my map.
Every honest Vermonter admits to getting lost. One might track a deer until twilight, end up on an unfamiliar ridge, head downhill, find a stream, and follow it out to a road. The difference between Vermonters and the rest of us is that Vermonters are used to being lost; they expect it.
Last year I was hiking just over a ridge that was part of a wildlife refuge. It was steep, the slope was heavy with dying shagbark hickory, and I was headed down looking for deer paths. I eventually backtracked, and when I reached high ground, I looked out and saw not my hunting cabin across the hollow as I had expected but, instead, an unfamiliar vista.
In that moment of being lost, I noticed the milky sun suspended above the far western ridge, the distant train whistle of the wind, the composted scent of wet leaves, and a spearmint blast of black birch. I heard the scuttling of a chipmunk and then watched a red squirrel sail from one oak to the next and then spiral up the trunk to his nest above. Assumptions about place and direction had been disproved; I was alone and no longer attached to the way back home.
I sat down on a stretch of log and took out a brisket sandwich and an apple, enjoying the sunny, cool afternoon. I stopped looking for the familiar—the spot where I had seen a six-pointer the year before or a rocky outcropping high above the valley. I was on safari in wild, unfamiliar country. The world was fresh and alive.
As the woods around my cabin become more familiar, as I venture out farther and farther, I seek the joy of cutting one’s moorings, of walking through a dark, haunted forest, happy for the temporary dislocation.
Robert Frost must have had this in mind when he wrote his most famous poem. His horse thinks it odd that Frost is stopping at a place “between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.” The only other sound is “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” The stanzas carry a quiet satisfaction, a rootedness in the middle of nowhere, on a dark night, lost to all things familiar. Sometimes I am a swinger of birches but, recently, a quiet beckons. In “Going for Water,” Frost writes about children who run through the woods during a fall evening to fetch water and, in so doing, uncover another world. “We ran as if to meet the moon / That slowly dawned behind the trees, / The barren boughs without the leaves, / Without the birds, without the breeze.”
In “A Boundless Moment,” Frost finds truth in the woods by shaking off his preconceptions about the way he wants the world to be. He at first believes that he has come across a splendid “Paradise-in-bloom” in March but instead admits that it is nothing more than a beech “clinging to its last year’s leaves.”
We must lose what we think we know so that we can come to see what we least expect.