The Road Taken
The woods in our Vermont town are full of the unexpected. I've stumbled across black bears, coyotes, a rabid raccoon hiding in a hollow tree trunk, a young and gangly bull moose, a bobcat so large I thought it was a mountain lion, a glossy black porcupine with a face like a monkey, and once, during deer season, a fawn that walked right up, stared me down, and then slowly moved on after it had an eyeful. I've seen a large brown rabbit jump a 10-foot-wide stream without getting its feet wet, an eagle float over my head while I was standing on the top of Bear Mountain, and a red-tailed hawk launch itself out of a high perch and soar down to snatch one of our Rhode Island Reds.
Of course, there are the hunting stories. Nate tells about the time he shot two turkeys on the first day of the season with just one shot—a curious second turkey peeked around a tree at exactly the wrong moment. And the time he was sitting in a tree stand during deer season and watched a large coyote track his father, Tom, through the snow. And the time that Tom was rabbit hunting and watched his beagle run in circles following rabbit scent while, all the time, the rabbit was sitting plumb in the middle of the action on a tree stump, enjoying the show. Some people do some pretty stupid things in the woods, such as shooting a moose out of season while being shot themselves on videotape. (The judge had a good laugh.) And the half-wits who like to cruise back roads in the early morning or evening and shoot from their pickups. The game warden catches some of them by using his mechanical deer, Bambi, which he places strategically near the road. One out-of-towner, as he was being arrested, kept insisting that he had shot a real four-pointer and demanded the carcass.
On a few occasions, walks in the woods have led me to encounters with death-like the search for a neighbor who had a heart attack while looking for loose beefers—and then, while attending a three-day rock concert near Seattle in 1970, I saw a kid pulled stiff and bleached white out of a stream. And a few years back, the rescue squad was called in for a particularly bad turkey hunting accident—one hunter hid in the bushes and made turkey calls while his partner swung around and gave him both barrels.
The longest walk I have ever taken was a recent hike through the Pyrenees with my wife, Adrienne. The hike was about eight miles, most of it spent on 4,000-foot ridgelines on the border between France and Spain. Around midday and after a series of wrong turns, we ended up at the end of the trail in a dark forest and with little idea where we were on the map. (The tour company had suggested bringing a flashlight, whistle, and compass; all three were left behind to make room for bread, charcuterie, and the local wine.) After climbing a boulder for a view, I discovered that we were at the head of a steep mountain ravine formed on two sides by high rocky ridgelines and filled in between with streams, gorges, and thick going. Miles in the distance, I could see a few houses. It was at least four hours of strenuous hiking back to our starting point, so we marched on. Then it darkened and started to rain.
After an hour of painful progress following what must have been a wild boar path, Adrienne finally said, "Let's follow the river back to civilization," a remark akin to "Use seat cushions for flotation." Without better options, we finally made it down to the river, found a trail, lost the trail, ended up at an impassable gorge, retraced our steps, found a parallel river, followed that, rejoined the original river, slogged through that for half a mile or so, and then picked up a trail that seemed promising. It was midafternoon but dark deep in the gorge, the forest more ragged and primeval than here in New England, as if its history were piled on top of itself, waiting patiently under our tired footsteps.
But, finally, we found the trailhead and a small settlement of houses, the roof tiles the color of pink peppercorns and the front yards sadly domesticated. Salvation had quickly turned to routine, and now it was just a question of reaching our final destination. We hitched a ride with a drunk school-bus driver and ended up in town, wearily ensconced in a small café. After two bracing, slightly bitter beers, I asked a local to point out where we were on the map. He looked perplexed for a few seconds and then, in a moment of enlightenment, turned it over and found the spot on the other side. We were a good 12 miles from our intended destination.
Robert Frost knew a lot about being lost and the deep longing to escape from earth for even just a moment. In his most famous poem, he chose, as Adrienne and I did by chance, the path with the ". . .better claim / Because it was grassy and wanted wear." Frost knew that life can be a ". . .pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it, and one eye is weeping / From a twig's having lashed across it open." He longed to get away from the mundane, to reach toward heaven for just a moment and then come back again, renewed. As the two of us emerged oddly exhilarated from the woods that day in the Pyrenees, I remembered the closing lines of Frost's "Birches."
Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.