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Nature trail

“Time is a flowing river.
  Happy those who allow themselves to be carried, unresisting, with the current.
  They float through easy days.
  They live, unquestioning, in the moment.”
    ~ Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins, chapter 8

Peering ahead
Into the dimness
I can scarcely make out the next red ribbon
Marking the path
That penetrates yet deeper into the forest
Pausing
Assured by this lone sliver of fabric
I think back to this morning

The teacher had said
All the students would begin work on a nature trail
To be completed in the next year or two
I’d asked if the trail’s course
Was possible to follow now
She’d said it was
I’d resolved to walk the trail after school
Though the sitter would be expecting me
When school ended
I’d walked the mowed width of the playground
Continued into the forest beyond the designated trailhead
Anticipating
A path I could see
Not this series of ribbons spaced fifteen or so meters apart
Not this ever deeper solitude
Not this length of time
Who knows how much longer
Not the onset of dusk

Listening for signs of life
In the forest’s ineluctable silence
I feel uncertain
Reaching outward with my senses
I intercept a kind of heaviness that’s descended
Expressing the mystery of this place
Ancient
Achingly lonely
My solitude complete
Is that true
I’m defenseless
An insane fear grips me
Just imaginings
Am I being watched
I’m isolated here amid cool dank shadows
There must be something
I feel its immane weight
Following me
Closing in
Trying to catch...

I run
Tree trunks and shrouds of undergrowth rush past
Rotting leaves scatter at my feet
I careen through branches
Pressing deeper still into the forest’s silent depths
Nearly losing the trail here
Swerving
Seeking out the next ribbon
Darting again
Sweating in the heat of exertion
Jumping across the brush and smaller roots
Winding around the bigger growths and stumps
I almost trip at a sudden drop in the ground
My feet finding nothing beneath them
For just a moment
Then I again charge ahead
Moving faster
Where’s the next ribbon
The trees are parting
What’s beyond them
Nothing
I’m running off into empty space
Legs furiously churning the air
The horrible sensation of freefall
Confounds me almost too long

I grasp frantically for anything
Smack something solid
Clench it and hang
The root is thankfully thick and strong
I turn and my feet find traction
Pulling myself somehow back up
To terra firma
Still half disbelieving what’s just happened
I turn slowly back to look out and down
Way down

The view before me is stunning
Opening below
Late afternoon sunlight glints off upper tree branches
The trees themselves grow from a valley opening away toward the northeast
Over to my left the valley’s edge is marked by a dirt track
That runs into the distance
I’m separated from this scene by a long drop over a winding brook
Listening, I hear its trinkling noises
Rising from the base of the cliff atop which I stand
Extending as far as I can see through the woods to either side of me
A drop nearly sheer
All along its visible length
From this height
I can discern in the wan light
More of the red ribbons marking my trail
There must be dozens down there
Crossing the chatoyant valley floor
How do I get to them
I check behind me to make sure
I haven’t missed a ribbon
The last one I’d passed seems to be the very last above the cliff
Unwilling to turn back and face the fearful woods
I decide instead on scaling the precipitous face
Downward to its base
To cross the brook below
It’s the only way to continue
I kneel
Grabbing onto the sturdy root
That held me before
That welcomes me again
That extends downward into dimness
Dropping over the edge
I wonder vaguely whether all the students will be expected
To do this

For awhile the going is easier than I’d expected
I pass from root to root
Until there are no remaining roots hanging from the trees above
Realizing
That all too soon I’ve reached the last handhold
I pause again
Should I turn back
It’s too late to turn back
This root is weak and splitting under my weight
How will I continue
My heels find leaves on the cliff’s face
Maybe if there are enough of these
Or if something’s solid enough beneath them...
But I’ll probably wind up in the brook
What choice have I
Releasing the failing root
I begin a fast jarring slide
Down through most of the small pile of leaves
Down, down the cliff’s face
Further down as my teeth rattle together with the rough speed
Little damp leaf piles descend with me now
Building into a small avalanche at my feet
The water looms below
I claw into the rock racing across my back
As the leaves build and begin to take hold
Slowing my harsh descent
Slower, slower
Until I come to a precarious stop
Scant feet above the point at which cliff face transforms
Into slick fluvial gully wall
I hear all the water’s noises
Surely not too distant now
My relief’s only temporary
As I observe the leaves beneath me beginning to drop
Lightly into the brook
I quickly work my soft caving way across the leaf pile
Which at its edge slopes downward
Toward a point from which I see there’s no more than a long jump
To reach a sand bar built up in the gully
All the while the water babbles teasingly
As more leaves fall in
Taking with them the last of my support
I leap outward
To land hard but mostly unbruised on the sand
Breaking the fall with lissome spring of young knees
And hands
I shake myself a little and stand
Find the water’s narrowest channel
Walk to the outermost sandy point
Where with toes dipped in
I leap again hard as I can
Across the speediest water
To land in shallows
From which I clamber
While at my back the leaves I’ve piled continue to fall in
To be carried downstream

Here where the valley’s still lit by late afternoon sun
Panting as I find a sense of direction
I laugh at myself for my fear back in the forest above
Now in wet shoes
I follow the ribbons toward the trail’s designated end
As it winds back
Parallels the direction in which I’d come
Emerges at last onto a sidewalk leading up from the valley
I walk the paved route back to the schoolyard
Fifteen minutes later I’m at the sitter’s house
Where no one notices my lateness or damp footwear
Just offer Poopie and me buttermilk or sweet milk
An incomprehensible choice in an incomprehensible place
Where I might make some unknown backwoods brook
All my own
For now I wave every unknown milk away
The afternoon’s adventure over

Thanks always returns

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