Positive Childishness

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally. Read about my new class in Monterey, California: A Time for Healing. … This morning I feature a great essay reposted from Hope Magazine.

Lane Fisher

We’re farther down Susan’s dirt road than I’ve ever been. Only one car has passed us, but we can’t wait to leave “civilization” for the woods. Our steps quicken as we spot the abandoned road we want, and then we stop dead. It’s flooded.

Hopping from one high spot to another, I reach the trunk of a huge pine that a logger has left at the edge of the road. Stepping up, I pick my way across it. I am a cat. I extend my arms and stand tall. I am an Olympic gymnast. I get to the log’s end and leap clear of the massive puddle. I am a forty-three-year-old woman on an adventure with my best friend.

It was Susan’s idea to hike from her house to mine, some sixteen miles apart, without setting foot on paved roads. She wanted an adventure, something physical that we’d never done before. I agreed, eager to put my world back on a scale I understood when walking was my primary transportation. I knew shortcuts and secret worlds throughout my neighborhood during the years before I could rush from one destination to another–that is, before I got my first bike. What I don’t anticipate on this misty July morning is that I’ll also put time back in a child’s dimension, where the hands of the clock are irrelevant, and what matters are things like hunger and thirst, sunshine and shade, and whatever’s right in front of you.

JUST A SHORT DISTANCE down the abandoned road, all signs of recent logging vanish. We cross a small brook on a bridge of two granite slabs, and the road narrows. Every branch and stalk of grass that brushes our bare legs is wet, and we jump hopscotch–soil, stone, stone, soil– across more puddles. Another big one stops us, and we look over the situation. How to keep our boots dry?

“Lane, look!”

I snap my head toward Susan and follow her pointing hand. The surrounding thicket is full of red raspberries! We rush to the wet canes and eat as fast as we pick. “My grandma used to tell us to pick low,” says Susan, stretching toward an especially plump berry. “I don’t know if that’s where the bigger berries are or if she just wanted to pick high without competition.” In unison we drop to a crouch and keep eating.

When we finally return to the trail, we’re beyond the puddle. Our hiking boots, shirts, and shorts are wet anyway, and long scratches adorn our legs–but our spirits have soared.

Now miles from the last house we’ve seen, we pass an old cellar hole surrounded by small yellow flowers blooming in the shade of tall oaks and pines. “What do you think they’re called?” asks Susan.

“Woodstar lilies,” I say, making it up quickly.

“Nah,” she says. “I bet they’re dogtooth lilies.”

We feel as though we’re the first humans to be here since the forest took over that yard–even though the trail has widened into a one-lane road again. So the sight of a brand-new, red Toyota pickup parked in the woods jolts us. We crane for a glimpse of the intruder but can’t spot him.

“What do you suppose that guy is doing out here on a weekday, anyway?” asks Susan uneasily.

“I dunno. Maybe he’s wondering the same thing about ‘those two grown women,’” I answer, and we laugh.

In the next mile, camp roads begin to sprout off our trail, some marked by recent tire tracks. Then we hear a vehicle slowly coming toward us. “It’s him!” says Susan, and we pick up our pace, trying to keep talking as though everything is cool. As the red pickup comes alongside of us, we lift our hands in the standard Maine greeting and glance over–casually, of course. A small, white-haired man with an amused smile returns our salute and continues down the road.

At a wooden bridge, we stop for lunch, stripping off wet socks and dangling our feet over the edge. We sit at the center of a lovely, private world. A deep channel cuts through a meadow on our right; the water burbles as it drops into Sheepscot Stream below us. In the shadow of our bridge, minnows race to the crumbs we drop. It’s a quiet landscape, but it excites me: this small stream is the beginning of something I love–Sheepscot Pond, where I live, several miles to the west.

We lace up our boots and set on our way. Now on a maintained dirt road, we chatter about every part of our lives as we pass trailers, old farmhouses, and pastures.

“I remember being really upset when I was five years old,” I tell Susan. “I was chasing grasshoppers in the field next to our yard, feeling so relieved and happy to be out there in the sunshine but also cranky, because I wasn’t getting enough of that kind of play. I remember thinking, I never have any time anymore because I have to go to kindergarten every morning! And next year I’ll be in first grade all day long, and [my brother] Bill says there are twelve grades, so I’ll be eighteen years old before I have my time back.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t know the truth of it,” says Susan.

ONCE AGAIN WE ABANDON roads for woodland trails, but there is no return to our morning’s idyll. We struggle to reconcile maps with reality. The biggest challenge is in Lake St. George State Park. Studying its black-and-white trail map is like looking at a mess of cooked spaghetti through someone else’s bifocals; my brain reels. We try a couple of trails, check our compass, and turn back. Two tanned, young park employees appear, dumping a load of brush, but they can’t make sense of the map, either. They suggest a trailhead we haven’t noticed–right behind their brush pile.

“Let’s give it half an hour,” says Susan, “and then decide whether to continue.” For the first time all day, I check my watch: 2:05 P.M., four hours into our hike. If we can’t find our way through the woods by late afternoon, we’ll have to head to the bottom of the park and walk walk home on Route 3, a major trunk highway. It would be ignominious defeat.

Twenty-five minutes later–all downhill –we come to a fork in the trail. On a tree hangs a board with our trail map burned into it–and color-coded! At last we know where we are: a long way from where we meant to be. We lumber back up the hill, returning to a trail we rejected earlier because it becomes a half-dry brook bed. We follow blue blazes through a stony descent into deep woods–until suddenly they end. Susan stands there while I check out nearby clearing. Yes, it’s another path. This is definitely not on our map, but it heads west, as we want to. A mountain bike track comforts us. Somebody else made it out of here.

Eventually, so do we, emerging in a backyard surrounded by scrub brush and full of chickens and old vehicles. At a bridge down the road, we meet two girls about fourteen years old and ask where we are. “I think they call this the Arthur Plummer Road,” says one. Fantastic! Only about three miles from my home–and thirteen from where we started this morning.

Our feet are clumsy with fatigue as we trudge up another long hill. A tractor with a manure spreader passes us–the third vehicle all day to do so–and turns into a yard. The farmer calls out, “Good day for it!” and we straighten a bit and wave.

A weary mile or two farther, we cut into the woods one last time, coming out on Route 3. Before we can cross the highway and walk a hundred feet to my driveway, five cars zoom by. We look at one another and shake our heads. Those drivers haven’t got a clue about what they’re missing.

MANY TIMES since that day, Susan and I have tried to pinpoint what made it seem charmed. Being out in nature, exploring little-known paths, and solving problems along our way–it was vastly more satisfying than our usual regimen of sitting and talking. We were so immersed in the moment that the day itself felt different: “It’s as though time became a wide pool in which we played, instead of something linear,” says Susan.

The eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says that if the essence of an adventure is stepping into the unknown, then the essence of a joyous adventure is not needing to know the outcome. What Susan and I rediscovered is how long and splendid a day can be when you’re out there with a sandwich, a water bottle, and a good friend, going with whatever the world serves up and knowing nothing else really matters, except getting home by dark.