Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday out walking

Sometimes the world -- everything in it -- is too much to take and you feel like you've got to go deep into the woods, where the thorny brush and bare limbs tear and slash at your sides, where the slippery wet leaves and mud underfoot make your steps unsteady, and the least movement in the shadows causes the hair on your neck to stiffen. You spin around reflexively into a defensive crouch. Silence. You think to yourself, whose woods are these? It can't be helped. There's no way to turn off the mind. You go out beyond the flood plain, where the wind whistles through hunters' blinds and metal traps catch the last glint of daylight, deep into the woods of northwest New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, not seventy miles from the City, with Newark-bound jets rumbling overhead and dogs barking in the distance. Up here you can get lost, but only if you mean to.

They tell you, don't worry -- walk ten miles in any direction, you're gonna hit a road. Unless you walk in circles, like that lady did with her two young kids a couple of years ago in Somerset County. This was down in Lord Stirling Park between Basking Ridge and the Great Swamp. Roads everywhere, suburbs nearby. But it was dark and they started walking in circles and they panicked. They were completely lost even though they could see the lights from the big houses of the almost rich shining faintly in every direction. The three of them were found in the morning, in shock, cold, dirty, crying, and shivering. So the rangers wrapped them in blankets and gave them something warm to drink. Sometimes you can get lost even without meaning to, simply by forgetting what time it is, or how temperature affects the body, or how to keep your fears from running away with you. When you're pumped on adrenaline your body wants to get out of the woods as fast as it can. But escape is not about speed.

Not far from here, off Cherry Ridge Road, a few weeks ago, a man in his sixties had a heart attack while hiking. He was still alive and conscious when a couple of hunters found him lying in the dirt near Saw Mill Brook. They called 911 and kept him warm. They talked to him.
Hey buddy, you're okay. You're gonna make it. Within twenty minutes a helicopter came and carried him off to the hospital. Everything turned out fine: he survived and got the medical attention he needed. That's not an easy lesson to learn -- to stay put if you want to be found.

Today you only want to get lost for a little while, just long enough to slough off the old skin of resentment and anger you've been carrying around all year, the hollowness inside you and outside you. You want to face fear in the deep dark woods, keeping still even when the shadows tremble about you. Just a little bit lost, enough to know what it feels like. Of course the world is too much to take, but you can never go deep enough into the woods to turn your back on it completely. Not up here. Besides, it's cold and the wind is up. So go ahead and make your simile -- the wind like a freight train hurtled down the mountain -- and be on your way. It's time to head for home and see if you can turn a broken heart into poetry.

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