It was my fifty-ninth birthday and as my waking brain realized what day it was, my mind jumped to a childish declaration made over a cake illuminated by ten candles: “I am halfway to twenty.”
Aunt June turned from ice cream scooping and said, “Don’t even say something like that.”
I guess she didn’t want to think about children growing up because that would mean she would age as well, but to me, being halfway to twenty was cool. Why do I remember that moment so vividly and yesterday I spent hours looking for my shoes?
I know that getting old is what happens if you don’t die young, but the idea of running out of time was both inspiring and sobering.
On my fifty-ninth birthday, I made a list of the things I’d hoped to accomplish by then and had either failed or not attempted at all. I was alarmed by the length of that inventory. To keep from being depressed, I made a second catalog of achievements I had realized and was pleased with those numbers—but I’m not done yet.
I took the first list and prioritized it. Two projects vied for the top spot: My love of nature and the Long Trail had been calling me since my first visit to Vermont. And then there was my love for writing. I’d written short stories, journal entries, and poetry since I’d learned to hold a pencil, and had two unfinished books in literary limbo. Weighing these challenges, I decided I could write when I was no longer able to walk— but distance hiking could not wait.
I was halfway to one hundred and eighteen years old when I made the decision to hike the Long Trail.
Now here it was the following summer, and I was camping next to a fallen privy, wide awake and listening to the snoring coming from Sandy’s tent. She’d fallen asleep quickly and I should’ve done the same but that didn’t happen. I imagined Mickey Mouse counting cartoon sheep jumping over his cartoon bed. That didn’t help. A barred owl called in the distance and I laughed to myself, thinking maybe I should be counting owls: Number one was my very first owl sighting. I never got to number two, because number one brought its own story to mind:
* * * * * *
My twelve-year-old legs didn’t have to go far to find wooded areas to search for wildlife; Clarkston was less developed in the early 1960s. Where a sprawling medical center now stands, there’d been an open field, the result of an abandoned building site. This flat area was used by the traveling circus when it came to town, and we hurried out after it left to see if we could find elephant poop or tiger fur where their cages had been. I walked this area often, going to and from the store.
Evening was approaching as I strolled home with the small bag of groceries Mom was waiting for. Midway across the open lot edged by woodland, I stopped in my tracks. An enormous silhouette loomed in a tree a few yards away. It looked like someone had chopped off Batman’s head and plopped it on a branch.
I don’t know how long I stood there waiting for that bird to move. The owl sat, huge and foreboding in the twilight, and I waited, hoping to see it fly while wishing it would stay there as long as I stood still. Finally, I had to move—it was nearly dark and being home before dark was a must. I was walking sideways and nearly fell over when Batman’s head lifted itself into the air and flew into the forest.
* * * * * *
Sandy’s snoring grew faint and my owl memories faded to black.
I was ready to break for lunch when I came upon another hiker taking a break. She sat on a log gazing into the trees and I had to ask, “What are you looking at?”
“I watched a deer walk into the forest and as soon as its feet left the trail, it disappeared. I watched it evaporate like something in a magic act. I know it’s still in there, but I can’t see it.”
I allowed my eyes to soften, to allow me to see things more clearly, but I couldn’t see the deer either. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“It’s spooky.” She stared into the trees. “Anything could be out there looking back at us. There could be a bear right there.” She pointed after the deer.
“A deer wouldn’t walk into a bear, if that’s any consolation.”
She gave up on the deer and turned to face me. “I’m new to this. My boyfriend hikes and I’m trying to get used to it, but I was born and raised in New York City.” She looked back into the forest. “This place scares the hell out of me. Aren’t you afraid of what could be out there?”
Her slim body wore the hiking standard: fast-drying, moisture-wicking fabrics but everything was new. She was tall and brown eyed, with long black pony-tailed hair and olive skin. She could have been my friend Sandy’s sister.
I wondered how a healthy young girl could be afraid of the woods. “I love hiking,” I said. “I’ve been playing in places like this since I was a kid. I’d be more worried on a city street.” I followed her gaze but I couldn’t find anything to fear. “Animals aren’t out to get you. If you leave them alone they leave you alone, unlike someone on a sidewalk who might want to rob you.”
She looked back at me. “Are you afraid of cities?”
“No, I’m not afraid, I’m cautious. I don’t think that people are after me, but I do watch for certain behaviors and, I admit, there are neighborhoods I would avoid.”
“Are there spots in the woods that you stay away from?” She was looking into the trees again. “If you saw a bear somewhere would you avoid that area?”
“Bear don’t stay in one place. Bear have probably walked right where you’re sitting.”
She looked at the ground around her. “Now I feel better.”
“Black bear are usually timid. The only time they might bother you is if you corner one or get in between a mamma and a cub.”
“What if you did that by accident? What would the mother bear do?” She was looking into the woods again.
“I don’t know. The only cub I ever saw didn’t see me and I backed up and walked away. I’m sure mamma was nearby but I never saw her.”
“You saw a bear?” She was looking at me again.
“I’ve only seen a couple. I think it’s cool. I admit my heart beats a little faster as I calmly walk away. But I wouldn’t avoid being in the woods because of it.” I thought I shouldn’t say it, but I did. “I’ve had a couple of encounters with moose. They get my heart rate up as much as a bear.”
Her eyes were wide and I corrected myself. “The animals in the woods are looking for food and they want to be left alone. If I get a chance to see one I think it’s a treat, but I stay away and let them go about their business.”
She picked up her day pack. “I thought I could do this but now I’m not so sure.”
“Are you out here alone, why don’t you hike with somebody? I think you’d feel better.”
She looked into the trees again. “I’m just out for the day. I was testing myself and I have failed, miserably.”
I thought I might be able to help. “South of Route 4 there are more hikers. The AT and LT share that part of the trail. This far north on the Long Trail can be pretty desolate. If you hiked further south you might not feel so vulnerable. Why don’t you hike with your boyfriend?”
“He wants to go out for two weeks and I don’t think I can do it.”
“See if he’ll take you out for a day hike or one night. I think you’ll feel better with him. Don’t give up. You might actually like this hobby.”
Her day pack was in place and she buckled her waistband. “I don’t think so.”
“I hope you try again, with some company. I hate to think of someone missing out on all of this.” I spread my arms.
“Maybe I’ll try again.” She was walking away. “And maybe I won’t”
“I heard that.” She didn’t respond.
That night, in camp, I looked at the forest differently. I wondered what it would feel like to be afraid of something so natural. I imagined the trees, like sky scrapers, full of animals instead of people. The forest floor morphed to a city street being walked by coyote, turkey and fox. Beneath the soil was a subway of animal dens and tunnels instead of subway cars.
I lay on my imagined sidewalk looking up past the tall buildings to the night sky. Even the city has a night sky.
I was reminded of a TV crime show from my childhood, The Naked City. I saw the lights on in the sky scrapers and I heard the distinguished voice of the closing commentary. “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”