Lost in the Woods
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been lost in the woods of my life on more than one occasion – not as a young child as might be expected – but as a grown man.
On a gray winter afternoon, walking into the woods on the north side of my cabin, thick timber surrounded me. I could have walked for miles in any direction without seeing anyone, but on that day, I’d spotted a beautiful white-tail buck moving at his leisure toward the river, and I had the arrogance to believe I could follow into his secret world.
I gave him a few moments to get ahead of me, hoping he wouldn’t sense my presence behind him. Then, taking each step as quietly as possible and stopping often for long moments to study the ground for his tracks, I believed I’d have the chance to see again his magnificence.
I hadn’t planned a walk that morning. I was only making my way to the woodshed for another armful of logs to feed the glutinous iron stove in my cabin. But upon seeing the buck, I seized the moment. My compass was in the cabin, so I began my journey without it, relying instead on the hubris of my youthful experience, expecting to return shortly to the warmth of my fire.
When not focused on the forest of towering oaks and hickories that confronted me, I looked down for his tracks. The earth was damp from a recent snow, and I easily followed them as far as the small creek between my cabin and the river. Upon reaching the creek bank, I walked a short distance left and right but found no tracks. The buck must have crossed the creek at that very spot, I reasoned, so I did likewise, still looking down to secure my footing in the cold water.
Reaching the far bank and climbing its steep grade, I expected to see his tracks reappear, but I couldn’t find them. Even walking left and right, carefully studying the moist ground, there were no signs of his presence. It suddenly became clear the buck had stepped into the water and walked some distance along the safety of its meandering, shallow course before crossing it.
An unwelcome sense of resignation began to grow within me as I realized the truth: I couldn’t possibly know which direction the buck had chosen to walk through the creek before crossing to its far side.
Suddenly, the cold wind that had faced me from the north diminished – it was now blowing gently, but from all directions. I looked upward to find the sun, but winter clouds had obscured its face and stolen the knowledge I needed to confirm my heading. Perhaps, I thought, I should make my way home, but as quickly as I posed the question, I realized I didn’t know in which direction it lay.
Recalling the advice of Jack London and other adventurers who had found themselves in my predicament, I looked for the moss on the north side of the trees. But after carefully examining every one of them within a fifty-foot radius, I found no moss. After all, moss doesn’t grow in the winter.
Resting for a moment on the trunk of a fallen oak, hoping that some ethereal compass would arise within me, I looked again for the sun, but the clouds hiding its position had only grown darker.
“Stay calm, I uttered beneath my breath,” which had begun to frost in the cold damp air. “Don’t panic,” I told myself, now speaking the words audibly but with a growing anxiety that I might lack the will or capacity to follow my own instructions.
Stretching my legs again, I walked in the direction of a stand of cedars I thought I remembered from crossing the creek. But as I approached them, they appeared unfamiliar – almost surreal – and during that moment, I shook from the chill that had returned to my spirit. I was lost.
Of course, being lost in the woods of northeast Texas couldn’t possibly compare to being lost in the sparsely populated Australian Outback or the Canadian north woods, but in the dwindling light of that cold day, I imagined the feeling to be the same.
As the chill came upon me again, I looked down for signs of my own tracks from the resting spot of the fallen oak, but the fading light had hidden them. The light of the waning moon was of no use, as the darkening clouds had obscured what little remained of it. I had reached one of those moments in life when I had to make my best guess and keep walking.
Now feeling my way through the labyrinth of trees and undergrowth, I slowly made my way to the left. After stumbling over the dark corpse of a fallen tree, I grabbed one its branches and deemed it reliable as a walking stick. The eerie sound of a distant hoot owl frightened me, while I coveted his superior night vision. If only I could see where I was going.
After arduous and painful hours of stumbling through the darkness, scrapes and bruises on both knees and the recurring self-doubt of my own decision, I saw a dim light, but in my exhaustion, I couldn’t be certain it was not an illusion. Only when I came to a barbed wire fence, feeling with my frozen hands the stinging briars that covered it, did I realize I’d found my way to the property of a distant friend.
Carl welcomed me into his small cabin and provided me with a pair of warm socks. He told me to sit by the fire while he warmed-up his truck to take me home. His refusal to admonish my careless decision to walk un-prepared into the woods was greatly appreciated, no doubt the result of his own foolish mistakes.
It was late when I arrived at my cabin, but not too late to ponder the lesson I’d learned. Yes, I found my way home that night, but not by the direction I had chosen.
There are those times in our lives when we’re not prepared with the knowledge needed for the decisions we face. Hubris and vanity will only carry us so far down the paths before us. At some point, wisdom, faith and a bit of ‘je ne sais quoi’ must direct our steps.
As a practical matter, I would advise anyone walking into the woods on a cold winter’s eve to look up.
Look up! Raise your eyes to the tallest trees and find the most unique among them. Use them for the landmarks of your journey.
To anyone walking into the ‘woods of their experience’, whether it be among the multitudes of a crowded city, or in the solitude of a steel and concrete cubicle, I would give the same advice:
Don’t look down. You’ll lose your way.
© 2017 David Bradshaw aka ‘Dave from Texas’