September 2, 2016
Wolf Hollow County Park, Atglen, Pennsylvania.
The park is lovely. Wooded paths and bridges over water, and a mostly filled parking lot. Cars, but no people.
Where is everybody?
John and I don’t mind. Silence and solitude in the woods works for us. It allows us to get the most from nature. Allows nervous hearts to calm, to get perspective. We’re together. This is good. John loves me, and I love him, always and forever.
The map on the park’s board depicts the entrance to a circular path near our feet. It’s a swath cut through a lushness of grass. Up? Down? Either way is possible, and it probably won’t matter which way we choose. The bridges below we’ll undoubtedly cross one way or another, and we’ll see all there is to see. If initially we go high, the bridges and the water under them will later be our reward. This is our logic, so that’s our choice, and we aim toward the upward path.
A woman descends with a huge dog—a Doberman? They take up the trail and pass by—good morning, good morning—and then John and I begin our ascent. A thought niggles: why do they come this direction?
But there is no sign telling us the path is one-way. Do you ever see that? I don’t raise the question. Still . . . why aren’t they coming up from the bottom? Wouldn’t that be logical? Somehow?
Later, I say, “She didn’t warn, she didn’t say once you get to the top, turn around. Whatever you do, don’t go forward and down. Whatever you do, don’t do that.”
She knows. Something in her face—is the message there? I know something you should know. That’s why she and Rover come toward us instead of up from the bottom. Because you wouldn’t—Well, you see—what do I know? She doesn’t know us, so she keeps it to herself, and I only get half a sense of something. A flutter, a disturbance in the field.
After all, there’s no reason you can’t start the downhill part first.
Of course, I can be reading great fiction into a headache.
The park is lovely, we know that from the start. The grassy path enters woods where the green, as we expect, secedes to dirt. Dirt with leaves and stones and roots. Rocks and—
Crack! Crack! Across the hollow.
“Gunfire?” I ask.
John knows gunfire better than I, not that I can’t identify it. I just don’t believe in it.
His awareness comes from years of participation in the army reserve. Even members of army reserve bands are required to fire. That’s how he knows. That or city life. Or just life. We’ve been married all this time, but his experiences and mine—one of us may live year-round in Lalaland, and it might be me. He was a top marksman. He was proud of that.
“Not so peaceful,” I say.
“I don’t think it’s hunting season for anything right now,” John says.
“Maybe not.” How does he know? He never hunts.
Does it matter? They’re still bullets.
“Kind of affects the peace of the place,” I say.
Oh, well. We’re not going to quit over a little gunfire. Practice. They could practice all day. We should go home and miss this scenery because of a practice? It could be worse. It could be not practice. We could be prey like in that old Robert Mitchum movie. There’s suspense for you. Some really grim music to go with it, too, you bet. Low horns and bass viols.
We continue. The gunfire is there, after all, and we are here, and—whatever. Maybe we’re delusional, and why aren’t we running for cover? Our heirs might ask that. They heard gunfire and they stayed? What kind of genes are in our gene pool? Don’t get married, anybody. Don’t!
When in Rome, and all that, except I’m not shooting any gun, period, even if this is Rome.
“The more rural, the more likely,” says John.
Yeah, yeah. Nobody shoots off guns in cities. It’s all about rural parks.
Uphill, uphill, uphill, and we’re safe in this wooded paradise. We’re John and Sue, so we must be safe. It’s how we know.
When my brother Rob was little, he’d frequently dress himself in shirts that were both backwards and inside out. You could always see the tag below his chin.
We joked that that was how we knew it was Rob. Robbie. He was so cute.
“A mile point six,” John tells me, meaning the distance of the hike we’ve chosen. It’s information from the map, but the way John says it, it could be the infinite improbability drive out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “A mile point six.”
Anybody can do a mile point six. It’s not far.
I begin to wonder how the mile point six was measured, and does it take into account the different ways to step safely from one spot to the next? A string was used, I conclude, and not one attached to a leg. Just over the map between fingers, and maybe chubby fingers at that.
But it’s okay. The woods are beautiful, the sky is blue, and chipmunks keep watch.
The reports come farther apart. Then we stop hearing them. No more target practice. Or they’re using silencers. Or the sound passes over us since we’ve accustomed to it. No. That one’s not true. Not with gunfire.
“No moose or bears here,” I tell John.
“How do you know?” he asks.
“I just know,” I answer, but it’s not true. What do I know about Atglen?
In a movie, this is when a mama bear plus her twins appear and chase us up a tree, but no bears, no chasing up trees. Only the thought. Plus there might not be a tree handy. We might—what’s a mama bear do to you? Blood is involved, I think. Stitches if you’re lucky.
What if what if what if?
But we’re safe. We’re together.
Up and up we climb. Always up. How can it be always up? Isn’t there a sky to stop us? Some kind of roof?
There’s more dirt than rocks sometimes, and sometimes, there are more rocks than dirt, and I get good at finding roots ahead of John and pointing them out. He’s safe. Then he goes first, and then I’m the safe one. Up and up. Beautiful morning, not too warm, and I’m glad I had the sense to leave my sweatshirt in the car.
We’re working during our climb. It’s not a mountain and no bears or elk or moose ask us for the time, but we might not notice because we’re toiling and toiling, eyes only on where we’re stepping.
I’m warm, John’s a furnace. This is one area of our divine incompatibility. If I’m comfortable, he’s not, and vice versa, but I’m usually the jealous one. I’m jealous, and he’d like to be cold once in his life. Maybe. I think it’s happened three times since I met him. He’s never actually told me.
But no complaints. The air is the air, and we’re both sweating and toiling and progressing. Cracking jokes and making comments. Up and up, and the fact that we must eventually go down again is not a secret, at least not to John. I am an optimist in a fantasy world, thinking we could loop around the place at a rising altitude, hit a plateau, and voila! There, wrapped in golden clouds, is our car. No more hard work.
This all makes sense except for the little fact of the bridges we saw from the parking lot and that they were definitely on a lower level. It is there that we will emerge from the darkness, and we’ve only ascended. Not even a plateau to fool us.
But I believe in something or other that lets us, in some whipped cream world, step off the leveled path inside cloud nine and find our car. All washed and ready to go.
My fantasy ends when we find the apex, the acme, the zenith, and, guess what, we start down. Aren’t we there yet? We’ve been walking for years. Months, anyway, and the end isn’t in sight.
No looping back yet, not yet. Of course, we do have the option of retracing our steps. Naah! We want to see what’s around the next bend and the next bend and the next bend. Plus turning around might mean a longer walk than if we just kept going. Surely we’re near the end. How far are we into that mile point six?
The infinite improbability drive . . .
We can do it. We’re strong and healthy, and we’ve come pretty far. Too bad we must attend so closely to where our feet land, but, hey, nobody’s making us walk, and it is lovely in here without bears and such. Plus John’s cool—well, not exactly. He’s pretty sweaty. We both are.
We have the supermarket with the walk-in freezer for our post-walk activity. Is that his carrot on the stick? I don’t ask, me with my sweatshirt ready in the car. I’m hot and moist now, but the sweatshirt is still my security blanket in case the next ice age arrives before we make it home.
Downhill we go. Downhill with more and more rocks and roots and stones, loose and not, which we can’t know until they show us. Hold onto that tree! All mama bears allow us passage, our eyes glued downward so we don’t see them. They lets us by without a murmur, but maybe each of she-bears allows for a grin and a head shake. We’re so funny!
The path narrows as it descends, and the rocks sometimes move under our feet, and we hold onto trees and sometimes John lends me his hand after experiencing some of the bigger adventures ahead of me. But we don’t fall. Yes. We don’t fall, neither one of us. We remain upright and dignified. We don’t want bears and snakes laughing at us.
John tells me this: “I see where the path bottoms out.”
“Where? Yay! But where?”
I stop to look, but all I see is the path curving down and away. Neverland is still fictional.
That’s a joke.
John has said it to me so often. Once, in my parent’s silk-screening shop, I saw a red sweatshirt that pictured a cartoonish wolf. Under it: Trust me.
I laughed and told Mom why. I was tempted, but no. I’m not buying that for John. It’s too much like the truth with that sly grin. Something too right about it.
So Mom gave it to John for Christmas or his birthday. He still has it. It has paint stains now, but he has it, and it still makes me laugh. Mom!
We keep on. Twisting and turning and holding on and whoops when I clumsily find a root.
“Another one for you, John. Be careful.”
Sometimes, we just stop and look. So many trees have fallen. One sawn through and divided so hikers can continue without climbing over wide trunks.
“Hey! The creek!”
The ripple of noise, the small section of white water, the sparkle. Beautiful. So maybe I am glad the Doberman lady never warned us.
Across the creek appears an army of backpackers on a parallel trail. If we want, we can take a tangential path that includes stepping stones through a pretty good span of water and join the other humans. We could do it and get right to where they are. See what’s over there.
Where’s our sense of adventure? Where’s our enterprise? Are we afraid of a little water?
Where are those people coming from, anyway? They need packs? How extensive is this park? We didn’t bring anything but ourselves, not so much as a granola bar or a bottle of water, and maybe we’ll get lost and die of thirst because over there are people with all life’s requirements that we were too dumb to bring with us in our hands-free, backs-free, irresponsible glory.
But the path lowers, gets closer to where it will bottom out, and all those people!
“If we had to,” I say, “we could shout to them, and they’d come, right? Wade over to us and set up tents and stay with us until we were we were . . .”
“Come on, Sue.”
Yes, the path gets lower. Lower and lower. It also continues to twist and turn and sprout rocks and overturned trees. Where is the place of bottoming out? John said he saw it. My eyes work, too, but maybe you have to be those inches taller to get the perspective. Or I just don’t see.
I never see the foul on a basketball court, either. Never see the offsides in soccer. I stare hard and don’t see, and wonder how the basketball ends up in somebody else’s hands when I never blinked, and it was Robert Covington who had the ball. Not now. Not unless there were two balls and Covington swallowed one.
I once had a friend who told me about her experience in the delivery room. Contraction after contraction. I know this story. You feel like you’re in a fever and you’re going to die and you don’t want the baby anymore and let’s just get the hell out of here, and you’ll kick anybody in your way, you’ll kick down doors, except you can’t move.
“Transition,” John said through the nightmare air. Our daughter was in the chute. “Transition.”
Was he pointing at me? Transition, just like the lady in the childbirth class told us, and maybe I said something not particularly nice right then. He says so. I don’t remember that part. All sweetness and light, right? Gasp! Ow!
My friend, though, and her contractions.
“Just one more,” her husband said over and over. “Just one more.”
“And,” she told me later, “I believed him every time.”
That’s how it can be.
Is the path really bottoming out? Am I getting false encouragement? Am I going to die here with all those irresponsible backpackers in shouting distance?
Nah. He’d tell me the truth. It’s not like I’m having a baby. No doors. He told me the truth then, too. Transition! An ugly, hard-metal word that meant there was no escape.
We keep going. We have faith. Nobody will die of thirst here. Or childbirth.
Plus, oh, my gosh, the aromas! So great, you just want to stand and breathe them all in. How can you store this for the winter? If you only could . . .
“Look,” says John. “A birch tree.”
We saw them all over the place in Michigan, but they aren’t so common here. Maybe. We’re not tree experts, and maybe birches are as common as apple pie in Wolf Hollow, and maybe the bears ate all the other ones right before we got here, but I sort of doubt it.
Hey! There it is! The actual bottoming out. We’re saved!
Still a ways until the ornery dirt peters out, but we see grass, life-saving grass! Over there, over there. Still to cross is the last section of rocks and roots and lurking bears, but we see it!
John pauses to glance back at me. That look I can read. I smile. I just know him. He knows me.
“It would be silly to fall now.”
“Yup,” I say. “Silly. If you fall, I will definitely say silly.”
Nobody falls. We just keep looking, looking where we’re going. It seems like the smart thing.
One time, John’s mother climbed down the stairs in the house where she’d lived for twenty years, climbed down the stairs she could descend with her eyes closed. But that day, Anna reached the landing, looked over the last three stairs and stepped into the room. Fell into the room, astonishing John, who saw her do it. She was a heavy lady, and she shook the house.
“Really?” I ask John. “She shook that solidly built rowhouse connected to all the other rowhouses?”
Already there, she must have thought. Already there. What was on her mind? Was she going to tell something brilliant to John? We’ll never know.
“She got up laughing,” John says.
Laughing! She fell those three steps, shook the house so firmly planted among all the other houses, and got up laughing.
I did that once, too, minus the laughing. I fell and sprained my ankle by ignoring the last three post-landing steps in a dormitory when I was late for class. Boy, did I leap out of bed and tear down those steps! Three stories except for those last three steps. Fall! Get up and run quickly because you wouldn’t want to be caught having done such a foolish thing in public, let alone be late for class.
I’m different from my mother-in-law. I didn’t get up laughing. But I guess I’m like her enough. Neither of us looked where we were going.
Anna’s fall did not sprain her ankle. Why not? Because she wasn’t running? Me, I got a sprained ankle. Plus the rubber mat I hit left a grooved blackness that never came out of my white pants. A souvenir.
John and I keep paying attention.
In music, you don’t stop working until a measure after the music stops. If you do, seeing the finish line, you mess up. It’s natural. Races, music, life. You slow down when you see the finish line. And then you mess up. Run it out, run it out! And then relax. Afterwards, you can collapse, and it won’t matter. Much. Collapsing might still matter.
So we keep a vigilance.
We’re out. Done. All over.
We made it.
Grass, no rocks, and John says, nodding at a bridge, “We have to cross that to get to the car.”
The bridge looks familiar. We’ve seen it already from . . . my head swivels . . . up there?
“That’s where our car is.”
Along with all the other ones in the parking lot. Just where we left it. No golden clouds.
“Oh,” says John. “I thought we had to cross the bridge to get to the car, but we never went over the water.”
There had been the path from one side of the creek to the other if we didn’t mind getting our feet wet. Or our whole bodies. Only water!
“We can still take the bridge,” I say. “It’s only right there. Cross over and come back so we can experience it and see.”
“No, that’s fine,” says John.
It has been kind of a long walk despite the mile point six information that was part of the infinite improbability drive. Hard and long and a little scary. We don’t need the bridge experience. We want the sit-down experience, the it’s-over experience.
We ascend the hill—again a hill! But it’s grassy and smooth, rock and root free. Our car’s within sight, and no Dobermans block the way. All the people with their backpacks enter the parking lot after us. A bunch of older folks—is this a club? One of the men wears a tee shirt emblazoned NRA.
Maybe they were the ones having target practice. Maybe not. Maybe we’re the targets, and they’ve caught up with us and now we’re in trouble, but somehow, it just doesn’t feel that way. We’re safe. John and I—we’re always safe together.
Water, warmed in the car, awaits. We drink it gratefully, happily, and head for the store with the walk-in freezer, me with my sweatshirt, John in a tee shirt.
The bears come out of hiding and line the exit. Wearing straw hats with colorful flowers, they wave to us as we leave.