The other night, distressed from interacting with humans, I headed into the forest. (I’m not good at human interactions and the forest always comforts me.) Behind my flat, a beautiful and a gorge dotted with dams and waterfalls runs for several miles east to west. I’ve posted photos of some of these trails before, but on this particular night, it was stormy and raining, so I left the camera at home.
After hiking for a couple of miles, and starting to feel calmer, I stopped to admire a waterfall. I had the trails completely to myself, because of the rain, and feeling suddenly exhausted from my day, I leaned the whole length of my body against a thin maple sapling hanging out over the edge of the cliff and rested my cheek on the smooth bark. I noticed suddenly that a Great Blue Heron was standing perfectly still in the water at the base of the falls. A few feet away from him, a great big Snapping Turtle ambled gracefully into the water and began swimming.
The Heron remained perfectly still except for the occasional swivel of his head, and majestic, watching me or watching the river for fish. I rested and admired him in his slender beauty for who knows how long. A kingfisher swept the river and had a conversation with the heron, who tensed at his approach, before moving on. Finally, I pushed myself upright and climbed on further up the cliff. The trees of the forest were burning now with a familiar sunset light. When the sun is at that low angle, it seems like a fire is ripping through the trees and it is breathtakingly beautiful.
I followed the narrow ledge above the ravine to the reservoir, which towers over the other falls, and then I climbed the cliff on the edge of the reservoir to the top, where I spent a moment admiring the view and thinking about how easy it would be to die if you tried to swim there and got swept over the dam. Then I thought about how often people die in this beautiful but dangerous land of gorges and cliffs.
Instead of following the trail back, I decided to explore a bit farther upland to see if I could find any new trails. The deer track I was following, however, soon dead-ended into a huge snag of fallen trees. I spent just a moment considering back tracking, but some naive notion led me to believe that surely there would be a trail on the other side of the snag. So I spent some time weaving in and out of branches and shimmying myself up over huge fallen trunks.
When I got to the other side, I found that instead of the trail I had expected, I was on a rocky outcropping bordered on two sides by a ravine, one side by a steep rocky slope, and the fourth side by the snag I had just navigated.
Hm, I thought.
The slope was nearly 90 degrees, and much to steep to navigate safely, but I could see the trail at its base, maybe 50 or 60 feet down. The trail itself is a narrow ledge about 2 feet wide over a cliff that drops another 40 or 50 feet in a gorge filled with sharp rocks. There was no one else on the trail, because of the storm, and no one was likely to come along as dusk settled and another thunderstorm rumbled its way into the valley.
The daylight was fading fast at this point, and I had several miles of narrow, slippery trails to follow in order to get home, so I made the decision to go down the slope, which would undoubtedly be the fastest, if certainly not the safest way to approach the trail.
The slope was so steep that I couldn’t really climb down it so much as fall, but at a manageable pace. Sliding on my back at a nearly vertical angle, I quickly covered a lot of distance. I aimed for a tree and then stopped there with my boots resting against the base of its trunk, which jutted at a 45 degree angle from the slope, for a moment to consider my next move.
There were no more trees directly below me, but there was a tree another ten feet down and maybe 15 feet to my right, so I pushed off from my tree and scrambled (gracefully!) as I fell to direct my motion toward the next tree. I was rewarded as my boots hit the trunk with a thunk.
The next move was perhaps the most difficult. There was a fall of only about 10 or 12 feet separating me from the trail, which I might have been able to jump safely…but if I overshot the trail I would certainly be in trouble, as I would plummet the 40 feet down to the jagged rocks of the gorge.
As I cast a glance about, I could see that there were no promising trees within range. Another ten feet to my left, just the slightest edge of a tree root protruded from the loose soil, but as it only slightly below my position, I wouldn’t be able to fall to it.
Instead, I crouched against my tree trunk and lunged across the gap, legs and arms scrambling. I caught onto the tree root with one hand (barely) and lowered my weight down as far as I could, hanging from my hand. Then I dropped the remainder of the distance to the trail.
I glanced around to make sure no one was around to see my stupidity, and then admired the enormous slope I had just come down. It certainly didn’t look possible from this angle. Then I headed for home at a brisk pace. And though my shoes, fingernails, and pockets were filled with dirt and loose stones, my hair was full of twigs and leaves, and my whole backside was coated generously with mud, I found that the forest had given me what it always gives me: beauty, adventure, and a sense of calm well-being.
PS. I stole a glance at the first waterfall on my way back and the heron was still standing where I left him, perfectly still. But the turtle was long gone.