Hiking our forest in New Jersey is the only good thing that came out of the 2020 lockdown. We were the only ones on the trails and we came back every weekend to catch some air. With every change of the season, we experienced the forest in a new way. No matter what time of year, roaming our forest got our blood flowing and filled our lungs with fresh air.
Climbing up to the Appalachian Mountain ridge, the wind cleared our minds. We watched hawks circle over the canopy of trees. Dressed in Green with an underskirt of thick brushes the forest was hiding from our view. Only the cry of a bald eagle would tell us of its nearby nest. Last spring, a gale force wind ripped through a section of the forest and tore trees from the soil. They fell like Mikado sticks. At least a dozen trunks blocked our way and we had to forge a new trail.
Spring turned into summer and we would stay in the shades of the majestic Hemlocks. So much to discover: lakes, beaver dams and mushrooms. A heron would rise from a brook and we would follow its flight through the valley with our eyes. We wandered through the hallows, careful not to step on copperheads basking in a sunny spot.
With the lockdown lifted, we still keep going back for more. It’s fall 2023 and the forest has dropped its green dress. We see chipmunks hopping down from fallen trees and hide under rocks. Woodpeckers move up tree trunks as if climbing a spiral staircase. We have a deep view into the forest and discover new growth, finally getting a day in the light.
As the leaves fall new challenges arise. Braided roots, soft moss and pointy stones are now hidden under a red sprinkled cover. Colorful foliage rustles under our feet. They give the illusion of a cushioned walk. But I keep my eyes on the ground before me. Even with the snakes gone, the stones and roots still catch our foot if we don’t watch our step. We are hiking a forest after all, not a park.
We all know how one step leads to another. Looking no further than your next step you’ve travelled ten feet before you look up again. Too far. Too late. Turning three-sixty, you can’t even see where you went astray. The trail disappeared, hidden from view under the fall foliage.
More than once we get lost. We have to turn around, lifting our heads after each step. We scan the forest for that thin human track. That subtle difference in shade. That slight disturbance in the natural pattern of colors in perfect random distribution. That fine line is our trail. So easy to miss.
The moment we are back on track the trail appears before us, but only when we look up. We can’t see the trail before our feet because it doesn’t look any different than the rest of the forest floor. We have to look at the entire forest. Only then do we see what’s right in front of us.
This reminds me of how we write our stories. We write one word at a time, dealing with the details in front of us. But when we get lost in details, we lose sight of the whole story. We have to look up at the bigger picture to discover the underlying pattern. To see how our story, that fine line, is different from the rest.
Like in the forest, I have to lift my gaze off the page to see where my story has to go.