So fellow travelers, after a heart breaking day of helping students and staff work through grief that cast a somber silence through the halls of our high school, I returned home in a restless, unsettled state of mind.
My soul was asking me to journey someplace both familiar yet unknown. It took a few minutes of flipping through the many trail maps in my mind to know where I was being called to walk. This is uncharted territory, this ability to hike deep woods trails free from snow so early in the season. It has afforded me a new experience of some previously familiar paths.
While I sought the solitude of the woods, I also needed the simple comfort of an unassuming companion. Delilah was thrilled to see me bring out her walking harness.
Oh, the unconditional love of a dog, asking no more than to be with us where we are in each moment whatever state of being that is. If there is a more powerful balm for broken hearts I have yet to find it.
The woods show me strange images in this portal between seasons. The light is harsh without a filtering canopy. I can see far deeper into the forest than I am accustomed to. Trees stand in skeletal clusters, wind rattling residual leaves like a fortune teller casting marked bones. Deer paths beckon off the main trails only to disappear like false promises. Early leaf buds have wisely held fast after unseasonable warmth gave way to waves of arctic chill. Everything is a dry, grayish brown. Only ancient mosses clinging to logs hint of the green still to come.
Even before the tragic news of this week, my recent hikes on these trails have felt haunted by an unsettling Presence. The spectre of life’s end has hung in my thoughts since an elder family member’s medical team gave us sobering news. No, I am not one given to morbid obsessions even as an increasing number of those I know reach advanced ages. Death, as our community has experienced several times recently, can come at any time in unexpected ways. It has taken quite a few long, ponderous walks through these new to me forest trails to finally recognize the Presence shadowing my steps.
Time, I thought, I am running out of time.
I have no specific concern which would indicate my time to depart this life draws near. I am in relatively good health and take decent care of myself. Oh sure there’s things I could do, eat a few less desserts, engage in more weight bearing exercise to slow the loss of muscle strength, all things I am working on. Being one to fully engage whenever possible in the opportunities life presents, this sensation of running out of time is a strange state of mind. It stopped me in my tracks for a moment.
And then Delilah stopped and sat still. She looked at me, then ahead on the trail and then back at me.
This is what I have trained her to do to let me know something approaching has caught her attention. It is a vast improvement over the lunging and explosive barking she used to exhibit when anything, other dogs, bicycles, strollers, runners, squirrels, anything came moving towards us. She is rewarded with praise and often a treat as well.
It took me a few seconds to see the two black eyes staring at us from far ahead on the trail. The slightest flick of a brown ear and glint of bone branching up revealed our observer was a young buck. The three of us stood frozen in an eternal moment. Delilah did not stir a muscle even with the intensity of her olfactory exploration of the air.
“You must not pass this way.”
The directive was as clear in my mind as if someone had spoken directly to me. This was no ordinary woodland encounter. I stood still for a few more seconds, gathering my balance making sure of my footing and then whispered to Delilah.
“Leave it girl, come.”
I turned slowly in a seamless T’ai Chi pivot and walked down the path. Delilah followed without a single glance back.
I do not know what transpired at that trail crossing. I only know it felt right as if Something had been Resolved. My steps on the walk back felt lighter, not so much in joy as in the relief of simple acceptance.
Just before we turned onto the main path leading back to the parking lot the haunting laughter of a pileated woodpecker reverberated through the woods. Delilah and I stood still once more, listening to the echoes bounce through the trees.
“Ghosts” I said looking down at her. “Let’s go home girl.”
Walk gently on the path my friends and may adventure find you ready.