New Paths Forward

We were shown the nature paths when we first toured the house.

The first two acres were technically our own, before it went off into the wild west of the woods.  According to the realtor, the paths could lead you all the way up to Canada.  We’d learn later that it wasn’t hyperbole: the paths actually linked up with snowmobiling paths – which did, in fact, snake their way north until they hit the Canadian border.

The paths became as much my home as the house itself.  There were times, even, that the paths became more of a home than the house itself – when the woods offered escape during times when it felt like the walls were closing in on me.

I took the paths selfishly and lavishly and with abandon.  I took them when I wanted to soak in the good weather and I took them when I need a desperate ringing out.  They were my breaks from assignments, studies, stress, the weight of the world.

Yesterday afternoon, I gave myself one of those post-assignment breaks through the woods, soaking up the abnormally warm weather before the sun would set and it would be too late for a walk.  I cut through what was technically my 2 acres and continued on down the trails.

A few minutes into the wild west, and a clearing of land boldly interrupted the path.  A strip of churned up dirt and fallen branches and stumps now ran perpendicular to the trail I knew by heart.  To the right of me, it dead ended fairly quickly.  To the left of me, the path led up a hill that once housed so many trees that you could barely see the sky.

Now, that’s basically all you can see.

Five more minutes down the path, and there is no more path.  A second logging path, combined with a substantial clearing of trees, had obliterated whatever remained of the trail.  I could hear the machines in the distance, sawing away at whatever trees still stood.

It was in that moment I understood why people chain themselves to trees and throw Molotov cocktails at bulldozers.  There was something so profane in what was happening.  I felt like I had been invaded.  It felt like marauders had ransacked my village and took away what was most precious to me.

Those were my paths.  Those were the woods I went into when life couldn’t stop blowing up.  They were reassuring routes forward when it felt like all I was taking were wrong turns.

And now they were gone.

Barely twelve hours later, the temperature dropped and a blizzard hit.  The northeast temporarily shut down.  Schools had closed.  Government officials told their residents to stay home.  The world was put on temporary pause.

So I laced up my boots, put on my winter coat, and ventured back out down my nature paths.

I was going to return to the scene of the crime, to see what it looked like with a fresh coat of snow over it.  I was going to see what it felt like to take new paths forward.

When life had settled down a bit, I had cherished every possible change to my schedule, my routine.  I welcomed new classes and gleefully dropped old ones.  I watched some places go out of business while new places opened up and took me in.  I hopped on every chance to shift things around.

It was as if the imprint of my life’s upheaval had been so deep and so dark that the very places I frequented during those times had become vessels for the feelings themselves.  And I knew that my woods held as much of those old feelings as they did my source of comfort.

In the midst of the anger and sadness and frustration, I acknowledged the symbolism in my beloved woods getting cleared out.

My old paths were gone.  It was time to forge ahead with what was new.

I returned back to where the old trail ended, mangled beyond recognition by the logging path.  I hung a right on this new road and followed it down, assuming I was the only one in the woods.  The world had temporarily shut down, after all.  Everyone must have been inside.

The path was too clunky and clumsy for pedestrians, especially with the fresh snow that lay on top of it.  I did my best to keep my footing, slipping over branches and stumbling over hidden stumps.  All the while the Weepies played through my earbuds, remarking on how the world spins madly on.

The background music of the song started to shift, mimicking muffled, if not slightly screeching noises.  I took out my earbuds to realize it wasn’t the music at all, but a logging vehicle hard at work.  In the distance, I could see its large crane lift up at a tree before pressing forward.  Another tree down.  Another area of the forest cleared.

I sighed and turned back.  The snow was picking up anyway.  I needed to get back – my classes had been cancelled, but that didn’t necessarily mean I had the day off.  Projects and assignments and deadlines loomed over my head.  The sooner I got them done, the better.

I turned and walked against wind.  I was so eager to return home, and the wind obscured so much of my vision, that I misjudged where the logging road intersected with my path.  Misjudged so much that I didn’t even realize that I had missed it entirely — going so far down the opposite way that I stumbled across a second set of vehicles, clearing out a different area of the forest.  I turned around, hoping to find my old footsteps and follow them back.  But the snowfall had filled in my tracks, and whatever clearing I thought I had seen between the path and the road was gone.

All that was before me was woods.

I turned off my music and started using my phone as a glorified compass, inching my way back to my neighborhood.  There were no landmarks to guide me.  I couldn’t even rely on where there were clearings.

Now that the densely populated trees were gone, I was surrounded by clearings.  Every opened spot looked like a path, especially in the snow.

In this upheaval, I was making my own path home.  How absolutely daunting it was, knowing that all my old safeguards were gone, that there was nothing from the past to guide me, that the sheer number of directions I could go was infinite and dizzying.

The metaphor was not lost on me.  It’s never as simple as digging up the old paths and blazing new trails.  It’s never as simple as changing the scenery and leaving the old landmarks behind.  Sometimes burning it all to the ground leaves you with nothing but bewildering ashes and a sense of unease.

Sometimes thinking you can leave it all behind leaves you lost in the woods.

I continued to follow my phone, walking eastward until I came to the backyard of a neighbor’s house.  I kept to the edge of the property until I made my way out and onto one of the roads of my neighborhood.

The world was still as vacant as the forest, even with pavement and houses replacing clearings and stumps.  The roads had barely been touched, let alone plowed.  No one was going anywhere.

I returned back, down a road I knew well.  A road I used as part of my runs so many times that I could tell you how every single bend in the road equated with a certain level of fatigue.  The falling snow quickly muffled the sound of the saws and trucks, and the world was bathed in silence once again.

How good it felt, to get back home.  I peeled out of my winter gear, so heavily coated in snow that I looked like I had created my own mini storm by the welcome mat.  I cozied in to my well-worn spot in front of the space heater, two content cats asleep right behind me.  I eventually got up to heat up some leftovers and some apple cider and to watch the snow pile up outside.

Within a half hour of returning, the snow picked up to whiteout conditions.  And I remained happily indoors, protected by the steady walls of my home, as the blizzard continued to make its way through the cleared out woods and the world spun madly on.

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