Now the road is lit with lightning bugs that do not fly, whose lights pulse in an earthbound imitation of their winged summer cousins, and whose habitation is the barren ground of winter. The road itself, a blur of light gravel and the dark grass, is felt more than seen. A month ago, the sun was rising as Theo and I took our morning walk, but since then the earth has pitched towards dark, and dawn is still a long ways away.
Theo doesn’t, strictly speaking, need me to be here. It’s our morning routine, an occasion for me to work on teaching him to be attentive to the leash. He’s still a puppy, as a man-sized athletic teenager is still a boy. When Theo first arrived, I remember watching as he flew from one side of the road to another, perhaps not even aware that there was a road, or what a road might mean. He didn’t know the paths we now take in the dark, the ones that follow along the fence line. He didn’t know the forks in the path, the ones where we decide whether or not to walk down towards the pond, or back towards home. As he darted into the brush, I’d hold on to the leash with both hands, planting my feet and refusing to move until he relented, and returned to the trail. Now he trots along the narrow grassy line as easily as I do, and I wonder what he’s lost in the learning, what wider understanding of this land would have been like before he could see what I see, an overgrown footpath or a thinly graveled road.
I’ve been thinking lately about what’s been called the radical selfishness with which we’re born, the neurological selfishness that was no doubt intended to ensure survival, and which in no way constitutes vice. It’s the child screaming, “Mine! Mine!” We praise him for using his words; gently explain what’s his and what’s not. We use words to train him, to educate him, to cultivate his understanding of a broader world and one that’s narrower as well, and when words don’t work we gently pick him up and hold him as he sobs, mine. Mine. I’m nowhere near childhood, but I still have fits during which I need to be held as I sob, because I was wrong: what I thought was mine was not. My elemental nature, the radical selfishness that still comprises my understanding of the world in which I live, continues to insist on seeing things as I want them to be, rather than as they are. It can be as simple as a rainy day when I’d planned a long, sunny hike, or a traffic jam during my morning commute. The trail, the path that is where I’m meant to be, includes elements that I did not choose. And yet, what is inevitably proves greater in every dimension than what I’d imagined, or expected.
A few years ago, I spent my birthday hiking in the Smokies. I’d previously hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I thought of myself as a fairly experienced hiker. I was confident in my plans for what I thought would be an easy day hike. The morning of my birthday was soft with rain, but I didn’t mind. I’d decided to leave my heavy pack in the tent and simply hike up the ridge, across and back down to the tent in a daylong loop. I remember how quiet the trail was, how infinitely relieved I was to be there in the woods, as one step at a time carried me deeper into the park.
As I turned up the trail that would lead to the top of the ridge, I was surprised to find the trail frequently blocked with trees that had fallen in the last summer’s hurricane. I slid under or over each one, and the rain fell harder. It was rough going, but not impossible. It’ll be better at the top of the ridge, I told myself.
But along the ridgeline, it was not better. I scrambled up or around enormous downed poplars and hickories. The rain, now blown blindingly sideways, was relentless. This really can’t get much worse, I remember thinking, somewhat hilariously. Here, my birthday, soaking wet, bark-scraped, alone. And then, dear reader, I lost the trail.
I walked back to where the trail was clear, and tried again. Again, I simply could not see it. There were too many downed trees. I walked back, and then forwards again. I was now exactly halfway through the loop; my choices were either to go back along the trail I’d just taken, or to go forward along the ridgeline, praying to find the trail again.
It didn’t even feel like a hard decision. I would go forward. I was an experienced hiker, right? I knew the trail went along the ridgeline. I could see, both on the map and from where I was standing, where the ridgeline went. The only thing missing was the trail, and that, I was sure, I’d find soon enough, if I only kept walking.
You might already know that didn’t happen. I walked along the ridgeline as the rain slowed to a drizzle, and then stopped. At some point, it occurred to me to call for help, and so I did. I shouted, as loud as I could, at the top of my lungs. Help, I called, equally fearful that someone might hear me as that they would not. Help. Help! My voice echoed from the cove below. Far, far below. I was now at the end of the ridge, and could see, as if for the first time, the massive size of the mountain I was on. My choice was either to turn down in the direction of my campsite, the direction of the loop I’d intended to take, or to go the other way, in which direction there was a more substantial trail that ran alongside a creek, one that would take me to a road, one of the few roads not closed to winter traffic. This time the decision was harder, but I chose the one in which I’d be most likely to find another person.
I scrambled downhill, holding tight to rhododendrons and laurels as my feet slid through dense slick gulleys of leaf. Help, I shouted still. Help. It had become my breath; no longer embarrassed that someone might hear. It was late afternoon by the time I found myself on the trail along the cove, not a soul in sight, and four miles to the road. I practically sprinted, and by the time I made it to the road, the sun had just set.
Now there was nothing to do but wait. I hadn’t thought past this part. I tried to remember the signs of hypothermia, to remember what they led to. It was fourteen miles to Bryson City, and my only prayer was that someone would be out driving this dead-end road in winter. Perhaps, I thought desperately, they’d come to see the sunset. I leaned against the guardrail, exhausted. The sun was gone now, and soon it would be dark. I drank the last of my water. And then, I saw headlights.
It wasn’t that night, in an overheated Bryson City motel room with a jumbo-sized pizza, when I realized what a gift that day had been to me, how it had given me what I’d never believed I would have. For years, my deepest fear had been that I would be unable to ask for help when I needed it. But this day, my birthday, I’d spent the whole day calling at the top of my lungs – for help.
I carry that knowledge in my body now. I know, if I need to, that I can call for help, and I know that help will come, though not always in the time or manner I expect. In the cold winter months to come, I’ll walk Theo in the dark, holding tightly to his leash. I’ll try to remember to follow my feet; to trust the path even when it’s too dark to see.