It was a near disaster – a blizzard of epic proportions. My little hometown just east of the Pittsburgh metro area was covered in over two inches of snow! There were school cancellations and a lot of grown-ups calling in to work, I’m sure. There hasn’t been a lot of snow this year so two inches and counting feels like a hard hit.
I’d had trail maintenance on my personal schedule for this morning but now didn’t feel like making the drive up north to a certain neglected line through the woods, now disappearing in greenbriers but for blue blazes on the trees. But another neglected trail came to mind – my own creation – an escape route from my town’s Main street – a gap in the trees that opens to a world of woods.
I put pruning shears, compass and folding saw in my pockets, dressed in waterproof camo, shoveled the steps and made for the nearest hillside. Walking briskly between two businesses, I leapt a stone wall at the rear and disappeared from view. I had nothing to hide but people being as they are, I can only imagine the great concern that might be aroused by seeing someone wander off where he had no business, someone unfamiliar doing unfamiliar things. I’ve spent a lot of my life as an outsider, living in small towns around small town people.
Fifteen steps uphill and then a turn to the left on the barely-discernible deer trail – just as I’d left it, except for the snow. Everything did seem quieter here, a partition of snowy branches already separating me from businesses and houses. I’d still be close to these for a while yet but it didn’t matter; no-one would see me. Snow days are times to bundle up or at least hide out indoors unless you’ve got to be out and that’s only for purposes like scraping off the car or shoveling the walk. The woods were mine alone. I passed through a low arch-way of vines I’d cut out in May, ducking and then spinning on my heel to round a large maple, branches heavy with snow impinging from all sides. I was reminded of a childhood story of children stepping through a wardrobe into a magical winter snowscape.
The wood was more open as I continued to follow last year’s trace. No blazes on the trees – just a cut sapling or branch now or then to tell me I’d been this way before. I disappeared into a shady valley, crossed the brook on snowy stepping stones and ascended again, stopping to look at the compass and to spot lumps of snow that might be familiar landmarks.
Chirping and flitting catches my attention and I pause to watch a male Carolina wren dig under a log and actually find a large edible prize he excitedly flew off with. Chirping again and I turn to see a golden-crowned kinglet looking me over, no-less curious about my doings than the overly-concerned townsfolk just down the hill. He approaches and we remember we’ve met before. The trail ahead is bent around a dense barberry patch where he’d been concerned my path was getting uncomfortably close as I’d cut it through last year.
The habitat was amazingly excellent for birds and all kinds of things here. The trail had been painstaking to put through; it’s all very dense here in this neglected little valley and old dead wood lies below the impenetrable new growth of saplings and vines. It’s why this place is mine alone. It all would have been a part of this town’s extensive mine works 70 years ago or so – there would have been few wrens then – more red dog, coal and orange seeps.
I reach the end of the known trail and push forward, cutting a hundred and fifty more feet or so into the briars and brambles. I haven’t crossed a line of Posted signs yet and don’t know when I will. The northbound trail will grow until then.
Some do find it strange to see a grown man wander off into the woods with no apparent purpose – no assignment or job to do. “What’s he up to anyway?” It’s highly suspicious.
But some days I need no more purpose than the snow beneath my boots, the quiet of the woods, a path between the trees, the presence of the wrens and kinglets and a destination unknown.
Between 2007 and 2011, I walked from Georgia to New Brunswick in 5 long hikes, looking at brook trout streams all along the way. On the fourth of these hikes, I carried a rugged video camera that I used to capture day -to-day life on the trail between Cortland County, New York and Moosehead Lake, Maine. Long ago, I produced 9 videos from this footage and uploaded it to YouTube where these videos sit, seldom seen. Along with my next 9 blog posts, I’m going to share links to each of these videos. This is low-quality footage, especially by today’s standards but gives a real-life glimpse of the trail chronicled in my book, The Dying Fish.
The first video of the fourth hike of the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure: