While out for my morning jog the other day, I ran– almost literally – into a couple of friends I hadn’t seen in a while and, instead of continuing on a homeward course decided to be sociable, turn around and accompany them for a while so we could catch up on old times.
After a few miles clicked by it occurred to me I’d soon have to head back or wind up covering a marathon, which I really hadn’t intended when I set out. But I lingered a while longer with my friends, realizing that after I left them, if I cut through the woods and found an old trail that I hadn’t traipsed over in years I’d be able to shave off a considerable distance.
We eventually parted company and I loped off in search of the hidden path.
Truth be told, since it branched off a long driveway I had no trouble locating the source of the trail and for the first quarter-mile or so enjoyed smooth footing over packed gravel. Then it veered off onto a relatively new equestrian path, which I knew from past rambles meandered considerably over hill and dale. I wasn’t looking to extend my workout through that twisting route.
The old path I once traveled frequently took a straight shot to within a few hundred yards of my house. I had more or less stopped using it because of a cantankerous property owner and his even more cantankerous dogs.
Not long ago the property owner passed away. I didn’t know if his dogs were still on the loose but was willing to risk it.
Soon, though, the path closed in and virtually disappeared into a thicket. Nature hates a vacuum, and will fill the void with whatever is handiest and hardiest. The shoots of birch, oak and hickory quickly gave way to brambles and green briar.
At this point, a prudent plodder would have halted and searched for a detour, but I pronounced to myself a phrase that all too often has led to unhappy experiences: “Come on, how bad could it be?”
Whenever I’m with acquaintances they know to put their foot down and resist temptation upon hearing those words, but I was alone and disinclined to utter – let alone heed – a voice of reason. So I soldiered on into the thorns.
The mass of barbs seemed to be only about 50 yards wide, after which there appeared to be a clearing. Very quickly I realized I had miscalculated, and not only did the patch extend for a considerably greater distance but it contained several varieties of briar – some with hooked barbs almost an inch long at face height, others with tungsten-like vines at ankle level, and still others with needle-like spikes apparently capable of penetrating sheet metal.
I had been wearing cotton running pants, polypropylene shirt and wool gloves, which all quickly shredded. One thorn even pierced my running shoe.
After about half an hour I began to resemble a flagellant, a member of a fanatical religious sect whose acolytes flailed themselves bloody while roaming through parts of Europe in the 13th century to achieve some sort of perverse penance.
Step by painstaking step I persevered, momentarily unsnagging cuffs and sleeves long enough to move forward about six inches, then getting stuck and having to repeat the process. I also cried out a few blasphemies that might have undone whatever ecclesiastic privileges gained had I been in a religious devotee in the European Middle Ages.
Soon I also observed that what first seemed to be a clearing in fact was a swamp.
Now I had to decide: Skirt the marsh and continue forging through the briars, or wade into the muck and mire. It really wasn’t a difficult choice.
At first I tried bounding from hummock to hummock, but after nearly losing my balance and falling face-first into the ooze I gave up and slogged into the icy mud.
Fortunately – can you believe, at that point I actually considered myself lucky? – the swamp stretched only another 25 yards or so and I soon found myself not only on terra firma, but also out of the brambles.
From there I dead-reckoned my way back home, bloody, muddy and exhausted, but in a perverse way, I guess, triumphant. At least the old neighbors’ dogs hadn’t chased me.
I suppose if I ever want to take that trail again I’ll have to get out there with a suit of armor, machete and shears. On the other hand I could just let nature reclaim the old footpath so that it becomes but a faded memory.
In the mean time, there are plenty of well-worn, briar-free trails to continue roaming.