(I originally posted this on The Bitter Blog)
My body was stretched out and chopped up. It was distributed across the city, tugged this way, that way by scores of different hands. They all clawed at it, the hands. They all wanted something from it. The pressure rose; I could feel my sinews snapping.
So I left.
I gave my body a whistle and it came running back to me, gratefully. We took off into the woods.
I took my quietest companion and, together, we drove eastward. As the buildings thinned and the roads narrowed, I felt my stretched sinews relax; I felt my muscles ease. They could already sense the woods rising around us, the calm replacing the tugging.
At the park, I leashed my companion and we giddily took off down the trail, running. Sprinting (as best we could through the packed snow). If anyone would have seen us, they might have questioned our sanity–well, not my companion’s, I suppose, but certainly mine. My face couldn’t help but grin; my feet couldn’t help but run.
After running, we walked. And I breathed. The air wasn’t the kind of cold that pierces your lungs and makes you choke-cough. It was just the right kind of cold–the kind that electrifies your pulmonary system, makes you understand the meaning of the word invigorated. We walked through the friendly cold, through prairies and mixed forests, along the banks of the St. Croix, down valleys, across bridges, up steep slopes. We walked for eight miles that afternoon…
…and saw one person.
She was looking down when we rounded the bend, adjusting a strap on a hiking pole, and I said, “Hello. You’re the first person we’ve seen in five miles.”
She was startled, but not much. My voice was calm and soft–the voice of someone sedated by bliss.
She nodded to me; she had a nice smile and pleasantly chapped lips. Her cheeks were pink and happy; she wore a floppy kind of hat that didn’t quite fit her head, but suited her perfectly. We talked for a minute about one stream flowing, one stream frozen. Then we moved on.
My companion was not interested in small talk; there were mammals to trail.
We continued our trek, winding across a couple streams–one frozen over, one not–and caught our first glimpse of humanity as we crested a peak and glimpsed a road below. A couple cars passed by and I was angry at them for a second, but only a second. We ducked back into the woods.
As we hiked, I noticed a set of tracks pointing toward us, framed by punctures in the snow. They were the woman’s tracks. The woman and her hiking poles. We walked west; the tracks continued east. We were time-traveling then–walking into the woman’s past as she walked into ours. With every step, we peeled back her journey, striding through ever-earlier minutes, older emotions, distant thoughts. And she was picking her way through our past.
After nearly three hours, we starting making our way toward the car. With less than a mile to go, the trail abruptly opened up, dozens of voices bombarded our calm. We glanced to the side as we shuffled past. It was a ski hill. The gondola motors chugged as children giggled and snowboarders yelled at skiers to get the hell out of the way. Fried food scent drifted from the chalet; marijuana smoke drifted from the hills. It was a jarring way to step back into civilization, a carnival passing through a meditation room.
We hurried past, but the spell was broken. We knew we had to exit the woods soon. We couldn’t stay, as much as we wanted to. The woods would only let us visit and take a piece of it back with us.
We took as much as we could carry–stuffing our bodies with the tranquility, the harmony, the balance, the clarity, the rawness that the woods offered–and brought it back with us to the city. It lingers still, but it fades, slipping out of pores, floating away with each exhalation. I feel the tenseness in my muscles creep back; I feel the first few tugs on my body. The tugs are soft, for now–the nibbles of a fish testing out bait before she takes the whole thing in her mouth and darts away–but they will grow. They will intensify.
And I will escape again, into the woods, into a place that always makes sense to me. And maybe the woman will be there again. And we can talk about the quality of streams.