Sometimes, the trails take you where you’d rather not go. The solitude of the forest, a timelessness arranged by ancient oaks and granite erratics, puts the contemplative hiker face-to-face with history, the moment, the unknown to come. Cut off from technology, compelled by the rhythm of footsteps on living soil, hiking can become a pilgrimage or an unlikely form of time travel. Sometimes, turning a corner on the trail startles us with an insight into where we’ve come from, or where we’re going. It can be exhilarating. And unsettling.
Today, I put myself on a path that I knew would be fraught with demons. The aptly named “Devil’s Hopyard” State Park in Salem, Connecticut is the last hike I ever made with my ex-wife. It was August 2010, and my first time in the park. We set out on a picture-perfect day, accompanied by friends. I had just picked up the latest CD from Spock’s Beard, and I was singing the opening track (“At the Edge of the In-Between”) as we departed from the falls and headed south to the Tablet Rock vista.
We were mesmerized by the splendor of the forest – Devil’s Hopyard is perfectly Tolkienesque in its design. Among massive boulders are gnarled roots and abundant emerald mosses. The high canopy casts light and shadow with ethereal effect. It is a place that feels otherworldly and magical. We took many photos along the way: a sunlit glade, a friend upon a rock pointing westward like an erstwhile Lewis or Clark, goofy faces through the lifted roots of an old tree. At the vista, we set up my camera to snap a photo of my ex-wife, my friends, and I. We stood with our backs to the bright, blue sky. We were smiling and charged with the glow of the day.
This time, I was alone at each of the places where an inauspicious history had been made. At the lookout, I set up my camera to re-create the photo of five years ago. I’m not sure why; perhaps it was another maudlin gesture among many. But I’d like to say it was a minor means of taking stock of things lost, an inventory of resources and assets squandered or spoiled in the five year span that had elapsed since that special day. I’d like that image to speak the words I need to hear: “Let this be another reason to keep improving.”
I was playing the Spock’s Beard CD again (on my phone, this time), and as I descended toward the trailhead the middle section of “Jaws of Heaven” stopped me stone dead in my tracks. Nick D’Virgilio sang:
I awoke this morning
A lifetime come and gone
The ending of a journey
My destiny at dawn
Yesterday behind me
There is only now
Every circle that was closing
Is opening somehow
And it’s clear to see the reasons
Are woven deep in the wondering.
I had counted on ghosts and demons, but wasn’t for prepared for the tears that came suddenly at that moment. I’d have looked quite a sight, a middle-aged man weeping in a little clearing in the woods, had anyone come across me. But I let the crying run its course, and resumed my journey when it felt right to walk again.
I’m not fond of collecting regrets or wallowing in the sadness of misused past – well, not anymore, anyway. The fact is, I’m at about the midpoint of my life. Acts One and Two have now come and gone, and Act Three is about to begin. I’m sure I will always mourn my possible pasts and rue the mistakes I have made. Depression made a perfect hell out of the first half of my life, and the devastation can’t be undone. The noonday demon, however, is gone – and that is a success that almost balances the ledger as I move forward.
Returning to this place to lay eyes on places I had been with the wife and friends who are now gone was the very essence of a catharsis. In the weeks to come leading to my fortieth birthday, I believe I’ll return to other places of significance to my past – both on the trails and off. Perhaps it’s helpful to make a ritual of our reflections. Maybe looking back is easier, or more fruitful, if it’s done with a reverence that affirms both the temporal immutability of the past and its capability to be an active, living catalyst for change in the present. In the static, immobility of days forever dead we hear the still small voice, urging us to make the next Act better.