He stood there, pale and luminous, with the blood-flushed cheeks and glazed eyes of someone able to look at the ground for seventeen miles. Yes, seventeen miles:
“Hey, I’ve been there. Last November I was on a really long run—seventeen miles I think—and I got lost too. It was getting dark; it was night, actually, and I was terrified. Hungry, thirsty, cold, you name it. I actually heard coyotes howling out there. What happened finally is one of my professors came looking for me, flashed his headlights at the perimeter until I found him and drove me home.” He paused. “It was really scary though.”
I nodded encouragingly and braced myself for the onslaught of instruction, forcing my inattentive and increasingly nervous brain to listen and above all, retain.
“Does the red trail lead back to civilization?”
“Yeah, if you go back the way you came you can get to the blue trail pretty easily—“
“I just came off the blue trail…I don’t think I can do that again. It’s too dark now.”
“Ok, then go back this way. Follow the red trail and after a while it’ll pop out, and you’ll see the dunes and the power lines? You know what I’m talking about? At that point, and this is the most critical part, you have to take an immediate right…”
And his voice faded out like the early fall light was about to, dampened by this thick canopy of leaves and brush. I thanked him and told him he was an angel. I meant it. He looked worried.
“Are you wearing bug spray? It’s not so bad for the runners, since they’re moving pretty fast…don’t forget to check for ticks.” And I was alone again.
I had been in the Pine Bush for nearly two and a half hours. It started off as an attempt to kill some time, to enjoy this beautiful September day, to get exercise. There is an entrance to the preserve quite literally in my backyard. The buildings, cars, asphalt, and general orderliness and structure of a massive apartment complex is misleading: the Pine Bush preserve is huge, and it’s straightforward wilderness. Only once before had I attempted a “walk” in there—not only was I half drunk, I was with a friend. We chose the unmarked path and so a little confusion was par for the course—but we made it out eventually, no thanks to my legendary lack of directional sense.
This time, it started out easy, and like a dream. Golden light and warm wind, dappled ground and waxy leaves. I walked and caught glimpses of skittish rabbits, impossibly tiny chipmunks, startled deer. Their short lives echoed in each twig cracking underfoot. I listened to the saddest record. I listened to the breeze weaving through the ferns. I saw meadows, dunes, and cliffs; I saw iridescent dragonflies, swarms of miniature flies dumbly swirling in dust clouds. I felt like Dickon in the moors, surrounded by fragrant lavender heather.
That record played its saddest song, and as it crescendoed in a sweeping climax, the trees opened up, gates at an exclusive mansion, and haloed themselves with sun. As a preteen, standing in apocalyptically suburban soccer fields, I would watch the sky instead of the game; sunbeams would peek out behind cottony clouds and I’d think, “there’s God.” It was like that, but a more mysterious God, one fleshed out by thought yet solidly ephemeral. Graced like this, I stood in the pool of light for long moments, warm currents gently whipping around my face.
Then I made a wrong turn and got on the blue trail.
I once read in a magazine that everyone subconsciously looks for his or her next great love around every corner. Well, I propose amending this to include how we’re all envisioning our own deaths every time we get cut off in traffic, step on a plane, go for a walk alone in the woods. Sometimes a flash of something touches behind the eyelids in pure-gut-intuition or fear; it’s impossible to tell which, but that moment feels so ripe. Ripe for death, ripe for the end. Driving down a lonely dark street in late summer, noting how the light filters through the sides of the trees and not from above: will this be the last thought you’ll ever have? The scenarios unfold and stack on top of one another until even simple daily tasks lurk menacingly, leaking dim light like the cracks in the door of your childhood bedroom.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill paranoia; it’s just waiting. Writing the story of your life.
I wasn’t thinking about my final hours on the sunny and spiritual yellow trail, so aptly named. The paths were wide and surrounded by dunes and marshy grasses, and the only obstacles were fallen branches and occasional lack of cell service interrupting the music. I expected more of that on the blue trail. What I got instead was: awkwardly narrow paths; jungle-like brush (probably teeming with ticks) with thick arms that reached and grabbed; the nasal, panic-inducing whine of mosquitoes; a new, hyper and nervous album to listen to; and the ever quickening dip of the sun, turning the path literally blue, tinting everything with it underwater algae blue-green haze, spreading the blues, spreading fear. It was more than enough to harsh my earlier buzz. More than enough to make me question the yellow path’s quasi-spiritual gift. And way more than enough to turn the mental chatter back on, including the awakening realization that this was the perfect opportunity to get murdered.
“Are you wearing bug spray? Don’t forget to check for ticks.”
I was alone again. And yet—I had seen him earlier, within that first blissful half hour. He had bellowed a mute “to your left” and I took my headphones off to identify the rustling. Gone in a beat, I still caught a glimpse of his sweaty back and easy loping rhythm.
So when I saw him later, after wandering the trails for hours and still having no clue which way was out, caution bled into my instant relief.
“Does the red trail lead back to civilization?”
Did you mark me as an easy target that early?
“Yeah, if you go back the way you came you can get to the blue trail pretty easily…”
Are you leading me even deeper into the woods?
I mentally prepared for death. As far as these things go, it wasn’t too terrible. I had just spent a few hours in the most obvious metaphor for my life the universe could possibly grant me: the beautiful wilderness I live next to and ignore on a daily basis. I had appreciated it; I had taken some photos to remember it by. I had experienced the great beauty that humans are hellbent on destroying (nature, etc) and the great beauty they are capable of creating (great fucking music). The actual walking itself has always been a way for me to process thoughts, especially ones that have been bothering me, so the cherry on this old sundae was working some shit out in my head. All in all, I took stock of my life thus far, found it lacking in certain aspects yet overall I was okay with it. So runner/murderer, bring it. I’ll fight, but if I die, tell my mother I love her.
I made my way back up the red trail. I added some extra time to his estimations, as this was a person that runs seventeen miles at a stretch for fun. The once-green canopy of leaves had turned near black and the dark, unidentifiable shapes of animals flitted in and out of my peripheral vision. At this point, the headphones had been off for at least an hour; if I was going to be killed, I wanted at least a fighting chance.
I rounded a bend, and there he was again, jogging in place.
“Oh, okay good, I doubled back because I was worried you would get lost again. Here’s another shortcut actually, if you go up those hills, it’s actually an unmarked trail, which is why I didn’t think to tell you about it before…”
I looked to where he pointed and recognized the aforementioned unmarked trail I had gotten lost on that last time. I knew that if I cleared the several steep hills, I would be at the entrance to my apartment complex.
“You’re an angel.”
“Like I said, I’ve been there.” He began to say something else, something like how would he know I made it back safely? But he ran off again, with one last glance over his shoulder. As I crossed that liminal line between this contained wilderness and civilization, I saw an old red Galant that must have belonged to him. I hope he wasn’t too mad about the big “I GOT OUT” scrawled in the faint grime of his windshield. Unless he was composing his own death story, and now is on the lookout for the girl that kept stalking him in the woods.