In the Woods with Friends

My friend, Andrea Riddle, told me to follow my inner senses.

“Trust yourself,” she always said when I taught for her at the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca.

I went to her memorial this afternoon, but first, this morning, I went to the woods. Because Suki and I always go hiking on Sunday mornings and because walking in the woods was the last thing I did with Andrea. But I did not go on my regular Sunday morning Ithaca area hike. It was going to be too many people, too muddy and too late to clean Suki and myself up in time to get to the memorial. So instead, Suki and I went hiking with our friends, Dennis and Virginia, and their small dog.

They were very excited; they were taking me to a favorite trail on Connecticut Hill, in an area they’d hiked in for forty years. We were going to be over and done and back to the car by 11 so I could get home by 11:30, do tick-checks, get changed and go.

“We take the yellow trail and then the red trail,” Dennis says shortly after we start out.

“No, we take the orange trail which crosses the blue,” says Virginia. We keep walking. The woods are aglow in color. The trails are hard to keep on because of the bright fallen leaf cover. I am comfortable and at peace.

“Dennis, we go left on the orange trail for the Cameron Loop,” Virginia says.

“No, it’s this way, across the blue trail.”

“We passed the blue trail already. And this marker is green, not blue,” she points out.

“Look at the map,” says Dennis. “Here’s where we are. We go on the blue to the red.”

At that moment, I remember hiking with the two before. One time I got lost in the snow following Virginia. Another time, when they said they’d done the trail a million times, we ended up walking in circles.

“The compass says we’re going west and we need to go south,” he says.

“No, here’s the trail. I know this is the Cameron Loop,” says Virginia.              “We’ve been here a million times.”

So we follow the orange blazes and it’s beautiful although it becomes obvious it’s not the trail they intended to take me on. The woods are a stunning kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, green and brown. And I think of Andrea walking in falling yellow leaves a year ago. I think of how she changed the course of my life, giving me my first teaching job. I silently thank her for all she’d done for Marika both before and after leukemia. I consider the cruel fate of Andrea getting diagnosed with cancer shortly after Marika’s death. Suddenly it’s time to turn back so I can get to the memorial.

“We need to go west to get back,” says Dennis, “and you’re headed east.

“No, Dennis, this is the way,” insists Virginia.

“Is this the way we came?” I ask, totally disoriented. “It doesn’t look familiar. I’d have remembered this dead tree.”

We walk on, trying to reverse our tracks but there are two different blue trails, an orange-blazed trail, an orange-tagged trail and a red trail that shows up occasionally and looks almost orange.

Andrea had told me to follow my inner sense. To mindfully choose and follow my own path through life. Today was just a small example of how I’ve failed miserably at this and allowed people to lead me this way and that. I get swayed by voices and judgments and expectations of others too easily.

“If we follow this blue trail we’ll get right back to the car.”

“No, we have to go back on the orange trail.”

“Do you two always hike like this?” I ask. I’ve often admired the easy way they genially disagree. And they always manage to make it home. Eventually. And they’re always up and eager to hike again the next day. “My heart gets an aerobic workout every time I hike with you two, just wondering if I’ll survive.”

I am standing with Suki and my head turns from side to side, like I’m watching a tennis match. And then, one stubbornly takes off one way and the other takes off in the opposite direction.

“Oy!” Andrea would say at this. Here was my opportunity to make my own first decision of the day: to follow the big guy with the map and compass or go with Virginia, who was flying by the seat of her pants, with the dog. I go with Virginia. This is a woman who follows her instincts, for better or for worse. Remembering Andrea’s words, I actually even take the lead with Suki at times as Virginia and I scour the forest for orange blazes.

“I sure hope to hell this is right,” she says, about two miles and several debates later about how familiar and unfamiliar it feels. Virginia and I find our way back to the car two minutes before 11.

“Well, what do we do about Dennis?” I ask.

“Leave him. He’ll be fine.” But we call and whistle and Virginia howls her special call that carries through the woods. No response. She walks up and down the road while I wait with Suki by the car. Ten minutes later I hear another howl from the woods and soon we are reunited. Everyone is happy and they get me home by 11:30.

At the memorial, I make a promise to Andrea to follow my heart, finish the last hard steps for the book and not rush out into the wrong road afterwards, just to secure a salary and health insurance. And I promise myself to go out hiking again soon with Dennis and Virginia, because it was exciting after all, but not when I have to be somewhere anytime soon after.

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