Woodland Adventure, part 4
The horrible buzzing flies kept surrounding me as I made my tired way back down the path, and no amount of swatting with my floppy hat would keep them away. The path/streambed sloped downward most of the way, which should have made my walk easier, but as weary as I was, it instead made it harder. I’m less sure of my footing on a down slope, more afraid of falling, and by this point my legs were feeling more than a little wobbly.
But I hurried as best I could, wondering which turn to take, counting on some sense of internal mapping to help me. Usually, if I’ve seen a place once, I can find my way back. Here, though, the particular turns and trees looked vaguely familiar, but what if they were just similar to ones I’d seen before?
Through all of this, I was containing a sense of panic. I’d been gone so long. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to bring back water. What might have happened to my friend while I was lost? Had he passed right through heat exhaustion and into heatstroke? And if he had, how would I ever get him out of those woods by myself?
I have the ability to contain my panic during a crisis. I kept going, knowing that if I could just find the high ground above the river and railroad tracks again, I could find my way back to him.
In choir at church, we have one particular anthem we’re likely to sing at a Baptismal service, called “Down to the River to Pray.” My desperation to find the river brought the song to mind. I was far too out of breath and dry-mouthed to sing, but I ran it through in my head, managed to hum a little so I’d feel less alone:
I went down to the River to pray,
studying about that good old way,
and who shall wear the starry crown;
Good Lord, show me the way!
I heard a motor coming up the path. A few steps further, and I saw the woman with the ATV riding towards me. She stopped a few feet from me.
“My husband is with your friend,” she told me. “We gave him water from the stream. It's safe to drink from.”
“I couldn’t find the way back,” I said softly. “I couldn’t find the way.”
She turned the ATV around, scooted forward and invited me to climb on the back. I did, holding on tightly to the seat.
That path that seemed so long on weary feet seemed like nothing on an ATV, with a cool breeze blowing in my face. It was only a few minutes before we came around a curve and saw my friend and the woman’s husband walking towards us, and pulled up beside them.
We thanked the couple profusely. I think my heat-addled brain was still trying to process the sudden change in my fortunes, but such kindness to strangers deserves much gratefulness, even when the strangers are heat-addled. They rode away, the ATV motor roaring into the distance. Surely the help they gave us will be stars in their starry crowns?
My friend and I looked at each other for a moment. It was over 90 degrees where we stood in the sunlight. I was drenched in sweat, filthy, bleeding from bramble scratches. He was soaked from the stream, muddy, partially covered in debris from dead leaves. But it didn’t matter. We moved into each other’s arms and held each other tightly for a long sweet moment.
He told me he had started to revive just from resting in the cool breeze and was wondering if he should try to find me, by the time the ATV couple found him. When they told him I’d gone deeper into the woods, he begged them to go find me.
“All the trails back there were dead ends,” I told him. “I couldn’t find the way.”
“But you found help, and you did the best you could,” he said. “How could I ask more of you?”
We made our weary way down the steep valley towards the railroad tracks, and went down the drop-off at the end the classic flatlander way, sliding on our bottoms. It’s easy enough to find a way down when you don’t have to worry that you’ll also need to find a way back.
It was a longer walk than I’d expected to get back to the park, but it was easy enough to walk the railroad tracks, the river flowing happily on our right. I told my friend of the dead end paths, the dry streambeds, the bramble scratches, and all the other things I’d seen, and of my fear for him, and how hard it had been to leave him there alone. He told me of how worried he’d been when he realized how long I’d been gone.
Down the tracks and finally back into the park, shade trees above and carefully clipped grass under our tired feet. We were safe again, and so I could finally collapse.
I did so, sitting heavily on a picnic bench and resting my head down in my hands.
The vending machine had no bottled water, no Gatorade or anything which would have been very useful and good for us, but the Sprite we got instead may well have been the best drink I have ever had in my life. It was nectar itself.
We rested for awhile, went down to the smooth flat stones by the river and dangled our feet in the rapid flow. How cool that rush of water felt on my feet, how incredibly good!
There’s a particular boulder there which is shaped like a large hand. I always called it the Hand of God. We rested on that stone for awhile. My friend was well, I had been found, and day was fading softly into evening. It was time to head back along the twisty mountain roads, away from the swift cooling river and the bright summer trees, following the leafy winding highways to make our way home.