Lost, Perplexed, and Other Orientations

by CB Bassity

    The one time I got lost in the woods I learned something from my actions and reactions.
     On a cool and cloudy October afternoon, I stuffed a fistful of twelve-gauge shells into one pocket of my jacket, and a couple of apples from the tree up the hill into another, and headed outside carrying my shotgun.  I thought maybe I could bring home supper, but even if I didn’t I would at least enjoy an afternoon’s walk in the woods.
     Just up the road from the house, if you turned left, west, past the abandoned house, I knew a route out along a ridge that overlooked "the big meadow," which began on the neighboring Hunneymon place, stretched out through the backside of our 180 acres, and broadened into a big marsh that opened into Butterfield Lake.  North of the meadow and ridge I could find game: squirrel, racoon, partridge, and more.  Halfway out the ridge I dropped down through the hard maple grove on the other side and past the Hunneymon's old sugaring shed near the foot of the ridge.  Something always appealed to me about that cool, dark secluded area, tucked close between two ridges so the maples and oaks grew dozens of feet tall before they ever found sunlight.  A trickle of spring water began there and wandered south toward the swamp and eventually the lake.  I found 'coon tracks and probably bobcat, but nothing was stirring there.
     Heading up the next ridge, I was no more than a mile from home, still in familiar territory but edging toward a part of the world I'd not seen before.  It seemed like a good day to expand my horizons.  Coming up the hill from the deep, cool glen, I was surprised to find open ground: an only-half-grown-over ancient pasture at the top of the ridge.  But then, turning to take my bearings, it made sense: this ground would circle around to meet the small woods above the sugaring hill.  Again no game in sight.  I crossed the old pasture, wondering what was beyond it.  At some point in my exploring I had seen enough new ground and not any game.  I turned for home.
     Rather than climb the steep bank between the ridges again, I opted to curve back along the top of the one I was on.  A short walk would take me back to Burns road, the dirt track which snaked north to Rossie through eight miles of woods, swamps, and overgrown, abandoned farmland.  But the short walk turned into a long one, and no road.  Returning in the direction I thought I'd come only got me further disoriented.  I was lost.
     But I was twenty.  I was dressed warmly enough even for a frosty night; I had matches, knife, a shotgun, and two apples.  I could not walk more than six miles in any direction before running into some landmark.  And if I went east to Burns road, west to Black Creek, or south toward the lake, I would find one of those in only one or two miles.  My situation, far from being grave, had all the makings of a worthwhile adventure.  This was the year I wintered alone at the farm, so there was no one to worry if I didn't come in, and the animals in the barn wouldn't starve overnight.
     The weather that day wasn't the windy cool of clouds scudding across the sky, but the still, breeze-less cool of land sealed from sun-heat under a solid gray sky, so I had no direction.  The first thing I learned, was that all that malarkey about moss growing on the north sides of trees must have to do with some kind of moss that didn’t grow where I was.  Not knowing which direction to walk in, I figured to just choose a bearing and follow it.  I had once read that dragging a long straight pole ensures a straight course through the woods.  So I tried that.  However, each tree, bush, or boulder in that line requires that the woodsman bear off course a little, and then drag the pole around said hindrance.  Not to mention that the damn thing gets heavy in a very short while.  I dropped the pole.
     Since I started out heading for the road, and had reversed direction, I somehow thought I was headed for the creek.  (Although, being lost, I had no reason to think I knew which direction I was headed in.)  And the creek was my best target, since it or the lake would be always below me, and therefore easier to spot from a distance in this glacially-ridged land.  Burns Road, in the other direction, sometimes eased over the tops of hills, and I figured (correctly) that I could walk right near the road and never see it.  I walked for quite a while, then, convinced that the creek was in front of me.
     So, in the late afternoon, as the light was dimming toward dusk, when I looked down off a ridge and saw—not creek but road—my stomach jumped.  I wondered: could there be an old logging road along the creek that I don't know about?  Sometimes what you see may not be what it looks like.  A dirt road overhung by trees hardly stands out to announce itself, especially in failing light.  But it was a road, and I hurried to it.  Regardless of where I was, I had a landmark of some kind; I wasn’t lost anymore.  Yet still, my stomach had that turned-over feeling.  What an odd thing to have happen.
     When I came down off the ridge, I recognized Burns Road immediately, about a mile north of where I had first wanted to go.  All the time I thought I’d been heading west to the creek, I had actually traveled north-east.
     An hour later I was home.  But that moment of disquiet, my anxious reaction on finding the road—how strange.  In several hours of "lost-ness" I never felt truly uneasy, until the moment when I became "un-lost" by finding the road in the "wrong" place.
     No wonder orthodoxy is so easily sold.

CB Bassity ©1996, All Rights Reserved

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