The snow was soft where not crispy, but neither was it gluey like today’s. Allen dropped me off down the road just above the widening gap between hills, where the north pond lies below. On his way to get groceries and meet with friends. Did not think I’d make it over the filthy plow-row—ice and snow crusted with sand the town plow had pushed up along the rural road. My young neighbor stuck his head out the door to see if I needed help.
“Just want to do a bit of shoeing.” I was getting out the big webbed shoes. He went back in.
I teetered over the ice chunks okay but with the embarrassing hesitation and inflexibility of the aging. Slowly, into the ragged woods I shoe, seeking this way and that how to go. Don’t need a trail. You make your own. My sense of direction has always been pretty good. I’ve got poles and wide webbed feet for the job, keeping my glasses on, hoping to avoid poke-eye-out, as a little boy I once knew used to say. I get whiplash in these woods on the face all the time. Long slender twigs and branches. Hate to think what folks in Britain would say about these scraggly industrial woodlands of ours, all cut over and growing back with suckers; thickets of stuff full of chiggers and ticks in summer—so bad one almost avoids the temptation to go in and explore these woods. Look, a tree might tumble apart unexpectedly, so much bark has been chipped off by woodpeckers and insects.
I kept going. Completely new territory. Saying “new territory” is a bit irrational in a way. I’ve been over trails nearby dozens, maybe hundreds of times. But when you go in the tangles where your feet and eyes have never been before, it’s all different. And it may be but meters, yards from where you’ve been so used to going. Thickly clustered tall trees block your view. Houses, trails, the road, whole neighborhoods are lost.
Sometimes I see the familiar bulks of dark snow-pocked mountains loom through the trees. I recognize them, of course. That ridge on the right across from our side of the narrow valley. And the dark firred peak over there is above our house. But, yesterday for this bit of shoeing, the sun was not shining. Sunlight also gives guidance, the position of the sun off one’s left or right shoulder.
Am enjoying so much the tromping around. Am making zigzags, but in a line straight as I can through these tangles, making for Merton’s lane so I can cross and go along the woodland creek and so home on the trail we made a couple days ago through snow. Should be easy enough, and then I can get to work.
But then I start thinking about how, in the next life, I want to be a messenger. You know. Carry messages around kingdoms. Learn how to eat out of the woods along the way. How to make shelter. Sleep safely with dagger nearby in case of coyote…. Speaking of which, I just saw a couple diluted drops of pale bloody-looking snow over there as I passed.
I look up from my webbed feet on the breaking snow to notice a big gape of overcast sky. Now where did that come from? How strange. Should that be there? I turn to my left. Ah there’s the ridge behind Merton’s. I’m on the right track. I’m trying to stay clear of his house. I don’t want to startle Judy, his wife. I’m wearing my gray raincoat because it’s pelting sleet/snow occasionally, but also, I’ve got my hunters-orange headband on. The sight of someone moving through woods near one’s house would make some nervous. Plus, I don’t really know Judy and I hear she’s got health issues.
But hmm—there is a house through there. Better get along? What? That doesn’t look like Merton’s house. Unless he’s rebuilt some of it … to look … well older? In the past couple days? Strange.
Keep on going. Get along and get home. Get to work.
More woods, tangles, that big gape of sky. It makes no sense. And my sense of direction has always been pretty good. Reliable. Allen notes it as well. Suddenly—another unfamiliar house through spindly tall trees. The lane is there, also, past those trees, but what of the strange houses? Where did they come from? I haven’t gone far enough over terrain I’m supposed to know to be tromping through a new neighborhood. And how did a new neighborhood get here? There’s not nearly enough room for a new neighborhood in our narrow valley. This has to be my neighborhood. Has to! …?
Now the strange house is near …through the trees.
Someone is laughing.
I look around. It’s me. I’m laughing.
That’s the house of my young neighbor above the pond. Who stuck his head out to offer me assistance.
Apparently I’ve circled back. After all this shoeing. And watching and musing. Home is still almost a mile off through the woods along the stream, which itself, in twists and turns, is half a mile from our house. So much for my “pretty good” sense of direction. So much for carrying messages. (Do not mistake me, I’ve no interest in writing the messages. I just want to carry what others have written, and are wanting to send from kingdom to kingdom.)
When I told Allen this little episode later, he suggested I take his compass next time. Given to him by one who used to say don’t get poke-eye-out. —A compass. Well, yes.
So that’s what I did this early a.m., clomping around higher on the hillsides and down into ravines, glomping in the sticky stuff for what may be, in this end of snow-heaped March, one last season’s shoeing. I brought compass but do not much need it because we’ve already broken this trail—earlier in the week. However, you never know.
You might want to take off in a different direction altogether. You might want to go up past that abandoned house—and beyond. See what’s up that way. Over the mountain.