One evening in June, I launched down the Munson Hills trail on my old green bike, hoping to out-ride the fury and the helplessness that had settled in my soul.
Usually when I’m riding or walking in the woods, I’m moving towards things I love. Wildflowers. Gopher tortoises. Solitude.
But that night, my mind was all tangled up with the evils unleashed by people with too much power and no good manners. A plan to hunt and kill black bears in Florida. Wolves murdered in Idaho. Our state parks up for the highest bidder. A mockery made of Amendment 1.
Each loss deserved its own shrine of grief.
I was cycling so fast along the narrow clay trail, I might as well have been on a spin bike to nowhere, in the gym. I didn’t even hear my favorite pinewoods sound: the scrabble of fox squirrel claws on tree bark.
But the forest felt me there, how I chewed on my despair.
Pay attention, said the trees.
And so I did. I slowed my wheels, willing my awareness and my peripheral vision to expand. I began to hear the Bachman’s sparrows singing, and I was glad for their fluting. And oh yes, I saw nighthawks diving and then climbing high again, to the clouds. In fact, nighthawks were all over the forest, blessing the sky. And I saw the small bouquets of summer growth at the end of each branch of pine.
But the woods weren’t convinced that I was all there yet, so they sent a small snake into my path. I was watching for exposed tree roots that might trip up my bike, and a snake often looks like a root. This one sure did. I braked to a halt, studied the snake. It was a pygmy rattler, small and thick, fresh-marked, as if it had been blazed like the pines, by fire.
When the snake saw me, she startled—and I imagine, considered briefly whether to stand her ground, as pygmy rattlers will do. But the combination of my height, sudden appearance, and my words—asking her to vacate the trail for her own safety’s safe—something in all that caused the snake to wriggle off the sand. I bent down for a closer look, and the animal shook her soundless tiny rattles from the needly brush—warning me back. She was only going to give so far.
But I was thankful, and told the snake so, for allowing me to pass, and for warning me to pay attention. Our agreement, such as it was, worked out for the pygmy, as well. Not two minutes later, a pair of cyclists came hurtling along the path. They surely would have crushed the tiny reptile with their tires, had I not insisted that she move.
Some time later I came upon a four-way crossing in the trail network. A man reclined on a blanket, his legs stretched out. He had a small dog on a leash, and a pack. Reflexively, I veered onto the trail closest to me, furthest from him, and peddled away as fast as I could. When I’m alone or vulnerable, strange men are what I most fear. Who can say if that particular man intended anyone harm? Maybe he was a homeless vet or simply another human being, lost. But I didn’t want to engage with a stranger so far out in the forest.
As I flashed away and along the course, I realized I’d veered off Munson Hills East onto the Western Connector. I hadn’t ridden that route before, and I was pretty sure it squiggled a long way south, the opposite direction from my trailhead. But no way was I turning back. I shuffled alternative routes in my mind. Sweat furrowed down my back. I was no longer thinking about the bears or the wolves, state parks, or the climate, or any of the other ways people are trying to dismantle protections for a planet. No. I was in my body, just trying to orienteer away out of the woods before sunset or storm, whichever came first. I was in territory I hadn’t ridden before, and my senses were now engaged, as was my heart, lungs, and legs. Maybe I felt hunted, or at least what it feels like to be pursued, myself.
Somehow, I knew I would get out. I knew I wouldn’t spend the night in the woods, even though the light wasn’t easy to read, couldn’t be read. I jogged alongside my bike over a gas transmission line in deep sand, for a time. I noted areas of fresh summer burn, compared them in my mind to the fireswept territory close to the trailhead. I wished I’d brought more water. I listened for sounds of traffic that might indicate the Woodville highway. I heard every bird still calling in the twilight forest.
Eventually I regained a paprika-red trail I knew, and I rode out hard. No one could’ve stopped me. It’s one thing to find our way out of a reasonably safe woodland. But I hadn’t solved the problem of wrong-headed people in power.
I often look to my dreams for wisdom and direction. I know that each dream figure represents a part of my own self. And so with this adventure in the forest. The snake, the nighthawk, the man resting in the trail, the very experience of being lost. Everything I encountered that night asked that I slow my needless hurtle and pay ever more exquisite attention, to both the atrocities and the beauties—until the way out makes itself clear.Share On: