There is that feeling almost everyone had when a small child: in a big store with your mother, you walking along, minding your own business, perhaps playing in racks of clothes or causing some other mischief. Suddenly, Mom is out-of-sight. Perhaps you walked up to another lady, so tall you can’t see past her shoulders, and pulled on her pants leg. Perhaps you panicked and wandered around, feeling the end of something.
It is a common, and important experience, that momentary feeling of lostness. Luckily, for most of us, it is fleeting. Though the seconds stretch on like hours when you’re small and powerless and misplaced, a mother won’t go long without wondering where her child is, and a mother won’t long wonder where her child is without finding him.
Therein lies the difference from being lost in the woods: your mom isn’t looking for you, or at least she won’t start doing so for quite a while…
I called it “stomping.” Not as in Hell’s Angels “stomping” but just wandering in the woods. It wasn’t hiking, it wasn’t climbing or even just walking. It usually involved finding trackless pieces of woods and field around Stillwater and wandering around them. Oftentimes the dogs Juno and Gus came along. Usually it was just me and Canoeman. Often it was on a Sunday afternoon. Winter or summer. I remember a particular “stomp” when Fisherman and Airborne came along, middle of winter, one of the coldest days, we went to William O’ Brien State Park on the St. Croix, down to the river and stood on the snow-free ice, the most ferocious wind blowing down river, us just standing there staring into it.
I digress. A night in late summer or early fall, around this time of year probably, Canoeman and I got together one night. It was dark, which wasn’t the norm, but added a new element to the stomp. We went to one of our favorite pieces of land, a couple square miles of federal land where we had frequently wandered. Going at night was a way to make the familiar new again.
We walked past the boundaries of our previous wanderings, going straight through the woods and over the hills, past two big waterfalls, dry now but thundering at certain times of the year, past the campsite and fire ring where we had drunk many a beer.
After a bit of stomping, we came to a fence. On the other side was a pasture or field of sorts. On the side where we stood was a typical stand of planted pine you’ll often find edging fields. Canoeman produced two tall cans of Guiness and we drank those by the fence. We had never been out here before, didn’t quite know where here was. Over a rise on the other side of the field a couple hundreds yards off were the lights of a house. Over the trees to our south we could see the smokestack of the coal plant on the river a couple miles downstream. It’s not pretty, but it’s a landmark for miles around the valley.
We stowed the empties in our pockets and hopped over the fence. We walked over the field and followed it as it tapered and melted into woods on its south edge. When the forest finally began again for real, it dropped abruptly. We scrambled down and found ourselves at the bottom of a deep gully as is common around there. It was damp and dark and quiet. We figured the way back was in the direction of up the gully. We clambered up the side, the foliage was strangely lush and the humidity thick, my glasses even fogging up. It felt like we could have been in a rain forest on this steep slope.
At the top of the gully were thick woods that we continued to crash through. Talking about the woods and about life. It was such an ordinary evening I don’t remember all the specifics. We found ourselves on flat land pretty soon, still going through hardwood forest. Then we were in a stand of pines that became quite uniform. We expected to be back near the cars pretty soon, or at least in some familiar woods. It was still very dark and we were quite surprised when we came to a fence again.
Actually, it was the fence.
We had managed to complete a very large circle thinking we were walking in a straight line, and come back to almost exactly the same point along the fence.
This threw us for a minute. I thought back to standing here a half-hour before and drinking those beers. Wondered if that might explain our problems with navigation. We looked south and saw the smokestack again. With that in sight, we had a general idea of which was south-southeast was. Our cars were south-southwest.
Canoeman produced a compass, we found south-southwest and after a little discussion decided on a general angle that should get us toward the road and our cars. Peering off into the dim moonlight, we spotted a clump of trees directly on that line and set off toward them. When we got there, we spotted another tree another 50 yards off and we stomped toward it.
Keeping this up, we crashed through the underbrush and up and down the little rises, pausing to consult the compass every minute or two. We went quickly, if only because we were eager to prove we could get out of this. Soon, our reference points began to lead us down a long gentle decline and then we were at the small, dry stream that we knew flowed over the first of the big falls just a bit downstream. Just up the opposite hills was the road and our cars.
We had emerged from our moment of confusion to chart a nearly perfect course back to safety. The woods were still dark and we were both a little tired, though worked up from the excitement, when we stepped out of the woods and onto the hard asphalt. I don’t know about Canoeman, but I might have even been a little disappointed that it had been so easy.