Just a couple hundred yards or so from our house lies one unspectacular--in fact practically unmarked and invisible--entrance to the Carolina North Forest. This piece of land, owned by UNC, is open for public use by walkers, runners, and bikers. From a great deal of personal experience over the past 6 months of exploring, it seems absolutely vast. There are so many dirt tracks winding, crossing, and overlapping among the trees--some with signs, while others...not so much--and a myriad of choices you can make along the way...that it reminds me of one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I used to read as a kid. Except in this case, picture it more as "turn left here, and you'll end up at Derek's high school" (Yes, this actually happened) or "go straight up the hill, cross the creek, take several more little trails that look inviting...end up lost until almost dark...and tiptoe your way through someone's back yard (waving politely, "Don't mind me, I'm not here to steal anything, ta ta!") to finally escape the damn trees". (Oh yeah, this has been the Story of my Walk...more than once...)
Really, though, it's a somewhat magical place for several reasons: 1) the serenity and silence that prevail and 2) the perverse thrill of never knowing whether you'll actually see your home again, or if they'll have to send out a search party for you as you wander, utterly and completely directionless, through the @$%& landscape where all the plant life looks the same. (I mean, it's lovely, really...and would be even more appealing with some adorable arrows...gently, humanely attached to the precious greenery, pointing travelers the right way. I'm just saying...)
In truth, I should know better than to just plow off willy-nilly into...nature...given my rather dubious history of...failed orienteering, if you will. You see, when I was in Middle School I experienced that wonderful entity called Outdoor Education--one week out of the school year in which they shipped the entire 6th grade class off to a camp, to live in rustic cabins, learn about our environment, work cooperatively to complete chores...and stuff. One of the first exercises involved being split into teams, given a compass, (Ha! like I knew what the heck to do with THAT?) dropped off at a "starting point" and instructed to (Are you ready for this?) find our way back by dinnertime. What the WHAT? (Note: how likely is this to happen in today's world? Not. A. Freaking. Chance. I seem to recall having a Counselor with us...that would be what you'd also refer to as a "High School Student". But no "teacher-type person". It was all kinds of nuts...)
Anyway, all I really remember clearly about this (my brain having obviously suppressed the most traumatic bits) is that my little gang of misfits wandered about...for hours...and never managed to find the elusive "path back to camp". Eventually we stumbled upon a road--the kind that cars use, not hikers--and plopped ourselves down to await our rescue....which arrived via a pickup truck sent to retrieve us for the evening meal. We were informed later that our inept navigation had unwittingly steered us quite close to the border of Camp David...uh huh, the Presidential Retreat. (Now, I don't know if this is strictly true, or an embellishment on the part of the speaker to lend an air of intrigue to our otherwise ordinary misadventure...but I like it, so it stays in the tale...)
So, you can see why I developed a belief early on that I lack a certain...personally-wired GPS, let's say. Like my mother, I'm much more tuned to landmarks ("Turn right after the 7-11"..."It's the house with the huge rosebushes out front"--these make perfect sense to me...) but couldn't tell you...EVER...which way is north. ("Head west on Main Street?" You might as well say it in Swahili for all the good it'll do me...) Therefore, you can appreciate the fact that every instance of what should be a pleasant, simple stroll in the forest...could very well be fraught with all kinds of peril.
At times, I've chosen to stick to the beaten path, following a straight line, then turning around and retracing my steps exactly in reverse to where I started...thereby severely limiting the chance for a major screwup, of course. On other days I've impulsively decided to take this fork or that one, hoping that eventually I'll blunder my way back to--ahem...."skillfully locate"--the road near my house. Over many excursions, some regular routes have become familiar, and I can repeat them whenever I want. I'm also beginning to build a basic visual memory of some areas, so at least I recognize whether I'm sort of where I want to be, or...hopelessly misplaced.
Then, my latest trek gave me hope, that I may not be irredeemably directionally-challenged after all. With only about an hour until dark, I set off down a trail I've taken before. Although I knew it may not be wise, I had the urge to go off on a tangent after a while...so I chose a...left-ish option...and continued on my merry way (Literally, as I was listening to a holiday playlist at the time). Since I'd gone and jumped the track anyway, I made several more selections that I believed would lead me in a circular manner back towards the primary path. Unlike in previous trials, however, this time when I turned, my brain immediately noted "The road is now behind you" or "You're moving parallel to the street where your house is". (And, occasionally the annoying but useful "Recalculating" when I was forced to choose a less-than-ideal trajectory...sigh...)
I was noticing the deepening dusk, but steadfastly refusing to worry about it just yet...when I emerged from the treeline...at the very well-known juncture of: Chapel Hill High School. So not only did I know precisely where I was, but I had looped around exactly as planned, to rejoin the main trail. (Picture me doing the Happy Hiker Dance while crowing "Halllllleluuuuujah!!" to the heavens...'cuz that totally happened....) I can't even tell you how pleased I was with myself right about then. Call off the team of tracking dogs; I don't need them today, thank you very much! In fact, if this was a test, I think I aced it...just promise you won't ask me if my house is south, or east, or whatever, from here, because I still haven't the foggiest idea!