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Journal, Day Four

By Rachel Zucker

Two days ago I hiked Great Head Trail. The trail started at the end of Sand Beach (Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, Maine). I left the boys and the husband down on the beach (which by the way is made of crushed shells that look like sand) and started out. The trailhead began with uneven steps leading up the hill from the East side of the beach. The trail was supposed to loop or, as one ranger described it, “figure eight about.”

In the beginning the trail was mostly flat. It cut in and out of the woods and along the rocks looking out over the ocean. Every once in a while I’d see a dash of blue paint on a rock or tree trunk indicating the direction of the trail. It was a stunningly beautiful walk. At one point I came out of a longish stretch of forest—through the trees, over gnarled roots, across some double planks laid over a swampy area—and onto a smooth, large rock overlooking the ocean. Other than a few small boats and tiny islands far off shore and a cluster of bobbing lobster trap markers, the ocean spread out below, a glinting gray-blue surface. Occasionally I passed hikers walking in the opposite direction, but mostly I was entirely alone. I was enjoying myself, trekking along, getting sweaty and feeling independent. Because the trail was so short (1.6 miles according to both the ranger and the guidebook) I hadn’t brought anything with me (please don’t send me parental comments about this)—no watch, no money, no water. Part of the journey’s appeal was the carefree, unburdened solitude of it. I didn’t even want to be distracted by a camera’s greedy eye—I just wanted to walk and look and listen.

It seemed, after a while, that I had been walking for a while. For maybe, well, almost the time it would take to walk 1.6 miles. I happen to have a terrific sense of direction, but because the path wound around and around, I was unable to get my bearings. Sometimes the ocean would be on my right, then on my left then on my right again. As I walked I thought about the phrase “figure eight about,” and thought of Nancy Kerrigan crossing and recrossing the ice thousands and thousands of times. I wasn’t really worried; I knew I was still on the trail (blue dashes appeared at irregular intervals, friendly and encouraging ellipses). Still, I thought it might be time to start paying even closer attention. I now looked at the trail not to appreciate its beauty but in order to determine whether or not it was familiar. If it was familiar then I was going back the way I’d come which was not the way I should be going (remember that the path went in a loop). In this case familiarity was bad and strangeness was good. Nothing looked especially familiar, and I’d been doing my best to be observant. I kept going. I came to a stretch where everything looked familiar. Then, a bit further on, nothing looked familiar. The problem was, I realized, that I had to look at the path and imagine what it might have looked like if I’d been coming from the other direction. In this case, even if I was going back along the very same path I’d been down, things would look different because I was seeing from a different vantage point. In this case, hindsight was definitely NOT 20/20.

Some time later I came upon a place where the topography seemed particularly familiar. I hadn’t seen a single hiker for a while and even though the dashes were still there, I was getting worried. I walked a few steps off trail to see if this was the place where I’d squatted behind a low rock to pee. I’d been nervous about being spotted by another hiker and checked out the surroundings carefully. Surely if this had been the place where I’d “marked my territory,” I’d remember it. To put it bluntly, there was no wet spot. Then again, I’ve lived all but 2 of my 34 years in New York and New Haven (the other two years I’d spent in Iowa City and even though it wouldn’t have been the weirdest thing to happen around there, I never once squatted down around town to pee). I’ve done more than my fair share of peeing along highways and in the woods and in Central Park (when you’re pregnant with baby #2 and have just spent an hour getting baby #1 out of the apartment and all the way (2 blocks) to the park, you are NOT going to go home if you have to pee and you ARE going to have to pee). The truth is I have no idea of how long it takes for pee to dry on a rock.

Stepping back onto the trail I noticed that the blue dashes led back the way I’d just come and the way I thought I was supposed to be going. Of course they did. The trail is a loop; the trail markers need to be visible to people walking in either direction. I decided to keep going in what I thought was the right direction. Maybe I’d misjudged how long I’d been walking. Maybe I’d misjudged how long it takes to walk 1.6 miles. When driving, my husband often thinks we’re lost. Every time he starts to panic I insist we keep going in the same direction and see what happens. This is almost always the right choice. We haven’t gotten to the turn yet and are the kind of people to think we’ve done it wrong before we have.

I kept walking.

Soon I came to a steep rock scramble. I had to sit down and shimmy a little and at one point I had to jump from level to level. Whether from exertion or from thinking about what I’d do if I landed wrong and broke my ankle, I was sweating pretty hard by the time I got to the bottom. But, really, I was relieved. There was no way I’d come this way. I definitely would have remembered that! Each time the path became at all dangerous (anyone who’s done this trail will be embarrassed for me that I used the word “dangerous”) or unusual I was glad; I was in unexplored territory, which in this case meant I was on track.

I said in a previous entry that a poem might be a keepsake or a record of experience. But, of course, it isn’t. It may be made for the sake of “keeping” an experience, but it can’t keep it. The poem, if it is honest, is the experience of going back, in the other direction towards something already traveled. At times it may break free and give us a view of the ocean so clear and compelling we feel we (writer and reader) are really there for the first time ever, that we opened our eyes for the first time upon this sight. But this, then, is a new ocean and not the ocean of experience and not the ocean arrived at by retracing the steps of experience’s journey. The markers will be other markers, the trees and stones might be the same stones but they always look different from the other side. There are always dangerous or intense moments that reassure me that I am not wandering in circles, that something real and important and “memorable” has happened, but even these moments are impossible to “capture” in writing as they happened. If I am lucky I can go down a path in my poem that also leads to danger and makes the reader have to slow down and sweat a little but it’s not by describing having done so earlier this week. I can’t even find that place. That spot and that story are changed by what came before and afterwards and by my perspective and attitude and whether I ended up with a broken ankle or simply made it back on the beach to be greeted by a cranky-cold-tired-hungry-nasty-having-to-pee husband and two beautiful little boys who were crazy enough to play in the 48 degree surf and have, I will soon discover, bathing suits impossibly full of crushed shells that look like sand.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, June 22nd, 2006 by Rachel Zucker.