A longish short story that I classify as Almost Fiction. A fairly dramatic departure from my usual writing.
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Shovel in hand, part-way through the job of replacing my sump-pump drainage pipe, I first caught sight of Pat. I was still digging out the decayed tar-paper piping that was laid when my house was new. Pat strode by, well camouflaged, at the edge of the woods. He wore a safari outfit: a lightweight shirt buttoned tight around his wrists and his neck, and tan, billowy pants tucked into his clunky leather boots. A faded cloth sombrero protected his face from the sun rays he was unlikely to encounter once he entered the dense woods. A Korean War style canteen hung at his hip—a metal bottle enclosed in an army-green canvas case. Pat walked with a pair of ski-poles. Pat walked with purpose.
His route led him behind my small yard, behind my oversized house. My house was sprawling. A result of two separate additions prior to my ownership. In less than a year, I too, would increase my roof acreage with a screened-porch. This would push my home size past absurd. The original part, a modest three-bedroom was built the year I was born. I enjoy the irony of viewing my house as old while I still view myself as young. My house is one of the oldest in Woodside. And since my neighborhood was mostly populated by young families when the homes were first built, I’m surrounded by couples whose children are the same age as me. Age is always relative.
Woodside, is just that. Fourteen of the neighborhood’s houses adjoin the wooded swath of the national park just west of town. It’s a typical sixties neighborhood that goes nowhere. The road leading in is also the only road out. Woodside exists solely to harbor homes, to house people. Decades ago, it housed those families with their young children, but recent home-sales primarily attract divorced, middle-age men. Men seeking a bargain: a manageable plot of land surrounding a structure in need of care.
In my first three months living in Woodside, I didn’t venture into the woods. I couldn’t find a way in. Wild rose bushes and poison ivy formed an impenetrable barrier. I didn’t have the proper clothes or the courage to risk exploration. But Pat showed me up by plunging into the woods without hesitation.
When I first toured my house a few months earlier, the idea of living next to the woods appealed to me. As a child, my suburban street dead-ended into a large wooded area. It was at least 200 yards wide and over a mile long. During my grade school years, my friends and I spent our afternoons searching for salamanders under rocks in the rainwater wash bisecting the woods. We roamed well-worn paths and gave uninspired names to each of the landmarks. The Abandoned Car, the Big Hill, the Old Tree.
As we abutted our teens, those same paths offered racing courses for our stingray bicycles. We constructed banked turns and jumps out of wood scraps found in our basements. We emulated Evel Knievel’s latest dares. The older, cooler kids tried the most dangerous tricks. Not many years later, we snuck into those woods to smoke cigarettes and pot and drink mixed liquor concoctions out of pickle jars.
Now my motivation for a tree-lined view was primarily the lack of neighbors. Like most of the second-wave of residents in Woodside, I didn’t move here for friendships. A national park out my back door meant fewer people, and therefore fewer conversations. Plus, a wooded area to explore seemed like a nice way to spend some time alone.
Two hours later, Pat clumped back. He was thin and nondescript. His nose and ears were appropriately proportioned, his eyebrows, un-bushy. His hair was short and almost white. No mustache, no beard, and his glasses were wire-rimmed jobs designed to minimize distraction from his other features. He was so generic, I can’t conjure up an image of him in my mind. His only distinctive feature, other than his outfit, was age. I’d put him squarely in his eighties. But not with a wrinkled face; he was the sort of man who aged without developing the deep lines of expressive emotions. The feature that told his age was his papery transparency. I could see beneath his skin.
Rather than bypassing my property as he did on his journey into the woods, this time, he walked right up to me. “Benson put in those pumps.” He spoke with a slight country drawl. Many of his words drawn out as though they included some extra letters I couldn’t discern. “He was my best friend. ‘Fore he stole my wife.” I didn’t know who Benson was. I bought my house from the estate of Martha Ward.
I was unprepared for friendly talk, so my response was curt and dismissive. “Well now I’m replacing them.” Pat took my meaning and disappeared through the hedge separating our properties without another word.
A few weeks after my sump pump project, I decided to give Pat’s trail a try. In jeans, running shoes and a denim shirt, I picked my way across the small, swampy meadow between my property line and the bramble wall. I pushed through approximately where Pat did; wild roses grabbed onto the back of my hand and the side of my neck. The rose bush held me painfully in place while it decided what to do with me next. Despite my carefully planned protective gear, the thorns easily found my skin.
Inside the woods, things were significantly better. The dense growing pattern ended a few feet from the border. I found empty spaces between the trees, between the rose bushes. Spaces where sunlight dappled the knee high brush. Small trails snaked away in a variety of directions, but none resembled the heavily walked paths of my childhood woods. These were animal trails. Six-inch-wide gullies through the stilt grass and garlic mustard. Trails cut by deer, by foxes, and raccoon. Every fifteen feet or so, a wild rose spread its springy stems looking for something living to snare—any moving creature that would help deliver rose seeds to another part of the woods.
This was a pristine environment on the edge of suburbia. Humans didn’t come here. Not anymore. When the homes were filled with children, these woods must have been laced with trails. Now, it was completely wild. Overgrown some thirty years.
Trash, a constant in modern society, was present here too. But due to its age, much of it seemed like treasure. Decaying Schlitz beer cans, with tear-drop pull-tab holes. A pile of heavy, green, returnable Coca Cola bottles riddled with BB holes, the remnants from an ancient round of target practice. A rotary-blade lawn mower, its original color replaced with rust. But the small oval plaque featuring a stamped-in Craftsman logo still readable. Barbed wire fences separating one indistinguishable rotting tree from the next. Older fences, made of stacked field stones, eroding into banks of decayed leaves. I immediately set to work trying to find where Pat had hiked.
Over the next four months, I spent my weekend mornings and weekday evenings taming my woods. Armed with a metal thatching rake, pruning shears, and Roundup, I began to create a path. I scraped, cut, sprayed and trampled wide avenues. A uniform trail, four feet across, devoid of prickers and poison ivy, lined with branches, grew week by week. With my wheel barrow, I retrieved boulders from the broken-down stone walls to bridge the streams and mud puddles that interrupted my progress. I dug trenches to reroute water, to dry out some of the larger wet areas. I even sawed through the base of the thick, ropy poison ivy vines clinging to most of the mature trees. To culminate my effort, I hiked my trail with a can of spray paint, blazing the way. I hammered in a sign at the entrance to the woods: “Blue Trail.” A hundred fifty yards out to a large loop. A lollipop, the hiker books call it. The out and back round-trip from my property line was more than a quarter mile (I measured it one day).
One evening, after work, I encountered Pat on my trail. I was out scouting a spot where I might create an intersecting trail, a large loop to totally encircle the original loop. I was ready to create the “White Trail.”
“Things’ve changed back here.” Pat said. “Easier to find a place to walk.” Pat was in his safari outfit again. His heavy leather boots, his long pants and long sleeves—overdressed for the August heat. I was feeling hot in my shorts and t-shirt and sandals.
“I thought I’d see you out here sometime. Before now, I mean.”
“Been sick. All those bachelor meals. Done my heart in. Why’d you cut down the woods?”
“I hardly cut down the woods. I made a path so we could come back here without getting ripped up by thorns.”
“After Benson took my wife, they moved away. Don’t think anyone’s been in these woods but me ever since.”
Pat hiked off in the other direction, effortlessly veering onto a side-trail I couldn’t see. I continued searching for an appropriate location for my new loop. I completely ignored where Pat walked off. He seemed to select that spot at random.
A few days later, a pair of the national park employees were at my front door. They didn’t call themselves “Rangers” like everyone else did. The title on their business cards was National Park Law Enforcement Officer. They looked exactly like the Rangers I see around the park, except these two carried weapons. They each wore a pistol, a Taser, and handcuffs on their belt. They didn’t remove their wrap-around mirrored sunglasses to talk with me even though my covered, north facing front porch is always deep in shade. “Good afternoon, Mr. Marks. We’ve just finished hiking your Blue Trail.”
Years earlier, when I was still married, my wife and I were working in our backyard. I was arranging flagstones for my soon-to-be-constructed walkway to our grilling patio. Julie was pulling weeds in the flower garden. She was suddenly screaming, covered with what appeared to be dozens of drops of water bouncing all over her body. It took me two more seconds to realize she was being attacked by yellow jackets.
As we sat in the hospital, Julie, loaded with heavy doses of Benedryl and Prednisone, shivering with chills, started ranting about the bees. “That attack was totally unnecessary. One sting would have sent the message. They’ve already got wings for protection. Why do they need stingers too? The other animals must hate those yellow jackets.”
This is exactly how I felt talking with National Park Law Enforcement Officers Plett and Wilcher. Tasers? Guns? For a hiking trail. “Mr. Marks, what you’ve done is vandalism. We’re awaiting word from the Director whether you’ll be fined or placed under arrest.”
I pleaded my case. “No one even uses that area except for me and my neighbor. I was making our park more accessible. Making the hiking more enjoyable.”
“The ‘Blue Trail’ is now off limits. This section of the park is now closed to visitors—we’ll try to rehabilitate it over the next few years.”
And they left me with the lingering threat of prosecution.
On my way home from work a few days later, I saw Pat exiting the grocery store parking lot near the center of town. He was wearing his hat and boots, walking with his ski poles. The rest of his outfit was more conventional. Khaki shorts, and a button down short sleeve Oxford. It was an outfit that could have been purchased in the sixties or last week at American Eagle. He carried his groceries in a red canvas backpack faded almost to pink. We were at least two miles from home. I pulled up alongside of Pat and expecting him to gratefully hop into my car. “No thanks, it’s a nice night to be out walking.”
I haven’t heard anything from the Park Service. Officers Plett and Wilcher took down my Blue Trail sign the day they came out to threaten me. But other than that, they’ve done nothing to “rehabilitate” the woods. Still I took their warning seriously and kept out of the woods. During my one and only visit, on a snowy winter morning, I half-heartedly scattered the tree branches lining my path, but a full year later the entrance to my trail remains obvious.
As an early spring-thaw reduced the plowed mounds of snow along the edge of the road to small piles of grime, a “for sale” sign sprang up in Pat’s front yard amid the tulips and crocuses. I wanted to ask someone where Pat went, but the only times I saw the realtor was when she drove up in her cushy SUV with a client. Pat’s house sold quickly, so I only got a few chances.
The couple who moved in have twin first-grade girls and a boy a couple years older. The three of them spend many of their weekend afternoons popping in and out of the woods, making the “Haunted Trail” their own. Occasionally, their parents join them on their explorations. They bring along a bag to collect the trash and treasures they find. The girls visit me on my back porch as I sip my club soda with lime. They show me the neat things they find: a fox skull, a whiskey bottle from the thirties, deer antlers, a sun-bleached turtle shell, and almost a dozen golf balls. Last week, another family moved in up the road. They have a girl still in diapers, and another baby on the way.
Yesterday, after my coffee, I grabbed my gardening tools and walked back along the familiar path. I found the spot where Pat chastised my trail building so many months ago. I found where he veered off trail to escape my attempt to civilize the woods. I began scraping the ground, cutting away the brush. I finally started construction on the White Trail.