Paths and trails play a prominent role in my life. I run them. I choose them. I live them. I run them again. They make me feel adventurous and bold, like one of those outdoorsy superwomen in the Patagonia catalogs.
And some paths are more fun than others.
I once went on a trail run when I was feeling particularly fearless (always a dangerous enterprise for me, being directionally challenged) and decided to turn an eight-mile run into a freewheeling, mud-flinging twelve miles. The trail twisted and turned its way through the woods, one moment shooting up and over steep ascents and the next plunging to the river valley below. The skies had poured forth their offerings the night before, and the freshly fallen leaves were soaked and sodden from the rain. A few remnant autumn wildflowers bobbed their greetings as I ran by. I hurdled the occasional fallen tree (which effort made me feel very Patagonia-esque) and splashed my way across two creeks—one swollen by the recent rainfall and the other birthed by it. It was a glorious run, a veritable utopia.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly our little worlds can come crashing down around us?
Looking to grab a few more miles without retracing my steps, I opted for a lesser-known offshoot of the main trail. A mile or so later, I came across an offshoot of the offshoot. What is this? I wondered. I’ve never seen this before! How thrilling! How trail-sy! Caught up in the euphoric notion of being some kind of National Geographic poster child, I forged my way down the barely-visible trail, oblivious to any land markers—natural or otherwise—along the way.
Yeah, that was a mistake.
The rain and subsequent downfall of leaves rendered the path nearly imperceptible. At times it erased the trail completely. My nature girl bliss slowly eroded as the ratio of certainty to guesswork began to fall heavily on the side of the latter. I ran and wondered if this was the path. I ran and wondered if that was the path. I ran and wondered if there was ever a path. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach worsened with every step. Finally, no longer able to deny the dreaded truth, I pulled up and looked around. The trail had disappeared entirely. There was nothing. I was miles from the nearest trailhead. And I had no idea where I was.
My little National Geographic bubble popped. I was not a Patagonia poster child. I was not a nature girl. I suddenly hated trails. In an instant, what was once a joyous run morphed into the horrible reality of being completely lost. And alone. In the woods. And to make matters worse, it was getting dark.
I was panic-stricken.
I stood there, motionless, completely disoriented. I wasn’t even confident in my ability to retrace my steps since, as I discovered upon looking back, the way I had come was now indecipherable. I didn’t even know if I should keep moving forward (whichever direction that meant) or try to find my way back to some recognizable part of the trail. I felt ridiculous. How had I managed to get so helplessly lost in a state park… in Missouri? It’s not like I was out in the back bowls of the Rocky Mountains, for crying out loud. And speaking of crying out loud, I very nearly did; but the only thing more ridiculous than getting helplessly lost in a Missouri state park is crying about it.
“Oh, Lord, please, please help me get back…” I pleaded as I stood there, in the middle of nowhere, on the verge of tears.
And then, I saw them. A single set of horse tracks, cutting through the woods, seemingly at random. Fighting back my panic, I reasoned (with what little faculties of reason that remained in my momentary mental paralysis) that unless somebody had left the stable door open in some kind of equestrian free for all, the kind horse who had left his hoof prints in the mud was probably carrying a rider. Journeying further down the path of logic, I concluded the rider was most likely human. And—as so often is the case—where there is one human, there are usually more humans.
The horse tracks I would follow.
Heart rate elevated, wheezing from adrenaline, fighting the urge to cry, I galloped (no pun intended) my way through the woods, holding fast to the succession of hoof prints before me. I prayed in desperation that the horse prints would eventually rejoin the original path, or at least the river, which I knew I could follow to a visible trailhead (or, in a worst-case scenario, to the Pacific Ocean, much in the manner of Lewis and Clark).
The sun continued to set, and I continued to run, praying the whole time the hoof prints would lead to one of the park’s many parking lots (where, of course, the horse had parked his car). The tracks seemed to go on forever. I had no idea where I was going. And then…
“Gah! I know where I am! I know this trail! I know it!” I cried out in frenzied joy.
(Take a moment to picture Will Ferrell in Elf, in the whole “SANTA! I KNOW HIM!” department store scene. No, seriously. It was just like that.)
I would have kissed that beautiful horse had he been anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, at that point, I might have married him. I was back on the trail. A real, marked, unmistakable trail.
Let it go without saying I hightailed it back to my car like there was no tomorrow—which there very nearly wasn’t. Finally, I could breathe again. Finally, I could run in the freedom of a clear and defined path.
Paths are funny things. The very definition of a path connotes changeability—not in destination, but in condition. Sometimes the path is wide and clearly marked. Other times it is narrow and indistinct. On occasion, it disappears altogether. And whether the path in question is a literal trail through the woods or a chosen course in our lives, each path present us with a never-ending series of decisions and actions, the consequences of which determine our ultimate destination. Paths try our constancy. They test our faith. They challenge our determination.
The profundity of the whole experience wasn’t lost on me. Life has definitely thrown me a few lost-in-the-woods moments—I mean, aside from this literal lost-in-the-woods moment. Life is full of paths, and even when I know I’m headed in the right direction, I’ll catch myself looking ahead and behind, hoping I don’t veer off into the wilderness. But whether the path is clear or not, we can take comfort in knowing we are never left on our own. No matter how lost we feel, no matter how abandoned, we are never forsaken. Sometimes moving forward means moving forward on the path we’re on. Sometimes it means backtracking to where we made a wrong turn and, this time, choosing the right one. But either way, we are never stuck. We can always keep moving.
And if anyone knows the horse who so generously left his hoof prints in the mud, give him my kindest regards. But perhaps you could refrain from mentioning the whole marriage thing.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.