It’s been a long time since I took a trip anywhere. A long time even since I walked the Longleaf forest, except for daily treks from home to the gate a third of a mile down a canopied gravel drive.
The grainy video from 2013 reminds me how timid I have become.
Something draws my eye to the bookshelf where I have a small collection of stones, rocks, moss and other items that please me. What is that? A key? I have never seen it before.
I pick it up and see there is a tag attached. The letters are faded. Is that a “B”? B A ? C ? ? F T. I can’t quite make it out. Wonderful old key, though. I like the feel of it in my hand. Returning to my desk, I slip it into the pocket of the comfortable old olive green skirt I wear around the house.
It’s still early morning here. My dog, Lou-Lou Belle, pushes her nose insistently into my hand. “One more sentence, girl. Then we’ll go for our walk.” She sighs and lays down, face between her paws.
The words won’t come. Now I’m the one sighing. “Okay. ” Lou jumps up at my voice. “Let’s go.”
Something about the morning sun’s rays penetrating the dark woods makes me alert.
The surprising appearance of light snow is my first clue that this will be no ordinary walk in the woods. Lou whines and turns back toward the house.
“Okay, girl. Let’s get you back to the house. I’ll come back for you after I check out what’s going on.” I open the door and she runs straight back to the bedroom where Buck is still sleeping. I grab a thermos of coffee and my backpack and head out.
The woods are familiar at first, but soon the terrain changes. The path narrows and the calves of my legs complain as flatland gives way to rolling country and then a steep incline. Clearly, I am not at Longleaf Preserve in the panhandle of northwest Florida anymore.
The flash of snow I saw earlier that told me this was no ordinary journey, returns, and with it a wind that gets up under my hair and whispers in my ear.
The last time I left on a long trip, a trip for nothing but play, a family member back at home died. My husband was with me. We screamed and cried in disbelief, then turned around in Atlanta and drove back home to an inescapable new reality. My 45-year-old stepson had a fatal heart attack. Our trip, of course, had nothing to do with it. And yet, for years we could not bring ourselves to buy airplane tickets or pack up the car for a road trip. And when we finally did travel out West to hike the magnificent parks of Utah, we looked over our shoulder for something following.
A few years later, my husband grew ill with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell. Treatment was difficult, but effective. Five years on, he remains in complete remission, fit and strong. But now 81, his age has become the “something following” and we spend nearly all our time together.
I think about all of this when I stop to stand on a large flat rock, drink the rest of my coffee, and wonder whether I should turn back. I think about the brief, sweet time I called myself “writer.” How barely a day went by that I didn’t submit a story or essay to some publication somewhere. How since my stepson’s death and my husband’s cancer, the sluice-way of creative juices has slowed to a trickle from a rusty, stubborn tap.
My right hand thoughtlessly goes into my skirt pocket, as it often does, a habit with no purpose. My fingers close around something strong, slender, metal — the key!
I leave my thermos on the rock, strap on the backpack and continue up the path, head down and into the wind.