Off the Trail

My dad used to be a boy scout, but I only remembered it when our family went hiking. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Dad would spring off the trail to investigate animal tracks – and once he’d satisfied his curiosity, we’d get back on the path and continue our trek. But one day, we stepped off it completely.


“Look at this!” he cooed, pointing to a narrow dip in the bushes. “I’ll bet it’s a deer trail. They must take it to get to the river.”


He slipped off the path, then motioned for us to follow him before he slid down the hill that dipped toward the river. My mother, my brother John, and I all followed suit to the riverbank. There was a small stretch of land along the river that made a good trail – I don’t think Dad even paused before we set off along it.


On that weekend, fall was at its peak. Every leaf was painted in a vibrant color, but few of them had yet fallen, so that they hung above us, bright and warm like the afternoon sun. Even the tall grass along the riverbed was golden.


Down the path, we found a small island sitting in the swell of the river. As we neared it, I paused for a moment to peer between the beech trees, spattered in bright red leaves. But I saw something else moving, too. Dad must have noticed it as well, for he stopped entirely. He moved slowly as he pointed across the river, whispering: “Look!”


On the opposite shore, we saw a doe leaning her head down to drink. I'll never forget the way she halted when she saw us – how her ears lifted, large black eyes shining as she stood perfectly still.


For a second, all we did was stare, both of us somehow mystified. I looked straight into those dark, endless eyes, feeling them pull me into their depths and knowing that she was somehow being pulled into mine.


Then, the electric moment passed. The doe turned and ran away into the trees, leaving us mesmerized by our brief encounter.


Mom was the first to speak again.


“All right, Peter,” she said to Dad, with a smile, “don't you think we should start finding our way back now?”


I looked back down the river, anticipating that we'd simply retrace our steps. Dad had a different idea.


“It looks like the crest of a hill is up here,” he explained, motioning toward the stony hill to our side. “If we can find a good place to climb up, we’ll find the trail again.”


Without wasting time for debate, Dad found a makeshift staircase of stones and began carefully climbing up the edge of the hill. First I followed him, then John, and then Mom. When I got to the top, I began to look forward to taking the easy, even hiking trail instead of clambering up rocks.


Or I would have been, if climbing the hill hadn't brought us into the middle of a grassy patch without a trail in sight.


“Great,” I muttered.


“It's all right,” Dad said. “If you look around here closely, you can see another deer trail. That might bring us closer to the hiking path.”


Even though following a deer trail had brought us off the path in the first place, taking another trail sounded better than just tromping through the woods aimlessly. So we started walking again, grateful that the air had cooled off just enough to keep us comfortable even in our predicament. As we walked, we passed a small row of pine trees, where Dad stopped us to admire the branches.


“Look at this!” he chuckled. “You can see where they had a snack.”


Sure enough, there were spots on the branches where the needles had been delicately cleaned away. I thought again of the doe we'd seen at the river and wondered if she had lunch here sometimes.


As we continued to move, the terrain grew rockier. I was beginning to fear that there wouldn’t be much of a path left to create. Looking behind me, I saw that our own footprints hadn’t left much of a trail behind us, so there was hardly a good chance of us even retracting our steps. To top it all off, I was beginning to hear a strange rumbling noise.


Oh, good, I thought, it’s a landslide. At least my last day on Earth was a nice one.


John nudged me in the arm, pointing to the side. “Hey, look over there.”


Facing the river, now far below us, we saw the pair of falls that provided the roaring sound I’d briefly feared would kill me. Beneath torrents of white water was a picturesque rainbow, bridging both sandy banks of the river.


This looked familiar.


“Aren't these the famous Two-Step falls?” I asked. “The ones we saw on the map just outside the park?”


“They must be,” Dad reasoned. “So that means the trail is...”


He looked to our right again, where a steep hill rose.


“Wait here,” he ordered as he began to pull himself up. Using the thin trunks of trees growing out of the hillside, he pulled himself up and took a look around. With a nod, he motioned for John and me to follow him.


I took the trail next, propelling myself upward as quickly as I could so that I wouldn't find myself stuck and scared to death on a hillside overlooking a waterfall. John took the much more cautious route up, being sure that each foothold was a safe one before pulling himself up. Mom did the same. As John and I both helped pull her up in the final stretch, our muddied shoes hit the clear, well-trod hiking path with resounding thuds.


For a minute or two, we all stood panting to one side of the trail, much to the puzzlement of another passing family. Still within earshot, one boy leaned over to his brother as they turned a bend in the trail and said: “I didn't think the hike was that bad...”


“Does anyone still want to go see the falls?” Dad asked, after we'd all caught our breath. We peered down the trail in the direction the other family had gone.


I shook my head. “I think we’re okay.”


The walk back to the parking lot was blissfully uneventful. After piling into the car, we sank into a comfortable silence while we headed back to town.


“So did everyone have a good day?” Mom asked, looking into the backseat at John and me.


“Yeah,” said John. “But that was a long walk.”


“Yeah, it was,” Dad admitted. “But it was fun, wasn't it?”


I didn’t say anything as I stared out the window. Before my mind began to reflect upon trivialities such as dinner, I reflected on our trip off the trail.


Sure, it wasn't necessary, and sometimes, I wondered if we'd ever get back. The way was sometimes far more difficult than it should have been, and I would definitely be sore tomorrow, but...


I grinned to myself as the trees along the highway sped past.


But I've got a better story to tell because of it.





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