Entering the woods after spending the first week of October stuck in the house with sick kids is supposed to offer me restoration. I’m raw, and a close call that involved my eldest child trapped in a chest that had to be broken open with a hammer shattered what footing I had left.
The beloved nature preserve plopped down in the middle of suburban sprawl offers solace at low points. My daughter and I are the most enthusiastic hikers, so we pack our backpacks and venture out on our own.
I usually feel a melting away of stress and fear when we head into nature. Despite the proximity to the suburbs, the sound of traffic melts away, and it’s easy to imagine being in the wilderness.
However, on this Saturday I can’t see the fall leaves or the blooming buds as we head down the concrete path that will lead us to dirt trails. I see a sign I’ve never paid much attention to before warning of venomous snakes. My brain heightened towards fear, all my mind’s eye focuses on for the rest of the day are snakes.
Bypassing the sign, I let my nine-year-old daughter, Wren, lead us while I try to appear more relaxed than I am. We are trudging in companionable silence when Wren asks, “Mom, do you think it’s going to rain?”
I didn’t, somehow, notice the cloud cover until now, but I recall a sign warning hikers to stay off the trails during storms. It was propped right by the one about wild, poisonous animals. Determined to prove I wouldn’t be driven by fear, I moved on without checking the weather.
“Maybe. We’re okay,” I say, trying to convince myself as much as Wren. I don’t make us turn around.
A fellow hiker with binoculars is coming towards us smiling. “There are two baby wildcats just ahead right off the trail. I watched them for a while,” he says enthusiastically.
Wren beams, the possibility of creatures usually unseen fascinating.
“Mom, let’s go off trail and find them!”
“I don’t want to find them. We’ll eventually find their mom, and that will be bad if we’re near her cubs.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because mothers protect. It’s their instinct,” I say. As soon as the words escape my mouth, I wonder if my instincts are so lost that I’ve somehow pushed us into a situation where she’s not protected.
We hit a fork in the trail, and Wren looks to me for guidance.
“You choose,” I tell her, trying to remember what I would do if my mind wasn’t swarming with mass shooting reports, emergency room visits, and Wren’s voice calling to me from inside a locked chest. I couldn’t see her, only heard her screams as I wondered how much carbon dioxide she’d already inhaled, the tips of my fingernails ripping off as I attempted to lift the lid on my own.
“What’s the right way?” she asks.
“There’s no right or wrong. As long as we remember where we turned, we’ll make it back.”
She chooses a direction and we persist.
Within minutes two men are behind us, close enough that I can hear the sounds of their heavy breathing. I usually chat with other hikers, exchange pleasantries of some sort, but I feel threatened by the presence of these strangers. I have no weapon. I could swing Wren’s sketch pad or throw a plastic water bottle, but those are my limits.
I’m faced again with the fact that with very little thought, I dragged us both into the woods under the assumption that no one nefarious would be out here, an assumption that can’t be proven. The world shows the opposite all the time. My ignorance hurts since I know the men behind us may look nice, but I have personal experience with knowing better.
I grab Wren’s shoulder and pull her to the side of the trail to see if these men will pass. They do, waving to us as they go by. I breathe again.
“Mom, are you okay?”
I nod. “Let’s head back. The temperature has dropped. It might rain.”
We head back the direction we came, and I’m struck by how masquerading has become a part of parenting I didn’t expect. My value of total honestly at all times competes with my desire to protect my children from the harsher truths about humans, their abilities to be merciless, their motives never explained. There’s also chance, the wrong choice, the wrong place, the accident that costs everything, which sometimes seems even harder to explain than the evil of humans.
Wren looks out over the fields as we watch the grass being moved by creatures unknown, absorbing every second we still have on the trail. Her eyes return to me, a smile lighting up her features.
“There’s so much out there, and we don’t even know what it all is.” Possibilities unseen excite her. She’s just described my worst nightmare.
Where is the balance between protection and paranoia, between caution and completely shutting down?
I am still more afraid to stand at the start of the path unable to take a step – with fear my motivator and paralyzing force – than to take chances. I’m determined to offer her more than a life based on making decisions from the worst-case scenario approach. I let her lead us out of this path because I want her to know she can, and that most days, the world won’t throw you a completely shattering loop that changes everything. There’s no way to prepare for when it does anyway.
Still, as the grass continues to sway, moved by invisible forces, I’m not sure if I’m made the right choice by fighting fear with risk.
We walk for what seems like too long, but when Wren shoots a concerned look my way, I tell her to follow what she knows: “Have faith that you will come out where you should.” I feel the first drop of rain and realize my faith is slipping.
An ex-boyfriend from years ago berated me, saying I had no sense of direction in the woods, was useless at camping, stomped like a damned quarter horse. It’s his words I hear as the trail winds on long past when I believe it should have returned us to our starting point. It’s her voice I hear next.
“Mom, I recognize this tree. Listen, do you hear the water?”
I do. We turn a corner and the creek that accompanied us the first part of the journey appears, as well as the opening to the trail leading us home.
This time, I was right.