The day is chilly, the sky winter-white behind the bare gray stalks of the birches. I should have left Dave a note, I think, as I test a rock for steadiness before giving it my full weight. If I fall or a bear gets me, no one will know where I am. The bear is an unlikely threat, although it adds some drama to my lone walk. And it’s true my neighbors suspect a bear was responsible for smashing their bird feeder and twisting its iron pole. What else could have caused that damage? While Dave puts no conditions on his desire to see a bear, I’d want a wall or a window between us.
A year ago, we came close. I stood at the kitchen sink, hands warm and soapy in a sink of sudsy dishes, when I glanced out the window overlooking the backyard. Something large was skulking toward the bird feeder. What the…? I must have emitted some sound, the kind that shock squeezes from your gut unbidden, for Dave raced to my side, thinking me hurt, and we watched a muscular beast, beautiful, slinking up the cedar pole. It was tawny and striped with tufted ears, no bear, but a bobcat, as big as our malamute, and it snatched a squirrel dawdling at the pole’s summit.
A bobcat! He was a source of joy and stories told for days with wild gestures, shoulders hunched in bobcat imitation, and brows raised hairline-high. But I would not want to meet up with him in the woods, and I assume he’s still around. Long after we saw him, I felt his eyes on me when I filled the feeders. More than that, I found myself behind his eyes, following the woman-creature in clogs and pj’s, with seed-filled plastic bins dangling like buckets from a milkmaid’s yoke.
Back in the woods and prompted by such memories, I pick up a stout stick, about three feet long, and whack it against a tree to test for hidden rot. It is strong and the impact stings my hand. Satisfied and armed, I climb the rocky slope, seeking solid footing, and stretching for a well-anchored rock or sturdy sapling to haul myself up.
For a time at our school, I reviewed applications and wrote summaries for teachers before prospective students came to visit as part of the admissions process. I read each child’s “Hobbies and Interests,” often amazed by the length and variety of the list, chagrined to reflect on how brief my own had become. Reading? Conservation? Writing? Walking? Walking probably doesn’t even qualify as a hobby or interest. Thank god I'm not trying to spruce up a profile for Match.com.
If I were still ten, it would be a different story. I had hobbies and interests aplenty: tennis, skiing, swimming, crafts, sewing, rock-collecting, antique-doll collecting, playing guitar, reading, and exploring. Tucked in among all those active activities, reading sounds okay; rounds things out. And exploring? Exploring was one of my favorites. When I was a kid, my friends and I would set forth in our suburban neighborhood knowing that mystery was part of life and it was up to us to find it.
A wooden bridge crossed the stream that ran the length of a wide meadow behind Raleigh’s house. Together we’d cross over and ease our way through tangled brambles, stopping to release snagged sleeves and ignoring scratched skin, as we formed theories about the goings-on in the mansion on the hill. What evil experiments were hatched under the purple lights glowing in the basement windows? What to make of the suit of armor visible on the second floor landing? Was the machete we found on the bridge a murder weapon tossed during flight from a crime? And what about the bullet holes in the windows of the garage, a building so decrepit, close to re-claimed by the earth, as entangled in vines and gnarled roots as it was?
We trespassed that property with weekend regularity, each foray reaping fodder for wild tales, our mouths grim at the implications, eyes rounded and dancing at the whiff of danger in our midst. While for the most part, as an adult, I trust danger is not in our midst, my net is wide, media-flung, and I know of danger lurking in farther fields than Raleigh’s, and they worry me. My explorations now are mostly mental, and instead of turning over rocks to gather worms and salamanders, I poke at concerns, examining and inflaming them until my rational inner grown-up takes notice, and hands on hips, shuts me down. Get out of your head and look up, she tells me sternly.
In my current trespass, once I reach the top of the hill, in obedience to that inner voice, I look up and out and around. The land on the far side rises steeply and the black ribbon of stream snakes below, past old stonewalls, fallen trees, and clotted islands of sodden debris. Parchment-dry birch leaves rustle and shiver. I stand straight in my red jacket, jeans, and scuffed sneakers, my stick clasped in a grubby hand. I’m in my sixties, ready for bears in the woods, and my ten year-old-self grins inside me.