Up Old Smoke Road and to the right lay the scene of a failed dream, an abandoned settlement. Now a vast state forest, some two hundred years ago a religious sect had isolated itself there, deep within the rolling wooded land. I would explore their traces, a puzzle to be put together with so few pieces that begged to be discovered in the dirt and amidst the trees, that the image which slowly formed was plentiful with holes. Holes I could fill in. Fill-ins which I could transform and tweak, an ever evolving fantasy, dark and beautiful.
The foundation of a paper mill with huge cut rock to direct a river’s flow... a lone chimney without a house only front steps... The stones chosen and placed by ghosts were experiencing a slow osmosis of color, roots and bark stained them, sun bleached them, and they had almost disappeared into new growth, just like their builders.
After five years of not living on Old Smoke Road I chose to move back. I needed money to make another escape. I needed to build up potential energy, to be still and patient until the rope could be cut and I would launch myself far far away. So I had returned to this in between space, situating myself in a limbo of time and place, neither the great American wilderness nor the great American city, rather the suburbs. The safe space for some people, between two polar opposites of adventure. A space I had grown to see as the beginning of the end of the American dream. But I could save money there, living in my parents house, and I knew I could survive at least a few months as long as I made frequent trips to the state forest.
I would walk up Old Smoke Road, and then down its steep side, take a sharp right and enter the forest through a thin prairie-like stretch dotted with scrawny pines. I had mapped out an hour and a half loop which became my morning meditation; across the dam, along a low ridge with a panorama of the pond, down into a gully, through a grove of pines, swinging an arc northeastward around the pond to return home past an enormous boulder covered in soft pale-green lichens.
That winter was like those from my childhood, the snow fell often, remained crisp and accumulated. It was the type of snow which allowed for extensive building projects and a hard packed sledding lane in the front yard. That was a good winter for childhood, not for a minimum wage waitressing job a twenty minutes drive away. My morning walks became ammunition, an ammunition stockpiled against the growing fear that I actually might never escape.
Though I was a grown woman, my mother worried about my solitary trek. She worried about men lurking in the woods. She worried that I would slip and fall and freeze to death. But I left each morning in silence, not addressing her concerns. I would not engage with the defensive maneuvers she was preparing, a tactic, I suspected, to keep me from my ammunition.
I had made it halfway through my loop. The pine grove lay just behind me, a stretch where the air felt a bit more moist and sound was muted by a mattress of needles tucked in beneath the thick duvet of snow. I turned the corner into unobstructed morning sunlight and hit a wall of silence and stillness. My eyes found the carcass. Half eaten, the blood spread around it, staining the white ground a surprising pink. Not a solid shape of blood puddling out from flesh, but droplets, a spraying of blood. The movement of the predator could clearly be read in the fresh snow. The carcass was half eaten. I had scared it away. I had interrupted a meal.
Fight or flight failed me and I froze, useless against nature, untamed both in my mind and in the scene before me. I contemplated returning the way I had come but my stomach resisted the atmosphere of the pine grove. Instead, like a mime I pathetically attempted to make clear to the animal whose jaws had pulled all hide and muscle to the point of unrecognition, that I did not want to steal from it, that I was not a threat to its hunger.
I left the path and found myself in a wide stretch of younger trees. I saw how they were slowly filling in the space between four rock walls. These were the failed fields last harvested in the early 1800’s. A community dead or disseminated existed only in the boundary lines they had drawn, now disregarded, laughed at by nature. My stockpile of ammunition combusted in my mind’s eye.
I lay down in the snow and allowed my flat body to be dwarfed even by the youngest of the saplings. I lay in silence, my breath and heart slowed and in an opposite slowness the forest sounds and movements built themselves back up. Nature disregarded me and continued balancing itself out, growing and decomposing, without discrimination or interpretation.