Maybe it was my frame of mind that compelled me to revisit that big, bad forest, the place I’d once said you couldn’t pay me to go back to. Weighted down by emotional darkness, ruminations run amok, I craved privacy, someplace where I could feel what I feel, where no one would question what they couldn’t understand. But why this place, especially when a sense of foreboding unsettled me so? Unable to change my own mind, and well aware that dramatizing worst-case scenarios is a symptom of living a fear-based life, I straightened my posture and feigned confidence as I threw items into a small day-pack.
* * *
If a young hiker hadn’t gone missing, if the television news hadn’t reported daily about groups of people searching for the girl they called Annie, I would never have known that the lush, green forest on the outskirts of town even existed. They called it a “sanctuary for city dwellers” and “a challenge for seasoned hikers” hidden from the Interstate that runs directly parallel to it. It was just a stone’s throw away from my home. The missing hiker soon became everyone’s daughter, sister, and friend. Our hearts sank when her body was discovered—all hopes for a good outcome dashed. Her recovered camera revealed breathtaking images of the views from the cliffs, the highest point of the forest, and from where she had fallen. Within days, a memorial appeared at the trailhead. My neighbor, Gracie, accompanied me; we placed a tall arrangement of flowers from our yards behind the rest, stabilizing the vase with river rock. We said our silent goodbyes, and I shuttered, thinking what a horrible, horrible place. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to return to the forest that I would surely always identify with tragic loss and grief. Until yesterday . . .
The memorial was still there: Flowers had dried up, blown away; the vase I had anchored with rocks was still intact, tall stems dried and naked. Note cards and scraps of paper, once filled with beautiful, heartfelt poems and condolences, were now a blurry mass of rain-soaked blues and blacks and reds. Only one thing remained the same: the girl’s photo, an impish smile, an expression of pure delight preserved by laminate, nailed to the trailhead sign. The traffic noise from the busy Interstate had disappeared and filled me with trepidation. The trailhead wasn’t officially open— many of the hiking paths would still be treacherous, the winter rains leaving the muddy trails slippery with wet, decomposing leaves, pinecones, and broken branches. I would be alone all right. I shivered and turned my car keys over and over in my pocket. Was the heaviness in my gut a warning? Maybe the trailhead is as far as I need to go . . .
To Be Continued … (Part Two)