The Nature Trail
By Harris Tobias
The nature trail seemed to stretch on endlessly. Betty pulled out the little trail map the ranger handed her for the thousandth time. She and Jim were avid hikers. They loved to walk even the roughest and longest trails. After pitching their old tent, they headed off on the nearest trail to work up an appetite, returning late in the afternoon worn out and hungry then turn in and sleep like dead things until morning.
They loved marked trails. Trails marked with a colored blaze meant security. You needn’t worry about finding your way back and could enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. The color of the blaze usually matched one of the dotted lines on the map. But this trail was marked with a purple blaze. There was no such corresponding trail on the map. There were blue, red, white and green trails but no purple one.
“Well it must lead somewhere,” Jim said. “Maybe it’s new and they haven’t added it to the map yet.” Jim was always optimistic and positive especially when outdoors, surrounded by nature.
Betty wasn’t so sure, wasn’t as enamored about hiking and camping as her partner, but she loved Jim and liked seeing him so happy. “That’s what you’ve been saying for the last two hours. I’m tired, Jim, let’s turn around and find a marked trail.”
“Let’s go a little farther, Bet. I have a feeling this trail goes someplace neat.”
They trudged on for another mile before Betty spoke up again. “Jim, I’m really tired and hungry. Please, let’s turn around.”
Jim was annoyed at himself for leading them on a hike to nowhere so he snapped at Betty harsher than he meant to. “You go back if you want to. I’ll meet you back at camp later. I never took you for a quitter.”
Betty felt the sting. She didn’t relish going back alone so she swallowed her anger and trudged on. After half a mile of silence, Jim stopped and said, “I’m sorry, Bets. I feel stupid leading us off the map but look here, the trail is getting muddy. I bet we’re near a lake or a swamp someplace we can watch the birds. Tell you what, let’s go another mile, if we don’t see anything, we’ll turn around.”
So they continued on and the trail did indeed get wetter and muddier. The vegetation changed from pine forest to wetland and at the end of the mile, just as Betty was about to announce that time was up. The muddy trail turned into a wooden boardwalk over the swamp.
“Ha,” cried Jim. “Would anyone go through all the trouble to build a boardwalk if it didn’t lead someplace? C’mon, Bets, lets walk to the end and see what’s there.”
A little further along they came to a sign that read “observation tower 1/2 mile.” The sun was low in the sky when the pair climbed the wooden steps to the platform. And truly, what a splendid sight it was. A birder’s paradise—tall white egrets, roseate spoonbills, wading birds of all kinds many of which they didn’t recognize.
“Wow, will you look at that,” Jim exclaimed as if the panoply of birdlife were justification for the long anxious trek.
The sun was very low by the time they started back. They didn’t think they’d be gone so long and weren’t prepared — no flashlights and only a little water and some trail mix. “We better hurry back it’s getting dark fast,” Jim said unnecessarily. And indeed it was already too dark to see very much. Even the white feathers of the birds were an indistinct gray.
By the time they stepped off the boardwalk it was quite dark and with the end of the light it grew chilly. Betty zipped her jacket all the way up and hurried into the gloom. She followed Jim who plunged ahead at a rapid pace. She thought how if he’d only listened to her they’d be in their nice warm tent about now or maybe sitting around the camp fire chatting. She kept her thoughts to herself. What was the use of being an “I told you so?” It would only lead to an argument and ruin the day even more besides Jim probably felt sorry and responsible enough without being reminded of his stubbornness.
This is what she was thinking when she tripped on a root and went down heavily in the mud. She felt a sharp pain in her ankle and cried out. Jim was at her side in a second and helped Betty to her feet but she could barely walk because of the pain. It was too dark to find a stick to use as a cane or a crutch so Betty held on to Jim and limped along. “It’s all right, honey. Take it easy. You can lean on me. Nice and slow.” Jim’s voice was calm and reassuring in the dark. Progress was terribly slow and, to make things worse, it was starting to rain.
One thing they never considered was getting lost. It’s hard to lose your way on a marked trail but, in the dark, a purple blaze is nearly impossible to see. After a slow and painful mile the road forked in three directions. “I don’t remember coming to a fork in the road on the way out, do you?”
Betty didn’t remember but, in all honesty, she was so exhausted she barely remembered her name. The rain came down hard now and they were soaked to the skin. Teeth chattering and weary beyond belief they came to more forks and tried to keep to the leftmost one as that seemed to tend in the general direction. After another hour of painful progress, Betty had to rest. She had reached her limit. She felt like crying and would have if she thought it would help their situation.
Jim’s matches were wet so a fire was out of the question. Even if they could find dry wood which seemed unlikely in the rain and the dark? So they huddled together and Jim rubbed Betty’s back and tried to calm her fears. They drank the last of their water and ate a bit of their trail mix but it wasn’t nearly enough. They were just getting back on the trail when the howling began.
“What the hell do you think that was?” Betty asked.
“Coyotes? At least I hope it’s coyotes.” Jim looked around for a stick but it was too dark to see anything.
“What if it’s wolves?” Betty asked.
An hour later the rain stopped and the moon rose big and full and they could see the trail ahead. Their spirits lifted. There was more howling now that the moon was up. One off to their right answered by two or three up ahead. Limping along, Jim found a fallen branch and broke it so Betty could use part of it as a cane. He kept a stout piece of branch for himself as a club just in case they weren’t coyotes after all.
At the top of a small rise Betty and Jim saw four wolves silhouetted against the moon not more than a half a mile ahead. Jim’s grip tightened on his club as the wolves turned as one to look their way. Betty felt real fear as the wolves began loping their way.
“Oh shit. They’re coming.” They turned and struggled back the way they had come hoping for a miracle but would settle for anything. What they found, lumbering out of the woods directly in their path, was a large brown bear, a young mother with three cubs. Both bears and humans startled each other and for a second there was a frozen tableau of mutual astonishment.
The bear sniffed the air. Sensing a threat to her cubs, she acted instinctively. The mother bear lifted herself to her full, impressive height, roared and charged. Jim and Betty, frozen in place by sheer terror, expected a swift and bloody death. The bear charged past so close Betty she felt the bear’s fur brush her hand. The wolves were the greater threat and that was what the bear was reacting to. Four grey wolves sprang into the air almost simultaneously snarling and snapping at the bear who ripped two wolves open almost immediately. Jim and Betty watched them crawl off to die. The other two wolves harried the bear.
Seeing an opportunity, Jim and Betty hobbled away from the carnage and ducked off the path into the woods at the first opportunity. The sounds of the battle clearly audible as they made their way through the brush. After a hundred yards or so they found themselves in an area of forest that appeared undisturbed by man, an area of old growth trees hundreds of years old. An old beech tree with a trunk that must have been thirty feet in diameter looked like an easy climb. The beech’s enormous branches were low enough to reach.
“Up here,” Jim said boosting Betty up. “Climb. Climb quickly.” With Jim’s help, Betty dragged herself up a few more branches and collapsed into a deep, wide crotch. She was spent. They both were. They found comfortable places out of reach of the wolves, relaxed and fell asleep immediately.
The morning dawned fresh and bright. Jim climbed to the top of the tree where he could get a good look at their surroundings. What he saw cheered him immensely—there was a highway not more than a half a mile away. It was the highway that led to the campground, safety and home. Many years would pass before either of them went hiking again.