Thursday, October 26, 2006

Unfamiliar Ground

In the spirit of taking alternate routes (see yesterday's post), I decided this morning to take an alternate route during my pre-dawn walk with Dog. I felt both he and I are a bit complacent on our morning walks that have followed the same steps for some months now. I know I have grown complacent about it, though there is something to be said for being able to walk the route when I am barely awake.

Changing the route of our morning walk, even though I am surrounded by forest on all sides, is not as easy a thing to do as you might expect. For one thing, it is dead dark outside now when I walk Dog, and a headlamp is no substitute for the illumination of daylight. So I didn't want to follow a path that was very rocky, steep or had difficult footing. Also, I didn't want to much shorten or lengthen the walk itself, which further limited where we would go.

Nonetheless, this morning Dog and I set off into the woods, taking a different trail than usual. From the moment I took the first step in a different direction, Dog was on alert and excitable. He had to sniff every smell along the way. I tried to watch my feet on the unfamiliar ground. I found myself stumbling over stones I never saw, feeling jolted when my foot landed even just an inch higher or lower than I expected. The darkness, and how unfamiliar the trail felt in it, made me cautious. This was not a path I could walk when half-asleep.

That's what unfamiliar ground does to us all, I think. We stumble a bit. We feel uneasy and have a sense that we don't know where we're going or how we'll get to where we want to go. Nothing looks familiar. We have to be awake and aware of our surroundings when we walk it.

Ahead I saw the eyeshine of a deer, deep in the underbrush. The deer didn't move as we continued our walk. Dog behaved until we were downwind, and then he circled all around me, trying to locate the source of the scent trail. The deer, I think, felt it was well-hidden in its spot and never moved, unaware I could see it hidden there.

We continued on, traveling into an area of woods where the leaves have not yet dropped at all or perhaps they were simply always thicker there than elsewhere. It was even darker in here, and the headlamp didn't help at all. I let Dog lead the way and soon he brought us into an open area, where even the cloudy, moonless night wasn't as dark as the forest. Here, the headlamp did help, and I could pick my way along, Dog at my side to help.

In a few minutes more we were back on more familiar ground, and I was back in my own comfort zone. In many ways, the unfamiliar path wasn't much different than the familiar route. The real difference was how I felt when I walked it, not in the ground itself, I think. Perhaps the real trick is to just keep walking until you find your bearings again. Perhaps in time this new route would feel as familiar as the old. But I will be content tomorrow to walk the old route. It may not be the only route, it may not be the best route, but it is our route. And that makes all the difference.

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