Encounters XIII: Can't Get Enough

By Susan Johnson

What I encounter says more about me than what’s encountered.

“There’s fresh bear scat ahead,” an approaching hiker says. “Oh great,” I say, “I’d love to see a bear.” “I know,” he says. Is he saying he knows that I’d like to see a bear? Or is he agreeing it’s exciting knowing a bear passed this way not long ago? Maybe both. We’ve never met before, but as hikers we feel like we have.

I try to follow a clear, straight route when I’m hiking, not go off trail bushwacking. But I know, in reality, I’m walking small loops in order to go in a straight line while walking straight lines in order to loop around the base of a mountain. That is, nothing in the forest is linear. It’s all small curves, bumps and lumps, meandering streams that nonetheless flow quickly through dense brush. It’s the same way I meandered in life, starting out studying biology, moving onto poetry, then rhetoric, before ending up in business. All my studying was also a type of hiking, I think. Each step clear but the overall route circuitous with ever surprising views.

“Heh! I didn’t want to scare you,” he says, this young man I hear before seeing, dangling a leg from the top of the fire tower on the summit. “No way around it,” I say. “This is my favorite spot,” he says. “I like how clearly you can see Greylock and Monadnock,” I say. “You can see Greylock?” he says. So I show him, due west, the slope of Saddleback, the A/T up and over. Then we say nothing, just look and look, breathing in, breathing out. We hiked here today.

I’ve been looking at these trees with ginormous heart-shaped leaves all summer without seeing them, but now that the leaves are yellow, I can’t look away. Basswood it is, that’s been alive so much longer than me, turning CO2 gas into solid wood, releasing oxygen, and all I’ve been doing is walking by, talking to myself when I should have been saying thank you.

The trail ahead is so steep they’ve cut in steps to keep people from slipping and skidding. Nevertheless, a guy runs up while talking into his phone. “I’ve got an important business meeting coming up so I’ll do it while running up steep slopes,” I imagine him thinking. I step aside, say, “It’s all yours.” What I’d like to say is: Can’t it wait? Must you bring your office into these beautiful woods?

I count nine guys on the roof at the horse farm, tearing off shingles. It’s 8 AM and they’re ripping it, prying up the old layers which slide to earth. I wonder if there’s some satisfaction in the work, peeling off the old and worn, or if it’s just work. When I walk by the next day it’s as if nothing happened. From here the new roof looks just like the old.

I watch a bald eagle lift off directly above me. It rises and flap-flaps across the river to land in a treetop full of sun, the only sun it seems we’ll be getting until spring. I can’t stop staring, taking it all in. Later, in line at the grocery store, a little girl wrapped in hot pink stares at me big-eyed as I ding-ding my groceries in the self-checkout line. I’m the most astonishing thing she’s seen all day and she can’t get enough. I feel grateful for her sense of wonder and hope it never dies.

An older man starts talking to me randomly in the cereal aisle: “Family size. What does that mean? This one’s a Great Value.” Just basic marketing, I want to say, but say nothing. Is he nervous? Chatting to hide some insecurity? Maybe just lonely? Or does he not go shopping much and is genuinely confounded by vapid claims? His faded blue eyes match his faded button-down. Perhaps he’s retired and once held a position of power so he feels the right to say anything, questioning the most banal details as if a deeper meaning will be revealed. But dude, really, it’s just cereal.

Morning mist on the river, an inversion, as if the clouds have reconsidered their role, have had enough of sky and want only to drift. A chunk of driftwood floats like a giant otter; it’s large enough to support a great blue heron that stares into the river’s depths. What does it see in the water below? Shortnose sturgeon? A pet goldfish released, ravenous and invasive? Or sheets of plastic shredded, resembling eels?

The dolls on Antiques Roadshow always creep me out. It’s how they try to imitate something real, usually a little girl, but are always off. The closer they try to look lifelike the farther away they seem. Especially the eyes, the dead, spiritless eyes. Cartoonish bears and mice are fine, but Frankenstein attempts at humans, well that’s when I change the channel.

A man stands on the deck of his fishing boat, casting and reeling, but otherwise standing still. It’s biting cold. I’m walking at a pretty brisk pace and still chilled through; he must be numb. But, supposedly enjoying himself, being out on the river, not at work. He’s probably thinking: Look at that woman wrapped in layers, stuck on shore, at least I’m on the water. If he’s thinking at all.

We don’t come to this boat ramp in the summer because it’s too busy. Let’s go in the fall, I say, but here it is crazy hectic in autumn with pontoons and outboards, loud people blowing big puffs of weed. We’re the only canoe. But once we get through the haze, it’s all golden—the hills in the background, the husks along the water’s edge. I love the change in perspective. I usually look down from the summit to this section of river; rarely do I look up.

Poison ivy grew thigh high where we used to live, but it’s rare here so I’m startled to see the three bright leaves on the dull gray locust bark. I use clippers as tweezers, not to sever the stem but squeeze and pull. And am startled again when the vine snakes clear across the yard. Toxicodendron. It sure was named right. How long has it been growing and how far does it extend across our yard, across the neighborhood?

Speaking of names, a guy announces Cider Days are this weekend, “a unique and one of a kind event.” Does he have no respect for language? Being redundant does not make something more important. It’s a day; you drink cider. The end.

“I said to my husband, I bet that woman walks ten miles a day,” a dog walker says to me. “At least,” I say to her “and you used to walk your dog around the pond. His name was Sam.” She looks at me funny. “That’s right,” she says, thinking back. Is it odder that I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, or that I clearly remember the people I met when I first moved here? Walking was how I got to know my town, though not beyond the dog walkers.

I watch a male mallard swim in perfect circles, circumscribing what looks like an orbit around some invisible planet. The female looks on, seemingly uninvolved. What message is he sending? Is it about territory or is he just repeating himself, doing laps like the rest of us?

Several ducks zigzag across the pond leaving a trail of tiny wakes. I don’t usually bother looking since it’s mostly mallards. But today there’s wood ducks in their bright splendor, mergansers with punk hairdos. Feather-dos. Well this is fun. Instead of seeing the regulars on my morning walk, I get these vibrant visitors. From their point of view though, I’m just the same old human.

At a get-together with old high school friends, one says, “My brother and his wife have A-fib.” “Oh, my mother has A-fib,” says another. “My husband has A-fib,” says a third. “Oh, my husband has a mechanical heart valve,” says the fourth. We sit looking at each other, then laugh. What else can we do?

Overhead a heron stretches its huge wings as it cruises. It’s got the whole river to itself, the way we can sometimes have the whole road to ourselves. It lands on a light pole, pitch perfect. Where next, it seems to say. Below I lumber along, nowhere near as limber. Sometimes I ache for such lift, to shed this drag.

It hits all at once, not rain coming down but coming in. They’re good shoes I’ve got on, solid. The seams seem tight and the tread isn’t worn. But there are cracks I haven’t noticed and right now they are sucking up water as if they had roots. As if they want to truffle down into the soil, become one with the sodden sod. It’s like my shoes are hitting the brakes even as I edge them on.

Sugarloaf as its name implies is a sweet hike, but I prefer the wilder mountain across the river where I have to push myself more. My favorite part is always the steepest. It’s why I like reading about Arctic adventures, solo rows across the Pacific. The feeling of having done something harder than you thought you could. Of extending yourself beyond the beyond.

I know none of these words will ever truly capture what I see and hear. A running commentary, or in this case, walking commentary can only approximate the actual walk, like asymptotic lines on graphs that go on and on but never meet. It’s that the lines, words and walks continue that’s important. I don’t expect a clear outcome.

Today’s pizza special is turkey, pickle, ranch. I bet the line will be out the door.

Susan Johnson’s poems and creative nonfiction pieces have recently appeared in Woven Tale, Abraxas, The Meadow, Dash, Front Range Review, Aji, and Trampoline. She lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and her commentaries can be heard on nepm.org.


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