As a kid I was often late for dinner because I was wandering the forest and didn’t want to come home. It was a huge forest of low rolling hills, stony ridges, valleys and swamps, alive with bear, deer, raccoons, cottonmouths, water moccasins and hundreds of other wild species – an absolute Paradise for a boy of eight.
Day after day I’d find new valleys, climb a different rocky outcrop to a new vista and then want to go there, beyond that vista and see what could be seen from there.
It’s always been the same – to reach an unknown spot then see the distant rocky horizon and wonder what’s over that mountain range. What undiscovered country lies beyond, or around the next bend in the river? Imagining earlier humans like the first to explore North America, wandering southward into unknown lands, or a Cheyenne roaming thousands of square miles of boundless intricate beauty.
Sometimes I got lost, and felt fear then, the sun going down between the wide black trunks, the silvery light dying on swamp puddles, owls hooting from the high boughs, the cold wind snaking down my neck. When it looked like I’d have to spend the night there, in this unknown forest of bears and snakes. Fear would make me stumble and run, bang into low boughs, trip on vines, scratch my face and arms on brambles.
Then I’d slow down, take a breath, and try to think my way out. In the semi-darkness I’d think I recognized a stump, a rock, and run to it but find no tracks. I’d listen for a distant barking dog and try to decide whose it was. Stepping over fallen trees, shoes in the muck, then on dry land again, a stream bank or hillock till out of the darkness I could see a track, my track, and could find my way home.
Once I got a new pair of shoes (an important expenditure in our poor family) and lost one the same day in quicksand deep in the forest. My father and I went out that night with a flashlight but though we dug deeply could never find it.
In the Sahara nine years later wandering nearly cost me my life, for it’s easy to die in the desert when you get lost. And in many other places too, that cold trepidation sinking down the back of your neck, like when you find yourself on a cliff with no way up or down.
So getting lost is the other side of wandering, and why we should try to wander safely. But getting lost can also be a journey into a new part of oneself, where we find the courage and strength to calm ourselves, reevaluate, and wander on, following the path with heart.
That vast forest has since been bulldozed into miles and miles of housing developments. The animals who lived there are a memory, as is the beauty of the place. That’s why I wrote SAVING PARADISE, as a tribute to the places that are left and the need for us to save them.