I grew up in North Carolina surrounded by tall pine trees. Not far from home, stood what was left if an old growth forest. Wedged between ever expanding subdivisions north of Raleigh, these trees were a remnant of a remnant. The forest remained a pocket of accessible untamed nature. It was a wilderness to explore when my mother and grandmother were tired of me being indoors too long.
On those days, I grabbed a cloth sack, filled it with a water bottle, and whatever my twelve year old mind envisioned I might need. It turned out I had no idea what that meant. I also grabbed a walking stick, a sapling tree, whittled down to a spear shape with a further sharpened tip. I thought I’d be ready for anything.
Setting out was a simple walk to the edge of my neighborhood. The end of a high privacy fence marked the edge of the wilderness. I entered the canopy of trees and sauntered off on my afternoon adventure. This leg of the journey was intimately familiar. I had to pass through this small stand of trees to reach my Aunt Beulah’s home.
Beulah lived alone on land her husband had sharecropped before he died. I’d discovered Beulah’s home on an earlier expedition and spent many afternoons on her front porch talking and laughing with her. Today I decided to strike out for the real forest beyond Beulah’s garden.
I waved at Aunt Beulah as I passed her house, but kept to my mission. A small barn and paddock for a horse lay beyond the sunflower field I had to cross. The horse was usually in the paddock, but today he was gone. A red clay road ended at the barn leading back towards Mount Vernon Church road, the same paved road I lived on. It represented safety and civilization, I turned away from it for my first glimpse of the real woods.
A foot trail led under a canopy far higher than the stand of trees I’d passed earlier. A towering oak tree dominated a clearing just inside the tree line. Beneath that tree stood the horse from the paddock. It had reins dangling from the bit in its mouth, but no saddle or signs of it’s owner. I froze.
Horses were alien to me. I’d ridden a pony a few times at the state fair, but that was nothing like a full grown horse staring at me alone under an old oak tree. It snorted in dismissal, I posed no threat. The horse went back to grazing or whatever it had been doing when I disturbed it. I sighed in relief that it didn’t care a thing about me.
Still, I gave the horse a wide berth while I made a way around the clearing to where the path picked up again. I stepped back into the foliage and resumed my mission.
It was glorious. The path, like an animal trail, but I didn’t know or care about that at the time, led me right where I wanted to go. Deep in the forest and away from humans altogether.
I found a creek that bubbled as it wound through the woods. There were birds and squirrels everywhere. Spider webs caught the sunlight as I wandered deeper into the trees. Wild plants, ferns and flowers reached up to the sky to catch some sunlight too. That light faded by the time I realized I’d long ago left the path I’d followed.
Afternoon became evening, and darkness fell. I lost all sense of direction. The woods that seemed so enchanting in daylight now held menacing shadows. My little bag with the water bottle held nothing to help me. Outthrust roots in the banks of the creek I’d seen could easily have been snakes that terrified me even then. Sounds of birds and unseen wildlife could have been anything at all coming for an easy meal. I panicked. In the dark, I didn’t know where to go.
I learned a few tough life lessons that evening in the woods. Sometimes, you get in over your head. Before you know it, you’re lost and alone. No one else can help you in those moments. When the dark and scary world closes in, you can sit and cry about it, or figure out how to get yourself out of that predicament. I decided to find a way out. The creek, as scary as it might be in the dark, was my deliverer.
I followed the creek to the red-clay road I’d avoided earlier, followed the road back to the pavement of Mount Vernon, then I followed Mouth Vernon back to my neighborhood, and finally walked in my front door. My mother and grandmother had just started to worry that I hadn’t come home yet. I was far more relieved than either of them seemed at the time.
I have a much healthier appreciation of dangerous situations since then. Using self-reliance, I’ve found my way out of more than a few scary circumstances. My brief walk in the dark could have gone horribly wrong. That lesson I learned after the fact. I keep that in mind too.