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Walking the path (without stepping in bear shit)

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One of the first things I did after unpacking my bags at the cabin was walk the path that Eric and I cut through the woods more than a decade ago. It loops through the 2-acre lot behind the cabin, and it’s where I go when I’m stuck with my writing, when I need to take a break, when I need to think.

That first walk was a little depressing. The path was choked with two years’ worth of growth; weeds and shrubs closing around the wound. In some places it had faded into a suggestion. I had to squeeze through snarls of brush, duck pine branches and keep my eyes on the ground so I wouldn’t lose my way. This was going to be a lot of work. I didn’t go back there again for two weeks.

The path was Eric’s idea. It was a gift for his mother, who is a nature lover and a gentle soul. He wanted his mom to be able to walk through the woods and sit in the shade and gaze at the mountains. In 2003 he invited me to stay at the cabin for the summer, so I took an unpaid leave from work and drove to Colorado. Eric showed up soon after from Boulder with two chainsaws and a gas-powered wood chipper.

We spent days hacking through the underbrush. Eric did the chainsaw work, felling dead trees and cutting up the criss-crossed deadwood that littered the property while I chopped through the underbrush. We used the logs Eric cut to line the path, then covered it with a blanket of wood chips spit out by the chipper. In the spots with the best views, we built crude benches with scrap wood. Each night after we cleaned up, we built a fire in the stone circle behind the cabin and broke out the good scotch.

That summer I started writing my first awkward efforts at fiction. Every short story seemed to start with a slow walk along that path. It was a little shot of bliss every time.

Last weekend I decided it was time to clear the mess, since I’m close to finishing my half dozen “how to write fiction” books and start re-writing my novel. So early Saturday I grabbed the loppers and my new Rambo multi-tool – a squared-off machete with a sharpened hook and a saw blade on its back edge – and started hacking.

It’s slow, sweaty work when you’re using hand tools. But I’ve always liked dirty, hands-on work; I come from a family of amateur landscapers and I’m forever messing with my deck or my yard or some other project. Over the course of two days, the path slowly re-emerged from the tangle. And I managed to avoid lopping off a finger or a toe with the machete (which is good since I don’t have health insurance yet).

Early Sunday afternoon, I walked the path again.

It starts at the Grand Entrance (actually just some thick logs we stood on end straddling the path) and twists through a sunny patch of thick brush where the pine beetles killed all the big trees. As it approaches the back of the property, where a barbed wire fence marks the start of the national forest, the path winds through a stand of aspen trees.

who is gazing at whom?
who is gazing at whom?

I’ve always loved aspens. The white bark reminds me of the birch trees that grew around my grandparents’ cottage in northern Michigan, and when the breeze flows through them, their leaves flutter and flash like small fish and make that sound: Shhhhhhhhh. If you look long enough, you can see eyes and faces in the black scars on their trunks.

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the backwoods segment of the path

Past the aspens, the path follows a small rise into dense forest, winding beneath a canopy of pine, aspen and oak. This is my favorite spot along the path. The breeze dies here and the air smells like pine sap and decaying wood and summer grass. It’s a childhood smell for me, the smell that surrounded my brother and my cousins and me when we explored the Michigan woods on long summer days. It always calms me.

I can see a bear has been busy back here, rolling over the rotting logs that mark the path to look for bugs and grubs. There’s a big, fresh pile of bear scat at the edge of the path. (vocabulary note: ‘scat’ is a term used by hunters and outdoorsmen so they don’t have to say “Look, bear poo!”)

I’m hoping the bear and I have different walking schedules.

As the path emerges from the woods and curls back toward the cabin, the grass gets lush and soft. The sun breaks through the trees again and the cabin comes into view. It feels good to have the path clear so I can walk it again.

I walk past the fire ring, which has sprouted a tuft of weeks. Time to get some scotch and build a fire.

And time to start writing again.

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