Two days ago, I reduced myself to a sturdy hobble by learning to jump rope. Never in my youth did I jump rope. Where I come from, males did not even consider it, except behind the walls of gymnasiums, and then only with the ultimate goal of pummeling an opponent in mind. But I’m a long way from youth now, and, having become convinced of rope-jumping’s merits as exercise, I strode boldly into a toy store, bought a candy-striped, red-and-wheat-colored rope, and went home to use it. After half an hour, I was angry and frustrated. I kept stepping on the rope, or hitting the ceiling with it, or whacking the cat. Needing something to distract my mind, I turned on the TV and started with the rope again as I watched. In ten seconds, I was mesmerized by whatever was on. And in twenty seconds, I was jumping rope. My mind having released its grip, my body took over.
Jumping rope for the first time in my life was so exhilarating that I kept at it for an hour, pouring sweat, struggling to breathe, and perfectly happy. The next morning, however, the extensor muscles in my legs had turned into lumber. And setting out on my hike this morning — a chilly Palm Sunday — I whisper, “Ouch,” under every other breath. More significantly, I have to make use of the walking stick I keep in the truck for such occasions. If you are going to walk as slow as I am, I say use a cane: it avoids questions.
After a few miles, I climb a gentle slope and find a place to sit down and rest. At the base of my slope, the roots of an overturned tree dry in the air. I used the tree to pull myself up from the road. Around it grows a cloud of bloodroot. I didn’t notice them when I was climbing, but there they are, their catcher’s-mitt leaves held up to the sun, their white stars of flowers, some blooming now, others that bloomed yesterday collapsed in a stack of petals, as neat as a camper’s firewood.
Bloodroot is my favorite wildflower, at least until the trillium blooms. Now that I see this patch, I notice that the entire forest floor is whitened with them, like a light snow, clinging to the declivities under ridges, to the minute kingdoms between the roots of trees. I fight back the urge to rise up and race through the undergrowth looking at everything, seeing every flower. I detect a sweet, unnatural fragrance, then realize it’s the smell of fabric softener from my jacket. The day is that calm, the air that clear.
Paradoxically, because I am slightly incapacitated, I’ve brought more gear with me than usual. Like a lumbering freighter, I can’t go very fast, but I can carry everything I might conceivably need. For one thing, there is my writing notebook. I almost never write on the trail; if you’re caught at it, it looks so schoolboyish, so sensitive. Besides, I believe writing to be a discipline of the mind and not an accident of circumstance. Despite what some of my poet friends say, immediacy often results in triviality. You are meant to keep an experience in mind and write of it later. What you still have when you get home is what you really needed to remember. Yet, for some reason, today I thought I might write.
I also have with me a bottle of grape juice, my old camera (which I almost certainly will not use), a book I must read because in a moment of madness I agreed to do a review, a knife, a pair of gloves, and a green satchel to carry it all in.
I get up and continue on. I’ve walked, jogged, or cycled this road a hundred times without knowing that it is called Hard Times Road. I know this now because earlier I picked up a bit of litter that turned out to be a map from the nearby arboretum. Hard Times Road looks longer and harder on the map than it feels when you’re walking it. It is also, on a day like this, practically a thoroughfare: old men walking, families biking, young men running, women jogging with teams of dogs before them. I would find all this traffic annoying, but I realize that, had I really wanted to be alone, I would have gone somewhere else. I pulled my pickup over where a number of vehicles were already parked in the grass, so I must have wanted this mixture of solitude and community.
Two Halloweens ago, a young woman named Karen Styles was brutally murdered along this road. She had been jogging, alone, when a man stepped into her path. The media called it a “crime of opportunity”; apparently her murderer had not gone to Bent Creek with that dark purpose in mind. Karen was tied to a tree and shot. This happened so close to the road that anybody walking by should have been able to see her, but nobody did until a hunter stumbled across her body weeks later. Karen was in the news again this morning because the accused’s lawyer has found a technicality that will grant his client a new trial. On TV, there were the predictable interviews with her friends and family, who said how unfair it was, then with the accused’s family, who were relieved that, “at last, the truth can come out.”
The truth is that most women jog here in pairs, often in battalions. If they jog alone, they are usually accompanied by dogs. Big dogs. Yet, as I hobble along in the blue morning light, I encounter a woman jogging alone, and I realize suddenly that I have a stick in my hand — a staff, a weapon. She is coming on fast, and I try to make myself look as harmless as possible. Still, there’s this club in my hand, this cudgel. I step to the very edge of the road, allowing her nine-tenths of it. She passes by, smiling.
“Hi!” I say loudly, in my best Midwestern kid’s voice. Wouldn’t harm a fly.
“Hi,” she says back.
Once she’s gone, I’m unable to account for my feeling of shame. I should have been smaller. I shouldn’t have been carrying a stick. I should have been a great white malamute, loping in her wake. I should have been here, on this road I know so well (even if I didn’t know its name), two Halloweens ago when Karen Styles went jogging.
The thin snow of bloodroot curves down toward the creek. I’m still standing transfixed in the road when the next jogger appears, a lone man in a red shirt. Though he is clearly unarmed, I stare hard at him. Then I recognize him as a former student of mine. It’s all right. She’s better off with him behind her. If she were to stop for any reason, he would be there in two minutes.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on social issues and wandered into a session concerning public safety in wilderness areas and city parks. A young man was speaking of how, in the city parks of Seattle, an undergrowth-clearing project was being implemented in order to help people there feel — and, in some cases, be — safer. Brush and saplings from two to six feet in height would be cut away, allowing unobstructed vision in all directions.
The sun-filled gallery forest around Hard Times Road looks like the result of such an enterprise, though the clean, open spaces here are entirely natural. It is difficult to imagine how a person could sneak up on someone here. Perhaps in high summer, if the assailant crowded himself right up against the road, where a thin line of saplings are fighting for the light. But Karen Styles was jogging in October, when things are barer and browner than on this gray-and-blue April Sunday. Whatever happened, she was not caught entirely off guard. She must have seen it coming.
During the conference session, the thought crossed my mind of how disastrous the two-to-six-foot rule would be for wild things. The hedgerows that saved British wildlife fall almost exactly within those dimensions. Even in naturally clear areas, like this gallery forest, one seldom sees an animate thing. Parkland, however beautiful, is spare land.
The sweet, whispering pine groves that used to surround the interstate-highway rest areas just over the line in South Carolina were cut down because gay men would meet beneath their sheltering branches. In what way this clear-cutting made us safe I never quite understood; the men knew each other, knew where they were going, and knew what was going to happen there. How it would make some people feel safer is plain, though.
The difference between being safe and feeling safe is an issue for everyone concerned with the preservation, not only of wild things, but of our own sense of belonging in the world. Most safety measures taken in our anxious society are more for appearance than function. Those that would have us subtracting further from the already decimated natural world demand not only second thoughts, but third and fourth ones, as well. The fact that these things do make people feel safer is disquieting, for the real dangers — human malice, unshakable adherence to some transient ideal — remain unaffected, laughing at the insignificant challenge posed by these little Maginot lines of safety.
It’s almost too cruel to say it, but Karen Styles would be dead had there not been a shrub in a hundred miles. The point is that a man killed her, not a topographical situation. The mountain is just fine; it’s the hearts of men we need to change.
I walk ten feet more, scanning the roadside for early flowers. I spot a stand of ferns, the broken skeleton of a tortoise, and, far off, the gleam of the great wire fence that has been erected to keep the deer out of the arboretum. Whatever the intention, it makes the woods look like a frontier between warring camps.
It occurs to me that perhaps my feelings on the subject of safety are colored by my almost never having felt threatened anywhere: not on the streets of New York City, nor in the deepest forest. Three men walking toward me through the red oaks with guns in their hands would make me think, I didn’t know it was deer season. This may be a function of being male, or of luck, or of inattention, but whatever the cause, it is a gift I need to spend more time considering. Now I stop in the road and ask myself, What are you afraid of?
Of staying forever the way I am.
Of dying alone and friendless.
Of fighting with God so much that he turns away from me.
Of permanent damage in my leg.
None of those possibilities is coming at me out of the shadows of the forest.
When I left home this morning so heavily laden, I thought I was coming to this mountain to write a poem. But the detours onto the subjects of Karen Styles, danger, and my concern for the solitary jogger have so complicated things that my original intention — if, in fact, that was it — has been altered irrevocably. Were I to write a poem now, it would be in the style of John Donne’s Anniversaries, where the poet took the death of someone he barely knew and used it as an occasion to reflect on life, love, destiny, eternity. But the forest is so new, so tender with fresh aspiration that this, too, is out of the question.
The shadow I cast onto the road is of a dark mass, made large by too many jackets, stooped a little by the weight of a satchel and years of bad habits, leaning too heavily on a staff. Probably the solitary jogger was not afraid of me at all. Perhaps she thought I looked sad, or ridiculous. My leg is bothering me more than I thought it would. Perhaps she saw pain. Or middle age. Or some fool who still thought he could hobble into the April woods and gush out poems as though the world were new.
She was so young and strong, she could have outrun anything, anyway.