It is late autumn, soil and air heavy with rain and leaves steeping underfoot, squelching out a dark fluid when I tread too heavily on the trail, mud streaking the sides of my shoes. The branches of the trees are bowing under the weight of all the water, thick, sodden foliage sprinkling us with water as we walk. Things grow like weeds, even in the winter, but the trail maintenance crews are reluctant to go out, and the trees press close alongside the trail, closing in, whispering to each other when a breeze comes up and whacking stiff branches in our faces as though to push us back to where we came from.
Leaden skies sulk overhead, threatening but not yet dumping, although we are so covered in water at this point that it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference, shirts and pants clinging clammily to our skins and scraping as they pull against us in rhythm with our walking. I cannot remember whose idea it was, to go for a walk in the woods, it initially seemed like a good one, walking in the quiet when no tourists would dare to venture outside their cozy bed and breakfasts, turning their heads away from the windows splattered with rain to pick over cheese platters.
It has been a long time since we have seen each other. Months, perhaps, and we converse in spurts followed by companionable silences, occasionally pulling back branches for each other. A few moldering mushrooms rot by the side of the trail, porous sponges filled with fluid and oozing when we poke them in curious examination. They were once firm and fresh, juicy and flavorful, but I know they would taste like sodden cardboard now, if we bothered collecting them.
Walking, it feels like we are underwater even though we are well above ground. It is a combination of the heavy, wet air, the dense trees, the murky light, the dark sky overhead looking vaguely like I imagine the surface of the ocean does when you are a fish swimming deep down below. It is the sensation of water in us and all around us and I almost reflexively search for gills, expecting to have sprouted a set to navigate without suffocating. Nothing is stirring in the woods other than us.
We are at a crossroads, not just in the trail, but in our own lives, ships passing in the night. One of us is going on to bigger and better things, following a dream, pursuing a clearly demarcated set of goals, ticking things off a checklist. The other is not. One of us is considered a failure, the other is not. One of us is considered a disappointment and a waste, the other is not. Yet, we are not so different, walking in the woods together, we are both equally wet, equally bemused by the clump of redwood needles that slid off a branch and dumped itself in the middle of the trail, narrowly missing my head.
People talk about different lives and choices and motivations and all manner of other things, but they forget that one person’s failure is another person’s happiness, one person’s tidy goals are another person’s attempt at subverting acute misery. We are both happy, in our own ways, doing what we do, and neither one of us judges the other although other people are hasty to judge us, to cast aspersions upon our friendship, how can two so unalike be such companionable and agreeable friends.
We decide to traipse slightly off the main trail, not too far, but in search of something seen once, and we slither down a small hill and along a deer path that might just as well be a human one, come to think of it, and then we come across it, not what we expected to find, but what we found instead, wild ginger, a huge clump of it sprawling wildly, glossy green leaves aglitter and fractured with hundreds of drops of water. Elephant-footed, I accidentally stumble into it and the scent of it, crushed, wafts up around us and carries in the humidity, collecting in our clothes, later to escape and perfume the room as our clothes dry off draped next to the heater and the rain hammers on the windows.
But that has not happened yet, I am still caught in the gingery stillness, and everything smells ripe and perfect and delicious, dark woodsy scent of earth and trees and loam and wild ginger wrapped up around us in the quiet. Frozen in the woods, it is hard to see who is the success and who is the failure, who is lost and who is found, who is waiting and who has already arrived, and the moment will break when I step back out and the soil clops and sighs under my feet and we trek back out of the woods, to the car, to a warm and dry and quiet place.