The air was brisk at Acadia National Park. While dusk set in, I opted for short stroll through the woods around Bubble Pond.
Bird chirps faded as evening nestled into little corners of the woods. New sounds of the night emerged: leaves rustled to rest; peace settled in; my footsteps padded against the dirt beneath me.
I turned down a shortcut, making my way back to the parking lot. I relished the walk, enjoying the vegetation, the navigation of the path’s curves and the greenery as it browned in setting sunlight. The natural peace was beautiful.
After 20 minutes, I still hadn’t arrived at my car. In fact, I hadn’t arrived anywhere.
The squiggly loop on my simple paper map illustrated a short straight-shot to my starting point. Surely, the trailhead couldn’t be much further.
At least, that’s what I told myself, even as my legs felt the familiar strain of trudging uphill, up, up into the the mountain.
The trees loomed ever higher and all around. Barren branches became shadow. My steps hollowed and heart pounded as I realized, with acute clarity, that I was alone, deep in the woods, far from help – and losing daylight!
Despite the incline – and against my intuition – I reassured myself that the path was short. “I’ll be back in no time.”
Then, a coyote howled in the distance. Once. Then twice. The pinpricks of hairs tickled my neck, bristling my animal nerve and urging me towards my only remaining instinct – to MOVE.
The danger of dark and of losing the trail was now coupled with a new, very real and visceral fear of the hunt. All the pathfinding challenges up to this moment had felt in my control – but now, I was electrically charged and my prey-like senses overtook me. Every organ lilted and my blood throbbed arrhythmically. I was wild panic.
I didn’t know much about the wildlife in these parts; damn it, Elizabeth! You’ve done it again! My lizard brain beat down my ego with the relentless tirade. Without plan, rampaging through wilderness and defenseless against the dangers of nature herself..!
I heard it before I saw it. It was trickling like the light tones of an xylophone. Sharpening my sight in the glow of dusk, I spied a waterfall that scintillated against the black rock.
Nearly forgetting my plight, my pulse skipped with excitement once I noticed that the newfound hiking path scaled the waterfall itself.
I fought with myself to turn back and retrace the way I came. Back towards the certainty of safety and civilization in the growing dark.
But some magic propelled me forward.
I started the climb.
God-damned adrenaline junkie.
Scaling the near 90 degrees of incline, I paralleled the cascade of water. This was the hike I’d always dreamt of – though anxiety over my circumstanceof my predicament dampened any exhilaration. Even so, droplets dressed my skin and the intensity of the climb emboldened me as I mastered the mount. I reached the top, the accomplishment of my feat surging through every cell.
The glisten of a pristine mountain pool greeted me.
The placid surface was untapped and inviting. I eased into relief at the pool’s calm. The temperature of winter’s thaw was frigid, but I wanted nothing more than to dive right in and cleanse myself of my fear of the hunt.
I once heard that happiness lives in moments. Like any emotion, it’s fleeting.
My momentary happiness was no exception. Once my dilated pupils contracted, I realized the reality before me.
Searching for a path beyond the pool, there was nothing but desolate, arid, flat, unoccupied rockface. A vast impression of slickrock that purveyed the forest green that stretched far below it. The return path was too far and too terrifying to face now. And there was only one way home: forward.
In the face of mortal danger, minds can race. And when they do, our bodies seem to know how to take the helm. So, my feet pounded onward across the arid slickrock.
The temperature dropped. Wind was picking up – drastically. Head huddled against the blows, my fatigued feet plodded on. Body and mind clashed: where my wasted legs wished to collapse and hunker down, the voice in my head hissed: What are you going to do? Lie down and die?!
The wind began pressing in on all sides, as did the darkening dusk. I couldn’t think. My breath was shallow. I could only push one foot ahead of the other.
And just when I couldn’t take anymore of the slanted slickrock that tugged at my ankles – the cairns reappeared, directing my way, leading me to a menacing oasis of deep forest. A forest that sloped sharply down a cliffside.
Would this path never end?
Seeking my escape from windchill and desolation, I traded the arid mountainscape for a descent into forested darkness.
There was an eerie peace settling in and around the pines. But my eye twitched with every rustle of leaf and every change in wind. Every plane drone high overhead was easily mistaken for the low growl of an overcharged bear lurking in the shadows.
And halfway down the slope, at the peak of fear, when my mind had played on me every last trick in its books – the last ray of daylight finally extinguished and the path was lost.
I drew in a breath so sharply and so heavily that my sound could have cracked the silence.
But it wasn’t silent.
Something was near. And it would save me.
The tap of trickle against rock and soil. A flow of water – the self-same water source leading down to Bubble Pond!
Water draws many animals, which should have served as some warning to me in the mammalian active night.
But I was also relegated to the breed of beasts. I was one of them. The water drew me, too. And despite myself, like all prey, I disregarded fear of predation in favor of the silvery stream that flowed down the steep hillside.
This – THIS – was the final task. My home stretch. Hopes lifted at the prospect of steady shelter, fluorescent light, the sound of human voices – all things that I’d sought to escape when I first entered this park, but which suddenly seemed an out-of-reach blessing.
Brambles and roots shot out of the earth like grasping arms. My feet practically slid down the steep, sloping hill. But the sound of water led me onward in my blind state. I stumbled, fell, carried on, drenched in sweat and coated in dirt.
Even though there was no path, I could at least follow the sound of water to the pond. No stream had ever given me such salvation.
I ran from invisible enemies, not realizing that the greatest of them all was the fear that lived inside myself.
And before I could take account of anything, there it was. A silvery bulb of a moon shone in the reflective glass pool. The water’s edge glimmered, lighting up my pathway along its bank – to safety.
It brought me to a small footbridge I didn’t recognize. I walked over it regardless. And like a portal, the bridge transformed my environs from threatening woods to enchanted forest where, ahead, the signpost from which I had started my journey stood upright and stock still, like a vigil. It marked my way back to my small Honda, which sat like a lone duck in the empty, dark parking lot.
I clambered inside, my breathing still heavy with the physical and mental exertion of my adventure.
To this day, I still take crazy risks on hikes that challenge the spirit. But now I know better – to at least have ready a headlamp and some idea of where I choose to wander.