A Walk in the Woods / New Jersey Foolishness

The absurd obfuscates life as we think it should happen. It is the illogical intersection and intertwining of disparate factors, resulting in a single senseless experience. This past Memorial Day weekend we met absurdity.

We woke early Monday morning. Katrina made breakfast in the kitchen while I sat down at the computer researching where we should go hiking for the day. We decided on the Delaware National Water Gap, a long stretch of state parks and natural reserve areas along the Delaware River. We had heard it was one of New Jersey’s most picturesque locales and had some good hiking, so decided it seemed like a great place to spend our Memorial Day.

Our plan was to hike for six or seven miles in the state park. I mapped out our path along a series of trails that I hoped would take us on a circuous route through the forest, then along the river’s edge and back to our starting point. We started along the river - which by the way, is also for a time paralleled by interstate-80, before it turns sharply west for its long journey across the U.S. and onto Utah and California. Hiking inland and uphill, our path brought us up 600 feet in elevation in just a few hundred yards. Initially, we had hoped to get some good views of the river valley, but the trail instead took us through beautiful forests of towering deciduous trees and sprawling fern beds. Eventually, we made our lunch along a small stream in the woods before following it downstream to its final destination at another parking area immediately off the highway.

It was at this point in the trek that I had planned on making a turn along another trail paralleling the river’s edge and back up towards where our car was parked. The map I had looked at on the internet at home said there’d be a trail, but there sure wasn’t one on the ground when we got there. Our only options were to either retrace the route we had just taken, or walk on the biggest footpath available – I-80 – an option that didn’t seem all too safe.

Luckily, I was in cub scouts for a year when I was 9 years old, which provided me with just enough misguided naivety to lead the wife and dog off-trail, through the woods, on a shortcut back to our car. It’s not often that we get in the car to go somewhere and Katrina doesn’t question my directional skills. Unjustly, I might add, because for the most part I get us where we need to go just fine. So when she began questioning whether we should be taking this particular course through the forest I assumed she simply thought we’d get lost. Obviously questioning my innate sense of direction! I told her to just listen and trust me. Bolstering my position, I noted to her that it was quite impossible to get lost. The river was directly to our left at all times, so if at any point we didn’t know where we were we could simply turn left and walk until we ran into the edge of the cliff overlooking the river again. Not to mention, the roar of I-80 in the background provided a reassuring audible guidance for our endeavor. Stay within earshot of the highway and we’d be sure to reach our destination. We couldn’t get lost, so no fears. I didn’t think that maybe she had a better intuition about the possible dangers of my boldness than I did.

A mile or so into our uncharted trek we had yet to reconnect with a trail of any sorts, and weren’t entirely sure that we were indeed heading back to our car. But no big deal, we had been following the contour of the river’s edge just fine and I definitely could still hear the highway. It was slow going and cumbersome, however, as the terrain was a crumpled accordion of closely aligned hills. So as we trudged through bushes and over rock faces we were repeatedly making our way up a hill, down its other side, and back up again.

Continuing on our way, we crested a hill, one just like all the rest. I was leading the pack and had just been looking back over my shoulder, calling for Shento to keep up the pace. I turned my head back around, down into the next valley. I froze; it was at this moment that I caught sight of absurdity, and she came in the form of a hurling black streak blazing through the dimly lit forest in front of us. I spun around, vehemently urging Katrina to immediately turn around and keep walking. The mother bear had spotted us, and the little black mounds of fur I saw laying in the grass around her gave me every reason to believe she didn’t want to see us anymore. Katrina saw her as well; fear and alarm welled up in her face. We frantically began to scurry back through the forest, scraping our legs and arms as we passed through thick stands of woody shrubs that reached as high as our shoulders, hoping we were heading back the same way we had come.

[Just that morning I had been reading a woman’s blog about her adventures hiking in the Delaware Water Gap. She considered herself lucky on the rare occasions she sighted a bear. One time, she said, a bear followed her all the way back to the parking lot where she had left her car and her bear spray.]

I made quick glances over my shoulder, scanning the knoll’s edge behind us for the dark splotch in the sea of green I was sure I would find. “Let’s keep it up! Keep going! We’re Ok!” I loudly repeated my mantra over my and Katrina’s heavy breathing. My voice, I had hoped, would both alert any other bears in the vicinity of our presence, and would give Katrina (and me) something else to focus on other than our predicament. All I could think was that at any second Katrina’s knee could go out, or I could twist an ankle, effectively stranding us.

As I said, absurdity emerges in the most unlikely of places and times, under circumstances not easily foreseen. In hindsight, bears are an increasingly common presence in northwest New Jersey. You can’t pave over three quarters of your state, as New Jersey has done, and then be surprised when the local wildlife starts to encroach on your backyard. But after countless hours spent trekking through wilderness areas across the United States (as Katrina and I have done) one hardly expects that it would be in New Jersey, the state with the highest population density, that we would both have our first true wild bear encounter. So in the moment that I looked into Katrina’s face after spotting the bears I felt absurdity close around me, and it continued to pound in my head throughout our retreat. To be clear, fear only partially contributed to the experience, and my own sense of responsibility another. Absurdity, however, best explains my immediate reaction (even now I vividly remember having that word in my head as everything was happening), as it was the illogical senselessness of our situation that struck me most forcefully at the time: I had brought my wife and dog to NEW JERSEY (of all places), for ME to go to grad school, taken them into unmarked terrain, not five hundred yards away from one of the largest interstates in the world (which we could hear and partially see through the trees!), and I was going to get us eaten by an angry momma bear who I was defenseless against, save for my pocket knife, the very first time either of us had even seen one in the wild!

In the end we made it back safely, only a few scratches on our shins as evidence of our ordeal. I therefore must apologize, as our story ends fairly anti-climactically. We simply made it back, eventually got to our car, and returned home. But really, I’m thankful for that. A story about bear encounters shouldn’t end any other way. If it did, you’d probably be reading it in a newspaper instead of on our blog, so really you should be thankful too. I also apologize for no pictures; I hope you understand.

So in the end I’ve left you with a somewhat exciting and somewhat disappointing story, depending on your own perverse inclinations. But maybe on an additional introspective note I’ll say this: life is absurd. Don’t look for narratives to life, and don’t try to construct too many around your own. Life emerges through our daily experiences somewhat haphazardly. Life isn’t about actualizing the plot of a story in which you play the lead role. It’s about appreciating the absurdities that are always all around us. To think otherwise is to set yourself up for disappointment and the inevitable fear you’ll face when your “story” doesn’t pan out the way you thought it would. Life is about marveling at the absurdities that will inevitably erupt in life, like meeting a bear in the woods.

Epilogue –

I read a story in the news a few days after we returned home, it was about a man in a town (near where we were hiking) who had recently been “attacked” by a bear at his home. He had been packing up the back of his truck when a bear came from behind and knocked him to the ground. The man came to just enough to kick the bear in the nose and throat, finally making it leave. It turns out all the bear wanted was the man’s pastrami sandwich which had been sitting, quite enticingly, on the back of his tail-gate.

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