The kindness of strangers.

    I spent a lot of time back East last fall. I love autumn. And I love the outdoors, as long as I don’t have to get too dirty. There is a beautiful park not far from my parents’ house that had some nice hiking trails. I spent a lot of time in that park and on those trails.

    One late afternoon I went to the park for some serious exercise. I climbed the familiar trails and started to feel adventurous. So, I wandered off the trail and went exploring. It was exhilarating! The weather had started to turn cooler and I could feel the dampness and the chill in the air even though the sun was shining through huge white clouds. I loved the fall colors and the smell of the woods. Fall has always been my favorite season, and I was having a great time. Eventually it was time to head home.

    I turned around, reversing my tracks toward the trail, the parking lot and my car. Along the way, in a spirit of playfulness, I began playing ninja games in the woods. I turned  my wilderness expedition into a little martial arts training. I was happily balancing over a log that had fallen across a small creek when I realized something wasn’t quite right. What was I doing standing over a creek? I didn’t remember any creek. I shook off a sense of unease. I began reversing my path once again, certain I could find my way back to the trail.

    I wandered about for another half hour before I came to the obvious conclusion. I was lost. In the woods. By myself. With no cell phone. I tried to orient myself to my surroundings, figure out which direction would take me back to the trail, and tried again. Nothing looked familiar. I started to get worried. I wasn’t even sure if I had told anyone at my Mom and Dad’s house where I was going. I finally came to a steep incline. At the top I could see the reassuring sight of a neat little neighborhood. Surely somebody would be home even though it was the middle of the day and the middle of the week. They could point me in the right direction back to the park.

    Relieved, I walked up the hill onto some one’s back yard. I heard snarling. I looked up and found myself face to face with a snarling, drooling German Shepard that must have outweighed me by about 20 pounds . Uh-oh. I lowered my eyes and began talking softly to her, hoping she would calm down. I was hoping I would stay calm. What I was really hoping was that her owners were home and would keep this bad day from getting worse. The front door of the house opened and her owners came out.
    I explained where I had been, and said that I had wandered off of the trail. Would they please point me back in the right direction to the park? They exchanged a funny look. “Where did you say you were?” the young man asked. “Well, I was hiking in Hopewell Park. I just need you to tell me how to get back to the trail.” There was that funny look again. The young man said, “I’ll take you there.” “Oh, no, I don’t want to inconvenience you,” I protested. “Ma’am,” he replied, “you are a good long way from Hopewell Park.”

    By this time the German Shepard was wagging her tail and licking my hand. We got in the young man’s truck and he drove me back to the park. It took over twenty minutes to get there. “Wow, I guess I did wander pretty far off of the trail,” I said, rather sheepishly. My kind escort dropped me off at my rental car with a gentle admonition about staying on the trails next time. I assured him I would. But at that point I was pretty sure I was done hiking that park for good.

    The truth is, there are times in life when get lost, either literally or figuratively. Perhaps we get carried away with our own enthusiasm or sense of adventure and wander too far off of our chosen path. We can become so disoriented that we start going around in circles, expending a lot of energy but going nowhere. Maybe we are simply not paying attention. Maybe we have wandered so far off track that there is no way of getting back without help, or in my case, the kindness of strangers.

    On the other hand,  veering off track helps expand our horizons. Stepping a little way off of the path can lead us to new and uncharted territory. It can open us up to new ideas and new possibilities. It can help take us out of our habits and patterns that may be holding us back from achieving our full potential, or getting more satisfaction and joy out of life.

    And sometimes the teeth of a German Shepard is actually a smile disguised as a snarl, but I wouldn’t count on that one. Here is hoping you have many safe adventures, and may you never lose your way.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP