My first thought as I started down the old road toward the trail was, “Fall is here.”
The change of season was evident in the blazing leaves on a few trees. Summer wildflowers were sharing space with yellowing grasses and reddening oak. As I followed Cholula’s wagging tail, I tried to remember if this was an early start to autumn or not. It wasn’t even September yet, but you’d never know it by the colors around me. The hillsides were catching fire with the hues of rust and brick already.
By the time I reached The Tree, I’d already been spooked multiple times. One minute I’d be lulled by the sound of the brook alongside the trail, bubbling over the rocks, its supply dwindling in the late summer. The next minute, the squak! of a startled squirrel or the cry of a hawk overhead would lurch me into reality, my heart pounding. I paused, breathless, at the random rustle of bushes around me, expecting the worst- and then the world’s tiniest chipmunk skittered away. We crossed paths with an unexpected trail runner, ear buds in place, a smile for Cholula. It was uncommon to see another person on the trails at this time of day. Her brief presence on the trail reminded me that there was no need for fear.
I’d hiked this trail in every season– my steps muffled by deep snow in winter, counting butterflies in spring- but never this far. I’d spent countless days in hills by myself, but this was the first time I felt unease. I felt alone, apprehensive. I carefully scanned the thickets of trees all around me for signs of wildlife. What would I do if I happened upon a buck, or- more common in this area– a moose? What would Cholula do? I even hummed and then sang aloud, in an effort to alert any unseen creatures hidden in the shadows. The last thing I wanted was for my crooked-eared companion to startle a big mama moose with a baby in tow.
Occasionally, Cholula would freeze on the trail ahead of me- ears erect, tail stiff, nose attempting to decipher a particular scent. What was she hearing that I couldn’t hear? She seemed to have an innate understanding to stay back from large animals, at least when we came upon the large herd of elk that routinely cruised through our backyard in late fall. But I had no idea what she’d do here, on the trail. There was evidence of them everywhere- random hoof prints, multiple areas of flattened grasses that had served as a bed for the herd. I told myself that wild animals are far more afraid of us than we are of them- but at times on this hike, as silly as it was, I was pretty jittery.
I wasn’t that remote. I’d driven the winding roads through a large neighborhood to get to this trailhead. Still, I’d been hiking away from civilization for over an hour. I listened for sounds of life other than my dog. How could the forest be simultaneously still and so alive? How is it possible to be immersed in its quiet, yet consumed by the continual songs of nature?
I thought about turning back a couple of times. The trail was overgrown with summer’s leftovers and thunderclouds gathered overhead, threatening a storm. I wasn’t sure why I kept going. Maybe the coolness from the clouds above me made it easier to hike on. Maybe it was the knowledge that I had remembered a warm layer and some water. This new section of the trail was perfect, lovely- aspens lining the trail, through thickets of pines, over downed trees, through open meadows. Cholula wasn’t ready to go home, and neither was I.
And there it was. A large old stump, evidence of a majestic tree that once stood here. The dead stump wasn’t lacking life, however. I saw the colors before I knew what they were, artificial colors that didn’t belong here in the forest- shining silver, pastel plastic pinks and purples. Each dry branch was decorated with adornments left by people like me, enjoying the songs of the forest, leaving an offering of gratitude on the tree. This is why I’d kept going. This is what I’d needed to see today.
The tree was so joyous, so happy, so unexpected that I actually laughed out loud. I examined its rainbow of ornaments, imagining the tiny hands that thoughtfully placed each item in just the perfect spot. I named it the Love Tree. Judging by the careful placement of beads, personal offerings tucked into crevices, and heart-shaped rocks placed at its roots, I’m sure I wasn’t the first.
I suddenly felt sad that I had nothing to contribute to the tree, so I picked up a string of plastic beads that had fallen and replaced it on a branch. I resolved to bring my own little offering of love on my next hike, a token of gratitude or the forest and its beauty. And then I turned toward home.
I heard his steps before the second trailrunner came up behind me, his happy Husky faithfully trotting after him. There’s something magical about the pleasantries exchanged between two strangers on the trail. I wanted to ask him if he’d seen The Love Tree, to share the experience with someone else, but he disappeared down the trail into the thick brush. It’s likely he ran right past the tree, missing it as he focused on his breath, his steps on the uneven ground. That would be a shame. Discovering the Love Tree had been the best part of the day. Cholula led me back down the trail, as excited as she had been going up.
I listened less for the sounds of moose approaching and focused on the songs of the forest- the birds, the squirrels, the brook, the leaves blowing in the breeze.
The first fat raindrops fell on us as we approached the car and we drove home in the rain, completely content.