Getting lost is easily avoided, say people who never get lost. Pay attention along the way. Keep track of the sun and the shape of the horizon. Turn around, every now and then, and look back at where you've been. Remember landmarks. Keep in mind your panic azimuth. Take your compass, take your bearings, take your time.
But sometimes, you don't pay attention. Sometimes, beguiled by the beauty of the passing moment, you walk along the path you chose a long time ago without noticing the subtle turn it has taken, the darkening sky, or the slight rustle in the leaves that means the wind is coming up. Something disturbs your mazy thoughts: a movement, swift and silent, catches at the corner of your eye. A twig snaps. The shadows begin to steal uncomfortably close. You quicken your pace. You come to a place where one path crosses another, and you stand, hesitant at the crossroads, as the trails diverge into the darkness like the spokes of a mysterious wheel. You hope that one of them will take you home, and when, eventually, it does, the relief is sweet and more sincere than the oath you swear that such a thing will never happen to you again, that you are done with luck and serendipity.
And when the road betrays you? When it dwindles and finally disappears, when the night erases all perspective? What do you do then?
A few years ago, the summer my only child left home for college, I moved from an apartment in New York City, to live alone in a small house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of central Vermont.
The house at the end of the dirt road was a small two-story wooden affair, sun-faded to a soft gray and fronted by a wide deck that was rapidly disappearing beneath a feral, unidentified vine. It sat surrounded by thick woods that sharply descended in back to a narrow rocky stream before rising steeply again on the other side, as if in a hurry to get to the next ridge. A secluded, isolated place: at night the darkness and the silence sometimes seemed to swallow it whole.
The inside of the house was a work in progress. There was no flooring except for the original pine two-by-fours laid down when the house was framed, and a slight echo underscored the emptiness of the place. Most of the rooms had not been painted and were covered in a haphazard layer of whitewash. Power to the house was supplied "off grid," which meant that it was not connected to the local electrical network, and relied instead for light and heat on a less-than-adequate array of antique solar panels and a doubtful generator. The wiring was, to say the least, eccentric, and the amount of power available somewhat arbitrary, dependent as it was on whim and weather.
It would be nice to say that the charm of the place was so palpable that it allowed you to overlook all of its manifold faults, but in truth it was a rather plain, stolid-looking house, one that dared you to dress it up in any dreams and promised to teach you a thing or two if you tried.
The road leading up to the house was equally idiosyncratic. It branched off from a somewhat more substantial, better-tended secondary road without bothering to announce itself with anything so assertive as a signpost, and ran rapidly uphill, paralleling the same rocky little brook. Deeply rutted and pocked with boulders, the road bucked and heaved its way in winding roller-coaster fashion for about a half mile. Then it tipped its hat to a rudimentary driveway before plunging into the woods and narrowing into a bridle path bisected by fallen trees.
A difficult road, barely negotiable and going essentially nowhere, leading to a difficult house, the kind of house that might make sense if it had been left to you by a maiden aunt, but which, when considered as a property you would actually choose to spend money on, looks like a gargantuan misjudgment. I told myself that I had chosen the house because it was the only thing I could afford. That was true, as far as it went, but it wasn't the reason I decided to live there. I chose the house because of its warts, not in spite of them, because the house's cranky unfinished state reflected my own. One life was over and another was beginning, and I was no longer any of the things I had been, no longer young and not yet old, and because I had to figure out everything all over again, everythingfrom where to live to how to dress and whom (or even whether) to love, because I had no idea of what to do next, and the middle of the woods seemed the best place to get one. I thought that I would see things more clearly from a place that had no part in my past, the way you climb a tree to get a perspective on the surrounding terrain, to put a name to the strange country into which you have wandered.
Excerpted from Out of the Woods by Lynn Darling. Copyright © 2014 by Lynn Darling. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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