I believe in retracing my steps — in ambling over the same gnarled roots, passing beneath the same thick tree limbs, hopping from boulder to boulder in the same spring-fed creek, over and over again.
Since I moved to this Pennsylvania valley nearly six years ago, I have crisscrossed the wild acres on the north side of Tussey Mountain too many times to count.
I begin at the Shingletown Gap parking lot. From there, my feet carry me past a reservoir, into a grove of evergreens and rhododendrons, then west, over a log bridge.
Retracing my steps probably began with a desire for security.
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There is something reassuring about recognizing trail blazes and tree stumps, about knowing how far you’ve gone and how far you have left to go.
And after a time, walking familiar ground becomes an effortless, almost unconscious, undertaking — literally the path of least resistance.
But something happened three years ago that transformed this practice for me.
It was February of 2011, and my marriage had just crumbled. My house no longer felt like home, so I went to the woods.
My boots crunched several inches of packed snow, but the air felt unseasonably balmy. I shed my jacket and sweater and let the sun warm my bare arms.
After cresting a ridge, I stopped and sat on a rock.
I contemplated that ancient stone, exposed by hundreds of millions of years of erosion — how it once lived in the belly of one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth.
I peered through the naked limbs of maples, which in a few short months would be dense with bright green, star-shaped leaves.
All around me, I heard water moving — hidden streams of snowmelt coursing down the mountain.
Come summer, this water would irrigate the patchwork of fields below me — would feed the grains that feed the animals that feed me.
I could almost feel the tug of the earth beneath my feet, the rotation of a planet orbiting a star in an ever-expanding universe.
These thoughts — thoughts of geological history, seasonal cycles and cosmic forces — comforted me. They reminded me that nothing is static, that there is beauty to be found in change.
It occurred to me that my season of grief was just that, a season. The parts of me that felt numb and cold eventually would thaw and provide nourishment to my community.
I believe in retracing my steps because it reminds me of life’s rhythms and its flux.
Now, when I return to those trails, I look for change.
Here, a stretch of creek travels a new course. There, a velvety red mushroom has sprung up, like a stop sign, in the middle of the trail.
The mountain is moving, always moving. And so am I.