It had been four hours of the sort of hiking that feels more like a wrestling match with the terrain; all grabs and grunts and sweat poring thick as I worked my way up and over boulders. I was doing just a day hike, and I was determined to conquer as many miles as I could before dusk. Just ahead the trail plunged down the backside of the mountain and my eyes couldn’t trace it through the thick woods below.
I readjusted the straps on my pack and let the momentum carry me down the trail as though pushed from behind. There’s a certain joyful fear that comes over me when I fly down a rocky trail; if I fall it’s certain that I’ll be hurt, perhaps seriously. But it doesn’t stop me. I’m not as wise as I should be by now.
And there, my world spun forward as my foot caught a stray root and then it was all pain, a spinning sky, and grit in my teeth. When my body stopped ricocheting I laid still, taking painful stock of my situation. I could move all my extremities and my pack had cushioned my spine. My face felt warmly wet and I tentatively explored why, my hand coming away bloody from a gash in my forehead. Tears sprang to my eyes as the pain swept over me from where it had laid hidden in shock.
Somehow I think, the woods and the wilds call one to a greater level of toughness, and the tears that threatened seemed somehow inappropriate. I fiercely blinked them back, sat up, and then heard water.
With a fresh spring so close I knew I could finish the bottle of water I’d brought along, so in two long pulls it was empty. Pulling myself up to standing, I swayed a bit. If I could just pull myself together, get to the water, clean up, drink, I could find the strength to hike out.
The stream, it turns out, wasn’t on the trail, so taking bearings of my surroundings, I left the trail and went, listening, into the woods. I was so intent in my search that I failed to recognize a real, live person standing a few feet away until her tentative words reached my ears.
“Are you unwell?”
After I jumped back into my skin and took in the bizarre woman before me, I awkwardly replied, “No. Yes. I. No.”
She was about my age, mid-30’s with bright blue eyes and curly hair that reached her waist. She looked like she came from an earlier time; her dress was a simple tunic and looked to be linen. She was barefoot. My perusal took all of a second. She perused me too. My bloody forehead. My state-of-the-art outdoor gear, now dust-covered and torn. I felt unimpressive. I am not used to feeling that way.
She turned with those words, wading through the now-evident creek and climbing out on the other side. She turned to look at me, but I was rooted to the spot. Who is this woman? Why should I follow her? I don’t follow anybody; I am a leader, independent and glad of it. I am a success story; I have enough letters behind my name and enough money in my bank account to attest to that. I don’t follow, see, people follow me. I solve things. I don’t need help. She smiled at me. I realized that I was giving a big speech about myself to myself and felt ridiculous. I followed.
I hadn’t seen it from the stream, but just above us on the hill nestled her home. I hated structures like these, all “organic” in design, curved adobe walls, uneven windows, sticks woven together to form a lopsided sun shade. My aesthetic is clean, straight, modern, very feng shui. My home is white and stark and minimalist. I cringed at the chipped tea cup holding an orange pansy on the front step.
She caught me grimacing at her pansy. What must she think of me, frowning at her flower?
She smiled at me again. Certainly not a talkative type. She turned and her bare feet glided over the well-worn porch boards. Picking up an old enamel bowl, she dipped it into a large barrel which stood under a rain gutter. She smiled at the water as it threw squares of reflected light up into her face. She laughed. I considered running.
I’m not into these types, see? The natural, hippy-like, in touch with nature ones. Give me a corporate boardroom full of Ivy league go-getters any day. I know what drives them; the same that drives me. I feel distinctly uncomfortable with whatever motivates her to laugh at a bowl of water. Somehow, I followed her inside.
Her home was more of the tacky, salvaged, natural crap that so adorned the outside. Tattered furniture draped with tattered quilts. Candles that had apparently actually been used as primary lighting sat everywhere in mismatched candleholders. Old bottles lined the windowsills, catching light. No doubt she giggled at those too.
And there she was, gesturing that I should sit on that tacky couch there, as she pulled up a low stool. She placed the bowl on her lap and dipped in a cloth and made as if to dab at my forehead.
Whether it was fear of bacteria or unexpected intimacy, I jerked back. The backpack, which was still on my back, carried my momentum yet swifter, causing my legs to shoot up, and to my horror, I ended up kicking the bowl in her lap, dousing her with the water, full in the face. She was startled. I was like a beetle pinned on it’s back, extremities flailing for purchase. I. Was. Mortified.
“OH! I. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…I’m sorry, I just, oh.”
She blinked. Water dripped off her chin, down her hair, her dress plastered in place. I closed my eyes. Could I disappear now?
She was laughing. I felt her hands gently pull me forward. I felt her hands ease the straps from my shoulders and lay my backpack aside. I heard her laugh as she left to refill the bowl, dripping across the wood floor as she went. I hung my head.
Would it help for her to know I was worried about the water being clean? That that’s why I jerked back? Would it help her to know that I’m not a touchy-feely sort and that I’d rather she give me some antibacterial gel to put on by myself? As I looked over the tiny cabin, my hopes for any such plan evaporated.
The kitchen was charming in a way. The bare rafters held a long line of cast iron pots and skillets on forged hooks. There was an open hearth where coals were glowing under a steaming pot on a grate. Bread was rising under linen towels on a rough work table in the center. Two galvanized tin buckets served as a washing space, and open shelving hosted handmade pottery dishes and mugs. Bundles of dried herbs hung in clumps over a wood cook stove.
She was back again, still wet, still smiling. I steeled myself for this impending intrusion of my personal bubble. She dabbed gently with the cool water, and with her fingers dug out little pebbles of rock that had littered the wound.
My eyes swept over the rest of the room as she worked. Books dominated every available nook and cranny. Thousands of books. I hated the look of it. I too have a library at home; each book carefully chosen by the color of its covering to harmonize with the matte gold and white theme of the room. I don’t actually read any of them; they are to me as a backdrop rather than a well-used source of learning.
I breathed a sigh of relief when she seemed satisfied and had left to empty the dirty water over the porch rail. It was premature.
I could see her wandering to a little garden beyond the door, coming back with some fuzzy leaves in her hands. She strode to her kitchen and grabbed a tin from a shelf. She came towards me again, settled down into the stool and said, “Close your eyes”.
I eyed the tin of bright red powder in her hand and the fuzzy, prickly leaves in her lap.
She followed my gaze.
“It’s ground cayenne. I’ll pack it into the wound which will stop the bleeding and increase circulation for healing. It won’t scar this way. The leaves are comfrey. I will chew them to release the healing juices and then apply them over the wound. It is also know as “knit bone”, have you heard of it?”
Have I heard of it? Have I heard of “medicine” that needs to be masticated by a stranger? No.
“No.” I closed my eyes. I wondered how she had rendered me so compliant. Maybe I was just feeling guilty about soaking her. That was it.
The cayenne burned like fire, but only for a second. I was surprised. And I wondered what on earth I’d tell my doctor when I got back to the city when I went in for real treatment. I heard her chewing. Then, sure enough, a glob was pressed gently on my forehead. I felt her guiding me backwards to lie down on the couch. When did I become so easily led?
A gentle breeze swept over my face. The little wood-paned window on the wall beside the couch was open wide. With no screen. The linen curtains fluttered and I felt inexplicably at peace. I never have peace. I am never still. She untied my trail runners and slipped them off my feet and covered me with one of those ratty quilts. I watched lazily as she reached up to a bundle of herbs and crunched some into her hands, adding them to a small teapot. There was something beautiful in the way she moved, almost like slow-motion, every move so deliberate and unhurried.
She settled in next to the couch and lifted my head to sip from a steaming cup. It was highly fragrant tea, sweetened with honey. I was astonished at myself, being served like a baby by some crazy hippy in the woods. But I was growing sleepy and decided to care about that later.
….to be continued…..