On a hike this week in Muir Woods with some delightful friends, I grew impatient when I noticed the trail we were wandering never seemed to plateau at any point. So, because I was simply fed up, I gave up half way to the top, instructed my group to go on ahead without me, then turned around to hike back down on my own.
Don’t look at me like that.
I’m not Super Woman.
“Are you serious??” One friend asked incredulously, stopping to turn around and address me.
“Yeah-yeah!” In a voice just a pitch higher than normal and intended to be casual, I pit-patted my hand lightly towards her, shooing her on as politely as possible while I tried to make my escape. “I’ll just wait for you guys down here somewhere,” I gestured downhill.
“Wow! I’m in better shape than Cheri?!” My other friend joined in, a playful grin on her face as she turned back to look at me. And while I’d like to say I had something witty or clever to respond with, the truth was her question stunned me. Was she in better shape than me? How is that possible? No way.
“I had an ab-day yesterday and yoga–!” The first excuses I could think of bubbled to mind.
“I’m just surprised! Don’t you work out every day?” She continued mischievously, knowing she had the better of me. But if she was trying to get me to continue hiking by using clever psychology, I was simply not for it. I do work out every day, but for the past few days I’ve been eating like shit, ignoring my workouts, and laying in bed instead of getting up and out of it. But, well, I feel I had a pretty good reason.
“This has been a really bad week for me,” I replied, surprised at how justified I felt making that statement.
A few more rounds of teasing quickly grew boring, and when they could finally see that all the taunting in the world could not persuade me otherwise, we parted ways.
Some time into my hike back down, I came across a split in the road. And because I hadn’t been paying attention to my surroundings while traveling earlier with my group (hiking basics 101), I was, effectively, lost. Which way was I supposed to go? Left? Right? Spinning in a circle like a moron and trying to get my bearings, I then lost track of the original path I’d only just come from, landing torn between three choices.
I am obviously not very good with directions.
Now worried I’d end up wandering off the edge of a cliff with no idea where I was and no clue which direction civilization might be, I searched out a comfy place to sit down and had myself a seat instead. It was there that I pulled out my phone and, because I had nothing better to do, began to write.
“This is a terrible place to compose a story as I’ve paused in the middle of this hike to write it, possibly offending my wonderfully patient friends who’ve all gone on ahead of me. But, as I’ve said, my passion lies in writing, and when inspiration strikes it is impossible to ignore.”
Then, I took notes on what I felt might make a great story later.
“Fairy of the crossroads. Lost at the junction of three strange paths, it decided to settle down and wait to be found rather than venture into the unknown.”
I had planned on outlining the tale of a very special place in the woods where a fairy, separated from her, uh, flock(?), stood with determination in the same spot rather than risking never being found again. This fairy, although clearly terrible with directions, was surprisingly handy at pleasant and non-threatening conversation (or something else more mystical and extreme, like when she speaks, you experience unbelievable euphoria).
And so it was that when travelers happened upon this fairy during their trek through the woods, they took pity and would offer to take her with them, sure they knew the way and could lead her out safely. But her fairy stubbornness kept her where she was, afraid to move and resolute in her decision to wait. Forever. In the fucking forest. Until she died.
I was thankful for the interruption from my lonely thoughts when a happy traveling family crossed my path. And rather than wait to rot away in the redwoods alone like the useless human being that I am, I politely inquired if I could, perhaps, join their group. And, because I can be terribly persuasive when I want to be (I suppose it helps that I appear utterly innocent and perfectly friendly), they happily welcomed me to travel with them.
Painfully aware of how similar this situation was to every scary movie about hitchhikers and wandering travelers I’d ever seen, I found myself determined to avoid the inevitable awkward silence that would close in on us, deciding instead to provide a bit of healthy small talk in exchange for their company.
“Do you mind if I pester you all with questions for a bit?” I started. “I’m a writer. I’d love to just have a conversation.” I suggested this experimentally, not quite sure what their reaction would be. I must have looked strange, this random lost hiking girl in bright pink Nikes and colorful neon lululemon running shorts.
“Oh, no. Not at all. Go right ahead.” I was relieved when the dad of the group urged me reassuringly, the tiny little girl walking hand-in-hand with her mother ahead of us turning back to look at me curiously.
“So, uhm, how do you like the hike so far?” I asked to no one in particular. I expected the dad to respond. He seemed the most friendly. But the little girl beat him to the punch and voiced her opinion first.
“I feel like we’re in The Hobbit.” Her response took me off balance, its accuracy uncanny, and I burst out laughing.
“The Hobbit?? That is a great answer. I was just thinking that.” I picked up my stride a bit to walk closer to her, curious over what more this tiny person might have to say. “What’s your name? I’m Cheri.” I offered this with a smile, eager to hear her reply.
“Elizabeth,” she returned, her mouth half-open while she grinned back.
“What other movies do you like, Elizabeth?”
She hesitated for a moment to think, looking briefly back towards me, up to her mother, then over at her father while we continued to walk.
Perhaps sensing her hesitation, her father prompted her with the question again. “What other movies do you like, Lizzie?”
“Umm, Home Alone,” she replied, her gaze returning to me. This made me laugh again.
“There are several Home Alone movies, Elizabeth — which ones do you enjoy?” I pressed, still curious.
“1 and 2,” she responded promptly, as if Home Alone 1 and 2 was the most natural answer. The only conceivable answer. Her childish honesty was refreshing, and I was enjoying our conversation immensely. I could hear the soft laughter from her mother and father as well, and I wondered then if they knew how interesting Elizabeth was, and if they loved her like parents should love their child. I wondered if they ignored her, if they ever fought, and if they made the time to give her the attention she needed. I wondered. And then I snapped out of it.
“1 and 2 are good choices,” I said with finality. “Those movies are way before your time. You have good taste for a little girl. A+.” She beamed then, and turned her head back proudly in the direction we were walking, as if satisfied with our conversation.
I smiled knowingly.
After some time, we came upon a gift shop where an elderly woman directing tourist traffic was posted outside, hurrying people along. As this seemed like a natural place for this family and I to part ways, I stopped, thanked them for the great conversations, told them I found this experience absolutely inspirational, then turned to Elizabeth to remind her that she was a smart little girl who had great taste and she should continue being awesome. I also suggested she look up The Iron Giant because it is a fantastic animated film and I believed she would enjoy it. Then I bid them all farewell.
Here’s the racist part.
Approaching the elderly tourist guide I’d seen standing outside the gift shop, I politely called, “Excuse me.” But I was quite unsure how to react when she turned to me with an eerily familiar and disguised hostility behind a judgmental stare. I waited a moment, wondering if I was seeing things, and when she didn’t reply, I continued, “Do you know how to find the entrance to the woods?”
“Whatever you’re looking for,” she began finally and carefully, “it isn’t here.” Her face was a mask of prejudice.
Now, for anyone who’s never experienced racism first hand, I’m going to assume none of you understand what a racist look looks like. For people who have experienced this before, that look is unmistakable. And there it was. On this nice looking elderly woman’s face. And yes, it caught me completely off guard.
Understand: I’ve been blessed to live in cities and environments where diversity is the norm. In San Francisco, for example, culture is celebrated openly. And here in Muir Woods, only a drive away, I expected to find the same. But I guess even big beautiful forests full of gorgeous redwood trees and babbling brooks can’t escape assholes.
“I’m sorry — do you mean I’m in a completely different forest right now? This isn’t Muir Woods?” Sure I’d heard her wrong and hoping to give her the benefit of the doubt, I reintroduced the question, allowing her the opportunity to disguise her racism by actually providing me with an intelligent response. Unfortunately, this was not what I received.
“What. Ever. You’re looking for,” she continued, her voice now slow and strained, as if I was incapable of understanding, “It. Isn’t. Here.”
I quickly looked around me in disbelief, stunned by her reaction. It was then that I noticed the very small crowd of elderly folks who had gathered around us, nodding their heads in agreement, all of them with the same bigoted look in their eyes.
I am not making this up.
“Oh… Kay…” I muttered. “I’ll just, um, ask someone up here, then.” And rather than causing a scene and exploding or saying something improper, I politely excused myself and hastily made my exit towards the gift shop to ask for directions from more civilized strangers.
I think, at the time, I was too stunned with surprise to really give those folks a verbal thumping. But I mean, what could I have said? What could I have done? They were old. And in my inferior minority culture, we’re supposed to respect our elders. Something about the whole situation just left me feeling rotten. Humiliated. Too shocked to say much of anything.
You’ll be happy to know my friends discovered me later at that same gift shop, whole and in tact, oblivious to everyone and trying to decide between two redwood bracelets, one with turquoise stones, the other without. By the time they came across me, I was very much over the fact that I had run into a terrible human being, and was far more grateful to be found and not helplessly lost in the middle of a forest all by myself, trapped at that gift shop like a wandering idiot.
Plus, I made one of those really cool pressed penny things:
I am not so thick-headed that I now believe Muir Woods is full of racist people. Maybe it was “Racism Rules!” day in the forest and I’m simply unfamiliar with the local tradition. Whatever the case, I am merely pointing out that this very true story happened there in Muir Woods. That I ran into a poisonous bubble of prejudice folks, and that I recognized it immediately because I am, unfortunately, familiar with what racism looks like.
It was just… Shocking.
Who still acts this way?
Assuming I have children one day, I would hope the world I expose them to is full of wonderful experiences. But, in the event they do come across awful and judgmental people in any area of their life as I have before them, I hope they learn to brush off the insensitive opinions of others, then find the strength within themselves to carry on despite. I’d be very proud of my children if they could do that. Very proud indeed. It’s hard enough for me.
So, for the sake of my future offspring, I’m sucking it up.
Setting a good example and all that.
By that, I mean: In spite of the racist old people lurking in front of touristy gift shops, I’d very much like to return to Muir Woods and hike it again. Elizabeth was right. It really was like traveling through The Hobbit. There are plants and wild things there that I’ve never seen in any flower shop in the city, and believe me, I’ve been to them all. The sounds you hear, the creatures you stumble upon, the sheer size of the bugs, the smell of growing things, of wet things, of rotten things — I was struck with more inspiration hiking through that forest than in the past two days of lazing about San Francisco. The place is absolutely stunning.
Life is a little like that, I think. We forget about how beautiful it is because we’re so focused on one negative speck, and for some reason, we let that terrible thing rock our world.
I refuse to be someone who lets negativity rule my life.
I want to be happy in spite of the terror the world can sometimes throw at me.
I want to be able to laugh, hard and often, at the Universe’s attempts to push me off balance.
Let’s do this.