“I like it out here,” he whispered to himself as he made his way through the light brush. He had veered off the trail after he realized that he could forge his way to the top on his own. The trees marked with red diamonds leading the way were behind. The excitement at the tiny rebellion quickened his pace.
It took a few minutes to grasp exactly what it was that he enjoyed so much. His breath drew deeper and quicker at the same time, trying to savor each inhale. Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead and his sleeves were becoming heavier from the moisture. His mind raced at a constant pace, jumping from one thought to the next, with no logical reason.
He turned his back from where he had come from, realizing that he could no longer see the marked path that he left only a few minutes ago in his mind. At that moment, he realized it was the silence that he enjoyed so much. The ambient sounds that had occupied his everyday life no longer existed. The sound where he could only hear his shallow breath and foreign sounds of the forest. No longer did he hear the persistent murmur of traffic. The sound of text messages beaming from one person to the next. The overheard conversations about a stranger’s life that was avoidable.
The forest offered complete solitude. The deeper he trekked towards the top the more he appreciated the newly found solace in being alone. As the incline became more intense his thoughts slowly dissipated away. His focus was no longer fixated on a conversation he had early that morning, but only where to place his foot. Everything that was current, present, had disappeared. The feeling of everyday life was gone and his reality was morphed. No longer did he worry. He was finally free.
“Hello,” the voice took him by surprise at first. It had been a few hours of complete silence. The soft noise of the forest had become white noise that morphed into a steady calm. A moment and a notion of insanity passed when he saw him peering down from atop the ledge. He had reached the top.
“Hi,” he forced a smile through the fatigue and longing for the solitude.
“It’s a beautiful day for the view, isn’t it?” The man was outstretched over the rock, letting his legs dangle at the edge. Beside him lay a backpack with a water bottle and a container of food. His dog approached, wagging his tail and sniffing the strangers leg.
“It really is.” He bent down to pet the dog on the head. The hikers’ etiquette was lost on him if it existed. The social norms that controlled the city were lost in a place where people were not crowded and living on top of one another. The realization that he just spent hours not seeing, or hearing, someone was only a realization when he was unsure how to react when he was in front of someone new. In the city, they wouldn’t even acknowledge one another presence. They would continue doing whatever the two were doing, not even making eye contact. In a day he could pass thousands of people and not even see one of them. Seeing someone and notice that they exist. Here, in the forest, the two were alone. No one else was in sight. No one else was heard.
“You’re lucky,” he whistled his dog over and gave him a piece of food from the container, “it’s a beautiful day out today. Plus, Henry over here seems to like you. He’s usually pretty wary of new hikers. Just a few days ago, over the weekend, a couple of people from the city were up here. Henry didn’t take to them that well. I think one of the guys was scared of dogs. They can sense that, you know.”
“Well, he seems good enough to me.” He still stood lingering, trying to decide whether he should move to another point or sit down with the old man. “You come here often?”
“Yeah, I try to make it up here every day. I’m retired, don’t have much else to do. My wife.” He started to laugh, staring not at him, but off into the never ending horizon, “she’s still not use to me being home all the time.”
The fatigue started to set in as he was no longer moving and he decided to sit on a rock that created a natural seat. He swung his backpack off and took out his water bottle. After a deep swig he began wiping his forehead.
The old man continued, “So, I looked for ways to keep me busy. I never took to nature that often when I was working. We moved out here for the schools. For the children. Never really, realized how nice the outdoors are.”
“This is my first time hiking since I was a kid. It’s been a nice so far.” He responded in agreement.
“It’s the solitude. I’ll tell you. Nowadays, no one ever gets to be by themselves. You’re constantly involved in something. Even if you’re sitting in a room by yourself, somehow you’ll be around someone. Whether it’s a TV, computer, music. Heck, it could be a car just passing by the house. You can’t find this, out there.” He pointed towards the town that could only be recognized as a small opening among the tree line.
He kept shaking his head in agreement to what the old man was saying. Henry, the dog, had placed himself at his feet, taking advantage of the affectionate new stranger. “What did you do before you retired?”
“I worked at consulting firm down in the city. I worked crazy hours, but I did well for myself.” He stared off into the horizon, stuck in thought. The two, plus dog, sat there staring off. Neither knew what the other was looking at, or if the other was even looking at anything. Sometimes people will drift off into a deep gaze not seeing a thing, but thinking about everything. Eventually, the old man broke the silence, “How about yourself?”
“I’m an operations manager at a processing plant. Not a very exciting job but it’s stable and a paycheck. It was interesting at first, but now it seems like the challenges that were interesting at first are now just cyclical. I guess you could say I’m bored.”
The old man started to laugh again. “You sound like my kids. They’re always bored at their job. You have any kids?”
“No, need a wife for that. Well, not a wife, but no.”
“You’re still young, I had kids early in life. They’re probably a little younger than you now. They’ve just entered the workforce. All they do is complain about their job. I tell them,” he shook his head looking at him. “Sorry, you don’t know me. You don’t want to hear about some weird old man and his kids.”
“It’s okay. I’m interested what you have left to say.”
“Well, I love my kids, I should say that first. They’re great. Smart and the youngest is funny. The older one isn’t as funny. She might think she’s funny, but she’s not. I tell her that. I say, ‘Honey, I love you, but you’re just not funny.’ Bless her heart. She’s smarter than her sister though. Anyways, they just had this notion that they could get a job that’s exciting everyday. I guess, I should have told them a job isn’t a way of life. Your job isn’t where you find your excitement. It’s not where you live. I worked too many hours to tell them that in the first place.
“I’ll tell you one thing I learned. Don’t get blinded by work and lose yourself. You don’t need a lot of money. Just find yourself someone you like talking to, looks decent enough, and can cook. That’s all you really need. And when you find them, tell them, I’m not going to be a rich man. I want to spend as much time as I can with you. I don’t care if we don’t have everything in the world. I don’t need materials. I just want to spend as much of each day I can with you. That’s what I wish I had done.
“Instead, I thought that to be considered a success I had to provide for my family. To be like my father who gave me a good life. So, I figured, I needed a nice house, lots of expensive toys and gifts, vacations. You get the idea. What I didn’t realize is, my Dad, he made family a priority. He spent every free moment he had with us. I just didn’t have the same time. I wish I had more time with them.”
The old man looked him straight in the eyes while he talked. His voice was steady and not over bearing. It wasn’t a lecture from an older generation to the new. It was more introspective than a patronizing tirade.
“Can I ask you a question?” The old man shook his head, inviting a question. “Why are you up here and not with your wife then?”
The old man began laughing. “When you’re married, you don’t always get your way and sometimes the best thing to do is give a little space. Neither of us are use to being around one another day after day. So, we’re easing into. She comes up here with me sometimes. Other days when I’ve been a particular thorn in her side, she stays back. Sadly, at least for his sake, Henry is always stuck with me.”
“Also, sometimes, I just need the solitude that this place can give you. I need to get away from all the noise and reflect. I’ve lived a lot of years and never processed them. I never realized some things, until very recently, and that’s only because I never had time to think. I was never able to get away from it all.”
“I was thinking the same thing as I walking up here. It took me a little while to realize what I liked so much. And then it hit me.” He made a sound with his hands colliding that spooked Henry for a moment. He assured him with a rub behind his ears. “I liked it so much because there was nothing. Nothing. Sure there’s something, but it’s nothing all the same.”