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Chaos Theory

Falling for Forests

Attempts at passing a love of hiking from generation to generation

By Cassie Bustamante

“And you ask, ‘What if I fall?’ Oh but my darling, what if you fly?”    — Erin Hanson

From as early an age as I can remember, I’ve felt most at home with myself while wandering through woods, a trait I inherited from my father. When I was a child, Dad would often venture out to hike nearby trails on the weekends, toting along a backpack that held his Canon plus its various lenses. After developing his photos — because that’s how it worked back then, kids — we’d pore over pictures of fungi, wildflowers, birds, animals and sometimes even dung, all of which we’d try to identify in the National Audubon Society’s field books.

In my tweens, I began venturing out with Dad. Surely, I ruined his peaceful treks with my endless, mile-a-minute chatter, but he was happy that his daughter was showing interest in his hobbies. My out-loud inner monologue gave away the fact that my mind and eyes wandered, so Dad was careful to point out tripping hazards. Dexterity has never been my strong point.

Now, with three kids of my own, I hope to pass on that appreciation of the great outdoors. I want them to experience what I do while developing a sense of wonder over nature’s miracles and realizing how small we — and our worries — are in this big world. So far, only my 5-year-old full-of-curiosity son and my 17-year-old athletic son are into hiking. My 16-year-old daughter rolls her eyes at the mere suggestion.

However, on Mother’s Day, no one is allowed to demur. You do what Mom wants, no questions asked. And so six years ago on the second Sunday in May, our family found ourselves navigating a winding trail in Maryland’s Gambrill State Park, just a stone’s throw from our former home.

The rocky path too narrow for side-by-side hiking, we trudge onward in a line. Chris, my husband, leads the pack while I play caboose and our two kids (the littlest not yet born) walk in-between. Reverting to my childlike state as I tend to do in the woods, I point out every heart-shaped leaf, every colorful mushroom sprouting up and every dragonfly that skitters by. Captivated by the scenery around me, of course I’m not looking at the path directly in front of me. And Dad isn’t there this time to stop me from snagging my foot on a knotty tree root. Before I know it, I’m airborne, my feet above and behind me. Ribs first, I land on hard ground.

I lie among the pebbles and dirt for a moment, absorbing what has just happened. When I finally look up, I see my kids’ faces agape at Mom splayed out in the dirt. Popping up as quickly as I can, I shake the dirt off and wipe my bloody knees and elbows.

“I’m good,” I say. “Let’s keep going!”

If this had been a movie, this would be the part where the narrator’s voice intrudes, saying, “She was not, in fact, good.”

My ribs are bruised and sore for a solid month afterwards, but I’m not about to let a little — OK, big — stumble stop me from showing my kids how wondrous the woods can be, dammit.

Since then, I’ve tripped many more times, on craggy slopes at Hanging Rock, down leaf-slick trails in the Grandfather Mountain area and, yes, over tree roots everywhere.

So, what if you fall? Take it from someone who knows. Maybe you won’t fly through the air like I did, but you’ll get back up. You’ll dust yourself off and trudge onward, reveling in the magic of the Earth around you. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to share it with those you love, even if you have to drag them out there in the first place.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.