One day, a very close high school friend of mine and I were on a long awaited hike through what was supposed to be a simple trail loop on Bear Mountain, when we came to three diverging roads in the forest. Try as we may, we could not see a single trail marker anywhere. We wound up walking every one of the three possible paths to see which one would bring us to the summit. It overlooked what promised to be a beautiful valley, along with the whizzing cars on the New York State Thruway. Adding a full hour to what was supposed to be our five-mile hike, we chatted away about our lives and sweated away our slowly diminishing water supplies. Each time we would walk for fifteen minutes into dead ends or power grid towers. I would look at my friend for reassurance that we would figure out where to go. Each time, he would smile and say, “You brought a trail map and a compass. I just assumed you knew what you were doing.” We finally returned to that three road junction and decided to head back on the trail we had been able to follow into those woods. Alas, ahead of us on the return trip lay three other paths. Clearly we had come out of one of them to arrive back at this junction, but which path that was, we had forgotten. So, as the day grew hotter, we tried all three. I said to my friend, “Note to self: always leave a marker of some kind when coming off of a trail so you know where you came from, right?” He just smiled, which at that point could have meant anything. All this time, amidst the frustration of getting literally nowhere, we continued to enjoy each other’s company, discussing all kinds of things, personal and political.
Finally, my friend said, “Listen to the cars on the highway which are just below us. If we keep walking downward, we’ll ultimately get to the thruway, and we can walk back to the trail head from there.” We climbed down and arrived at the thruway, not exactly a thing of natural beauty. As the cars sped past us near the mile marker for exit 15, we recognized how much further we were now than we had been when we were lost all the way up on the trail. My friend said, “I’m going to call Uber to have someone come get us.” Uber? What a big city solution. We don’t even have Uber in the Capital District. Getting an Uber driver to pick us up on the side of an upstate highway? No way. His Uber app didn’t work, so we called a cab. Speaking over the unbearable traffic noise, the taxi dispatcher told us it would take his driver a half hour to get to us. “Tell you what,” I finally said. “We’re tax paying New York State residents. Let’s call the state police!” And call them we did, all the while chatting away as we waited for them to come. The trooper who arrived was lovely. We talked about hiking, why she would never hike, for fear of getting lost in the woods, about her trip to Jerusalem with her family, and about some of my daring hiking feats when I was much younger. As she dropped us off near the trail head parking lot, she said, “You really have quite a story to tell now,” she mused aloud. “Officer,” I responded, “I’m a clergyman. I’m getting at least five sermons out of this debacle.”
The hike wound up being a disaster, but the day was a great success. That is because my friend and I had six precious hours alone to talk, catch up, and just be friends. Getting lost in the woods allowed us to find each other again.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
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